How Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary has shaped past leaders and how it shapes leaders today

To fully appreciate how JCSTS has shaped leaders in both the past and the present, recall the history of education in this country for those who were formerly enslaved and for their descendants, writes Paul Roberts.

Notable alumni of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary (JCSTS) include James H. Costen Sr., who (along with Randy Taylor) led the reunification of the denomination in 1983; Katie Geneva Cannon, womanist scholar, ethicist and the first African American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church; and J. Herbert Nelson, the first African American stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

To fully appreciate how JCSTS has shaped leaders in both the past and the present, recall the history of education in this country for those who were formerly enslaved and for their descendants.

To fully appreciate how JCSTS has shaped leaders in both the past and the present, recall the history of education in this country for those who were formerly enslaved and for their descendants.

Colonies in the antebellum South passed laws prohibiting Black people from learning to read. These laws were passed largely in reaction to the Stono Rebellion, the 1739 uprising of enslaved people that killed dozens in the colony of South Carolina. Fearing future uprisings, the slaveholding South enacted anti-literacy laws to make it far harder for Black people to obtain their freedom, thereby preserving its economy built on slave labor. One of the best examples of the Southern slaveholders’ mentality comes from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in which he describes what his owner told his owner’s wife when he discovered she was teaching young Douglass to read:

“[He] should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. … If you teach … [him] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

Within this fraught cultural climate, formal education for African Americans began in 1837 with Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, the nation’s first historically Black college/university (HBCU). Cheyney’s purpose was to teach formerly enslaved African Americans to read, write and do math so they could function in society. Over time, other historically Black institutions were founded and became places to teach academic skills, build communities and inculcate survival and leadership skills.

One of these was the Freedmen’s College of North Carolina, founded by the Catawba Presbytery in 1867 at the conclusion of the Civil War. It was renamed Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in the 1920s when Smith’s widow, Jane Berry Smith from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, endowed it from her late husband’s estate. Like its predecessors, JCSTS was founded with an inherent educational emphasis on survival, societal navigation, community building and leadership within the context of White supremacist culture. This heritage informs the JCSTS approach to theological education today.

Some may find it inappropriate for any faith-based institution to ground its perspective and programming in this country’s racial history, rather than essential church tenets or doctrine. At JCSTS, we choose this approach to theological education and leader formation for three reasons. First, it’s impossible to exercise faith – and do ministry – separate from one’s context. Second, despite gains, structural racism still is pervasive in U.S. culture and endemic to our ministry contexts. Finally, faith and justice are inextricably linked; therefore, faithful ministry naturally seeks, in the words of the prophet Micah, to do justice.

More on context

One of the great achievements in American literature is Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I refer to it every chance I get because I find it so illuminating. Of the persons I interact with in my work, so many have not read it or are unaware of it.

In his letter, King points to the important task of contextual analysis. To the Southern, White clergy who accused him in a written statement of rabble rousing, he responded, “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”

One of the great organizers of his generation, King understood that ministry always occurs against a particular cultural or communal backdrop, never in isolation. Every circumstance is different, and every circumstance has its own peculiarities. Like a swimmer considers water temperature and undercurrent before jumping into the ocean, effective leaders similarly assess the cultural waters in which they are preparing to swim — and once they dive in, they make continual assessments so they can adapt as needed.

It is essential that seminaries teach these tools, lest our leaders become mired in and de-energized by the status quo. I speak from experience. In 1997, I became a small church pastor in Atlanta, Georgia. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I presumed that I was ready to lead by virtue of my ordination. Years later, a kindly mentor pointed out to me that at best I was sort of a “placeholder pastor.” If I wanted to be more than a placeholder, if I was going to actually lead my congregation well, I would have to understand them more deeply. I would have to understand their initial attraction to the church; their hopes, disappointments and misgivings; their joys and tragedies; their place in the pecking order; their alliances and estrangements; their music and more. Without such vital information, I would be swimming upstream for my entire pastorate. His advice made the difference.

To their credit, all the seminaries I know offer at least one required course in contextual education. These courses deploy students to an array of non-parish ministry sites and introduce them to communities they are unlikely to encounter during Sunday morning worship. These sites usually have staff eager for additional help. So in exchange, one or more staff persons serve as mentors to the students, explaining the organization’s core mission, assigning specific duties and helping students process their experiences. Often these contextual education courses are the highlight of the seminary experience.

As seminaries consider ways to educate students for the future, I would like to see much greater emphasis on analysis in our contextual education courses.

