‘On Becoming Wise Together: Learning and Leading in the City’
This book reframes traditional Euro-North American conceptions of theological education by reflecting critically on my lived experience as a British-born Chinese-North American woman, a family member, an immigrant, an urban theological educator, a maker, a gallery curator, a community gardener, a Girl Scout troop leader, and a scholar. It is not limited to the context of formal institutions recognized as places where theological education happens, nor the content of a seminary curriculum as philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher might have designed it in nineteenth-century Germany. It reimagines theological formation for the many together rather than the individual alone, and as happening in a wide range of times, spaces, and places.
I propose here that intercultural and communal understandings of theological teaching and learning suit the context of a complex and quickly changing urban world better than individualistic, rational Western habits of knowing. We are in the midst of a moment in which the reemergence of a model of collective wisdom is challenging the expert-knowledge approach that is bolstered by an information economy and capitalism. Traditional forms of theological education built out of a particular cultural and historical paradigm to educate individual, and usually male, ordained clergy are no longer relevant, accessible, nor sustainable; this is evidenced by multiple national studies on the decline of the North American church, diminishing student numbers, and increasing financial instability of theological institutions. The entire ecosystem of theological education is grappling with the need to reexamine systems and structures and innovate new “pathways to tomorrow.”
Now, how and where we come to know and with whom we come to know are as important as what we know. We are learning again how to learn. Rather than receiving inherited knowledge, we are expanding sources and means of understanding and being; we are living theology as a verb.
This collaborative approach to cultivating wisdom has some resonance with the early church. In Acts 1:12-14, when the apostles and others were sent back to Jerusalem to await direction after Christ’s return to heaven, they gathered together, prayed, and waited. The Pentecost was a spiritual and physically embodied event that included the sound “of a violent wind” that came from heaven and “tongues of fire” that came to rest on each of them. The filling of the Holy Spirit led to the powerful testimony of Christ’s reality and good news, in every language of those present.
From there, a crucial decision was made in Acts 15 after much discussion and discernment through the Holy Spirit, namely, that the church need not be culturally homogeneous. Rather, the church was for the Jew and the gentile. It was together that the church waited in order to become wise.
In our own contemporary time of uncertainty and unraveling, we too are waiting, waiting for the wisdom needed for this turbulent age. We as a world Christian church can come together around what Latina theologian Elizabeth Conde-Frazier calls la mesa. This is not simply to redistribute power and resources from a historical center to the margins (presuming there even is a legitimate center) and to confront a legacy of structural and systemic racism in institutions and communities. It is an opportunity to witness a rearrangement of locations, a remapping of plural centers of power and margins of possibility.
The late African American writer bell hooks describes the margin as “a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a ‘safe’ place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.” By embracing the tension of writing out of the margin, from who and where I am, this work performs an alternative, aesthetic, oppositional act of becoming, of creating space to see differently and make meaning. It is a book I write to remember, to rehearse, and to map out what God has done in places where I come from, where I have been, and where I am going with others, with my “community of resistance.” This is not simply nostalgia, as bell hooks points out; it is a “remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present.” I take time to pause, reflect, and connect the dots of seemingly disparate stories that show how God is at work in my life.
In listening to and sharing stories of coming together around la mesa, we encounter the possibility to engage a complexity of kinds of knowledge and approaches to wisdom. Through such coming together as the diverse but unified body of Christ, we can enter a liminal space between what is familiar and what is unknown. This is true for theological education as it has been described, and for our world more broadly, in these times between the times.
The late Scottish missiologist Andrew F. Walls suggests that through such necessary coming together we are returning to an “Ephesian moment” in our day, a moment in which our global urban world reflects an even greater diversity than in the early days of the church of what it means to be “Christian.” The reality is that we need each other now more than ever. “The very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ. Only ‘together,’ not on our own, can we reach his full stature,” notes Walls. This reimagining and reorientation take the form of the church flourishing in its diversity and becoming God’s shalom together in the city as family, friends, learners, and leaders. God’s shalom is found in the reconciling of God’s creation to right relationships with God, self, the other, and the natural and spiritual realms.
