By: Patrick B. Reyes
February 03, 2016
... the sacred work of supporting courageous faithful theological educators and religious scholars is a life and death matter for me ...
One gray afternoon surrounded by rows of lettuce fields, I ventured onto one of the main streets in my neighborhood in Salinas, California. A car pulled up next to me on the curb. Slowly the rear passenger window rolled down. A young man showed his face. He pointed, what I would later call “God’s judgment,” a .45 in my direction and yelled “WHAT DO YOU CLAIM?” He wanted to know what gang I belonged to. The answer to that question was a matter of life and death. By the grace of God, another car came up from behind and the young man drove off.
A more regular occurrence than I care to remember, my small Latino/a community was plagued by violence. Friends and family members participated and suffered from it, and only a few courageous people addressed the conditions of our small community. Those that made the biggest impact on my life were theological educators. They lived in our neighborhood, prayed with us and served the community by teaching that answering “what do you claim?” was both deeply theological, and a matter of life and death.
In Revolution in Zion: Reshaping African American Ministry, 1960-1974, Rev. Dr. Charles Shelby Rooks documents the foundation of the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), now the Forum for Theological Exploration, naming the giants on whose shoulders we stand. He notes that luminaries such as Nathan M. Pusey and Benjamin E. Mays saw the connection (or disconnection) between the racial injustice and civil unrest occurring at the time, and the need for the academy to prepare theological educators to address those conditions. To demonstrate this disconnect, Dr. Rooks recalls an observation made by Henry Pitney Van Dusen about the dissertations in the 1968-69 academic year: “while the United States was turning upside down at that moment, not even one of the projected theses was concerned with the life and death issues of the time.”1
Dr. Rooks and FTE set out to transform, or to use his own language, revolutionize doctoral studies to produce African American scholars who would develop curriculum, produce knowledge, and embody epistemologies that address the conditions in the academy, in the church, and in society. It is from my own experience that I read into this history that these courageous leaders were also being asked, “what do you - Dr. Rooks, FTE, theological educators - claim?” Beginning with the Rockefeller Doctoral Program in 1959, FTE embodied a claim and performed the sacred work of identifying theological leaders who were responsive to the violence and conditions of the world. This is sacred work.
Fast forward to Dr. Sharon Watson Fluker and Matthew Wesley Williams’ leadership in FTE’s doctoral fellowships for student of color. One quickly sees that this sacred work continued. Identifying, supporting, retaining, and placing the next generation of scholars of color—the hallmark legacy of Dr. Fluker and Matthew which includes nearly 400 scholars—continues. It is the sacred work of the revolution that Dr. Rooks envisioned.
FTE’s distinguished alumni network is addressing the violence experienced by communities of color, and is adapting to the changing landscape of theological education. Stephen Ray recently staked his claim that “the hope for the future of theological education [is] in brown hands.” It is not in brown hands because there are more people of color in classrooms, though this is true in a lot of our institutions. It is in brown hands because there is an understanding that the answer to the question, “what do you claim?” is one that honors the sacred work of our elders, like Dr. Rooks, who believed that preparing theological educators is at its core a life and death matter. “What do you claim” is answered by carrying forward that revolutionary spirit to the next generation of scholars. They will not only shape theological education and the academy, but they will also be participating in the sacred work of our time.
If someone were to demand an answer to the question, “what do you (Patrick) claim?” I claim without hesitation that the sacred work of supporting courageous faithful theological educators and religious scholars is a life and death matter for me, for our distinguished alumni network, and for our departed elders who support our work in spirit. The stakes are no less high today than at its founding, and I intend to enter into this sacred work with the courage and support of all those who have worked for, with and through this organization before me. The sacred work continues…
1. Charles Shelby Rooks, Revolution in Zion: Reshaping African American Ministry, 1960-1974 (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1990), 118.