Black Religious Education and Public Ministry

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By Rev. Dr. Richelle B. White (Ph.D. ’11, M.A.C.E. ‘03)

This summer the faculty of Kuyper College have been reading and discussing a new book on ministry and education. Dr. Richelle White, a contributing author to the book, and Dr. Jeff Fisher, academic dean, explain the purpose of the book and the faculty’s engagement with it.

The idea of “From Lament to Advocacy: Black Religious Education and Public Ministry” originated at the 2015 Religious Education Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. During the meeting, a group of Black Religious educators, scholars, and activists from around the United States gathered to lament over the racially instigated murders of Black men and women that had taken place during the past few years. Those needlessly murdered included Trayvon Martin (2012), Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2015), and the parishioners of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (2015). That afternoon, I (Dr. Richelle White) participated with the group as we struggled with our own grief and asked the following questions originally penned in Psalm 13– How long O Lord? Will you forget us forever…How long will my enemy triumph over me? We asked each other, “What should we do to address the continuously surmounting issues and challenges faced by Black communities?”

In clear terms, we answered our own question. From Lament to Advocacy emerged specifically out of the recognition that Black Religious education is at a crossroads and now is the decisive time for renewing the direction, experiences, and resources needed to meet current challenges in Black life. Moving forward requires taking seriously a public ministry emphasis in religious education focused on personal, sociocultural, political, and spiritual crises. The book is organized into eight chapters with nine contributors—Anne Wimberly (Interdenominational Theological Center), Nathaniel West (Virginia Union University), Annie Lockhart-Gilroy (Phillips Theological Seminary) Nancy Lynne Westfield (Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning), Joseph V. Crockett (Friendship Press), Sarah F. Farmer (Indiana Wesleyan University), Cynthia Stewart (Loyola University Chicago), Mary Young (Association of Theological Schools), and Richelle B. White (Kuyper College).

As a contributor, my chapter “Religious Education and the Public Role of the Sister’s Keeper” began as a response to my being too comfortable doing ministry in the local church. For more than 25 years I have been strategically engaged in discipling Black girls in the church and other ministry contexts. Several years ago, I felt a strong calling to carry my discipleship program into a Grand Rapids Public School because Black girls were being pushed out of the educational system. Being pushed out signals being criminalized, degraded, and marginalized. School is not always a safe place for Black girls. I created and facilitated a discipleship program—“My Sister’s Keeper” whose primary purpose was to build leaders, strengthen self-esteem, transform character, and pursue identity in Black girls and other girls of color in grades three through six.

Writing the chapter was a culmination of my work with My Sister’s Keeper, it emphasizes the Historical and Pedagogical influencers who inspire me and case studies of the participants in action. Following is a quote from the chapter that identifies the significance of this work for public advocacy.

“Black girls are gifted and resilient. However, they need a community of advocates to help them tell their stories as well as experience education and justice with the tenacity of Mary Helen Burroughs and Mary McLeod Bethune offered Black girls in the early twentieth century. Black girls must be included in what Burroughs and Bethune call the “American Democracy.” Black girls are worthy of study, attention, and support…This has led to my calling and personal, vocational, and social responsibilities, including coming alongside Black girls as a “keeper” in the fight for education and justice. (173-174)

Upon the release of this book, I (Dr. Jeff Fisher) knew that I wanted to read it and that other faculty members did too. Around the same time was the killing of George Floyd and the international response to that incident. Kuyper College issued a statement on social justice and many of us began engaging in the practices of lament, listening, and even protesting. As part of the important listening practice, I and others began reading many books on topics related to racism. But it was this book, From Lament to Advocacy, that we selected because it revolved around racism, church, community, and Christian education. Given the timeliness of this book, and especially the contribution of Dr. Richelle White, I asked the entire faculty to commit to read and engage with this book. We also made this available to our part-time instructors, several of whom chose to participate.

It’s not uncommon for us to choose a book that we all read over the summer, and have varying ways of interacting with it. The more unique way that we decided to engage this book together was to record the conversations we would be having on Zoom anyway and turn them into episodes for the Kuyper Collective podcast. Having others listen in on our discussion serves as a great way to capture the kinds of things we already do. Each week a different set of three to five guests dialogue about one chapter of the book, based on the given topic. We’ve had 13 different people on the podcast over the weeks with several episodes also including those who simply listen live as we record.

As you’ll hear me say at the beginning of many of the podcast episodes, we have found each chapter of this book to be very relevant to our current culture, our callings as Christians, and our vocations in Christian higher education. As we at Kuyper College wrestle with the complexities and difficulties related to broader, systemic, structural, and institutional forms of racism, we need to listen to the voices of those in black communities who have gone unheard for far too long. Our work this summer is just a beginning to addressing these matters effectively.

My thoughts on the value of the faculty’s work this summer echo one of the authors who listened to our podcast. She expressed how she was “so very moved by the intentional, personal, honest and soulful engagement” by those of us on the podcast who were willing to “dive into the deep waters of discovering current day struggles of Black people that call for lament, but engaging a process of exploring their role in emerging from the deep waters with a sense of personal purpose.” We hope and expect that this intentional, difficult, and purposeful engagement will propel us to continue the movement from lamenting about the injustices in our society to advocating for the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.

Rev. Dr. Richelle B. White is Professor of Youth Ministry and Director of Field Practicum at Kuyper College.