If, as Walls suggests, “the purpose of theology is to make or clarify Christian choices,” and if this attempt to think in a Christian way comes from within particular contexts and cultures, and in interaction with the Bible, then we are asking new questions every day. We are converting the material of life toward Christ through this Spirit-informed creative process that involves thinking, feeling, and acting. Yet will the church in all its diversity “demonstrate its unity by the interactive participation of all its culture-specific segments, the interactive participation that is to be expected in a functioning body? … Will the body of Christ be realized or fractured in this new Ephesian moment?”
As it did in the early days of Acts when practices of radical hospitality challenged the intersectionally compounded boundaries of class, gender, law, and tradition, so today the physical and spiritual realization of the body of Christ has theological, social, and economic consequences. The implications are ever present in intensified moments of pandemic, protest, increased racism and violence, globalization, and climate change. The invitation is to embrace being a part of Christ’s body while moving with others toward completion. In this movement, we need the generative work of the Holy Spirit to take action in us.
Excerpted from “On Becoming Wise Together: Learning and Leading in the City,” by Maria Liu Wong ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
The entire ecosystem of theological education is grappling with the need to reexamine systems and structures and innovate new ‘pathways to tomorrow.’
When the seeds of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (now NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community) were taking root in the 1990s in Canada, becoming an accredited graduate school seemed like a far-off goal. The group of Indigenous scholars began having conversations, which blossomed into an annual symposium, an academic journal and graduate curricula.
“But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point,” co-founder Terry LeBlanc said.
It wasn’t the main objective for NAIITS to receive formal ATS (Association of Theological Schools) accreditation, but when it did arrive in spring 2021, LeBlanc says it felt “vindicating.”
NAIITS is the only accredited Indigenous-led graduate theological school in North America. It offers four master’s degrees, together with an experimental accredited Ph.D. program.
LeBlanc is CEO and director of Indigenous Pathways, a corporate entity comprising NAIITS and its sister organization, iEmergence, which focuses on leadership development in Indigenous and tribal communities. He completed his Ph.D. at Asbury Theological Seminary.
LeBlanc spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about NAIITS’ accomplishments so far and what the future might look like for the school. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Can you tell me the story of NAIITS?
Terry LeBlanc: The idea of it began back in the late ’80s for some of us, mid-’90s for others, and came about as a result of the continuing challenges raised by varieties of individuals in the Christian church, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who criticized the idea that Indigenous culture and faith could be brought together in some fashion — or put another way, that one could be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian in the same way that one could be authentically Euro-American or Euro-Canadian Christian.
So it began with conversations about how to address that, which led to hosting annual symposia on Indigenous theology and mission, which in turn led to the publication of a journal and the creation of a faculty and curriculum to teach our own programs in the broad compass of divinity.
F&L: Recently, you were accredited by ATS. How did that feel?
TL: Vindicating. I’m not sure that we had it in mind when we launched our formal programs, first in Canada in the late 1990s and then in the U.S. in 2001. But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point.
F&L: What kinds of degrees do you offer?
TL: We offer four master’s degrees in North America: an M.A. in intercultural studies, an M.T.S., an M.A. in Indigenous community development and a newly framed M.Div. program. We also offer an experimental Ph.D. program accredited by ATS.
And in Australia, we offer an M.T.S. program, along with a grad certificate and a grad diploma, as well as the Ph.D.
F&L: How does the teaching work, with so many different people from so many different places?
TL: We had determined that we needed to do something to address the issue of many Indigenous students being reluctant to leave their home communities or territories to go for lengthy periods of time to study. So we had already determined that we needed to offer some of our programming in a virtual format, online within learning management software, as well as with Zoom and virtual videoconferencing.
But we also wanted to be sure that we created an in-person community experience, so we went to a trimester system, with two semesters, the September and January semesters, being offered in a virtual format, synchronous and asynchronous, and then the summer semester, which wrapped around our annual symposium on Indigenous theology and mission, being offered as an in-person intensive set of courses.
