The other day I got an email from a friend on how he was getting frustrated and tired of reading books and hearing lectures on Eurocentric theology and church history. He wanted to have some color injected into his Bible college and seminary education.
It’s a story I’m all too familiar with. By the end of seminary, most people are screaming at the top of their lungs, “Let me out!” But they press on anyway because they know they have a calling and they know this is the path God has them on in order to equip them. This is even more true for those students who are of non-white ethnicity. The seminary is a far cry from their home culture and the things taught there are taught from a predominantly white historical and theological perspective. Consequently, you can feel like you are being brainwashed or indoctrinated into whiteness or at the very least just made to feel like an oddball or invisible because your experience is different from a lot of the other students. I’ve been there. And I would have lost my mind if it weren’t for these principles working themselves out in my life intentionally or unintentionally.
1. Remember why you are there
You are there because you are called. You are here because you want to soak up the knowledge to make you effective in ministry. You are there to connect with like-minded folk who may one day partner with you in ministry. Do not let the overwhelming whiteness take you off course. Learn. Soak it in. Grow.
2. Make two sets of notes
There are two sets of notes to take. Notes for the paper you will write and notes for yourself (Shout out to MK Asante). Some things will be helpful for your academic career but other things will help as you take your seminary training back home.
3. Find the alternative books
When I first started attending Fuller Theological Seminary I had the privilege of working in the library. As I put the books back on the shelves I learned about James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez and so many others. I began reading those books even before I started classes because they spoke from a perspective I understood and was familiar with. Just the exposure alone helped me to tackle some of the lack of diversity I was experiencing.
4. Find like-minded students
There is always, at least, a handful of students of color on any campus. If you can’t find students of color then there are many white students who understand where you are coming from. Reach out and connect. It may be the best thing you have ever done.
5. Find like-minded professors
In an attempt to make their faculties more diverse, most seminaries and Christian universities have hired at least two or three non-white professors who teach from a different perspective. Go and take their classes if you have the opportunity. If you can’t take their classes then find some way to connect with them. They understand your experience and are rooting for your success. Personally, I found Dr. Ralph Watkins and Dr. Jehu Hanciles. Just their teaching and course content helped me to not lose my mind!
6. Ask thought-provoking questions
Don’t just sit in class like a lump on a log. Ask questions—thought-provoking questions. Not solely to cause trouble. Ask questions from your unique ethnic and socio-economic perspective. It will not only bless you but also those in class around you who may be going into these contexts or just those who need to have their world expanded
7. Keep a vital and dynamic relationship with God
Last but not least, keep your eyes on Jesus. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop reading your Bible. Remember this isn’t about ethnicity. This is about God’s calling on your life.
What about you do you have any other tips to include? What was your experience in seminary like? How did you keep from losing your mind?
The commission has the potential to educate the public about dozens of lynchings – some of which occurred with the knowledge or direct involvement of local, county and state government entities. The commission can also provide the opportunity for reconciliation between the families of those who were responsible and the families of those who were killed.
Can it live up to its promise?
Truth commissions around the world
I study human rights, with a particular interest in institutions that hold individuals, organizations and governments accountable for human rights abuses. My current research focuses on truth commissions and how they can be designed to be effective.
A truth commission is a temporary body that investigates different forms and systems of violence that happened in the past. Examples include the commissions that investigated apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Timor-Leste and the dictatorship in Chile.
Generally, governments establish commissions to examine documents and collect witness testimony. A key goal of commissions is preparing a report that details the facts and traces the legacies of violence and abuse. A second, related goal is reconciliation. In Maryland’s case, this would mean working toward respect, understanding and trust of those of other races and their experiences.
In addition, there have been commissions at the local level – for example, the 2004 commission in North Carolina that examined the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Greensboro in 1979. There have also been commissions at the state level – for example, the 2013 commission in Maine that investigated the separation of indigenous Wabanaki children from their communities since 1960.
However, the commission in Maryland will be the first to research lynchings, which investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1909 called the U.S.‘s “national crime.”
I have found in my research that a commission needs support from politicians, access to information, and community knowledge and involvement. It appears that the commission in Maryland has – or will have – each of these characteristics. In this regard, it is similar to previous successful commissions.
First, similar to South Africa, the commission has support from politicians on both sides of the aisle – in this case, Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisan support affords the commission public legitimacy as it seeks access to court records, historical archives, and local and statewide newspapers. So, it may be harder to politicize the commission’s work.
Second, as in Timor-Leste, where the commission held hearings in the villages where violence occurred, the commission in Maryland will hold hearings across the state, including in communities where lynchings occurred.
