Women of Color Scholars Diversify Theological Education
A program begun in 1989 because so few women of color were on faculties at United Methodist seminaries now has 33 graduates and is gradually changing the face of theological education.
Eight Women of Color Scholars are now on staff at United Methodist seminaries, and another, Beauty Maenzanise, is academic dean of Africa University in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe. Nine are teaching at other seminaries or colleges, including the UM-related Emory University.
“The Women of Color scholarship program was a result of a vision of the whole church, looking ahead to a more diverse world in academia not only culturally and socially but also theologically,” said the Rev. HiRho Park, a Women of Color scholar herself who is director of Continuing Formation for Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Park completed her dissertation this year and graduated from Boston University School of Theology with a Ph.D. in practical theology. She credited Angella Current-Felder and Kathy Sage, two former GBHEM staffers, with getting the program started.
The program, which provides up to $10,000 a year in scholarship funds to United Methodist women of color who are Ph.D. or Th.D. students, has resulted in 33 women earning one of those degrees in the 22 years since the program began.
“Through the difficult turns and bumps of the Ph.D. process, the mentors were my advocates and encouragers to persist in the process."
Park said GBHEM’s emphasis now will be advocating for the UM seminaries and other schools of theology to take advantage of the intellectual and teaching abilities of the WOC scholars, as well as supporting their publications and employment. In addition to placing women of color in faculty positions at all United Methodist seminaries, increasing the number of women at the Ph.D. level in all seminaries is a priority. The program brings diversity to the United Methodist institutions, says the Rev. Cristian de la Rosa, a WOC scholar who will serve as director of Contextual Education and Community Partnerships at Boston University School of Theology. She has completed everything except her dissertation for a Ph.D. at Chicago Theological Seminary.
“Women of Color scholars also serve as role models for women of color in seminaries and the church,” said de la Rosa, who credits the mentoring component of the program with helping her identity as a pastor-scholar. In addition, she said the face-to-face gatherings with other women of color working on Ph.D. and Th.D. programs were a unique opportunity available nowhere else in the church or academia.
Dr. Pamela Lightsey, who was vice president for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, has moved to Boston University School of Theology, where she will be associate dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning and clinical assistant professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at Boston University School of Theology. The Rev. Cynthia Wilson is serving as the Interim Dean of Students at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary for the 2011-2012 academic year. Two other women graduated this year. Kirsten Oh, who graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph. D., will be an assistant professor of Practical Theology at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Hee Kyung Kim graduated Boston University with a Ph.D. in systematic theology.
Oh said that without the program, it would have taken her much longer to get her Ph.D. She believes it would have been more difficult and lonelier and adds that the mentoring component was as important as the financial help.
“Through the difficult turns and bumps of the Ph.D. process, the mentors were my advocates and encouragers to persist in the process. They also chastised when I needed some push and celebrated with me when I succeeded. Without their presence I might have floundered more,” Oh said.
Oh, who for three years was dean of Student Life at Claremont School of Theology, said life in academia can be isolating for a woman of color and that she leaned on her fellow WOC scholars during her time at Claremont.
Cynthia Wilson, who has completed all her course work and is working on her dissertation, said she was lucky to be a student at Garrett, where there were five women of color working on their Ph.D. degrees when she started. “But I think that is definitely the exception and my understanding is that academia can be a lonely place for my colleagues,” she said.
“Feminist and womanist voices are so few,” Wilson said. “The church is in need of vital energy and passion to connect specifically to this culture, which is no longer made up of predominately male leaders; it has to get serious about preparing women and serious about women preparing other women to lead.”
“If the church is serious about the task of meeting the needs of marginalized communities— which are mostly people of color—we need these voices in our seminaries,” she said.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.