We’ve been doing that from the beginning, so going virtual with COVID wasn’t an issue for us.
F&L: What have you seen your students be able to do with their training in their communities?
TL: Varieties of things. Some have gone into spiritual care work as chaplains, some, in urban environments, doing street work or urban-based advocacy and ministry. Some have gone into pastoral ministry.
Others have become or are becoming community scholars in their communities or have gone on to do further study to advance their academic skills.
All of the graduates thus far have gone into vocations that connect to the disciplines within which they received their degrees.
F&L: Why is NAIITS so important?
TL: At this juncture, it’s important because it’s the only Indigenous-designed, developed, delivered, and wholly governed Indigenous graduate and postgraduate theological educational institution that is ATS-accredited in North America.
While there are other institutions teaching at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate level, they are either teaching under the auspices of non-Indigenous governance or teaching under the auspices of other denomination-institutional environments.
NAIITS is unique, and that in itself makes it essential, since to be able to govern our own theological education, albeit within the parameters that ATS and the new standards of accreditation require, is critically important for us to advance our notion that one can be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian.
F&L: In terms of the governance being Indigenous, how does that make the education qualitatively different for your students?
TL: Well, you could have the same course title, say New Testament Introduction. Offered from a Euro-Canadian or Euro-American seminary or divinity college, it will use mostly standard approaches to New Testament study, even though some will be more contemporary than others. They’ll use materials that are largely written by or taken from a Western philosophical and hermeneutical approach.
Whereas a New Testament introduction course that we offer will come from an Indigenous epistemology and Indigenous ontology and worldview and will use Indigenous frame materials, in addition to individuals from the Indigenous community who come in to provide community perspectives.
When we do a course, irrespective of what the course may be, it’s offered from an Indigenous perspective as the first order of business, not as a supplement.
F&L: How does theological education that is done by and driven by Indigenous people avoid some of the blind spots for the traditional Euro-American-centric theological education?
TL: Well, whether intended or not, by default, given the trajectory of the Western church, Euro-American as well as Euro-Canadian and Australian (or wherever it may be) approaches to theology have largely assumed that a singular worldview is the appropriate worldview through which to approach the Scriptures, through which to approach the ideas, the principal ideas of Christian faith and life.
As a consequence, this theology is not only blind in certain areas but oblivious to the fact that Christianity, or Christian faith — or, if you will, the following of Jesus — doesn’t originate in the Western environment.
There’s an imposed notion that Jesus was an American or Jesus was a Canadian, and the images, of course, tend to bear out the Eurocentric nature of Christianity down through the centuries.
There’s also certainly the idea that a theology rooted in the Western Enlightenment is an engagement with faith that provides a context for science and faith to coexist. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t provide a place or a context where that coexistence can have a mutuality about it; it’s more that there are boundaries between the two, and on occasion, there are semipermeable membranes — but on other occasions, they’re completely separate.
Whereas with an Indigenous context, there is not an either/or epistemology at play but rather a both/and, so that impacts how we view not only the text of the Christian Scriptures but also other stories of experience and tradition of the pursuit of God.
F&L: What do you think the future looks like for NAIITS?
TL: Oh, goodness, I wish I were good at prognostication. Given that we’ll celebrate 25 years next year, and seeing what we’re able to accomplish with our partnerships and support, I foresee greater numbers of partnerships of differing sorts.
I can certainly see us creating perhaps a chair of Indigenous studies, which will have a Christian framework available for study but won’t be specifically a theological chair. It will be a chair of Indigenous studies that neither excludes nor centers Christian faith but rather sees Christian faith as one aspect of Indigenous life throughout our history.
F&L: Speaking of the partnerships, how can people who aren’t Indigenous support or partner with Indigenous theological development?
TL: Our partnerships with existing non-Indigenous institutions have been extremely supportive and beneficial.
We do provide up to 25% of our seats in any given degree program or course for non-Indigenous students — first, for non-Indigenous students who are engaged with Indigenous community, and then second, for non-Indigenous students who are wanting a non-Western approach to theological education.
