It Takes a Village

By: Matthew Wesley Williams
February 02, 2016

The village includes black and brown students who support each other through the rigors of doctoral programs and often become lifelong friends, wise way-making elders who advocate and negotiate for the rising scholars who follow in their footsteps, and scholar-mentors who build the strategic capacity of black and brown students and scholars to navigate the tricky terrain of graduate school and academic life.


Yesterday FTE announced the appointment of Dr. Patrick Reyes to the position, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Doctoral Initiatives. He carries forward this sacred work, and its legacy within theological education to a new moment both rife with possibilities and fraught with increasingly complex challenges. When I think about the holy responsibility Patrick now undertakes, I am reminded of a gathering of FTE Alumni just prior to the 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature.

Deep gratitude slowly saturated the room as scholars shared their stories. We were supposed to be briefly introducing ourselves. The prompt to the gathered alumni of FTE’s doctoral fellowships was, “say a brief word about your connection to FTE.” Connection was probably the word that set things off. Introductions quickly turned to testimonies. Each story began with a variation on a theme,

“If it had not been for FTE.”

I would not have finished…

I felt like giving up…

I needed mentors who cared about my work and my well-being…

That call came just when I needed it…

I thought my career might be over…

I wouldn’t be where I am now…

“If it had not been for FTE.”

In these testimonies “FTE” did not refer merely to an organization, but to a scholarly village that does sacred work. The village includes black and brown students who support each other through the rigors of doctoral programs and often become lifelong friends, wise way-making elders who advocate and negotiate for the rising scholars who follow in their footsteps, and scholar-mentors who build the strategic capacity of black and brown students and scholars to navigate the tricky terrain of graduate school and academic life. At its best, this village is not a gated enclave, but a connected cause-driven community whose witness impacts the field for the benefit of students and scholars of color who may never be officially affiliated with “FTE.” As one student put it, “I’m writing for my life and the lives of others.”

When Charles Shelby Rooks started a doctoral fellowship in 1960 for black PhD students, people of color comprised roughly 3% of faculty in theological schools. Over 50 years later that number has crept up to 17%. Meanwhile students of color represent nearly 40% of the total student population in theological education. In a growing number of schools that number has permanently tipped the 50% mark. Some institutions are beginning to hold sustained conversations about what it means to respond faithfully to the shifting demographics and narratives in their classrooms and campus communities. Others are trying to figure out how to manage the disruptive insurgency of black and brown persons, traditions, and perspectives into historically white spaces. Still others keep their institutional heads in the sand, in denial of the implications of a rising tide of color that is transforming the landscape of the church and theological academy.

For the FTE village the historical questions of numerical diversity remain. What must we do to expand opportunity and eliminate the diversity deficit in theological education? These questions are still necessary, but if the church and theological education are to be at all relevant to the 21st century, they are woefully insufficient. In a moment when the lingering legacies of Jim and Jane Crow, mass incarceration, anti-immigrant aggression, and economic inequity dominate the social and theological landscape, questions of mere representation do not plumb the depths of social misery that threaten black and brown lives.

This moment calls for us to ask bigger questions that recognize the permanent and fundamental nature of the shifts taking place in our field. What will it take for our institutions and our field to create conditions where students and scholars of color thrive? This is the question that deserves our attention and urgent action. This is the guiding question that will shape the future of the sacred work that Patrick, with the village, will continue to steward.

Tags: Inside FTE, Shaping the Future


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