I am starting my fourth year at Fuller Theological Seminary, pursuing my Masters of Divinity. There’s been some discussion about doctoral or PhD work (pray my strength), and in the midst of those conversations, I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of events Fuller has hosted. One was last week’s 2017 Missiology Lectures: Race, Theology, and Mission. I have not kept it a secret of my frustration with my experiences at Fuller thus far. Granted, I am not at the Pasadena campus (I take classes both online and at a satellite campus), however, my hope was to receive a theological education that wasn’t white-centered—a hope I am still longing to have fulfilled. This conference alleviated some fears personally but strengthened others significantly.
The conference brought in the heavy hitters. When Dr. Daniel White Hodge is doing chapel, you already know we are starting at “Def Con Black.” His prophetic message on “Empire” from Daniel 3 was referenced by almost every lecture that followed. He highlighted the impacts of marginalized life while surrounded by systems of oppression and idolatry that are insidious and virtually undetectable, unless that ethos is rejected—much like the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My summation would not do it justice. It was prophetic. (Once Fuller makes the link available, I will add it here.)
The epic-ness continued that night with the brilliant minds of Drs. David Leong, Duane T. Loynes, Daniel Ramirez, Gabe Veas, and Grace Dyrness. Each spoke from a different cultural context but highlighted a universal issue—the unacknowledged systemic oppression of white supremacy in America and American evangelicalism. While every voice was prophetic, the two the brought out my Baptist—the need to stand, clap, and talk back—were Duane T. Loynes and Gabe Veas. Dr. Loynes, who lives in Memphis, gave an opening illustration I cannot move past. He spoke of how recently some people in Memphis suggested to change the colors of the Confederate Flag—a symbol of white supremacy and oppression of Black people—to red, black, and green—colors associated with Black liberation. The notion was that by changing the colors, the meaning of the flag would change.
Not only did we laugh while he was saying it, Dr. Loynes highlight how the idea was viscerally rejected as the Confederate Flag and Black Liberation are at polar ends of the spectrum of justice and equality and will never be able to have a common purpose. Yet, Dr. Loynes went on to state that though Memphis recognized Black liberation and Confederate Flag would never be together, the white evangelical church seems to not cringe when the Ku Klux Klan burns a Christian cross as their symbol. He questioned why, for all of the rich theology and history, the one place white churches do not have a deeply theological and viscerally allergic response, is the utility of the Christian cross as a symbol for white supremacy in America.
Yeah. They went there…the first night. Again, all the messages were lit. Then Gabe Veas got up. Like all the speakers before him, he spoke from his head and his heart—but something was different about Dr. Veas. He was educated at Fuller. He was transformed at Fuller. He was wounded by Fuller. Not as a prodigal son, but as a prophet returning to family, he like Daniel White Hodge asked why more progress had not been made in the retention, recruitment, support, and advancement of students and faculty of color at the institution.
What was clear was by Fuller’s planning or the invitation of the planning team, this was going to be a different set of conversations. They would be deeply theological, intellectual, practical, and not centered on the white community. If that notion wasn’t clear, then the title of Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings’ paper, “Can ‘White’ People Be Saved: Reflections on the Relationship of Missions and Whiteness” clarified all doubts. Pastor of pastors Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier brought the Spirit of the Living God in the room with her prayers, words, and encouragement to hope again in the midst of the insurmountable odds of injustice in our society today. She looked at us, she spoke from the Scriptures in her hearts, and she told us in the midst of overwhelming injustice and trauma “to hope again.” She told us the faith that had failed us was not the true faith we saw in Scripture and invited us to return to our spiritual roots. Drs. Jonathan Tran and Daniel Lee sent a clear signal: Asia is a continent, filled with a diaspora of peoples that must be seen, heard, and engaged all while challenging narratives of privilege and the myth of “model minority.” Dr. Tran went on to ask the question our Asian brothers and sisters have been asking for years: a space/place/voice at the multi-ethnic table that seems to only recognize the Black/White binary. From India and Nigeria, respectively, Drs. Daniel Jeyarai and Akintunde Akinade expanded issues of theology and ethnicity beyond the West, reminding us of the global call of the gospel. Andrea Smith just destroyed every system and structure in her opening words. Andrew Draper came out of left field—and has been schooled in the art of Black preaching! That is a woke white man! And a shout out to Angel Santiago-Vendrell, who not only was from Puerto Rico but walked through the colonial history of the land and how America’s current treatment of U.S. territory demonstrates racism crosses waters to oppress. Again, I don’t have words. Just watch the videos!