Certainly financially, where we’re a not-for-profit, we are essentially people-funded. We’re tuition- and fundraising-driven — not that that isn’t the case for many other institutions — but we have a constituency that, as you might imagine, given the history of Christianity in treating Indigenous peoples, aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for Indigenous peoples support, and through no fault of our own.
At an airy school site in southeast Washington, D.C., several children gather around an outdoor planter filled with espresso-colored dirt. It’s about 3:30 on a bright summer afternoon, and the students have been there since morning.
They began the day with harambee, a high-energy ritual that lets students pull together and celebrate themselves, before going into a sewing exercise and then a nutrition lesson. Now comes the gardening, where they learn a handy fact — how lavender can repel mosquitos — and start to grow their own plants.
As these students — known here as scholars — congregate, a college-age instructor (also known as a servant leader) watches over them while parents and other site staff linger outside and inside the school.
All of this is part of a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools six-week summer session. And since CDF’s mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities,” this program is key.
In fact, CDF Freedom Schools, also offered as after-school programs, are the “heart and soul” of what the Children’s Defense Fund is doing for children and their well-being, said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president and chief executive officer. Through CDF’s partnerships and work with children, families and communities, Wilson said, the program “helps us to prioritize what we’re speaking about, what we’re advocating around, and the policies we believe families need to create the conditions for their children to thrive.”
A program with history
CDF has a record of helping communities. Civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, credited as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the nonprofit in 1973 after dedicating her early career to defending the civil liberties of people who faced poverty and discrimination.
Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program is offered to students in kindergarten through 12th grade around the country in community centers, schools, juvenile justice centers, churches and other settings. In 2021, more than 7,200 scholars participated in programs in 26 states and 75 cities.
Freedom Schools have their origin in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which gathered college students to work for justice and voting rights for Black citizens. Back then, these college students volunteered to teach younger students traditional subjects like reading, math and science, along with Black history, constitutional rights and other topics not covered in Mississippi public schools, said Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools.
How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
The early Freedom Schools were established to build the next generation of voters, Clemons said, noting that leaders thought that if they could “crack” Mississippi, they could do the same with other Southern states.
“Our faith-based partners have always played a role in the movement,” she said, explaining that most of the original Freedom Schools operated in churches or community centers.
CDF started its Freedom Schools program in 1995 to help children who lacked access to high-quality literacy programs. Each year, many students — especially those from historically disadvantaged groups — experience summer learning loss. Recent literature on this loss has been mixed, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, but one theory cited in the report suggests that lower-income students might learn less over the summer because “the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.”
To support students, the CDF model has five components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.
How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
Since its start, more than 169,000 children have experienced Freedom Schools, and more than 19,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the model, which offers a research-based and multicultural curriculum. The majority of students in 2021 identified as Black/African American (68.4%), with the second-most represented group identifying as Hispanic/Latino (13%).
Because the schools are free to families, parents and guardians don’t incur the expenses they might otherwise have for child care, camps or academic programs. This can be especially helpful in low-income communities.
A vital part of a big mission
School systems vary state to state, and there can be battles over what is offered in the classroom. For instance, some schools now are dealing with banned books and debates about critical race theory, among other issues, Clemons said.
Children also continue to face changes within the system, such as periods of distance learning and isolation, because of the COVID pandemic. Some students are dealing with news of school shootings and racial injustice as well.
“Every year, we choose a different issue that scholars across the country will organize around and take action on,” said Wilson, the CEO. “This year, we’ve chosen climate justice, because we recognize that the planet is a place that our young people will inherit and that climate justice is racial justice.”
How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
Scholars come together, discuss the issue and share their ideas for solutions on coordinated National Days of Social Action — and they’re allowed to dream, said Joy Masha, program director for the Washington, D.C., CDF Freedom Schools. Scholars might propose a rally, a call to action to a state council member or the creation of more programs for children in their community, among other means of advocacy.