By operating throughout the state, the commission can more easily reach victims’ descendants and collect their stories. Collecting information from as many sources as possible is important to ascertain the truth.
In addition, the commission will be well positioned to broadly share its work and findings, through the hearings themselves, local news reporting and more. This is key to both truth and reconciliation.
In addition, while the families of those responsible for lynchings can work with the commission and take the opportunity to make amends to the victims’ families and communities, they may decline to do so. And victims’ families may not be prepared to forgive.
So, while the commission benefits from broad support from government leaders in Maryland, it may not enjoy similar support from the public.
Whether the obstacles I describe will overcome the strengths of the commission remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the commission represents an important first step and offers a guide for similar efforts in other states.
The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis performs on March 15, 2019, in St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan
Emi Belciak teaches third grade in a tough part of suburban St. Louis, where she says her students are exposed to more violence than any child should be.
The school where Belciak teaches is just three miles from the site in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed. Five years have passed, but this part of north St. Louis County hasn’t completely healed.
Belciak wanted to do something to help — so she joined a choir.
The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis is dedicated to bridging the black and white communities in a metropolitan area rarely associated with racial harmony. The diverse group aims to break down racial, cultural and economic barriers among its members and the community.
The 75-member choir opens its Monday night rehearsals with group prayer. Next, the choir preps for an upcoming performance or refines a new song. The idea is to get the lyrics and music memorized so the choir can improvise in front of an audience, just like a jazz or blues musician would.
At the core of the repertoire are message songs, about gathering inner strength in the face of adversity. Typical are the rousing “Call on the Lord” and “Now I’m on My Way.”
The choir is 40 percent black and 60 percent white, unlike many choirs that are either all white or all black. CGC members often socialize outside of official choir activities, say group members. They go out to eat and sometimes belt out a rock anthem together at a karaoke bar.
The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan
Most are Christian. For them, singing gospel music is a religious experience.
“What really attracted me was the choir’s endeavor to bring races together through African-American spirituals and gospel,” said Suzanne Palmer, the group’s musical director. “I thought, this is great, to try and bring the races together through the good news of Jesus. I thought, wow, that’s probably for me.”
As part of its mission, the group also tries to collaborate with other choral groups of different backgrounds. An early March concert matched the CGC with the New Sunny Mount Baptist Chancel Choir (which drew a primarily black audience) and the Ambassadors of Harmony, a barbershop-quartet-style group with a mostly white fan base.
The CGC is open to all comers, said Tom Ptacek, CGC president. It had a Reform Jewish rabbi member at one time in its 12-year history and currently has at least two LGBTQ members.
“We’d accept a Muslim member. We don’t have any — yet,” said Ptacek. “We need to get some Hispanic members in the choir, too. We are diverse by race, economics and geography. We made a conscious decision to include people from different economic backgrounds to be part of the choir.”
Up the Mississippi River a bit from St. Louis, the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir in Minnesota has a similar mission. It seeks to bridge communities across racial, cultural and economic divides through its soulful interpretation of African-American gospel music.
The Twin Cities choir is now in its 26th year.
Founder Robert Robinson started the choir at Metropolitan State University to create a diverse community on campus, said Laura Tueting Nelson, TCCGC president.
The Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, led by artistic director Ed Newman, center, is in its 26th year. Photo courtesy of TCCGC
“Minnesota has a large chorale tradition, and interestingly enough, Scandinavians initially showed up to sing in the choir, so it started out being a lot of white people,” Tueting Nelson said. “Then Robert brought in more people of color and he started this group singing. Most of the Scandinavian white folks did not have any experience singing gospel music so he started from the beginning.”
That meant they didn’t sing from scores, but rather followed the oral tradition of listening to how to sing the music properly and repeating it.
“From the beginning, it was teaching people about the tradition and the impact of gospel music,” Tueting Nelson said. “They sang throughout the community and were quite successful.”
Emi Belciak sings with the Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan
The Twin Cities choir focuses on the cultural and artistic aspects of gospel music, rather than seeing it as a religious experience.
“People from any background can participate and learn something about what this music meant historically as well as where it’s going today since there’s a lot of new music being written,” Tueting Nelson said. “We include an oral talking history of gospel music and a whole capsule about this American music that led into blues and jazz and uniquely American forms of music.”
The TCCGC is 20 percent black, representative of its community’s diversity. The group rehearses weekly, like its St. Louis counterpart.
“It’s impressive to me that people are willing to give every Thursday of their lives, as well as performance dates, to sing with this choir,” said Tueting Nelson. “Anyone can join; you don’t have to go through a tryout. We assume they’ll be able to carry a tune.”
