Razing Religion's Last Barriers: Blacks Assume Leadership at Nation's Top, Largely White Theological Seminaries

By Jones, Lisa C. | Ebony, March 1994 | Go to article overview
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Razing Religion's Last Barriers: Blacks Assume Leadership at Nation's Top, Largely White Theological Seminaries


Jones, Lisa C., Ebony


Long after die doors of factories, offices and schools swung open to qualified Blacks, the walls of yet another alite, all-White club have crumbled. It's been more than a century in the making, but Black religious scholars have finally gained entrance into one of the most sacred - and most segregated - institutions of them all: the executive chambers of predominantly White theological seminaries.

Within the past decade, five, Black men have made history with appointments as presidents at some of the most prestigious theological seminaries or graduate-level Bible schools in New England and the Midwest. Changing the color, and perhaps the direction, of the upper room of Christian tutelage, they are a talented cross section scholars, pastors and administrators.

The first to gain admission in the current group was the Rev. Dr. Kenneth B. Smith Sr., who in 1984 was elected president of the Chicago Theological Seminary. (Dr. Smith replaced the school's - and the nation's - first Black president of a predominantly White seminary, Dr. Charles Shelby Rooks.) In 1990, Dr. James H. Evans Jr. became president of Colgate Rochester (N.Y.) Divinity School. A year later, Dr. David T. Shannon took the helm at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass. In 1992, Dr. M. William Howard Jr. was appointed to lead New York City's New York Theological Seminary. And last year, the Rev. Daryl Ward began his presidential tenure at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio

In addition to the unusual presence of Black executives at White religious institutions of higher education, Blacks continue to lead the country's six predominantly Black theological centers, including Howard University School of Divinity, headed by Dr. Charles G. Newsome, and the Interdominational Theological Center in Atlanta, directed by Dr. James H. Costen. Other schools include Virginia Union University School of Theology, Payne Theological Seminary, Shaw Divinity School and Hood Theological Seminary

Although Blacks have made extraordinary steps in climbing the corporate ladder, it has taken many years more to reach the top rung in the religious world. But what does the sudden rash of Black executives at White institutions imply, and why has this change taken so long?

One reason, experts say, is that religion has always been a private, personal and, in many cases, segregated affair for many Americans. But modern-day religiosity and cultural enlightenment have brought about change. Now religious experts say the White Church hopes these sage Black clergymen will be the saviors of a somewhat ailing theological educational system, which has been hampered by declining enrollment, dwindling finances and dated curricula.

"Many of these schools look to African-American leadership as a salvation point," says Dr. James H. Costen, president of the Interdominational Theological Center, a consortium of six Black seminaries in Atlanta. In many instances, he says, White religious administrators recognize that Black scholars have "the only game in town" when it comes to sensitivity toward the urban environment and when it comes to developing practical approaches to the ministry and survival strategies in tough economic times. "I don't think that [these appointments are] gifts," Dr. Costen contends. "They are recognition of leadership potential and salvation.

Dr. Costen is not alone in his assessment. Dr. Charles G. Newsome, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity, says the issues pressing the church at-large have "naturally" led White schools and Black religious thought to converge. "The presence of Blacks in traditionally White theological seminaries is a sign of transition, an indication of the change that theological education is going through in the terms of reshaping its mission, particularly in relation to its pronouncements and confessions of faith," Dr. Newsome says.

These new appointees, he and others believe, are poised for the challenge.

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