Because educators may not be able to deviate from state curriculum requirements tied to testing, Freedom Schools historically have supplemented content that traditional teachers could not offer, Clemons said. That includes books featuring people of color — important since fewer than 27% of children’s books published in the United States feature nonwhite children, according to CDF — and educating scholars about figures in history.
How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
“We don’t want to be controversial. Freedom Schools are not here to break down the status quo. We’re here to be in community with people,” Clemons said.
“We’re here to show children that [if] you want to be a scientist, great. If you want to be a yoga instructor, great. If you want to be the next vice president — because we have books on Kamala Harris — you can do that.”
Some parents say they appreciate the programming and the ability to participate via weekly meetings. Rochelle Gibbons has two children enrolled in the D.C. summer program. If she were to send them to camp instead, they’d simply play, she said. But here they read and build relationships as scholars.
Another D.C. parent, Ashley Jones, said she also appreciates the model. Freedom Schools staff care about the children and the environment that families live in, she said, and teach children that they’re not too young to make a difference.
That lesson is big. Because children are listening. Processing current events. And sharing their thoughts.
Gibbons’ daughter, Dyllon-Rose Gaskin, did just that after her mother spoke at a recent parent meeting in the classroom. The 10-year-old scholar said the program allows her to read books every day and discover new words.
“I learn a lot,” she said, explaining that she’s finding out “interesting stuff” in a fun way.
“Miss Joy has a strong voice, and it helps me speak up sometimes,” she said of Masha’s work at the site.
So what exactly would she speak up about? Dyllon-Rose simply said, “I would speak up about, like, gun violence and different things around the world, like homeless[ness].”
How does it feel to know about these issues as a child?
“People are getting killed … every day, and that’s sad, because people are losing their lives for no reason,” Dyllon-Rose said.
Looking toward a happier future, she shared her desire to be a teacher, a hand model, the vice president, a mayor and “a lot more.”
This kind of exchange, where scholars discuss a range of subjects, is not unusual.
After years of working in the space, Masha said she understands that age does not necessarily determine a child’s experience. Gun violence was the scholars’ issue for 2021.
“As we see more gun violence here in D.C., we know that we can have these conversations with our young people, because our model allows us to do that,” she said. “So if gun violence is a topic that young people want to not only talk about but address, then we explore that solution with them and help them put it into action.”
Within integrated reading curriculum lessons, Freedom Schools use books to explore particular issues and allow scholars to analyze each plot and connect it to the community. Schools also offer parents resources for talking with children about these issues.
The faith connection
To make an impact, CDF partners with various institutions and organizations. To run a program, would-be executive directors apply on CDF’s website and learn about the training, fiduciary and programmatic requirements that accepted sponsor organizations must maintain.
CDF recommends that, at a minimum, facilities be licensed to serve children. Programs then do their own fundraising to bring Freedom Schools sites to fruition, with CDF recommending that programs cover costs for at least 30 scholars.
Since faith communities have a long history of social action and advocacy work, this connection continues to resonate.
Wilson, who also serves on the Duke Divinity School board of visitors, references Jesus’ words with respect to CDF’s work and notes that defending children is “a religious commitment that is resonant with the call of the Christ.”
“For an audience of clergy, I say, ‘If Jesus did not walk among us, then Jesus has less capacity to connect with us,’” he said. “The God that I serve is one who took up flesh and walked with humanity.”
It is this walk that others also highlight.
The Rev. Dr. Van H. Moody II, founding pastor of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, said his church has offered Freedom Schools for several years. He said children in communities of color may not have access to early childhood education, which can put them “behind the eight ball” when they start school. Added to this, summer learning loss can have cumulative effects. But Freedom Schools can help.
“It’s a beautiful program that really checks a lot of boxes that we’re passionate about,” Moody said, noting that it helps kids grow academically, helps them become more well-rounded because they gain a historical foundation, and helps empower them to become conscious changemakers.
His church began supporting the program through funds dedicated to missions, and in recent years has funded it via an endowment, along with public and private partnerships.
