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Union Theological Seminary honors one of its most gifted graduates, the Rev. Dr. Gay Byron

Webinar celebrates the work of the New Testament and womanist scholar, who died in December

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Gay Byron

LOUISVILE — Union Theological Seminary, which conferred three degrees on the late Rev. Dr. Gay Byron, recently held a hybrid event honoring the famed womanist scholar. Watch the 90-minute program, which included a choral music tribute, by clicking here.

Until her death, Byron was the distinguished Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. She received her MDiv, MPhil and PhD degrees from Union Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea C. White

“Although she is no longer with us, her incredible legacy lives on through the many lives she impacted,” said Union Theological Seminary’s president, the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, introducing a panel in the field of womanist interpretation moderated by the Rev. Dr. Andrea C. White, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at UTS. The panel included:

  • The Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace, the Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
  • The Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, Associate Professor of Theology and African American Religion at the Yale Divinity School.
  • Aurora Celestin, an MDiv candidate at Union Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace

Lovelace noted that womanist thought “did not grow out of feminist thought. Black women — whether activists, preachers, however they moved in the world — had to navigate what it meant to be Black and a woman at the same time.”

While it was the author Alice Walker who made the term “womanist” famous, “the phenomenon was always happening,” Lovelace said. “It’s looking at how people find meaning in life reading these biblical texts.”

In addition to her significant publications, teaching and administrative duties, Byron was a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Aurora Celestin

“God knows a little something about being a Black woman,” Celestin said, “and Black women know a lot about who God is.”

Byron’s work included a scholarly account of the origins of Christianity in ancient Ethiopia. “A primary significance of her work is in her contending for Blackness as a founding term for Christianity,” Turman said. “It disrupts everything we know about the Christian story and provides the groundwork for what [the Rev. Dr.] James Cone would be 50 years before her. She’s providing the backstory, that Blackness actually matters.”

“Malcolm X called Christianity the white man’s religion, and maybe it is,” Turman said. “But it hasn’t always been.”

The Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman

Methodologically, Byron “engaged in what she called ‘emancipatory recovery,’ the idea of uncovering sources that were Ethiopic and African outside the cannon to tell the other story about Christian origins in Northeast Africa,” Turman said. Byron was “one of the first to be thinking about the violent diminishment of Black women and how that’s interwoven into the Christian story.”

“It’s telling the story that we have always been there. It’s there,” Celestin said, but “we have to go looking for it.”

The event concluded with Byron’s words following a police action on June 1, 2020, on what was reported at the time to be an effort to clear Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., of peaceful protesters so that former President Donald Trump and senior administration officials could walk from the White House to St. John’s Church for what turned out to be a photo op: “Those who know the living God of peace, justice, deliverance, and liberation are called to rise up in this moment. Keep protesting,” Byron wrote. “Keep gathering in your communities of faith to worship, study, pray, and mobilize — for the long haul. Keep your feet in the streets and at the doors of your elected leaders. Keep the faith. God is not to be mocked. Let us not grow weary in this fight for justice.”

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