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I have been a faculty member at CTS since 1991.
I was not looking for a job when a senior professor mentor told me that the seminary was looking for an African American professor.
He knew that I had family in Tennessee, and I yearned to leave the protracted winters of New Jersey where I was teaching.
When I came for the interview, I did the usual interview things: dinner and meetings with the search committee, faculty, and students; I delivered a public lecture on womanist ethics.
Students were eager to tell me about their protest to have a full-time African American professor, thus the origin of the search.
I returned to New Jersey filled with mixed emotions.
Should I really be considering a move to a small independent Presbyterian seminary in Georgia?
Afterall, the Methodist university-related theological school and graduate department of religion where I was located aligned with my theological tradition and vocational commitments; there was a multiethnic student body, and the faculty was growing in racial-ethnic and gender inclusion.
So, I made my pro and con list and prayed for direction.
Prayerful discernment led me to answer the call to CTS.
Over the years I have questioned whether I truly heard God’s voice.
I grappled for the meaning of my call to CTS as I was assaulted by students, staff, and colleagues—microaggressions and direct verbal insults abounded.
Had I truly heard God’s voice?
It has been a long haul for me.
I keep praying for meaning, and recent developments require no less fervent prayer.
The document, “REPAIRING THE BREACH: DEEPENING COLUMBIA’S COMMITMENT TO BLACK PEOPLE AND THEIR FLOURISHING,”1 is a strong statement.
From my point of view, the “easiest” part of the statement is to “fully fund the cost of tuition and student fees for all Black students who apply and are admitted to the seminary’s Masters degree programs.”
I do know that that kind of financial investment is enormous, but I also think that the seminary has the financial resources to do so.
In fact, this is a way that CTS makes reparations—a concrete manifestation of repairing the breach.
Revising the campus use policy to open up the physical space to “outsiders” and to develop a new community grant program are much more difficult.
Because the seminary still is guided by a hospitality rather than a solidarity paradigm.
CTS knows how to be hosts to guests; the seminary is not fully able to stand in solidarity with others as equals.
I wrestled with whether to have my name on a building. In fact, I have had three progressive thoughts:
First, I thought about it as a gesture of goodwill toward minoritized groups at CTS.
Second, I thought about it as a political statement that raises the seminary’s optics as an educational institution concerned about justice and equality in the current climate of racial unrest.
Third, and here’s where I am today: The naming of the NRH as the Marcia Y. Riggs Commons has to mean that the seminary acknowledges that its history with enslaved Black persons as property and servants who were used to endow and sustain this institution requires (1) affirmation that the image of God is diverse, (2) commitment to incarnate that image through past, current, and future generations of students, faculty, staff, and administrators, and (3) acknowledgment that the seminary’s narrative and practices of exclusion must give way to a narrative and practices of justice and inclusion.
Finally, in virtual space during this pandemic the seminary completed Dr. David Hooker’s Transformative Community Conferencing2 process.
With the “data” from the dialogues and mapping of our institutional narrative in hand, the Board has authorized an Implementation Task Force.
The Task Force begins its work now to develop and enact an action plan for Becoming CTS.
Becoming CTS signifies our hope for and commitment to transformation as a process whereby the seminary becomes what God is calling us to be.
Can we make ourselves vulnerable to one another—share our fears, our biases, our anger, our hopes?
Can we free ourselves from preconceived notions of who we shall become?
We must expect the unexpected.
We must open ourselves up to being led by the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Marcia Y. Riggs has developed a constructive ethical theory and practice called religious ethical mediation (REM). REM prepares leaders to address religion, conflict, and violence in a transformative manner. She is the founder of an educational non-profit: Still Waters: A Center for Ethical Formation and Practices that offers training in REM. She is completing a forthcoming book tentatively titled Womanist Reimagining of Beloved Community for a Polarized Society and Church. She currently serves as the Erskine Love Professor of Christian Ethics and Seminary Ombudsperson at CTS.
2 Dr. David Anderson Hook, The Little Book of Transformative Community Conferencing: A Hopeful, Practical Approach to Dialogue (New York, NY: Good Books, 2016).