The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be…You must have missed the come up, I must be all I can be. Call me Mr. Mufasa, I had to master stampedes– Chance the Rapper
Until what he had said came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him –Psalms 105:19
This week I found myself standing before the eight students who would participate in the Doctor of Ministry course at Northeastern Seminary. Someone more humble than I am might have been nervous. I wasn’t. I was excited, probably too much so. Excitement causes me to speak much too quickly; the ideas come tumbling forth rapidly. Grant me that flaw. I have an excuse: Jesus excites me.
This particular class gave me cause to be emotional. I experienced something that had not occurred since I graduated from high school some eighteen years ago. I was in a classroom where the majority of students were African-American. Although Northeastern is quite diverse, this was out of the ordinary. We have around 150 students, 50 of whom are black. This class had eight students–six African-Americans and two Caucasians. And it was taught by a black man (me). I couldn’t help but notice that my entire educational experience had been an inversion of the present reality. In my studies, having another black student in class was the exception rather than the rule. Through my 12 plus years of higher education, I can recall having one black professor (shout out to Dr. Roberson at Sewanee).
But this extends beyond the classroom. Pursuing a doctorate in biblical studies means that just about every conference you attend, every gathering of professionals, every trip to the pub for drinks, every casual conversation, and just about every church experience will be largely white. Why does this matter? Why focus race instead of being excited about teaching all of God’s church?
For the past 18 years, I have done I lot of teaching, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. But the section of the church with whom I share similar experiences, stories, and culture had been largely absent from that experience. My concern is not about my own comfort; it is about access. When I went to Seminary, I learned so much about God’s word that I never knew. Then I realized that most of my classmates had no interest in returning to communities like the one I grew up in to teach people like my friends and family. More than that, I realized that there were very few of us black folk at the Seminary. This meant that even if every one us returned to urban communities we would be a minor blip on the radar.
Of course, I recognize that one does not have to go to seminary to be faithful to God’s calling, but it doesn’t hurt. Furthermore, it was a matter of equality. Did God only want suburban churches to access to this material? Is Greek and Hebrew only for the rich?
I came to the conclusion that biblical scholarship was meant for the whole church and that I could contribute to spreading that scholarship to the church that by going through the long Ph.D. process with the aim of eventually teaching in a diverse seminary. Keep in mind that at the time I was attending a seminary whose black population was somewhere south of five percent. I had never seen a diverse seminary. I had not even seen a diverse classroom this millennium. But I felt that this passion for the whole church was from God, so I pursued it.
So when I stood before my beautifully diverse first class of students, how could I feel anything but joy at God’s faithfulness? There is a scriptural image that I love. It speaks about God’s restorative work on behalf of his people. It said that God would restore the years that locusts had consumed. By this, the prophet meant that everything that had been taken away from Israel because of their sins would be restored in God’s good time. The Christian believes that God’s restorative project began with the arrival of the Messiah Jesus. He is God’s faithfulness in the flesh. I am not Israel in exile, but the image seems apt. The years during which I was far from my people, when I was forced to read and study while feeling this deep passion to tell them and everyone else that we are sons and daughters of the King who invites us into kingdom, have been redeemed in God’s good time. The suffering had a purpose. It was refining; it was preparation. Now it is time to go to work.