Make Seminary White Again: From Assimilation to Unity and Back to Assimilation Again

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Baptist Pastor using his pulpit to protest following the announcement of Nike’s new campaign endorsing Colin Kaepernick.

I am a recent Masters of Divinity graduate from McAfee School of Theology on the Mercer-Atlanta Campus. From matriculation to graduation, I observed a notable tension between the white millennial Evangelical students and the older, nontraditional black students. This tension approached its peak when the African-American student population hovered around fifty percent.  Naively, I thought this demonstrated that the institution was embracing diversity, but in interactions with a couple of the professors and several of the white millennial students, I thought otherwise. Ally Henny, a seminary student wrote a similar blog about the predominantly white seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary. She called it “Seminary While Black: How One Institution’s Toxic Culture is Causing a Black Exodus.” (#seminarywhileblack) Many of the commenters to her blog said to just leave and go somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a matter of being the only choice, especially if you are an older nontraditional student. Several of the commenters even talked about the institution being liberal and departing from biblical fundamentalism, which is a worse position for a student of color to be in. I stand ready for your criticisms for what I wrote but I urge you to fully consider the content and the context and not read it with the same “literal eyes” with which you may read your Bibles.

At McAfee, there was a palpable discomfort when it came to white students and faculty dealing with students of color. The seminary did not really know how to create space for lament for the students of color during the police killings of Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile.  The seminary did not really know how to create space for lament for the terrorist shooting of the members of Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston. These were significant touch points in the lives of the students of color, especially as it related to being able to minister to the others in their community.  McAfee curriculum was deeply rooted in a hybrid of the exclusionary Southern Baptist, patriarchal, individually salvific, Eurocentric Christianity that permeates America. As students, we were given the means and the opportunity to provide feedback in the form of surveys on our experience at the school. About halfway through my time there, one of our surveys raised the eyebrows of the faculty about race relations at the school. That survey was administered back in 2016

I initially convinced myself I was attending a school with white millennial students who just did not quite understand the world due to their age and inexperience.  I heard the same stories over and over again from the white millennial students, coming from all-white communities and having attended or served in staunchly conservative white churches. In some cases, the seminary was their first time being in the company of “so many” students of color. They bragged about their mission trips to South America and Africa and usually had accompanying pictures of themselves with the “poor” people of color.  I had the “pleasure” of seeing many of these pictures and hearing the “salvation” stories during their individual or group class presentations.  I considered these pictures to be the evidence of their “goodness” in the eyes of G-d.

The apogee of the aforementioned tension was the day following the 2016 Presidential election. Up until that point, the discussions surrounding diversity and racial reconciliation were occurring, but they were safe, benign. Until November 2016, racial reconciliation may have been seen as affirmative action for the white church. After the Presidential election, many white churches, dually or multi-affiliated, ensured that its actions were in line with the beliefs and teachings of the Southern Baptist Convention in dismissing any efforts to move towards diversity and racial inclusion.  Prior to the election, it appeared that McAfee was leaning into the demographics shift to becoming a more inclusive and diverse institution focused on sending ministers into all the world.  One of McAfee graduates, an African American woman, was slated to be a part of the shifting chapel service. This former student was trained in worship through follow-on Doctoral studies. She started a Gospel choir which performed in the chapel, which was moving from the somewhat dry, standard, Eurocentric liturgy to a more progressive style, incorporating Gospel music and African-American preaching, more familiar to the students of color.  The chapel was becoming less obligatory and more of a highlight.  There are explanations behind the canceling of chapel services for the Fall 2018 semester, stating it was a time to allow regrouping, but as it appeared to non-whites, McAfee’s chapel pause was a way to transition back to the services that reflected the tones of its donors’.

For a little history, McAfee is rumored to be one of the lowest funded schools of Mercer University, which means it relies heavily on funding from large, predominantly white churches. There have only been three professors of color, at any one time.  McAfee does not currently have ties with the Southern Baptist Convention but is affiliated with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, in an effort to give the appearance that it was more diverse. During my time as McAfee, I witnessed predominantly white or all-white churches showing little to no interest in recruiting non-white students or graduates to permanently serve on their staff or as a part of their leadership.  I also believe the donor churches did not like the direction the school was headed, even in its chapel services. This is just my theory, based on personal observation, but in talking with other minority students, I have seen how the school has made very little progress in learning what it means to fully embrace diversity.  I have even heard from several black and white students that they were inadvertently given access to a closed Facebook group created by the white McAfee students for white McAfee students, a platform for more candid discussions about race or racist rhetoric.  The students mistakenly given access were discovered and removed from the closed group. Some of the white students who may have been considered allies to students of color refused to use their voices to confront this. Only a brave handful, one being my “sister from another Mister,” Bronwen Morgan and my “brother from another mother,” Cato Collier said what needed to be said to the faculty but I saw very little recourse taken by the school to address this situation.

My experience at McAfee leaves me appreciating but desiring much more in the way of not only being diverse but embracing diversity. I am appreciative of learning the fundamentals and the history of the Christian faith but again found it lacking in providing a more encompassing curriculum highlighting the significant roles non-whites have played, not only in American Christianity but in the founding of the faith.  Non-white theologians, scholars, and theology tended to get honorable mentions in the curriculum.  The African American church experience was treated as a monolith, sometimes as a mystery.  While we were taught about the different denominations of Christianity, African American Christianity was usually lumped into its own category, treated as an enigma, not worthy of legitimacy bestowed upon white traditional Evangelical Christianity. African American Christianity was not seen as being integral to Christianity.  African American Christianity and Black Theology were treated as the “Other,” as less than when it came to the faith.  I have been asked to apply for McAfee’s DMin program and I hesitate due to wanting to have a much broader experience, as it relates to relevant studies in and practice of my own faith, my African American faith. The charge of McAfee School of Theology seems to be in supporting white Evangelical churches in their hiring of young, white seminary-trained graduates. So what happens to the non-white half of the school’s population?

#seminarywhileblack

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Very well said Corey. As one of the former non-traditional students of color, I can sincerely say that often times we took the high road choosing to be non-confrontational although we recognized the patronizing and/or dismissive actions of Others in our environment. I think many of us did what we needed to do to make it through. There were times I could not or choose not to contain myself. I spoke up to correct the indiscretions, disrespect, or condescending gestures which came from the places of privilege.

    We brought some of our concerns to light at the culmination of our Racial Reconciliation course in several chapels and a letter to the administration. The issues were not addressed. Thank you for having the courage to speak out particularly coming from a place where you are admired and your feedback is respected.

    Continue being obedient to the call of G_d.

    Lynne

    Like

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