By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, Former President, Yale Divinity School Alumnai Board
After graduating from Kent State University, I found myself at Yale Divinity School (YDS) pursuing the Master of Divinity. After my first year at YDS, I felt called to experience my middler year in an ecumenical urban ministry program called Inter-Seminary Theological Education and Ministry (ISTEM). I was glad that the program included Yale, Union Theological Seminary and other USA-East Coast seminaries. Students enrolled in this middler year program could choose classes at any of the related schools that would also accompany their urban theological class and ministry praxis in New York City. I decided to take my classes at Union Theological Seminary and to conduct my ministry praxis in Harlem at Convent Avenue Baptist Church and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) led by the Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker.
I entered the program expecting to be transformed by the urban context, critical reflection and engagement of urban praxis, global awareness and community organizing at IFCO but I did not foresee how dramatically my intellectual formation and vision would be transformed by the classes, special lectures and conversations at Union Theological Seminary. The highlights of this experience were my intellectual and hospitable engagements with Drs. Cornell West, James Forbes, James Washington and James Cone that year as well as new peers and friends I still work with and highly regard. The treasure of experiencing such an amazing collective treasury of black intellectual life at this highly regarded school in the heart of New York City in Harlem was amazing and continues to inspire my ecumenical vision informed by my Pan African lens, vision and mission of faith.
In the specific case of the Rev. Dr. James Cone, I was privileged to take Systematic Theology and Black Liberation Theology with him that middler year. I recall my first day in my Systematic Theology class with Dr. Cone. I quickly learned that he had very high academic expectations of all his students. At the same time, he provided support for us with teaching assistants, like the Rev. Dr. George Cummings, who led the small group reflection groups and mentoring sessions on the extensive reading assignments and prolific lectures by Dr. Cone.
While Dr. Cone was best known for the development of Black Liberation Theology and his book, God of the Oppressed at that time, I have come to appreciate the rude awakening I had about who he was as a professor and intellectual of theological inquiry. I believe Dr. Cone not only sought to advance the understanding of a Black Liberation Theological lens that advanced important insights of the contextual theological challenges of race and class but also the giftedness of people of African Descent for the benefit of ALL people. This came to mind when I was a presenter and attendee 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 Dr. Cone’s advancement of a Black Liberation Theology articulated such a concern from a Black lens. Go here to learn more about the CWME: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/mission2018 .
To be sure, Dr. Cone was courageous for advancing his theological lens in a time that was less popular to do so and contributed to a world community of generations that have come after him globally. I believe the CWME Conference was one recent example of this. One of my colleagues who is a scholar from Tonga, the Rev Dr Katalina Tahaafe-Williams, states the following. “James Cone was truly the father of Black Liberation Theology and although I never met him, his influence on me through his writings has been profound and long lasting.” Another one of my mentors from the global ecumenical movement, the Rev. Dr. Barney Pityana, who was the global leader of the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) at the World Council of Churches and in South Africa said the following: “Dr. Cone was an example of a passion for Christ, and for justice, and a lover of humanity. I always appreciated his support for our work at PCR.” Ashe and Amen! May our dear brother in Christ rest in eternal peace and live on through so many of us influenced by him!