There is a proverb of the Bantu people of Cameroon, West Africa that says, “those who never visit think that mother is the only cook.” It implies that persons who do not leave the familiarity of their own culture have difficulty conceiving of any reality outside of their own. In many ways this is the story of theological education in the United States of America. A lot of seminaries have just not historically done a good job at telling students--future minsters—that their mothers are not the only cooks in town. There are many different theologies, experiences, and spiritual practices out there, and you don’t have to agree with them, but you should know about them and have seriously considered them.
But the problem is not just lack of exposure. It’s that some experiences and ways of thinking are implicitly privileged over others, leaving particularly those who have experienced marginalization throughout their lives without support in seminary—the very place where we should expect the rule of higher principles. That has been particularly true for African American men and women called to be leaders in the church and society.
For 60 years, the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta has been seeking to change all that. Chartered in 1958, ITC quickly emerged as one of the most creative responses to the lack of ecumenical and racial diversity in Christian higher education. In this venture, six previously independent denominational and historically African American seminaries (Gammon Theological Seminary; Morehouse school of Religion; Turner Theological Seminary; Philips School of Theology; Johnson C. Smith Seminary; and Mason Theological Seminary) partnered to form one consortium.
The racial segregation of the mid-20th century made it imperative that these institutions merge their resources and secure the future. As a result of the merger of these six relatively marginalized schools, they were able to form what has become the world’s premier resource for Black church scholarship and faith-based solutions to the spiritual and socio-economic challenges confronting the African American community and the public at large.
Racial Barriers to Religious Education
Since its inception ITC has had to grapple with the realty of inequality in theological education. We often think of that inequality in terms of admissions, but it’s also embedded in the courses offered (or not offered), student life, housing, everyday language, the books assigned (or not assigned), the preaching modeled, even the structure of classrooms and the tenure process of faculty.
Racial ethnic concerns such as liberation and justice may find their way into certain courses but rarely have they been established as essential to the curriculum. Similarly, the Black preaching tradition might appear at the end of a syllabus or might even get its own class, but it almost always has that qualifier: it’s almost always Black preaching, never just “preaching,” never the norm. This means that many trained clergy have limited knowledge of non-European theology and ministry practices. It also means that students of color often experience considerable isolation and don’t get the training they need to serve in their communities.
But it’s not just about what’s being taught; it’s also a question of who’s teaching it. Though racial ethnic student enrollment in US theological schools has increased in recent decades, the number of racial ethnic faculty at these schools remains disproportionately low. According to a 2001 Association of Theological Schools survey, 40 percent of the 242 theological institutions reporting had no racial ethnic faculty members. And today, minorities make up only 18 percent of the total faculty of seminaries and divinity schools.
Students need teachers who come from their context: professors with whom they can speak openly and who serve as examples of the kind of leader they too can become. Plus, it’s hard to teach social justice when you haven’t experienced the need for it. The whole community benefits when more voices are added to it. That applies not only to race but also to gender and many other social categories. Through 51 percent of all students in accredited theological schools are women, only 30 percent of the total faculty are women.
These disparities in theological education beckon us to identify, reinterpret, and dismantle barriers that inhibit diversity. If the mission is to prepare individuals for effective and liberating ministry in the world, theological schools miss the mark by providing educational experiences that do not reflect the diversity in our daily lives. And this is why I thank God for the ministry of the Interdenominational Theological Center over the past six decades.
ITC and the Legacy of Katie Geneva Cannon
Because of ITC’s commitment to developing a cutting edge curriculum that speaks to the realities of black communities and the plight of oppressed people through-out the globe, generations of black scholars have been produced. Today the ITC can boast of a long and celebrated legacy of producing black scholars in the field of theological studies who have made significant intellectual contributions to church and society. One such scholar is the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon who passed this week. Dr. Cannon graduated from the ITC in 1974 before going on to become the first African American woman ordained in the Presbyterian USA and one of the first African American women to receive a PhD from Union Theological Seminary in NY.
At the present colleagues, students, mentees, admirers, family members and friends of Dr. Cannon are mourning death while also celebrating her distinguished scholarly contributions. She will be remembered as one of the foremost womanist scholars in history and one of the most respected theological ethicist of her time.
As a fellow alumni of the ITC and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA I stand on the shoulders of Dr. Cannon and those like her who paved the way for so many of us now follow. She will be missed but thankfully she will live on through her work and witness that undoubtedly keep pushing toward freedom.
To God be the Glory for Katie Geneva Cannon and the Interdenominational Theological Center!
Peace & Power,
Billy Michael Honor