- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

When President Obama began appointing a host of former outsiders to serve on his faith advisory council, religion writers had to scramble to expand their Rolodex to include these new black and Hispanic voices.

For instance, I had never heard of Miguel Diaz, the Cuban-born college professor who is the president’s pick for ambassador to the Vatican.

So I was interested to hear that 45 black doctoral candidates who hope to follow in Martin Luther King’s footsteps were having a conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. One evening, they sat at the feet of the Rev. James Lawson, a peace activist and philosopher who teamed up with Mr. King to organize student sit-ins in 1959 and 1960 to protest segregation in Nashville stores.

I met with two of the candidates’ mentors: Sharon Watson Fluker, vice president of doctoral programs and administration for the Atlanta-based Fund for Theological Education (FTE), and Judy Fentress-Williams, an associate professor of Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS).

The FTE, which creates scholarships for theological students, says more than one-third of the 253 seminaries and theological schools in North America have no minority professors. Lest anyone blame the religious folks for being racist, the secular religious schools have even fewer professors of color.

But of the 91 black, Hispanic, Asian or Indian scholars that have gone through FTE programs in the past 10 years, 79 percent have teaching positions.

As we chatted at VTS last week, these two women introduced me to a whole realm of black scholars who have made it in academia. Chief among them is the Rev. Emilie Townes of Yale Divinity School, who was the only black woman enrolled during her first year at the University of Chicago’s divinity school.

There’s Lee Butler, a theology and psychology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary who has written about preserving black families. There’s the Rev. Katie Canon, the first black woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond.

And the Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School who teaches on black theology in slave narratives and is a defender of Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor. A number of black theological voices came out of the woodwork when the whole Jeremiah Wright imbroglio happened during the presidential campaign. Among them was Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr., who has written on the black power movement.

“Yes, Obama is president, but there’s work to do,” Miss Fluker said about getting more black theologians into higher education.

Mrs. Fentress-Williams tries to encourage students to become scholars like her. During the nine years it took for her to get a doctorate, she had to learn six languages, including Ugaritic, a Semitic language that aids in Hebrew studies. She was the first black female professor at VTS.

“I have a love for Scripture and a love for literature,” she says. “A doctoral program brings that all together.”

Getting the young to consider graduate studies, they say, will entail a sales job.

“I’m not sure most of these people get up in the morning,” Miss Fluker says, “and say, ‘I’ll be a religion professor.’”

Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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