The president of a PC(USA)-related seminary stays focused on justice by expanding his toolkit

For the Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, focus and perseverance come from varied practices, including hot yoga

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Paul Roberts

LOUISVILLE — As you might expect when sitting down with a seminary president, Wednesday’s edition of “Leading Theologically” was wide-ranging, touching on hot yoga, online education, gun violence and justice. Listen to the half-hour conversation between the Rev. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation and the Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, here or here.

Hot yoga came up when Hinson-Hasty asked Roberts about what’s making him come alive. For Roberts, the practice, now into its fifth year, impacts his heart, mind, body, “and even my family,” who join him when they can in a 105-degree room with 40% humidity to repeat the same 26 postures done twice each.

“It’s been life-giving for me. It’s helped me to broaden my sphere,” said Roberts, who’s led the PC(USA)-affiliated historically Black seminary for 14 years. “When you love the ministry we do, it’s very easy to be a bit narrow and myopic. The yoga has broadened my perspective and introduced me to new people. It’s helped me think about ministry in different ways. I feel like I’m better able to draw the spirit-mind connection.”

You can’t get through a 90-minute session of hot yoga “without a real strong sense of focus,” Roberts told Hinson-Hasty. “I have found that just the right amount of perspiration energizes me, and I’m pretty sure it helps eliminate toxins.”

The people teaching the technique and those participating in the studio form a community, Roberts said. “The attentiveness of the instructional staff sets the tone for everyone engaging with everyone else,” Roberts said, which fits nicely with “the work I do and the mission statement” of the seminary, which involves advancing communities of faith, justice and compassion through innovation and theological education.

“I find I have a lot more in common with these people than yoga,” Roberts said. “It has reminded me of the common journey and the importance of relating to people beyond what you have immediately in common with them.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

When Hinson-Hasty mentioned Monday’s school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, Roberts thanked him for lifting up the most recent example of gun violence in school and promised not to “stay on my soapbox for long.”

“I join with you and so many others in praying for that community and taking the next step, which for me is being more assertive in some way … We have got to make our country safe for our children … People of faith have a unique opportunity here. [School shootings] are happening in places we’re surprised about. No place is immune.”

It is the fact that societal harms remain entrenched “that powers the curriculum at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary today,” Roberts said. “We are heavily justice oriented. We’ve been fueled in our work by the tragic losses of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and before that Eric Garner and before that Emmett Till. There is a history here that has fueled the programming decisions of JCSTS more in these last 10 years than ever before. I’m really proud of that and yet I find it terribly challenging and difficult and heart-wrenching.”

“It’s the role of the church and church-affiliated organizations, in my opinion, to bear this pain and to find ways to address the issues from which this pain emerges,” Roberts said. “The curriculum we’re building is … strongly connected to those values and feeding those who want to take a more active role in addressing ecclesial and societal issues.”

When Hinson-Hasty asked Roberts to offer a blessing to those listening to their conversation, Roberts turned to the Book of Common Worship: “Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold on to what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Support the weak. Help the suffering. Honor all people. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God! Amen.”

Watch past and upcoming editions of “Leading Theologically” here or here.

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