Women of Color Scholars Program celebrates past, looks ahead
Aug. 14, 2006
By Linda Green*
CHICAGO (UMNS) — When the idea for the Women of Color Scholars Program was born, only one ordained clergywoman of color in the United Methodist Church had a doctorate degree.
The Rev. Karen Collier, assistant professor of the religious and philosophical studies department at Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., had received her degree in 1974 and was asked to help design the program. Today, 18 years later, she applauds the 40 women who have participated in it and the 22 graduates who have their advanced degrees in religious studies as a result.
“I was mentored by men,” she said, “because there was no one in the church to mentor me.”
Collier spoke at an Aug. 11-13 celebration and consultation of the Women of Color Scholars program, held by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education. The event featured academic leaders from throughout the denomination, as well as graduate scholars and current participants in the program.
Looking ahead, Collier expressed hope that the program continues promoting women in theological education, and that its doctoral candidates and graduates make contributions to theological discourse to make the church and the world more welcoming.
The Rev. Jerome King del Pino, the top executive at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, assured the Women of Color scholars that the agency will do all that it can to ensure that the program continues. A plan is in the works to endow the scholars program, and an offering was received during the consultation’s closing worship service to begin the endowment.
The ministry of the Women of Color Scholars Program “is unparalleled to any Protestant denomination” today, he said.
Raising up a generation
The program emerged from a concern raised by professional women at United Methodist seminaries about the lack of women of color on the faculties as teachers and researchers.
“The Women of Color Scholars Program has raised up a generation of women who will succeed in the academy,” Collier said.
Before the program’s creation in 1988, the Rev. Kathy Sage, a former staff member of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said a series of “listening” meetings occurred in the church, and clergywomen of color clergy were asked if they would be interested in pursing doctorate degrees. Next, organizers considered how to support and mentor the women.
“Ten thousand dollars was a significant amount back then,” she said. Today, the Women of Color Scholars Program continues to offer that amount of support.
The program’s goals are to place women of color in faculty positions at all United Methodist-related theological schools; to increase the number who teach, lecture, write and research at the doctoral level in seminaries; to increase the church’s awareness of the need for women of color in theological education and encourage vocations in religious education; and to sponsor a network of support for those in doctorate programs.
The Rev. Linda Thomas, a professor of anthropology and theology at Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, was in that “trailblazing” group of women who entered the scholars program.
“To be called a trailblazer is both humbling and awesome,” she said. She remembered the women in the church — clergy and lay — who encouraged her to pursue a doctorate degree. “They saw things in me that I did not know were possible,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do Ph.D. work, and the biggest challenge in many ways was myself. When those women said, ‘You can do it,’ I said, ‘Give me the support and I will do it.’”
The program’s work so far, with 40 participants, “is an immense and stunning achievement,” Thomas said, “and we have a long way to go.” Next, it must address why there is an absence of Native American clergywomen scholars and low numbers of Hispanic clergywomen scholars. Another round of “listening” sessions is needed to find out what types of support are needed for women in those groups, she said.
She said the program’s strength is in the plethora of African-American and Asian women who have earned their doctorates.
The challenge, she said, lies in whether United Methodist seminaries and schools related to universities understand that qualified candidates are ready for faculty positions.
“I don’t see our scholars placed in United Methodist seminaries. It is not because the women would not go there,” she said. “I think it is because boards of trustees and boards of governors are not actively telling presidents and deans to pursue these women.”
Many of the scholars are serving institutions outside the United Methodist Church, she said, using herself as an example, since she is a senior professor at a Lutheran school.
“When are our boards of trustees and governors and deans going to say, ‘We want a woman of color to lead our seminaries,’” she asked. “I think there is a glass-ceiling because when I look at our seminaries, I see white men.
“Women of color teaching in our seminaries is important because they bring to the classroom not only knowledge but the life experience that many students would not have,” she said. She added that throughout her academic career — undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate — she never had a woman of color as a professor.
“I know that the types of courses I teach, the books that I require for reading and the history that I tell is a vastly different history and theology than I what got,” she said. “It is debunking the myth that Eurocentrism dominates. … Part of my tooling of my students, be they black or white, is to introduce them to this new world that right-sizes and prepares folks for the world we live in and the conflicts that we face globally.”
In other action at the consultation, participants:
- Viewed the premier of the DVD “Following the Path,” which shares the stories of the women participating in the scholars program.
- Paid tribute to Angella Current-Felder, the administrator of the Women of Color Scholars Program.
- Awarded certificates to the 2006-07 class of scholars.
- Recognized the program’s original design team and first graduates.
- Attended workshops on technology; people on the margins; pluralism; crises; and women in the New Testament from the Two-Thirds World Perspective.
In the closing worship service, Bishop Linda Lee told participants to “keep doing what you are doing; Jesus has your back.”
“When you teach, preach, write papers … you are pouring out the oil of the anointed one.”
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.