Racial Harmony at Westminster

February 06, 2011

Rev. Dr. Emmitt Cornelius, Jr. (PhD, '05), offers some words of encouragement and exhortation following Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  He was the first African-American to receive a PhD from Westminster.

I spent most of my childhood and teenage years surrounded by the harsh realities of Jim Crowism and de facto segregation in the South. I still remember vividly my experiences at all white Boyd Elementary School in the early days of “desegregation” in Jackson, Mississippi. I have never forgotten the hurtful comments (and look) of one elderly white female teacher. Her harsh words and disgruntled demeanor communicated to me that my arrival was unwelcomed and that “forced” busing of black children to white neighborhood schools would never change how whites perceived or treated blacks.

Unfortunately, this was only one of many experiences in the “deep South” that led me to conclude that I did not belong, nor would I ever be accepted, in mainstream America because of the stigma associated with being black. At some point, I stopped believing that racial equality and racial harmony were real possibilities in the world I knew as an African American. As I saw it, slavery and the Jim Crow era had cast too long of a shadow over our nation giving me little hope that the plight of African Americans would ever change.

My introduction to Christ and His church, however, challenged me to reconsider that assessment. Redemption into Christ’s covenant community opened up for me a full-blown, biblical vision of how people of different races could live and serve together in racial harmony as witnesses to the transforming and reconciling power of the gospel. As a personal and immensely practical testimony of this, I was blessed as a former African American student at Westminster to have my entire tuition underwritten by a descendant of a former slaveholding family in Mississippi! Imagine. God, in His grace, bringing together offspring of a former slave and a former slaveholder in order to magnify the unrivaled power of His gospel to overcome the evil legacy of racism!

Westminster Theological Seminary, as an institution committed to promoting the gospel in its reconciling power, has a wonderful opportunity to model racial harmony and reconciliation on its campus as it serves its minority student population. As a tribute to the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, I was asked to offer some practical suggestions for embracing these students and promoting racial harmony among the Westminster community. I will mention three brief points.

First, create a genuine community of acceptance on campus. African American students need to feel accepted and appreciated for their racial heritage and their contributions to the advancement of Reformed theology, especially in their own contexts. May I suggest that Westminster explore practical ways to celebrate racial diversity, perhaps beginning with open and candid dialogue about race relations in America and on campus. From this conversation, I would suggest developing and implementing a policy regarding race relations that will ensure that minority students on campus are not marginalized or undervalued. In addition, highlight the contributions of African American Reformed thinkers, including current and former students, as a way of acknowledging that African Americans have a say in the exposition and preservation of the Reformed tradition. As quiet as it’s kept, there are highly qualified African American thinkers who are doing an incredible job advancing Reformed theology. (On this point, kudos to Westminster on the recent promotion on its website of a book written by a current African American student!)

Second, recruit and help fund African American students. I am grateful to God for the increasing number of African American congregations being exposed to Reformed theology. If this is to continue, more African American students must be recruited and trained as specialists in the Bible. However, the current economic crises, plus economic issues intrinsic to the African American community, make it increasingly difficult for African American students to finance a Westminster education. One way Westminster can help address this problem is by networking with former and current African American students and their churches to raise scholarship funds.

Finally, hire African Americans in administrative and teaching positions. By doing this, the seminary shows it’s appreciation for diversity, acknowledges that there are qualified and gifted African Americans who can fill these positions, provides faculty and staff who can relate to the African American experience, and helps African American students “connect” from the moment they arrive on campus.

Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of a world where race no longer divided people. I do too. Join in praying with me that Westminster will seek to model in this age what will be true in the age to come when every barrier to racial harmony will be removed and the redeemed of all races will always express the character and love of Jesus Christ in their interactions with one another.