#RacialRec: Raising the Voices of African American Professors

Today, I raise the voice of African American professors. Dr. Derek Hicks is the Assistant Professor of Religion and Culture at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity. His recently released his first book, Reclaiming Spirit in the Black Faith Tradition through Palgrave Macmillan. Dr. Jim Logan is the Professor and Department Head, Urban Christian Studies, New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte and an Advisory Board Member and Adjunct Professor of Urban Ministry at GCTS-Charlotte. He is also a trustee of Princeton Theological Seminary. Through their personal experiences, these gentlemen shine light on the current state of our seminaries and how institutions of higher learning can foster racial reconciliation.

Even today, some minorities continue to consider Christianity a “white man’s religion,” why are you (an educated Black male, leader) a Christian?

Courtesy of Derek Hicks
Courtesy of Derek Hicks

Dr. Hicks: This question remains as interesting as it is elusive for me to answer.  I was “raised in the church,” yet my faith is more than a connection to familial tradition.  It is indeed personal, and yet remains connected to a wide array of communal experiences that make up the black faith tradition. Several years ago, in my Corporate America life, I was asked the same question by a co-worker.  His point was that unsuspecting African Americans had been duped into this religion of a white dominant class.  Notwithstanding the historical reality that the Bible, as a cultural tool, was used to justify terrible abuses of black bodies in this country, I have experienced something substantive in my faith.  I have witnessed the Christian faith in action among poor people in communities who would otherwise have little hope.  Thus, for me Christianity, at its best, offers the faithful a language for their longings and encourages social action.  As I maintain in my research to me students, the Christ Event changes our posture in the face of dire odds.  Accordingly, I am able to respond with the power of my faith and conviction to struggle for new life options wherein my fullest humanity is expressed.  This is an active faith that reclaims the waste expressed through a culture of domination and heals the individual and the community.  My faith is tied to this reality.

Scott Williams book, Church Diversity, states, “Church diversity must be embraced by seminaries and church planting organizations.” In light of this statement, what are seminaries failing to teach students in regards to racial reconciliation? How can this problem be corrected?

Courtesy of Jim Logan
Courtesy of Jim Logan

Dr. Logan: Most seminaries do not comprehensively teach about racial reconciliation. There may be courses about the African American Church but much more is done as it relates to Latinos outreach or feministic (not womanist) issues. Cultural discussions normally fall along the lines of integration and not reconciliation. We can claim to be an integrated society or an integrated church if there are people living in our neighborhoods or attending our churches of different ethnicities, but reconciliation requires engagement that seeks to understand, appreciate and celebrate the differences.

Few faculty members are equipped to teach racial reconciliation, and being equipped does not necessarily mean having an African American faculty teaching the subject matter (although the lack of African American faculty is a continuing issue and concern). Racial reconciliation is often taught as electives and unfortunately, too few students believe the subject matter to be relevant.

Seminaries can correct this problem by being intentional about reconciliation. Endeavor to have honest dialogue in the faculty and the student body. Intentionality necessitates making some things mandatory, either as a course or a seminar. (It is interesting that some seminaries are doing this very thing when it comes to issues of sexuality, but not specifically race matters).

Dr. Hicks: Seminaries, and on some level schools of theology and schools of divinity associated with major universities, must reconsider the current state of race in America.  This is not to say that no theological institution is addressing this important issue, several, including my own, are.  However, I see seminaries and other theological institutions too often go the way of the popular contemporary discourse about race—that we are currently enjoying, benefiting from the fruit of a post-race culture and society.  Beyond an interrogation of what such a statement means, which could have a multiplicity of meanings from one person to the next, I want us to think through the assertion more generally as we funnel it through the assessments of society and culture.

To Dr. Hicks and Dr. Logan: When practicing evangelism, why is it important to consider people’s experience and culture?

Dr. Logan: The reason there are so many different churches of the same race and ethnicity is precisely because people are very different. One of the great sins of the missionary movement all over the world was to teach that Christianity from a Eurocentric perspective. Worship was not legitimate unless it conformed to the Eurocentric style. Preaching was not effective unless it conformed to the Eurocentric style, etc. Two examples, beyond the African American experience, come to mind: Native Americans and Black South Africans. Who better to understand the concept of the Holy Spirit than Native Americans? In South Africa Black Dutch Reformed congregations held two worship services on Sundays, one in the church identical to white Dutch Reformed worship, and the other outside of the church with their tribal dances and drums. Jesus looks different through the eyes of different races, cultures and ethnicities. One cultural experience is no more valid than another. We, as Christians, are all red with the blood of Jesus.

Dr. Hicks: America’s religious history is complex and messy.  The true value of the Christian faith is its ability to meet people where they are.  I want to consider this idea in relation to the cultural distinctiveness of God’s people.  As an interpreter of African American religious culture and experience, I am sensitive to the ways in which Christianity has historically functioned within this ever-changing community.  Accordingly, I see it as a mandate that Christians be culturally competent when sharing their faith so that one’s witness speaks to another’s core concerns.

In my research, I have read several recommendations for white Christians to have nonwhite mentors. This recommendation presents a lot of challenges, but I have three questions concerning it: From your perspective (and I understand you do not speak for all minority leaders): Are minority Christian leaders willing to take emerging leaders on the journey with them? Is there an internal conflict for minority Christian leaders to mentor and teach emerging white leaders? How can young leaders seek out minority mentors?

Dr. Logan: Excellent question! There has never been a problem of African American leaders having non-white interns, just as there has never been a problem for African American mothers to embrace and raise white children. The issue generally comes down to whether the one seeking to be mentored believes that the minority leaders has anything of value to impart to them. I have often been asked by white students all over this country if they could come and intern with me, but have never had the financial capability to support their tenure as many larger white churches had at one time. Much of what we knew we caught rather than having been taught. Minorities are accustomed to attending white schools, white churches, having white professors for most every course they have taken, and they are much better rounded than their white counter parts. As a result of my mentoring experiences, I can flow through many different styles of worship, preaching and leadership with ease. I am also comfortable in a variety of situations because of my experiences. If our experience is narrow our ministry will be narrow.

The answer to how young non-minority leaders seek out minority mentors is simply to ask. “You have not because you ask not.”Most African American Christian leaders will be flattered and honored; some will be overwhelmed and too busy for any intern. As always, students must be certain to choose the right mentors.

© Derek Hicks, Jim Logan, and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012

2 thoughts on “#RacialRec: Raising the Voices of African American Professors

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post! In particular, I appreciated the distinction that Dr. Logan made between racial integration vs. racial reconciliation. I agree with him that reconciliation needs to be pursued in a very intentional way. If seminaries equip their students in this manner, it will have a ripple effect throughout the church as a whole.

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