By Jessica Love
Growing up in Dorchester, South Carolina, a young Rev. Dr. Rosetta Ross watched the civil rights movement unfold before her eyes.
I was in elementary and high school during that time,” Ross recalled, “I can remember how significant the implications of the Civil Rights Movement were… for Black people’s possibilities in the country.”
Among the first to integrate schools in her hometown, Ross was inspired at an early age to use education as a tool to make a moral and ethical difference.
“I understood how important it was, and so I went [participating in school integration] with a kind of consciousness that I was participating in this thing that I know is a big deal,” she said.
Ross became concerned about understanding moral and ethical issues related to the civil rights movement and felt God was calling her to do more.
“I was concerned with the whole issue of the ethics- egalitarianism, issues of race, social equality, issues of class and so on,” Ross explained. “So, I knew that was part of my going to seminary. I felt that was part of my call to ministry.”
Ross went on to study ethics and obtained her Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, but still felt unfilled in her call.
“I felt that my call was really to go further and complete doctoral study…but I knew I needed support in order to complete a doctoral degree,” she said.
Ross stepped out on faith and enrolled in the Religious Ethics doctoral program at Emory University and searched for funding.
“It’s as if the ancestors and the universe said, ‘here is support,’” Ross recounted because her last year of seminary in 1989 was the same year The Angella P. Current-Felder Women of Color (WOC) Scholars program began.
“I think in many ways that it was the work of God in my life because I was not in any position to afford graduate studies…So, it was the affirmation to go on. It was very clear,” she said.
First Women of Color Scholar Cohort
Ross received her Ph.D. in religious ethics in 1995 and became an ordained elder in the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
She is now a distinguished professor of religion at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She has worked at the college for 17 years.
Ross was one of the first scholars to explore religion and Black women’s activism during the civil rights movement in the United States. Her research examines the role of religion in women’s social involvement, Christian ethics, and Africana women and religion.
She has published several works. She is the author of “Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights.” She is also the co-author of “The Status of Racial and Ethnic Clergywomen in the United Methodist Church” and “Unraveling and Reweaving Sacred Canon in Africana Womanhood.”
Looking back, she reflects on how foundational the WOC program and network was for her and her success in academia.
“The intentionality of addressing what women of color needed made all of the difference for me,” said Ross.
Ross said her experience as a WOC scholar was so important because there were not many women of color in the academy. Initially, Ross said the United Methodist Church had to reach outside the denomination to find models.
“That November of my first semester, we attended the American Academy of Religion meeting,” Ross recounted. “We had a mentoring session with Katie Cannon who was a Presbyterian clergywoman who had her Ph.D. in ethics. I had heard about her in my first semester. It was phenomenal to meet her in person… Katie Cannon being there in the flesh…there was a kind of demystifying of the whole thing that occurred in the process.”
Meeting the first African American woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church affirmed Ross in more ways than one. Yet, it was the mentors’ genuine investment in her life that made the difference.
“During our dinner mentoring session, we had dinner with Renita Weems, an AME [African Methodist Episcopal] clergywoman,” she said. “We talked with Renita Weems about the process: what it was like being a woman of color in the academy, what our interests were, what kinds of fears we had… It was just so focused on our success.”
That intentionality inspired Ross to become the Chair of the WOC mentoring program.
WOC Mentoring Chair
When Ross became the chair of the mentoring program in 2008, she said her mission was to help the program evolve to attend more fully to the success of the scholars.
Under Ross’s leadership she helped to formalize key aspects of the mentoring program. Ross specifically helped to centralize the voices of scholars in response to each other during the sharing portion of the mentoring session. Another thing Ross helped to refine was the professional development element of the mentoring session.
“The thing that I structured more was the expectations that persons would present some element of their professional development…either a paper that you had been working one, one of your exams, proposal for your dissertation,” she explained. “Then, the scholars and mentors would respond to it.”
Each year, the Women of Color Scholars program’s mentoring session takes place at the American Academy of Religion Academic (AAR) conference. Ross’s leadership helped structure the mentoring program so that scholars could have a formalized experience, similar to an academic conference.
Ross’s work to expand the representation of minorities in theological education extends beyond the WOC program. Her network with the Forum of Theological Education and the American Academy of Religion has aided more than 70 theologian scholars.
She served as co-chair of the women and religion unit and served on the academic relations committee of the American Academy of Religion. Ross also served on the doctoral studies evaluation committee for the Forum of Theological Education.
“Being in touch with these kinds of elements and structures of the AAR and study of religion puts one in touch with some of the trends… some of the realities that are going on,” Ross said. “That’s what a good mentor does, right? They give information to help persons to navigate the fields they are going into.”
In the spring of 2020, Ross retired her role as mentor chair for the WOC scholars’ program. Though she has relinquished her duties with the program, she is grateful for the opportunity to reach back and assist others through the program.
“The most rewarding part was the opportunity to give back and to participate in the institution that nurtured me…It was very rewarding to be attentive to them and to try and help in the advancement of their success,” she said.
WOC, Still Relevant
After 31 years, Ross said the Women of Color Scholars program is even more important today because women of color scholars still need modeling, support and community as they are moving through the academy.
“It was especially important when we started, because there were so few women of color teaching in these doctoral programs and faculties at any level,” Ross recalled. “So, it was necessary to have some modeling and encouragement… That element continues to be important because doctoral programs by and large are predominately peopled by white men and women.”
More importantly, Ross said the WOC program is vital because it helps to reflect the global, religious community.
“If we are going to be a just society, we have to recognize that people come in all kinds of shades and colors, identities and realities…and we cannot do that credibly by relying on one point of view to interpret what Christianity or religion is- what it means, and to write about it, and to structure it,” she said. “So, how can we pretend that there is not a greater need for persons of color?”
Thank you, Rev. Dr. Ross
This month, during GBHEM’s annual fall board of directors’ meeting, $7,500 was raised for the WOC program in recognition of Ross’s hard work with the program. Blown away, Ross said that she felt affirmed, seen and appreciated.
“I’m just very pleased because the endowment has everything to do with whether or not and how the program can continue, even the level and quality of mentoring that’s available. So, I was deeply moved and honored by the gifts that were given,” she said.
To future waves of WOC scholars, Ross leaves these words:
“Be in touch with that thing only you are called to do as a person from your community to make a contribution to the world…Do not limit yourself to any element of what it means to be a scholar of religion. Whatever is possible, it is possible for you. So, pursue it, and go on and change this world that needs changing.”
You can join Ross and GBHEM’s board of directors in supporting future WOC scholars. To give directly to the program, visit: www.gbhem.org/donate4students.
About GBHEM: The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry embraces the ministry of learning and leadership formation in The United Methodist Church and Wesleyan tradition; serving Christians around the world who are shaped by a process of intellectual engagement, spiritual and character formation, and leadership development. We cultivate a dynamic culture of call and vocational discernment that encourages lay and clergy leaders to discover, claim and flourish in God’s ministry and mission for the Church, the academy and the world. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.