Shared from the 10/7/2018 San Antonio Express eEdition

Black church studies find home at Oblate

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Carlos Javier Sanchez / Contributor

Evangelist Melonie Iglehart-Hammons is shown during a symposium last month marking Sankofa’s five-year anniversary, which also was marked by the publication of a book, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Wisdom from the Sankofa Institute for African American Pastoral Leadership.”

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Carlos Javier Sanchez / Contributor

Sister Addie Walker is a Catholic nun runs the Sankofa Insitute for African American Pastoral Leadership at the Oblate School of Theology. She said that at Oblate, Sankofa is working to change approaches to teaching biblical studies.

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Courtesy

Air Force Reserve chaplain Fredricc Gerard Brock earned his doctorate through the Sankofa program. He co-founded The Message Church in San Antonio.

When Air Force Reserve chaplain Fredricc Gerard Brock, a pastor with Baptist roots, started his doctoral degree of ministry at the Oblate School of Theology, the Sankofa Institute for African American Pastoral Leadership did not exist.

Its director, Sister Addie Walker, a Catholic nun and former leader of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, had yet to establish a curriculum on black biblical studies, theologies and church histories and on black preaching, worship, social ethics and social justice.

The program had yet to welcome other Oblate students, among them future Catholic priests, to what Walker believes is an anomaly at seminaries and other educational institutions: a black church studies program — traditionally Protestant-centered — in a Catholic institution.

Brock was one of Sankofa’s first graduates. His dissertation explored violence in and around black churches. He says he found in Sankofa a program in which his faith experience wasn’t just present but studied and honored alongside others and not as “a lesser scholarship.”

Sankofa marked its fifth anniversary late last month with a symposium and the publication of a book, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Wisdom from the Sankofa Institute for African American Pastoral Leadership.”

The first part of its title harkens back to a West African proverb that’s central to its mission and its logo, which depicts a mythic bird. It flies forward while looking back.

“It is not taboo to look back to recover what was lost,” the proverb says.

Sankofa is a term that has been used by other scholars and programs and has come to represent the rediscovery of lost traditions.

At Oblate, Sankofa is working to change approaches to teaching biblical studies, Walker said. Though it may be common knowledge that Africa is the birthplace of humanity, religious studies may not yet fully embrace Africa’s role in Christianity.

“We don’t realize so many figures in the Bible are of African descent,” Walker said. “We don’t learn it that way, and it’s shocking for African-Americans and our white students and Hispanic students, too. The heritage of all churches begins in Africa.”

Take, for example, the story of the first Christian. He was a literate Ethiopian eunuch and royal treasurer depicted in the Book of Acts, and he’s converted by Philip the Evangelist.

In September, Sankofa gathered about 25 scholars from institutions such as Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the School of Theology at Boston University, whose textbooks are read in seminaries and universities.

Peter Paris, the Elmer G. Homrighausen professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, a major speaker, assessed the state of such programs and contemplated their futures.

He says they’re in trouble. Some have disappeared, though they were sparked into existence in predominately Anglo institutions after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Anglo students began demanding classes on the role that black churches played in the civil rights movement.

Program are in decline because seminaries are in decline, especially partisan seminaries. Other programs didn’t get sustained support from their universities. To assess them, Paris recommended convening a national summit and conducting an inventory of such programs that includes its scholars, their statuses and degree offerings.

“All of that will tell a story,” he said.

Sankofa, which offers master and doctoral degrees, is just beginning to reap rewards and still has only a few graduates, including Brock.

Walker says that unlike other programs, Sankofa grew out of need. Non-Catholic students in search of degree programs from an accredited theological institution leave San Antonio to earn such diplomas. Oblate officials were drawn to the cross-cultural coursework that Sankofa could create, she said.

That Sankofa students do coursework at Oblate and that Oblate students take courses at Sankofa has been a blessing, she added.

“These students would not be talking to each other if they weren’t in our school, even if they were all black,” she said of all the denominations present on campus.

Walker said it’s leading to more cross-cultural teaching, too. Oblate leaders have backed that, she said, crediting dean Scott Woodward’s longtime interfaith work. “He says, ‘Protestants belong here.’ ”

“Relationships are being formed across denominations and gender lines,” she said. “There are no jokes about the (Protestant) Reformation anymore. They attend each other’s celebrations without demonizing the other.”

“Our city, a multiethnic city, our state and nation need this kind of cross-cultural competency, so I’m aware of your history, and that I don’t think my way is normative for every human being,” Walker said.

For Brock, a Ph.D. from Oblate has given him more confidence, he said, because of the respect that people automatically give the institution.

The reverend doctor and his wife, Pastor Kan’Dace Brock, have co-founded The Message Church in San Antonio and a preaching, teaching and consulting ministry called Fredricc Gerard Brock Ministries.

When he walks into a room, he brings Oblate with him, he says.

Paris speaks more cautiously.

Sankofa is “a young program,” he said. “I’m impressed with Sister Addie Walker and with the support she seemed to have. I’m impressed with the dean (Woodward) and president (theologian and author Father Ron Rolheiser) and faculty,” he said.

“It remains to be seen how much support (Sankofa) continues to get into the next decade.” eayala@express-news.net | Twitter: @ElaineAyala

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