Video Courtesy of Jude 3 Project
Updated from 2017
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?
For anyone who has read Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander’s deeply disturbing book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the conviction yesterday of a Brooklyn detective for planting drugs on Yvelisse DeLeon and her boyfriend, Juan Figueroa, should be a welcome one.
“Before announcing the verdict, Justice [Gustin L.] Reichbach scolded the department for what he described as a widespread culture of corruption endemic in its drug units,” The New York Times reported.
“I thought I was not naïve,” Reichbach reportedly said. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”
I’ve been reading Alexander’s book at bedtime, and it’s not a comforting read. As previously reported in our interview with the author, she contends that mass incarceration of people of color like DeLeon and Figueroa represents a new “racial caste system,” and nothing short of a social revolution can dismantle it.
I heard Alexander speak at the Princeton University “Imprisonment of a Race” conference earlier this year and something she said there has been nagging at me since I picked up her book again. She said the civil rights era strategy of shining a light on model black citizens and distancing ourselves from those with criminal records was a tragic mistake and is no longer viable.
“People of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites. The color blind veneer of the system has made us blind to how racial bias permeates the system. We have to deal with the shame and stigma that keeps people silent,” said Alexander. “We’ve got to make safe places in churches, schools, etc.”
WILD YOUTH: Christine A. Scheller, third from left, in 1979 at age 15.
When I was a drug-using teenager, I was arrested two or three times for nonviolent crimes that were committed when I was under the influence. I spent a couple hours in a jail cell after one arrest and a life-transforming month in a juvenile shelter after a parental conflict over my incorrigibility. Both experiences convinced me that I never wanted to be locked up again.
I’m fortunate that I surrendered my life to Jesus when I was 17, because if it had been another year or two, and I had gotten into the same kind of trouble, I, like other members of my family, would have been saddled with an arrest record that could have limited my choices for far longer than justice would demand.
One of these loved ones spent eight months in prison, and became a Christian there, after police coerced his “friend” into falsely testifying against him. He went straight to Bible College when he was released and has been, for 25 years, a Bible teacher, elder, and pastor, but still can’t work in certain industries because he has a felony conviction on his record.
Another was stopped by California police, ostensibly because of a broken tail light on the car someone else was driving, and was arrested for possession of a hash pipe. No drugs, just a pipe. Bail was set at $20,000. This young man spent two days in jail and never used drugs again, but still isn’t sure if the felony conviction was dropped or not after he completed a diversion program and probation.
Alexander said, “Felon is the new n-word” and we should stop labeling people with it. She also disavowed “repeat offender” and “career criminal,” saying these terms mask the struggle of cycling in and out of an unjust system.
The members of my family with arrest records have managed to learn from and overcome our histories, in part because of the support of our middle class families and in part because we are white.
In a CNN column today about the decline of black political conservatism, Baptist preacher and former Atlanta Journal editorial board member Frederick Johnson said that he used to tell his son that if a racist cop pulled him over because he was black, that was the cop’s fault; but if the cop found drugs in the car, that was his son’s fault.
“Unlike some conservatives, I don’t wish to let either party off the hook,” said Johnson. Amen to that.
According to Alexander, if we were to return to the days before the war on drugs, we would have to release four-out-of-five prisoners who are currently incarcerated. That’s unlikely to happen, she said, because one million people are employed by prisons.
“This system is so deeply rooted now that it’s not going down without a major fight,” Alexander said.
She advocated movement building that includes the work of artists, students, and law enforcement personnel, and said there needs to be consciousness raising within the black community and an eradication of class divisions that keep middle class blacks from advocating for poor ones.
“Activists take the risks, while advocates are professional tinkerers with the system,” she said. “What’s necessary is for those who are advocates to support those who are activists and to envision themselves as activists.”
I’ve taken a small risk here by announcing that there are drug arrests in my personal and family history. I don’t enjoy doing it, but as a Christian I’m so deeply, personally unsettled by the injustice of “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness” that I feel compelled to confront disabling shame by admitting that I too have been a criminal.