As powerful as the speakers’ words were, there were three things I took away from it. First, something a dear friend, Erna Stubblefield-Hackett said two years ago at CCDA. More than what these speakers presented, it was what they embodied. They all live in a world where white supremacy has not shaped their theology. They have escaped The Matrix, this cultural zoo where even our responses to systemic injustice are expected and in many ways controlled. No, these speakers didn’t paint a picture of a different world—where global voices of various ethnicities were equal and they invited us to join them. That old adage rang true: You can put someone in prison, but you don’t have to put the prison in them. White supremacy has imprisoned American evangelicalism, but it has not imprisoned these women and men.
Second, several of the speakers, especially Dr. Frazier, highlighted the reality that these conversations had happened before and didn’t need to happen again at the same level, a sentiment especially true for people of color. We are often asked to enter into spaces to discuss ethnicity that either are learning opportunities for white people or the conversation stays parked in awareness and never moves towards actionable steps. Howard Thurman wrote years ago that the discipline of commitment manifests itself in the following ways: surrender (a confession of “yes” to God, conversion (a recognition of sin), and a radical reorientation (old ways and patterns are replaced with new ones).
And that’s where the edge of the cliff is. More than Fuller Theological Seminary, we have yet to see a biblical surrender, conversion, and radical reorientation by the evangelical world. We have stood as a church at the intersections of Race, Theology, and Mission for centuries. The margins are traveling down the roads of Theology and Mission, the dominant culture somehow seems parked at Race Blvd. This is evidenced by the continual emphasis to have a conference or seminar on diversity while maintaining institutions, systems, and structures operated by white staff/assimilated people of color and funded by white dollars. The concept of diversity as a welcomed addition to our theology, and not the global reality of the world in which we live, emphasizes the broad evangelical world has yet to shift its thinking from a white world to a global one.
Institutions. We felt it. Don’t mishear me, Fuller is to be commended for having this type of conference, but conferences do not equate to commitments. We have all seen great conferences and great messages, only to wake the next morning and discover the places we love have doubled down on white centered evangelicalism—white supremacy behind the cross. The ball is in the court of Fuller Seminary and the other evangelical institutions and pastors who were present. As my grandmother used to say, “I am from Show Me, Texas. Don’t tell us what you are going to do—demonstrate it.” Time will tell if next year the white evangelical world will have that radical reorientation or if it was just another intellectual conference. Will they/will we still bring new people into old systems designed to maintain marginalization or will we pour new wine into new wineskins? I guess we will find out in 2018.
People of Color. For communities of color, we felt the significance of the moment. At points throughout the week, we felt the deep convictions of these speakers’ words, we saw the freedom they embodied in their minds and hearts, we wept tears of lament as we have not yet healed from Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or the election of 45. It was unintentional, but a group of us gathered every evening to debrief the conference and end our cultural displacement. The last night, however, we felt something different. We knew Monday was coming. We laughed harder, hugged stronger, lingered longer.
Once you’ve been to the Mountaintop, you know the valley awaits you. We knew there will be another klan rally. There will be another moment where American evangelicalism reflects more whiteness than Christness. As one Black pastor remarked, “If you are [a person of color in America], joy has to endure for a night because weeping will come in the morning.”
I pray one day, not the words of this pastor, but the words of Scripture are true, that joy truly does come in the morning.
Sean M. Watkins