Back in St. Louis, Belciak says being part of the gospel choir has been “therapeutic.” She’s always loved singing and said that getting to know choir members has allowed her to meet people from different walks of life and to hear their stories.
It’s a small step toward building a stronger community.
“I’m definitely supportive of the mission of the choir,” Belciak said. “Seeing the kind of violence that my kids are exposed to and how it affects their self-esteem, I like to think I’m making a difference and playing a part in the solution.”
Our rendezvous point was the home of a saint. Together, we climbed the 25 steps that led to the bedroom of Mother Teresa, a five-foot giant of love and mercy. We peered into the small, modestly adorned space where she had slept, prayed, and responded to letters from every corner the world. Slowly, we descended the stairs and walked into the chapel that contained Mother’s tomb. Some of the women kissed the tomb. Some gave alms. Some cried. One showed her daughter how to fold her hands in prayer. They were prostitutes and owners of brothels. I was a woman who was about to journey from ignorance to understanding, and from judgment to love.
This was just one of the many mind-changing and heart-opening encounters I had on a recent mission trip to India. For years, Anita, a missionary and friend of mine, had been asking me to accompany her overseas, but I always had one good excuse or another. I had supported her efforts financially, but I didn’t think I was called to go to other parts of the world to serve when there were enough folks in my own backyard who needed to be served. Mind you, I wasn’t really serving people in my own backyard, but the excuse made me believe that I had my priorities straight. This year though, she had urged me, was the right year for me to go because she would be doing something different. Along with distributing rice, other staples, and the good news of God’s love for everyone, she wanted to offer soul care to religious leaders as well as HIV-positive children living in orphanages, widows, nursing mothers, those attending churches in the jungle, the hearing impaired, and prostitutes. She thought that since I had a certificate in the practice of spiritual direction and a master’s degree in family ministry and spiritual formation, I was well equipped to help people pay greater attention to the quality of their relationship with God.
I knew that I was ill-equipped to speak to such a broad range of audiences, but I decided to go because I was interested in visiting that part of the world and curious about what I could learn from a different culture. Learning, I was to discover, was about to take on a whole new depth after I spent a day with women whom I thought I knew. What I deemed to be knowledge had been prejudice in disguise.
Sharing Life Together
Writer Maisie Sparks at the home of Mother Teresa.
After we left the chapel, the women and I went to the museum that chronicles Mother Teresa’s life. Some of the women couldn’t read English or their own language, but we looked at the pictures and followed the visual narrative about the impact Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu had made on the world.
The women were well-dressed. Not in that I’m-trying-to-pick-up-a-guy kind of way that I had assumed they would be, but in a I’m-going-somewhere-important-and-I-should-dress-for-the-occasion way. Their saris were made of vibrant, colorful, and intricately designed materials. I, on the other hand, was sorely underdressed. I had bought an inexpensive contemporary Indian-styled blouse on the first day of my arrival. My attempt at replicating the culture’s fashion sense was so bad that one of my interpreters convinced a store owner to give me a better price on some souvenirs because I was not a rich American. The evidence of my station in life, she pointed out, was the kind of material my clothes had been made from. Although my pride was hurt, my wallet was happy.
As we walked through the courtyard that connected the buildings that comprised the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity, I pulled out my journal and began to capture some of my thoughts. I was starting to feel as if this was going to be a watershed day and that I should write down as much of it as I could. But I had to stop. A group photo was being organized, and I hurried over to make sure that I was part of it to memorialize the day that I began to see similarities and not just differences. Even though we didn’t speak the same language and were from different cultures, we all shared the same desires. We wanted better for our lives, and especially, the lives of our children. We had suffered at the hands of others and had been impacted by systems and circumstances that restricted the financial mobility of the poor—especially women. We all, at some point in our lives, had overstepped the bounds of righteousness to secure the life we thought we wanted.
In some cultures, prostitution is a viable choice for women who are poor, lack education, and have little, if any, hope for help from charities or government programs. It provides a career path to ownership of bars, hotels/brothels, catering services, and other ancillary services once a woman can earn more money than she needs to survive. Indeed, several of the women I met were business owners.
One of the missionaries who we served with in India told me that the women have been open to hearing the gospel, especially in the engaging ways Anita had shared it on previous visits. Yet, few have been motivated to change their careers. Where she’d seen the greatest change is in the numbers of them enrolling their children in the pre-schools she had established.
As the day continued, I would learn that even before the local missionary opened her pre-schools, many of the women had given their children an education. Some had even put their children through college—both boys and girls. Educating girls is significant because they don’t have equal worth in this and many other cultures. I realized that this belief is pervasive and is manifested in my own culture by unequal pay, glass ceilings to career advancement, and the inability of women to obtain business loans.