“Our faith informs us about how important it is for us to make sure that the next generation not only knows God but that they are prepared to continue to really stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and to carry the mantle forward,” Moody said.
Birmingham has both a high murder rate and a high violence rate, and many kids are coming from communities where they haven’t seen themselves in a positive light. With these schools, the pastor said, scholars can see the possibilities of what they can be.
“In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often taught to talk about the goodness of God and their faith principles with their children and their children’s children,” Moody said. “For us, pouring into the next generation, making sure that the next generation is educated … and prepared to live their best life and affect society in a positive way is an extension of what we believe God has called us to do.”
What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?
Questions to consider
- How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
- How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
- How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
- How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
- What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?
Much of who the Rev. Dr. Dominique A. Robinson is today can be traced back to two women — her grandmothers.
Her father’s mother was Pentecostal and the founding pastor of Deliverance House of Prayer in Irvington, New Jersey. Her mother’s mother was a Baptist laywoman. On Sunday mornings she attended the Baptist church and in the evenings the Pentecostal church, where her paternal grandmother was the preacher.
They exposed Robinson, 35, to traditional faith practices early in her childhood — practices that Robinson honors to this day. But their influence extended beyond that.
“Because my father’s mother was my pastor, I heard her preaching often,” she said. “Because of that, I imagined God as a black woman as a child. That still shapes who I am today as a minster.
“I did not grow up with a traditional lens of who God is, but many of the practices — like fasting and praying — are still with me today.”
Robinson was named inaugural dean of Julius S. Scott Sr. Chapel at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in August 2019. It was a new role for her and for the college, which many people recognize from the 2007 film “The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington.
She is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, a decision she made when she was 18 because she thought the AME Zion church was a good mix of her Pentecostal and Baptist roots.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a D.Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Christian Theological Seminary.
Robinson identifies as a womanist millennial preacher. She’s now adjusting to her role as faith leader for the 1,400-member student body of a Southern, United Methodist, historically black college rooted in history and tradition.
Reared in Newark, New Jersey, Robinson was practicing ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, before accepting the appointment at Wiley.
“There were a lot of firsts for me moving here — I had never worked at an HBCU, never lived among the people I served, etc. The experience made me feel like I was living in a real-life fishbowl,” she said.
“I only know how to survive by going back to my prayer closet. You can walk through the chapel today and see oily fingerprints on the walls from where I have walked about laying hands on the building while in prayer — all expressions of faith practice I gleaned from my grandmother.”
She spoke to writer Mashaun D. Simon about her ministry preaching to millennials. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: What is your official title at Wiley? Why was it important to develop this role at this time in this capacity?
Dominique A. Robinson: Yes, it is the first time that Wiley College has had an official “dean of chapel.” In years past, the chapel lead at Wiley was someone from the United Methodist Church serving a local UMC congregation in tandem with the role of chaplain at Wiley.
The administration desired to hire a trained theological educator who would be able to expand the work of previous chaplains in the areas of spirituality, maintaining chapel and religious programming, while functioning fully as a religion department faculty member and establishing a center for religious life.
Faith development is a core value of the school. In the midst of the pluralism and loss of faith nationwide, I believe designating an office, role, and funds and programming to religious life serves as a means of support for the overall well-being of our students, faculty and staff.
We are living in a day and society where it seems as though faith really isn’t a priority anymore. It is my task to give students tools to put into their personal toolkits so they can determine what is best for them.
I want to move them from religion to relationship with whatever deity they identify with. While we live in a pluralistic world, there is a moral emptiness, and so I think faith development helps students become morally aware.
F&L: Many people know about Wiley because of the film “The Great Debaters.” What made you interested in this role, considering the institution’s history? What does it mean to be the first in this role, a black woman and millennial yourself?
DR: Yes, yes! I literally always introduce Wiley College and myself by saying “the home of the Great Debaters.”
This role was of great interest to me because I have always felt called to minister holistically to marginalized individuals. That is all I saw my [paternal] grandmother, Della V. Smith, working with. For a season, serving marginalized individuals meant serving young black persons — millennials — because they looked like my brother or my sister, or they could have been my brother or sister.
