Embrace Your Journey in the Wilderness

Rev Kamal Hassan

Name: Rev Kamal Hassan
Pronouns: He/Him/His
Ethnic Identity: New African
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA)
Ministry Role: Pastor, Head of Staff
Ministry Context: Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church, Richmond, CA
Seminary Attended: San Francisco Theological Seminary

Dear Called Child of God,

If the gospel of Luke is our vocational guide, we know Jesus’ public ministry did not begin until after a time of testing and preparation in the wilderness. As a student of color in a predominately white institution your journey will be much like his. You will be tested, tried, and tempted in countless ways as you seek to discern God’s purposes for your life and ministry. The hope is this formative experience will help you authentically serve the church and the world in spirit and in truth.

My first year of seminary was in 1999 and I was the only African American student on campus. I was also the only person of color in the room in each of my 5 classes. I was reeling from culture shock because I had come from a working-class Black and Latinx community to study at a liberal seminary in one of the whitest and wealthiest communities in the nation. I could not easily find either the food I was used to eating or the music that fed my soul. It was difficult to locate places where I felt seen and welcome. In chapel worship the rhythms, songs, and spirit movement I needed to, “Have church,” were glaringly absent. I often left those services more bothered than blessed. My struggle in this wilderness was real.

And the curriculum was so white! I was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, steeped in the Black Prophetic Tradition then led by such giants of the Church as Rev Dr Gardner C. Taylor, Rev Dr Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Rev Dr Anne Lightner-Fuller, and many other amazing Black preachers, ethicists, composers, theologians, and biblical scholars whose voices were silenced in the course of study I was taught my first year. From the get-go a clear message was being sent about whose contributions to the scholarly and practical world of the faith were deemed worthy of serious study and whose were not.

This issue came to a head in my second year.  At the first meeting of the Theology II class, the professor began by apologizing for the lack of diversity in the curriculum. He walked us through the syllabus and lamented there was far too much material and too little time in the semester to include everything he felt was important. Difficult choices had to be made. The result of his difficult choices meant all we were going to study by theologians of color was an introduction to the work of St Augustine and a paragraph from the work of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. I was tempted to curse under my breath, roll my eyes, and quietly suffer my fate, but something in me could not be silent. I requested some changes be made to reflect a broader racial-ethnic diversity of theological voices. The professor seemed sympathetic but insisted there were certain Reformed theologians we students needed to know well, so everyone could not be included. I responded by arguing he identified a significant problem in the course material but had decided not to solve it. The best he could do in response was to make a commitment to, “ponder [my] comments.” I countered by declaring he could go right ahead and ponder, but I was outta there! I withdrew from Theology II and enrolled in a Womanist Theology course being offered at another school in our consortium. I made this decision nearly 20 years ago and the theological path it started me on continues to enrich my scholarly and vocational life. When we ran into each other again sometime later that year, the professor wondered aloud why I had “bailed” on his class. He just didn’t get it.

This experience helped me realize the schoolwide curriculum was designed to produce pastors for high steeple white congregations and not people who could go back and serve with respect and cultural competence in working class or low wealth communities of color. This meant I would have to challenge inequities in my educational experience which made it seem as though the work and ideas of white men should be centered in my theological education. I came to understand the need to make my own commitment to fill in the gaps patriarchal whiteness had left in my spiritual formation and preparation for ministry. I decided to pay an academic “Black Tax” in time, talent, and treasure to de-center whiteness in my studies by doing extra work to find and engage the voices, stories, and spiritual strivings of my people by any means necessary.

As I think about this experience now, I am reminded of the poem, “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

After four years of climbin’, reachin’, turnin’, and goin’ I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree and had become a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA). No, life for me in seminary was not a crystal stair, but as the great theologian and mystic Dr Howard Thurman once observed, “The wilderness is the academy of the soul.” It was a time when my soul learned to listen for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit that affirmed my gifts and call amid the cacophony of white supremacy in theological education. I was stretched and challenged in good ways. I found friends, many of whom are now colleagues who supported me in many ways on this difficult journey. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my wife and family. They kept me grounded, prayed for me, and were hearts to lean on when I needed it most.

So, I commend the wilderness journey of theological education to you and suggest you enter into it with fear, trembling, and determination. Let your heart stay open and remember that, “I shall not be moved,” is not an appropriate intellectual stance for one who respects the life of the mind. Let this wilderness be an academy for your soul and embrace all the hardship, lament, and possibilities for transformation such a journey portends. The people on the margins of this society that we are called to serve deserve spiritual leaders who can excel in the academy and respect the neighborhood. I wish you abundant blessing, love, and the willingness to pay your tax so that whiteness will not be centered in your work. Draw strength and inspiration from these words of Paul from Romans 5:

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we are never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

In the name of Jesus,

Rev kamal hassan

Resources Recommended:

Book: A Black Theology of Liberation by Rev Dr James Cone
A systematic theology drawn from the terrible and beautiful lives of Black people in America. Cone examines the work of the traditional white theologians taught in the academy with a critical eye that names both their relevance for and blindness to the spiritual strivings of Black communities

Book: The Liberating Pulpit by Justo and Catherine Gonzalez
A fundamental text for doing liberation theology and preaching from the underside of society. The authors argue that liberation and anti-empire perspectives are not modern ways of interpreting the Biblical text but harmonize with the intent of the Biblical authors. It also provides a methodology for a hermeneutical reorientation for doing Biblical interpretation from the margins.

Book: An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation by Nyasha Junior
The author provides a guide for understanding Womanist theology as a practice that arises out of the lived experiences of Black women separate and distinct from feminist perspectives that center the lives of white women. 

Honorable Mention:
Book: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Bruggemann
Argues that God called Moses and Jesus to build, “communities of resistance” amid the empires of their times. Calls for committed Christians to create “communities of resistance” in our present day to oppose the corrosive effects of empire on all lives.

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1 comment:

  1. This is good and so relevant to those of us who are currently voicing our right to learn from our own academic text catalogs.


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