By Carly Nations


In a letter composed and signed by School of Theology faculty, staff, and students on June 9, 2020, the seminary promised to follow Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to make “the long-term commitment to racial healing, justice and truth-telling.” This commitment, which was defined specifically in a list of concrete objectives, included a pledge to “expand anti-racist training that equips church leaders to be catalysts for change.” Since that time, the seminary has taken actionable steps to accomplish these commitments. 


When the Rev. Dr. Jim Turrell, dean of the School of Theology, saw a symposium for racial reconciliation at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, he encouraged the Rev. Dr. Deborah Jackson, dean of community life, to apply. Already working on several diversity and equity committees at the University and within the School of Theology, Jackson enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity. 


“In some sense, we were already preparing to become ‘catalysts for change,’” remarked Jackson. “We’ve always had discussions about race at the seminary, and we’ve had a diversity and reconciliation committee for many years. The University was already moving in a direction of truth-telling about our past through the work of the Roberson Project and we elected a Black Vice-Chancellor last year. Things had been moving in the right direction at a particular pace, but that pace definitely quickened as a number of factors converged during the summer of 2020, specifically nationwide racial unrest.” 


The Wabash Center, created by Wabash College and funded by grants from the Lily Foundation, helps theology and religion faculty reflect upon “the goals and processes of teaching and student learning.” Though the Center paints its goals with a large brush, specific symposia narrow the focus for applicants who wish to work with the program. Jackson has been part of the symposium entitled “Becoming Anti-racist and Catalysts for Change” following the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last summer in response to the murder of George Floyd. 


After applying and being accepted to the symposium, Jackson has attended several virtual sessions led by the Rev. Dr. Melanie Harris and the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey. After these sessions, Jackson meets with fellow symposium members to discuss ideas for projects that address the needs of their individual contexts across the spectrum of Christian denominations. She discovered that many of her colleagues, even in denominations that have a broader diversity than The Episcopal Church, were coming to the table sharing similar stories. Nearly all of the institutions represented by the cohort had begun to dig into their racist histories, to confront their ongoing racism, and to grapple with what to do to become anti-racist. The symposium became a space for each of these leaders to discuss not only the issues within their respective church and university cultures, but also to dream about possible futures for their institutions. Jackson also meets regularly with Dean Turrell and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin King, academic dean, to discuss various ideas shared in the symposium and determine what might be most useful for the School of Theology’s context.


When asked to describe her dreams for Sewanee, Jackson observed, “Obviously, we’ll never stop thinking and talking about race and racism; we’re not going to solve all the problems associated with racism, however, I love to imagine a time when there is greater diversity among the student body, the faculty and staff. I would like for discussions about needing to increase diversity in syllabi and courses to become unnecessary, because we will have already achieved a genuine good balance of representation in those areas. And though we will always need to make revisions and updates to what we’re doing, I dream that we can someday stop having to focus so much on building a more diverse teaching and learning environment.”


Yet, the reality at Sewanee, and at many universities and seminaries across the country, is not that they are in the building stages of creating diverse curriculum, but that they are still simply reacting to calls for diversity from the wider community. Therefore, Jackson’s work at the Wabash Center thus far has focused on the work of making foundational steps to improve the curriculum and learning on race at the School of Theology. 


As a way of thinking about how to start the conversation which will undergird her future project with the Wabash Center, Jackson held a book study for all faculty, students, and staff at the seminary. The seminary purchased copies of The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone and distributed them to participants. “We set aside an entire day in mid-April to discuss the book as a community. In addition to talking about the book, I included a brief discussion of relevant terminology that I felt was important to understanding issues of race and racism. There was a good response to the discussions of the words we use in dialogues about race and reconciliation,” remarked Jackson. “This book study allowed us to start conversations. It was not about calling anybody out or putting anyone on the spot, but it was about learning together and pointing to the fact that we all have our own internal work to do, because true reconciliation and racial healing is not going to happen until people change their own individual hearts.”


Of course, starting conversations around race and reconciliation has always been and always will be difficult work, because these discussions point to the very heart of flawed humanity—that despite being Christ-followers, people struggle to love those who are different. Despite claiming to follow a man who was resurrected after being lynched in a state-sanctioned execution, Christians struggle to understand how that same resurrection Gospel speaks against the continuation of racially motivated lynchings today. 


Jackson asserted, “Had the events of last summer not happened as they did, and had we not been moved to think about what we wanted to see happen at Sewanee and document it in a letter signed by all the constituents of our community, I don't know that we would have made the progress that we have made. I have never before seen such resolve on this issue in Sewanee. It is as if we drew a hard line in the sand, and decided that from this time forward we are going to actively do something about this. And in thinking about how we could start having the necessary conversations, the book study provided a way forward. Then my studies at Wabash informed and empowered the discussion of the book.” 


As the final gathering of the Wabash Symposium approaches in June, Jackson is preparing to introduce her project to the School of Theology this coming fall. Her project, entitled Words for G.R.A.C.E.–Growing in Racial and Cultural Engagement, will address the importance of building a foundational language for meaningful conversations. During the next academic year, faculty and students will study six critical terms, discussing and unpacking one term at a time in a series of community forums and events held throughout the year. “The point is not to simply learn a definition for each term or topic, but to consider the impact of the attitudes and behaviors that accompany it,” Jackson noted. Faculty members and students will be enlisted to share in the leadership of these discussions in the hopes that by having frequent and open conversations about race and by building a common lexicon, the community will become better equipped to recognize and respond with antiracist intentionality.


In tandem with Jackson’s work at Wabash, others at the seminary have also been busy improving their approach to diversity and inclusion. Initiatives like a faculty book study on Willie James Jenning’s After Whiteness; updating the artwork in the Hamilton Hall; and the commissioning of a new crucifix for the seminary chapel are some of the ongoing projects aimed at reflecting and honoring diversity. Two new faculty appointments will also bring some diversity to the seminary leadership. 


“Focused teaching and learning about race and reconciliation will continue until we have achieved a transformed community,” concluded Jackson. “The good news is that there is support and encouragement for becoming the Beloved Community that God intends for us to be at all levels of the University of the South, in the School of Theology, and throughout The Episcopal Church.”