Teaching and Learning
After visiting Mother Teresa’s home, we took a short walk to a cloistered hotel with a beautiful lawn and an air-conditioned meeting room. Anita began the teaching part of our day by sharing the good news of the sacrificial love of Christ. The session ended with joyous songs of praise from the women. To take a break from a long spell of sitting, we went outside to play a game.
Anita had each woman find a partner. One partner was blindfolded, and the other had to guide the blindfolded person through a maze of chairs by giving only verbal directions. It was comical to watch and uncomfortable to experience. But it led us into a discussion about what it’s like to walk in darkness, to stumble around, to be fearful. We asked ourselves: Can we trust the voice we hear? Are we good at giving directions? Are we good at taking directions? Do we know our left from our right? The exercise elicited much laughter. Anita transitioned from talking about the darkness to introducing the Light. There is a voice we can trust, she declared. That voice invites us to walk a path that leads to the better life that we all seek.
After a spicy lunch, it was my turn to teach, and I introduced the women to the prayer of examen. Each time I shared this prayer in this culture, I wondered whether it would be experienced as relevant. Poor people don’t need a reflective prayer, I thought. They need a prayer about getting God to do things for them through prayer. What I was to learn, however, is that everyone, everywhere needs time to reflect on what they think about God. We all need to discover that our deepest desire is to know God deeply, no matter where we live, what we’ve done, or what our circumstances are.
As I shared my presentation, I often paused, asking questions, and waiting for feedback to see whether I was explaining the prayer clearly. They responded with answers that let me know that they understood me. Near the end, one woman stood and prayed the prayer using examples from her own life—direct confirmation for me that she got it.
I discovered that prayer – reflective, sincere, and unbiased – can activate compassion and give birth to love. We ended the day singing songs of praise, playing balloon volleyball, giving gifts, and sharing hugs. I no longer experienced their presence as “them and me.” We were one: women united with a universal bond and a desire to know God, each other, and our own selves at a much deeper level.
I had traveled more than 8,000 miles to be part of a mission trip, but in reality, I had taken a longer journey. I had experienced the mysterious lengths God will take to get us out of our heads and into His heart. That is the longest and most significant distance each of us can ever travel.
Maisie Sparks is a spiritual director and the author of Holy Shakespeare and other titles.
People browse the eVitabu app on a tablet provided by African Pastors Fellowship. Video screenshot via African Pastors Fellowship
KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) — On a recent Sunday morning, dozens of South Sudanese refugees gathered inside a tent at Imvepi Refugee Camp to thank God for enabling them to found a new church.
The new Pentecostal church was partly made possible by a new app that links preachers to Bible translations and theological resources from which they can prepare sermons and teach congregants about their faith.
“It’s a new dawn for refugees,” said Pastor Chol Mayak, 48, a father of four who recently attended a training on the app. “We are going to train other refugees so that they can open more churches and spread the gospel across the camps.”
Dr. Yamanda Edwards meets with patient Gail Carter at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital outpatient clinic in March 2018. (Photos by Heidi de Marco)
Dr. Yamanda Edwards, the daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, grew up just a few miles from Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, at the time an iconic yet troubled hospital in South Los Angeles.
As a child in the 1990s, she knew little of its history — how it rose from the ashes of the Watts riots. And she knew no one in the medical profession.
Still, she wanted to become a doctor. “I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I wanted to get there,” she said. “I was determined.”
In her lifetime, the community where she grew up has changed dramatically. The population is mostly Latino now, no longer predominantly African-American. King/Drew closed in 2007 amid allegations of malpractice and malfeasance. The new hospital, a private, nonprofit that opened in 2015, is smaller but vibrant, with brand-new facilities, staff and an outpatient medical clinic. It’s part of a broader campus that includes outpatient and public health centers run by Los Angeles County.
What hasn’t changed in the area is the need for doctors like Edwards.
Edwards’ patients have conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to psychosis. Many have never seen a psychiatrist — or any mental health professional, for that matter. Yet the pressures in their lives contribute to poor physical and mental health.
“There are a lot of stressors coming from living in an environment with health care disparities, a lot of access to drugs, poverty, immigration issues,” Edwards said.
The neighborhood surrounding the hospital has higher rates of psychological distress and a greater need for mental health care than the statewide average, according to 2014 data from UCLA. Residents also are more likely to be poor and out of work, though average levels of educational achievement and income have risen somewhat in recent decades.
