Dwight A. Moody
Last Friday night Wil Gafney took the podium here on St. Simons Island. For almost an hour she held forth; and did it again Saturday morning and again Sunday morning. She was articulate, humorous, and on point, speaking to an auditorium full of old white people (like me).
Gafney is a scholar of Hebrew scripture with degrees from Earlham, Howard, and Duke (PhD). She is a woman with a head full of graying hair. She is black, and therein lies my story.
My education began in 1956 in Lexington, Kentucky, at the old Kenwick Elementary School. I ran away from school three times on that first day, but eventually came to love learning. We moved to Murray, Kentucky, where I attended public schools for six years, then to St. Louis where, in 1968, I graduated from Hazelwood High School.
Then on to Georgetown College, Jerusalem University College, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Notre Dame University. I finished it all in 1982 with the degree doctor of philosophy in systematic theology from the seminary. And through it all—24 years of schooling—I had not one black teacher.
Let me write that again.
Through it all—24 years of schooling—I had not one black teacher.
I thought nothing of it then. I didn’t know any better. But now I know: it is a tragic confession to make—tragic because it prevented me from getting the education I wanted and needed.
Twenty-four years of white supremacy. What could that produce but yet another uneducated man, another unprepared preacher, another citizen unaware of what he needed to know and understand.
It is a tragedy, and thousands of students today graduate with very similar stories to tell. Hazelwood is now largely black, I am told; it sits right next to Ferguson, and we all remember what happened there back in 2014. The faculty of both Georgetown College and Southern Baptist Seminary remain almost totally white. I don’t know about Notre Dame.
Some kinds of diversity I have experience with, particularly that associated with international travel. I have been to Mexico and Chile, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt, England, Ireland, and Scotland, and Italy. While teaching at Georgetown College a few years ago, I more than once urged the president to require matriculating students to have a passport and graduating students to have a visa stamped in it. Cross cultural travel is the single most important thing a student can do.
But more than that, somewhere along the way every white student needs black teachers (just as black students need white teachers). I needed it but didn’t get it. In fact, I did not get what I needed until I launched the Academy of Preachers in 2008. It was then I began to visit the historically black colleges and universities: Fisk and American Baptist in Nashville, ITC, Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta, Howard in Washington DC, Philander Smith in Little Rock, Dillard in New Orleans, Simmons in Louisville, Huston-Tillotson in Austin, and Oakwood in Huntsville.
As a result I was surrounded by young men and women who helped make up for my learning deficiencies: young preachers like Winterbourne Jones and Brandon Perkins, Willie Francois and Reginald Sharp, Joseph and Bianca Howard, Elizabeth Pollard, Catherine Cummings, and Racquel Gill, Ernest Brooks and Milton Keys (to name just a few of the 777 Young Preachers who attended our National Festivals of Young Preachers).
Then came their teachers, such as Lawrence Carter of Morehouse, Valerie Bridgeman now of Methodist School of Theology of Ohio, Safiyah Fosua, now of Indiana Wesleyan University in Indiana, and Frank Thomas, now of Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana. And the preachers, such as Brad Braxton, Robert Smith, Beecher Hicks, Michael Curry, and Teresa Fry Brown.
And most of all, Everett McCorvey (who introduced me to both opera and black spirituals) and Kevin Cosby (who introduced me to 1619, reparations, and The Half Has Never Been Told). Now comes Wil Gafney and her book, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne.
From her platform, Gafney talked to us about black womanist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. I had studied that book in college, overseas, and in seminary; but I was ignorant of what she was sayings. Except when she reminded us that Abraham was 75 years old when he left his father’s house.
“Seventy-five is not too late to leave your father’s house,” she said to great effect. It struck me, a man soon to celebrate his 70th birthday; and I bowed my head and confessed in silence, “For all that I love and embrace about my father and his tribe, there is still much that I need to leave behind.”
As a life-long learner, I can only say: Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Wil!
(Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2020)