Reflections on the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (Part I)

BTLI

 

God has a funny way of bringing opportunities back to you.

After much debate and discernment, I chose to go to seminary instead of law school when I graduated from college. When that difficult decision was finally made, I then had the laborious task of discerning where I would pursue my theological education. A friend of mine encouraged me to apply to Union Theological Seminary in New York, where James Cone, the progenitor of academic black liberation theology, is a distinguished professor. I applied and got accepted. But upon visiting the seminary in the winter of 2005, I immediately knew that this was a place too cold for me. It wasn’t just cold in terms of New York’s natural climate; it was cold in the seminary’s social climate as well. Here was the towering institution for liberal theological inquiry and social justice ministry, but everything about it seemed to betray its legacy. I would later find out that Union was that odd conundrum of American liberalism: it was theologically committed to the great ideals of liberty and justice but was nevertheless ensconced in institutional white supremacy and Northern elitism. The cold I felt was God’s way of saying that I—a black boy from Mississippi shaped by black evangelicalism and pentecostalism—was not fully welcome in this place of radical inclusion. 

Once I came to terms with this, I searched for other schools throughout this nation, looking into a dozen seminaries before settling on three to which I applied: Princeton, Duke, and Perkins at Southern Methodist University. I wanted to attend a divinity school or seminary that was related to a larger university, a place where I could interact across disciplines, and befriend folks from different fields of study. I also wanted a racially and theologically diverse faculty and a place that didn’t force me to subscribe to its worldview—whether that was liberal, moderate, or conservative. My initial prayer to God was that He would allow me to gain admission and financial scholarship to one of the schools and that would be a sign to me that I was ordained to attend that school. 

God has a sense of humor. I got into Princeton, Duke, and Perkins, all with scholarships! Now, the difficult part. I couldn’t attend all three, at least not at once. Each had its unique strengths and I was variably attracted to them all. But again I sought the Lord, went on a liquid fast for a week, and asked God to show me definitively where I was to go. When I intuited that Duke was my destination, I embraced it and moved on. But part of me continued to wonder what my theological education and experience would have been like if I went to Princeton. To be sure, if I had to do it again I would return to Duke. Nevertheless there’s a part of me that thought about the “what could’ve been” regarding Princeton. That question, though briefly, was answered for me when I attended the inaugural Black Theology and Leadership Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary in July. 

God has a funny way of bringing opportunities back to you.

I found out about the Inaugural Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) via Twitter, signaling the impact of social media on the present outreach of colleges and universities. After visiting the website I discovered that the Institute was an opportunity of a lifetime. The prestigious and competitive “weeklong intensive continuing education event” was accepting only fifty participants from around the nation and world. Fifty. Thousands would apply. Only fifty would be accepted. 

I determined that I wanted to be one of those fifty. So I took a leap of faith. I had no idea if I would get into the institute, but how would I know if I didn’t try? So I sat in front of my office computer and typed up an application essay that detailed my call to the pastoral vocation and my then present context of ministry, leading the oldest historically black congregation in Mississippi’s capital city. It may have been the latter that won me admission into the program, and again to Princeton Seminary. When I received my acceptance letter via email, I was overjoyed and humbled by the amazing grace of God. I never take for granted such blessings. As someone nurtured in a small Mississippi railroad town deemed to be incapable of producing giants, I never, ever take these blessings for granted. God has endowed me with an inquisitive mind, an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and an openness to new ideas and adventures, but all of that has been the giftedness that has presented me before great people and opportunities. Such was Princeton and the BTLI. Only God could have chosen me out of thousands of applicants. I would discover upon arrival that I was the only one out of fifty from Mississippi. 

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