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By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith
During my middler year at Yale Divinity School, I spent my time in one of their urban ministry collaboratives, the Inter-Seminary Theological Education and Ministry (ISTEM) program. The program was based in New York City. I chose to participate in Harlem at Convent Avenue Baptist Church and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) led by the Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker. I took classes from Union Theological Seminary.
I entered the program expecting to be transformed by the urban context and the critical reflection of it for learning. I expected to become more globally aware and learn community organizing skills in socially marginalized communities affected by hunger and poverty in the United States and abroad. I did not foresee how dramatically my intellectual formation and vision would be transformed by my classes, special lectures, and conversations at Union Theological Seminary. The highlights of this experience were my intellectual and hospitable engagements with black academic giants like Drs. Cornell West, James Forbes, James Washington and James Cone at Union.
In the specific case of the Rev. Dr. Cone, I was privileged to take Systematic Theology and Black Liberation Theology. I recall my first day in his class. I quickly learned that he had very high academic expectations of all his students. At the same time, he provided support for students with his teaching assistants, small group work and mentoring.
While Rev. Dr. Cone was best known for the development of Black Liberation Theology and his book, “God of the Oppresses” at that time, I came to learn that Rev. Dr. Cone’s doctoral work was on German theologian, Karl Barth. His approach to Systematic Theology had roots in neo-orthodoxy not liberalism. His theological advancements advancing a Black Liberation Theological lens were directly related to the advancement of all God’s people with a preferential option for the poor.
This came to mind when I was a presenter at the recent Christian World Mission and Evangelism Conference (CWME)in Arusha, Tanzania. This very expanded ecumenical forum of most of the families of Christendom focused on the theological advancement of “missions from the margins” which was a theological shift from former missional and evangelical formulations. However, long before this shift, I remember that Rev. Dr. Cone’s advancement of a God of the oppressed and a Black Liberation Theology articulated the same priority.
To be sure, Rev. Dr. Cone was courageous for advancing his theological lens in a time when people of African descent and the poor, many who were and still are people of African descent, were dismissed. Today, we continue to live in the painful structural history of racism and economic disparities.
Bread for the World is a partner for racial equity and no hunger or poverty for any of God’s children. Go here to learn more. May our dear brother in Christ rest in eternal peace and live on through so many of us influenced by him!
Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World.
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