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Thinking Out Loud

Black Church Studies is for Everyone

by Michael Jinkins | Aug 10, 2015

Felicia LaBoyEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Dr. Felicia Howell LaBoy (pictured), Louisville Seminary’s new Associate Dean for Black Church Studies and Advanced Learning. LaBoy previously served as Director of United Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministry. Her forthcoming book, Table Matters: The Sacraments, Social Holiness and Evangelism, will be available through Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Like many of you, I watched in horror as the news reports rolled in with regard to the massacre of nine persons, including many of the pastoral staff at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in June. As I processed my own grief and reached out to students and colleagues in South Carolina, amazing events occurred that captured not only my attention, but also the attention of others, especially those for whom organized religion has become irrelevant.

From the slain nine martyrs; to the Shelby, North Carolina, woman who spotted the gunman while praying for the victims and their families; to the words of forgiveness spoken from the victims’ families to the gunman; to the words of reconciliation, hope and commitments to justice spoken by state officials; to finally the eulogy given by President Barack Obama, the Church of Jesus Christ was on full display demonstrating itself as a relevant, reconciling and transforming agent of healing and hope.

As Obama talked about the faith of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney specifically and of the long heritage of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, several ideas began to solidify for me and reaffirmed the importance of the strategic commitment that Louisville Seminary has made with regard to its Doors to Dialogue and Black Church Studies programs.

Quoting Rev. Pinckney, Obama educated all present on the historical, theological and ethical heritage of both the A.M.E. church in general and Mother Emanuel specifically as the context by which all Americans could move beyond dialog and rhetoric to a more just society. He maintained that the historical and contemporary witness of Mother Emanuel and people of goodwill everywhere show us that we have the ability to dismantle structural and systemic racism that masquerades in civic pride or abstract liberalism.

While Obama is to be congratulated for an outstanding eulogy, what is also apparent is the great impact of theological education. As evidenced by Obama’s deep theological knowledge of black church history and ethics as the catalyst for social change, it was evident that his eulogy had to have been crafted by someone intimately familiar with engaging theological discourse and praxis. And until this eulogy, it had been easy to forget that the faith of Obama and his family was nurtured not only at Trinity United Church of Christ, but also by some of the best black and white pastor-theologians and laity across a wide diversity of denominations in his work as a community organizer.

While the media caricatured Trinity’s commitment to be unapologetically Christian and unashamedly black as anti-Christian and anti-white, they missed the fact that many of the most pre-eminent black theological scholars from some of the top seminaries in Chicago served as Sunday school teachers and small group leaders at Trinity. Under the tutelage of then-pastor Dr. Jeremiah Wright and these faculty, Trinity’s members were challenged to engage critically Black history, theology and ethics such that they:

…embod[ied] the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about [our] collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.1

In highlighting Obama’s “theological” training as a lay member at Trinity, we also cannot forget that Rev. Pinckney, as well as Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., were graduates of Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary. The impact of theological education was also on display in the ministry of the white Lutheran pastors and bishops who presided over the congregations where the alleged gunman and his family are members. While comforting the family and congregation, these sisters and brothers in Christ acknowledged the need for theological discourse that leads to transformative heart change and systemic social action.2

While we can see the fruits of theological training, especially as it relates to Black Church Studies, it is also evident that we need a more comprehensive way forward. We need in the corridors of our theological institutions places to have honest discussions about race and social justice that build on history and enable us to think deeply and act justly in the midst of color-blind structural racism. Black Church Studies cannot only be for African Americans seeking to address theologically the world in which they find themselves. It must be a critical component for those seeking to lead the church to see the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States not as something to be suppressed, but as God’s gift.

With this in mind, I envision three purposes for Louisville Seminary’s Black Church Studies program. First, the program must provide clergy and lay with a strong foundation in historical and contemporary black church theology and ethics.

Second, it must deepen the theology, preaching, pastoring and community engagement of students by building on current courses and programs, and by engaging preeminent theologians and practitioners from within Louisville Seminary and beyond.

Third, it must couple theology and praxis with an emphasis on the administrative and practical skills necessary for graduates to implement and assess current and future black church ministry. Equally important will be to consider how this program serves as a resource for the general church such that the inclusion of Black Church Studies in other academic areas will allow all students to create new insights and praxes. In this way, the Black Church Studies program at both the master’s and doctoral levels can develop a new generation of theological scholars in the Black Church tradition who are able to dialog effectively within other disciplines.

It is my hope that as we saw the fruits of theological education coupled with creative and prophetic action from both clergy and lay as related to the Charleston massacre, the Black Church Studies program will function such that we too will create outposts of Christian witness that furthers the cause of open dialog, racial reconciliation and a just society. It is my prayer that through the Black Church Studies program, persons within and outside of the church will live into Rev. Pinckney’s assertion that we must know and value one another’s histories and discover that Black Church studies is indeed necessary for everyone.

1President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney (Washington, DC: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary), June 26, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/26/remarks-president-eulogy-honorable-reverend-clementa-pinckney, last accessed July 8, 2015.
2For more on this see Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Long Season of Disquiet Letter (Chicago: ELCA News),  June 18, 2015, http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/long_season_of_disquiet_letter.pdf, last accessed July 8, 2015.

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