Edwards teaches her patients about their conditions — what it means to have clinical depression, how it feels to have a panic attack. Many show appreciation for having someone they can turn to. “They’ve tried to do it on their own, but now it’s time to see someone,” Edwards said.
Gail Carter, 62, of Compton, Calif., suffers from chronic pain and depression but said she has been sleeping and feeling better since starting sessions with Edwards. “I didn’t know how to figure it out by myself,” she said. “Dr. Edwards helped me. She gets me to think. And she reminds me to breathe.”
Dreaming Of Being A Doctor
Edwards said she feels some nostalgia for her neighborhood, along with sadness. She escaped some of the worst aspects — violence, drugs and gangs — protected by her family and its high aspirations for her and her siblings. “Higher education was just sort of expected of us,” she said. “I do believe I was somewhat insulated.”
Her curiosity about medicine started in middle school. She attended the King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, which allowed her to shadow doctors at the old King/Drew hospital and help with cancer research. “It was almost like we were medical interns, but we were in high school,” she recalled.
Despite the support, she faced setbacks. When she was 15, her father died of colon cancer, four days after he was diagnosed. For some time after that, she didn’t want to set foot in a hospital. “I thought, ‘How am I going to become a doctor when I hate hospitals?’”
Then she reflected on how her dad had encouraged her to pursue medicine, knowing it was her dream, and “that motivated me.”
Edwards remembers wondering, when the old King/Drew hospital closed, where patients in the neighborhood would go for care — and if the high school students would still find hospital internships.
After graduating from UCLA, Edwards attended medical school at Charles Drew/UCLA — next to her old high school — through a program designed for students who wanted to practice in underserved areas. During a student rotation at Kedren Acute Psychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles, Edwards saw bipolar disorder, psychosis and major depression up close, and she was struck by the need for care among minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos. “This is something that doesn’t really get talked about in either of those communities,” she said.
That propelled her toward a career in psychiatry. She completed her residency in psychiatry at UCLA in June 2017 and started her job at MLK two months later. “It just felt right,” she said.
In addition to working at the hospital, Edwards also belongs to a new outpatient medical group the hospital started last year to expand specialty care for its patients. Hospital CEO Elaine Batchlor said Edwards is exactly the kind of doctor they wanted to attract. “She understands the people who live in our community,” she said. “And she has a deep commitment to them.”
Separating The Old From The New
Patients come in at all hours of the day and night needing mental health care, said Ameer Moussa, a physician who practices at the hospital. “A psychiatrist is something we knew we needed from day one,” he said.
Moussa said Edwards’ calm personality and patience enables her to communicate effectively with her patients. “Trust is a really important thing, and she gains their trust and gains it quickly,” he said.
That helps, especially with patients who recall the difficult history of the old King/Drew, which came to be known in some circles as “Killer King.”
Edwards’ childhood memories of the area help her connect with patients. When they are distressed about their challenges in life, she will often tell them, “I understand. I grew up here too.”
Edwards, who now lives in Cypress, Calif., with her husband and 19-month-old son, spends most of her workweek helping to triage mental health patients in the ER and visiting those who are admitted to the hospital.
MLK’s emergency room has seen twice as many patients as it originally expected when it opened, and many suffer from mental illness.
On a recent afternoon, Edwards saw a woman who was 30 weeks pregnant and threatening to harm herself. Combative and possibly psychotic, she was convinced her baby was an alien. “Let me go,” she screamed as staffers tried to restrain her. “Get off of me!”
Edwards ordered medication to help calm her down. She also placed her on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and started searching for an inpatient bed for her.
Edwards knew that wouldn’t be easy, given the severe psych bed shortage and the woman’s condition. “Psychiatric hospitals can sort of pick and choose who they want to take,” Edwards said. “Pregnant patients are a little more risky to take on.”
Edwards spends much of her time at the hospital dashing in and out of patients’ rooms, attempting — often in fleeting conversations — to assess them and their risk of hurting themselves or others. Many of her patients are homeless, alcoholic or addicted to drugs.
Once a week, Edwards heads to an outpatient clinic run by MLK a few miles away. Some of her patients take a while to warm up to her. She spends a lot of time with them before even raising the idea of medication.
“Coming from a community where there is a lot of stigma about mental health … the acceptance of medication is another barrier,” she said.
Edwards said she does everything she can to help her patients — both outside and inside the hospital. But in the end, Martin Luther King, Jr. is an acute care hospital, not a psychiatric one. Edwards isn’t there round-the-clock, and the hospital can keep certain psychiatric patients for only up to three days. One of the hardest parts of her job, she said, is wondering what will happen to patients when they leave.
“You want to know the end result of what happened, if you did the right thing, if they’re safe.”