It started three years ago when Dean of the School of Theology Doug Strong, University Chaplain Bo Lim and Director Tali Hairston of the John Perkins Center got together to host a Seattle Pacific ecumenical worship service after the Ferguson events in 2014.
At the end of the December worship service, they circulated a statement regarding racial justice which people could sign as a pledge of their commitment to upholding the values of the statement. There was a large turnout and a great response, Strong noted, but the buzz around the document faded a while after.
However, with recent events, such as what occurred in Charlottesville over the summer, Strong decided it was time to bring back the 2014 statement, but with a few edits.
It was more about adding to the statement than changing what was already written, Strong explained. With this in mind, additions were made for two reasons.
The first reason was to update the language to reflect the current and ongoing rhetoric surrounding the issue. Phrases such as “ethnic nationalism” and “white supremacy” were added.
The second reason was to tighten the theological wording, emphasizing that “we do this through God’s grace,” Strong continued, pointing out phrases such as “by grace” and “in reliance on the wisdom of God.”
With the additions in place, Strong presented the newly updated “School of Theology Statement on Racial Justice” to the theology department faculty and staff during their retreat before the beginning of the school year.
Robert Drovdahl, the professor of educational ministry, stated that “it seemed appropriate to respond with a strong, unequivocal statement which was consistent with prior convictions we as a faculty have made.”
The biggest challenge with this statement, he believes, will be for anyone who desires a “color blind” world, no matter if this desire is made in good faith or otherwise.
“We do live in a racialized world, where our experience of life is shaped by race and ethnicity. I don’t think we can ignore the reality and the statement is an effort to pay attention,” Drovdahl said.
Drovdahl himself has personally worked to be more conscientious in addressing racial justice issues. A couple instances include discussing the importance of identity and “crossing over” social barriers in his University Foundations 1000 classes, as well as using a new text, “Leadership in Ministry” that studies the life of a multi-cultural congregation.
It seems that Drovdahl isn’t the only one who is committed.
Unanimously signed, every faculty and staff member of the School of Theology has pledged to “educate [their] congregations,” “open [their] hearts,” “participate in alliances” and “call on [their] community’s members to oppose public policies and political actions that further ethnic privilege and prejudice.”
“White history has been part of America’s life since the beginning, but it has moved from the shadows to the center. Yet, it is also dangerous to think that only people carrying Nazi flags are white supremacists,” Assistant Professor of New Testament and Seminary Associate Dean Laura Holmes said.
To those students affected by racial injustice, Holmes wants to apologize, even if such an apology sounds “trite and simplistic,” she said.
As a white Christian in a leadership position and as a white person who grew up in the southeastern United States, Holmes considers it her responsibility to confess and repent the privilege she benefits from, she added.
To those working for racial justice, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies Shannon Smythe wanted to convey her acknowledgement in their work. She understands that people are tired, that it is hard work.
“We need others; we need allies,” she explained.
Perhaps it’s time, Smythe suggested, that the people listen to indigenous voices to teach the culture about the “myth of progress” because as a society, “we can’t grow complacent.” Education is where to start.
So as the Dean of the School of Theology, Strong hopes the curriculum encourages students to participate and shows them that the classroom is a safe place for students of color, a place for their voices to be enhanced and honored.
SPU is making advances with new faculty—the majority of which are people of color—which Strong believes is creating a momentum that he hopes will continue.
Education and activism are both essential parts of the fight for justice, Holmes said. Education is especially challenging because it often takes place in institutions that are caught up in systems that perpetuate injustice, she continued. “And at the same time, I would hope that as God directs our actions, SPU might become a place where education, or re-education about the nation’s history of injustice could happen, whether through curricular or co-curricular contexts. That this education would lead to activism and action.”