Seminarians of Color Conference nurtures and supports future Church leaders

 

A source of affirmation, friendship and mutual support for more than 40 years

By Gail Strange | Presbyterians Today

The Conference for Seminarians of Color was first held in 1979. Since then, students of color have found a much-needed space to support one another, learn and share. Participants say the friendships made at the conference have been invaluable. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Mission Agency

In 1974, a Presbyterian survey of seminary life revealed a pressing need among students of color, which at the time represented a small percentage of seminarians attending various theological institutions nationwide. The study found that, in some cases, there were very few seminarians of color per campus, and most frequently, they were not members of the same racial or ethnic group.

The realization arose that Presbyterian seminarians of color needed to feel less isolated. But how could that be remedied?

The answer was the Conference for Seminarians of Color, in which the Rev. James “Jim” Reese and the Improving Minority Prospects (IMP) Committee were the driving forces behind its creation.

The IMP Committee of the Church Vocation Agency, in the Office of the General Assembly, was chaired by Dr. Frank Wilson. He and committee members Jim Costen and Charles Marks, and other influential voices, realized there was a great disconnect for seminarians of color and particularly Black seminarians.

“We needed to let minority students know the process for becoming a minister,” said Marks. “We needed to prepare them for what they were getting into and offer a major support system. These students needed to know they had a safe place. We also realized that we needed to start a pipeline for minority students, and it needed to start before they entered seminary.”

The Church Vocation Agency was staffed at that time by the Rev. Don Smith, director of the Vocation Agency; Edgar Ward, associate of the Vocation Agency; and Reese.

These astute Black ministers realized there was a need to provide ongoing support for minority seminarians, and particularly Black seminarians, since that was the largest minority group of the church at the time.

Marks says the formation of the IMP Committee was a pioneering initiative. “It was a very inclusive group,” he said. “There were African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others on the committee. This perhaps was the first intercultural committee of the Presbyterian Church.”

A safe space emerges

Reese explained it this way: “It appeared to me that the number of persons of color in seminary was so small that they didn’t have any way of feeling they were important, as well as comfortable about what they were doing, where they were doing it and how they were doing it. So, I came up with the idea that we should bring all of the seminarians of color together once a year in a single place to strengthen their relationships, help them feel significant and important, and address whatever questions or needs they brought to the meeting.” 

In 1979, every person of color attending a Presbyterian seminary was invited to the inaugural Conference for Seminarians of Color, which was held in Atlanta at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. At the time, the Presbyterian Church was a denomination divided into northern and southern divisions. Reunification didn’t occur until 1983 with the formation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Reese recollects that there were only 55 students of color enrolled in Presbyterian seminaries that year.

However, he said over the next eight years the number of nonwhite students enrolled in Presbyterian seminaries doubled.

In addition, an invitation was extended to non-Presbyterian seminaries to reach Presbyterian seminarians of color who were attending other institutions.

Since the conference’s inception, more than 1,000 seminarians of color have attended. Many of these individuals are currently serving or have served in national leadership roles within the denomination.

They include: the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Office of the General Assembly; the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency; and Rhashell Hunter, director of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, which she says “seeks to offer seminarians of color, new immigrants and women an overview of the many skills and talents needed to succeed in leadership.”

According to Jewel McRae, associate for Women’s Leadership Development and Young Women’s Ministries, and an alumna of the conference, attendees “come together to join in community with other church leaders in a spiritual and nurturing environment.”

The seminarians explore paths to ordination, engage in vocational discernment, learn how to take senior ordination exams and navigate the call process.

Seminarians also learn about budgets and finance, the benefits of the Board of Pensions and the services offered by the Presbyterian Foundation. More importantly, though, they discuss issues facing seminarians of color.

“They are there to be encouraged to build and sustain relationships as part of their support system and to learn about the rewards and challenges of being a Presbyterian leader, especially a Presbyterian leader of color,” said McRae.

Strengthening collegiality

The Rev. David Tsai Shinn, associate pastor for congregational care at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, attended the Conference for Seminarians of Color in 1994, 1995 and 1996. He was excited by the idea of getting together with other people of color to have an opportunity to bond and share a racialized experience.

“I wanted to meet other seminarians of color,” he said. Shinn, who attended Princeton University, says his class of 14 Asian Americans was the largest Asian American class at Princeton at the time.

Shinn found that the connections he made at the conference were “absolutely” invaluable.

“It broadened my perspective of the connectional church. I’ve been ordained for 22 years now, and I remain in touch with people that I met at the conference. I run into others at different national events,” he said.

Shinn adds that attending the Conference for Seminarians of Color is important because it helps seminarians to get beyond the bubble of the seminary. The conference, he explained, put him in direct touch with the national staff of the PC(USA), with whom he made connections that would allow him to reach out and call upon them for guidance in the future.

While the conference celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019, such a gathering has become even more important today for the Church’s future leaders.

“In light of the racial unrest in our country today, it is important for seminarians of color to unite and move the Church forward,” said Shinn.

The Rev. Huong Dang — best known as “Cedar” and as pastor of the Vietnamese Presbyterian Church in Garden Grove, California — is the first woman to be installed as senior minister of a Vietnamese-language congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Dang said that when she first learned of the Conference for Seminarians of Color, she was excited. Her enthusiasm, she explained, stemmed from her loneliness during her time at Fuller Theological Seminary.

“Although I was blessed with professors who were very nice and understanding, I still felt distanced among them, as well as among the seminarians who were Caucasian and of vastly different backgrounds than mine,” she said. “Moreover, their social and theological backgrounds, in my experience, had little relevance to my background and my spiritual needs.”

At the Conference for Seminarians of Color, one can listen to the voices of people who have faced and endured similar challenges, Dang explained. And in that listening, “we come to appreciate one another’s stories, the dreams we all have for future ministries, and how we can fellowship with and support one another.”

And it is this listening time that is so beneficial, Dang says, because it allows seminarians of color to gain the invaluable experience of hearing people of different backgrounds express their unique struggles and hardships.

“If we can build and maintain long-lasting relationships, we can all help one another in our ministries,” she said.

Dang especially found the information she garnered at the conference to be a resource of hope and affirmation when she needed it the most in her ministry.

“As a female seminarian on her way to become a pastor of a Vietnamese congregation — which at the time was and still is, to some degree, a rare case mainly because of the culture — I didn’t readily apply the information [in a pastoral context],” she said. “However, I could use the information from the conference for encouragement and to learn how to be resilient in times of hardship.”

Dang believes that the conference has had a huge impact within the PC(USA) by allowing minority voices to be heard and by “welcoming the different needs of God’s children of various backgrounds, and in turn, educating and training future pastors of color, and supporting them in their ministries.”

“For me, the Conference for Seminarians of Color had a special role in my spiritual journey. Through this conference, I was given renewed hope and strength to overcome challenging times during my studies and in my ministry,” said Dang.

Gail Strange is the director of church and mid council communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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