As seminaries consider ways to educate students for the future, I would like to see much greater emphasis on analysis in our contextual education courses. Contextual education provides an ideal setting in which students can learn and practice the skills of conducting a relational meeting, doing an organizational (or power) analysis and developing as leaders. Some readers will recognize these skills as the basic toolkit of community organizers.

We live in an age of exponential cultural shift. Theological education has perhaps a greater mandate than ever before to teach how to identify, analyze and interpret ministry context as the foundation for effective service and leadership.

More on faith and justice

Here seems as good a place as any to register my complaint about nationwide efforts to ban books and situate revisionist history in the curricula of our schools. (Do we not know that a miseducated citizenry is as problematic as an uneducated one?)

These efforts do not come out of the blue. They have their origins in assumptions – still common today – about the superiority of White, heteronormative people and the inferiority of Black, Brown and LGBTQ people. These efforts are power plays. They are attempts to muffle the diversity of our voices and our stories. They smack of the need to assuage guilt by soft-pedaling the horrors of slavery. For people like me, they feel like death by a thousand cuts.

No place in the United States is unaffected by these racist assumptions. They are as typical of the culture as hot dogs and apple pie. The stunning insidiousness of structural racism lies in the fact that it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Not surprisingly, White-bodied people are not confronted by it in the way Brown-bodied and Black-bodied people are. This truth was made evident by many White Americans’ awakening in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. It’s also fair to say that Brown-bodied people are not confronted by it in the way Black-bodied people are, and vice versa.

It stands to reason, then, that in a 2023 USA Today poll about racism in the United States, 79% of Black Americans said racism is either the biggest problem or a problem facing the nation, compared to 46% of Hispanics and 39% of Whites. But 17% of Whites and 13% of Hispanics said that racism presents no problem whatsoever.

What does any of this have to do with seminary education? Leaders, faculty members and students alike should be cognizant that the people in our pews represent a similar cross-section of opinion — as do the persons we hope to evangelize. Part of the leader’s role, then, is to sensitize people to the idea that – again quoting King’s “Letter” – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” My experience may differ dramatically from my neighbor’s experience; but my experience can never, must never, invalidate my neighbors.

My friend Hunter Farrell, director of the World Mission Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, takes it a step further in a July 2021 essay titled “Mission with Both Hands”:

After 35 years of working with Presbyterian congregations engaged in local and global mission, I have found that the overwhelming majority of congregations dedicate nearly 100% of their mission attention and budget to charity work. But a singular focus on charity can blind us to the larger issues behind the suffering we seek to alleviate.  … Charity can even anesthetize me into thinking I’ve done my part when in fact my neighbor is being exploited in ways that benefit me. … So, I have to wonder, has the American church’s almost singular focus on charity, as opposed to justice, become an idol that keeps us feeling good about ourselves, but ignorant of the causes of our neighbor’s suffering? Can I fully love my neighbors unless I’m willing to keep the wheel from crushing them?

Farrell’s words call our attention to what may be one of the greatest sins of the church today: complicity. The cumulative effect of turning a blind eye and allowing ourselves to be anesthetized is that we become complicit in the injustices around us, quietly sanctioning things as they are.

The fastest growing “denomination” in the United States today comprises those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” Mystified by the church’s relative silence on matters they care about, they have come to regard us as weak and ineffectual. Seminaries can help reverse these perceptions by teaching and empowering our students to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ into the public sphere — not merely to do charity or to evangelize, but to connect the dots for the wider public between faith and justice.

Some readers undoubtedly will regard this essay as too political. Perhaps it is. For the record, as practiced at JCSTS and elsewhere in the African American religious tradition, theological education and leader formation are firmly rooted in the examples of the patriarchs and prophets in the Bible. For those who would draw a strict dividing line between church and state, please consider with me the fact that Moses went to the supreme political ruler of his day, Pharaoh, with a plea for justice. When Pharaoh did not consent, Moses drew from his divine toolbox, unleashing plague after plague, strategically pressuring Pharaoh to the bargaining table. Eventually, Pharaoh compromised and negotiated with Moses for the release of the captives.

The prophet Elijah spoke out against the political ruler of his day, King Ahab.

The prophet Elisha served as an advisor to numerous kings and was an active supporter of the Judean military.

A natural organizer, Jesus himself conducted his ministry almost entirely in the public sphere. Not in the synagogue. Not at the Temple. But in the streets. Along the shore. In the social spaces.

JCSTS has a proud, 156-year record of service to the church. Though we are a historically Black institution, our programs today invite people from all walks of life, regardless of race, ethnicity, identity or orientation. We are eager to be in conversation with other seminaries, organizations and individuals about education at the intersection of faith and justice.