At Wiley, I feel like I can function in all of who God has called me to be as a religious scholar, theological educator, preacher, writer, activist and advocate. This is the perfect place and time for my vocation and the future of Wiley to converge.
F&L: How does your ecumenical faith background and training fit within Wiley?
DR: There are four cultures present at Wiley: United Methodism, or Wesleyan; African Americanism; black church culture; and higher education culture.
It was founded by the United Methodist Church — faith tradition is one of the tenets of Wiley. It’s an HBCU in the South — African American culture and black church culture is prevalent. And being that it is an institution of higher learning, there is the higher education culture and all that comes with that — the politics, policies and procedures, practices, etc.
In my training as an itinerant elder in the AME Zion Church, I embody black church culture and the beliefs and practices that the culture possesses. In addition, my ministerial training makes me versed in Wesleyan practices and verbiage, while understanding and relating to African American culture, language and colloquialisms.
Having earned degrees from Georgetown University, Candler School of Theology and Columbia Theological Seminary has equipped me in developing Methodist-based, liturgically cohesive, culturally relevant and biblically founded worship services that are also captivating and engaging.
F&L: Chapel is required of Wiley students, correct? What does it mean to have chapel be integral to the lives of the students?
DR: Chapel is held every Tuesday at 11 a.m. and required for all freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Attendance is also required of seniors who are members of the liturgical dance teams and a cappella choir.
And I have an expectation of all students who are members of the campus ministry — Young Disciples for Christ (YDC) — to attend chapel weekly. Also, all student organization leaders are expected to attend chapel weekly.
For those students where chapel is required, they receive a grade for their attendance and participation. They have weekly assignments that they’re expected to complete each week. Some of the assignments include questions about things that may have occurred during chapel or the purpose of communion. The assignments vary.
My goal with the assignments is to help them think through their faith. All too often, they function through inherited traditions without any real investigation of why they believe what they believe or why they are doing what they are doing.
What is also important to note is that it is rare for an institution to require attendance and participation in chapel. But [Wiley’s] requirement is not just for the students. No faculty person can handle business during the chapel hour.
Chapel is significant for us at Wiley for two reasons. First, we have a covenant relationship with the United Methodist Church.
Second, we hold firm to the belief that worship is a healing station for all of those who gather. The goal of having chapel become integral to the lives of the students is to display our commitment to developing and offering holistic support systems and programming.
Though Wiley is a Christian education institution, we are working diligently to offer safe and brave spaces for our non-Christian students, faculty, staff and partners. We do not want to allow one’s faith to be used as a weapon against anyone.
F&L: Tell me about your project called iHomiletic. How does it line up with your work at Wiley?
DR: iHomiletic is a methodology of using social media linguistics and technology for reconnecting millennials to the church by way of preaching and teaching. It is the result of my D.Min. research, which focused on black church-going millennials and how their identity as millennials impacts their reception of sermons in black churches.
Long-term, I intend to publish a book as well as a workbook and app and incorporate the research into my liturgical planning for chapel and pedagogy for courses here at Wiley.
One idea is to have a live Twitter feed on the screen during chapel so that students can engage the sermon in real time — a modern take on call and response, via either Twitter or TikTok.
The idea is to meet them where they are, engage them via the tools in which they are currently communicating. In the classroom, I would like to see iHomiletic become a preaching elective.
F&L: How do you see your work at Wiley fitting into your larger vocation?
DR: My work at Wiley is just the tip of the iceberg for my larger vocation’s narrative. I do see myself serving in church leadership and higher education at the highest levels one day — keeping one foot in the academy and one foot in the church.
In the same way that I am equipping our students for their future, I see this experience at Wiley doing the same for me. I am serving on presidential committees and task forces. I am learning higher education policies and procedures. I am practicing my craft of preaching and teaching. I have been given freedom to invest in and strengthen my scholarship. I am more than clear that God called me to Wiley.