My Dear Fellow Members of the SMU/Perkins Community,
First allow me to commend all those whose hands have labored to put this program together for seeking to address one of the preeminent issues of this contemporary moment. I also would like to express my sincere respect to all of the panelists invited to lend their thoughts, passions, and insights to this discussion. A cursory examination into each of their respective areas of specialization leads no room for doubting whether they are scholars worthy of respect. I particularly commend the organizers of this event for selecting Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, a fellow Perkins School of Theology alumni, whose expertise in the area of communications, coupled with her commitments in ministry, will undoubtedly provide much needed insight and perspective. Ergo, this letter is in no way an attempt to obfuscate the brilliance of each contributor or the sincere intentions that undoubtedly serves as the gravitas of this particular gathering. However, by selecting a scholar from the Perkins School of Theology to speak on the panel whose research expertise and trained area of specialization is incomparable to that of his fellow African American colleagues at Perkins, the organizers of this event not only disrespected the African American religious scholars at the Perkins School of Theology whose intellectual labor is well known throughout the nation but have also disrespected the greater African-American community at the Perkins School of Theology. This inconvenient truth must not be overlooked or taken lightly.
I am proud to be an alumnus of The Perkins School of Theology. I consider graduating Summa Cum Laude in the area of Moral Theology and being awarded the B’Nai B’Rith Award for Scholarly Competence and Personal Commitment to Social Ethics to be one of the crowning achievements of my life. The bonds I established with faculty and colleagues alike have transcended race, generations, political preferences, and religious affiliations. Had it not been for professors like Karen Baker-Fletcher, Harold Recinos, Tamara Lewis, Joerg Rieger, Abraham Smith, Jaime Clark-Soles, Theodore Walker, Rebekah Miles, Evelyn Parker, and Hugo Magallanes I would not have found my theological voice, let alone discover the requisite courage to pursue a PhD in American Religions in the area of race, religion, and black political thought at Northwestern University. It was at Southern Methodist University that the term “social justice” ceased to be a facile phrase devoid of political efficacy. It was at Southern Methodist University where I first encountered Womanist, Feminist, and Mujerista Theologies. It was at Southern Methodist University that I began to critically reflect upon the vicissitudes of trauma experienced by my sisters and brothers who identify as LGBTQIA+. Truthfully speaking, I am only able to make the observations I am making regarding this event because I was academically trained at Southern Methodist University, which only serves to make this letter both ironic as well as an offering to the women and men at Perkins School of Theology who taught me into being.
As I discussed this upcoming event with several fellow alumni, we were all taken aback and troubled by the fact that, despite Perkins School of Theology being filled with world-renowned African-American religious scholars whose research intersects the major themes of this particular event in several meaningful ways, many of them were not made aware that the event was taking place at all, let alone invited to lend their trained expertise to the conversation. We all found it befuddling and inexplicable that a School of Theology which has a tier-one African-American Church studies program would not feature at least one professor of this world-class program to participate in a conversation that intimately engages the themes of race and American religions, a conversation that cannot be sufficiently explored without engaging critically with both the historic and contemporary legacy of the Black Church. This causes one to inquire why SMU even bothers having a Black Church Studies Concentration if the world-renowned African-American scholars who teach the bulk of the courses therein are not even invited to speak on a panel that intersects with their level of expertise. Did the framers and organizers of this upcoming event assess the critical inquiries that would undoubtedly surface once it was made known that a school that uses the intellectual labor of Black religious scholars to recruit black seminarians did not consider those very same scholars as being the obvious choices to explore, from a position of expertise, both the continuities as well as the disruptions fusing together black religions, this contemporary movement for black lives, and the black radical tradition writ large? Can any SMU faculty member or administrator name a cadre of scholars more qualified to cogently articulate how black religions in general and the Black Church in particular negotiates, countervails, and triumphs over the necropolitical theologies latent within the interstices of American liberal democracy? Are the framers and organizers of this event prepared to go on record saying the sole religious historian from Perkins selected to speak is the most qualified voice in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on these complex and pressing issues, let alone the most qualified voice in his department? I say this, once again, acknowledging that, in the area of his concentration and specialization, he is one of the most respected voices in all the academy. However, I think no one within the academy will balk at acknowledging the fact that the intersection of critical race theory, black religions (particularly Black Church Studies at the intersection of racial sites of terror), and black political thought are not part of those myriad trained specializations.
Above all, I am concerned how such a myopic gesture may damage the academic integrity of Southern Methodist University writ-large as well as the Perkins School of Theology in particular. What does this gesture say to current black students of theology studying at Perkins –especially those who aspire to one day pursue doctoral studies? Surely, considering the fact that Perkins School of Theology taught me the pernicious permeation of inequality in the ministry and the workplace, Perkins will not allow themselves to stand behind a move that, if carried out, will go to show their students of color, particularly Black women training specifically in the areas of systematic theology, social ethics, and African-American Church History, that no matter how hard you work, no matter how many books you publish in a particular content area, no matter how many conference presentations you deliver and no matter how many articles in an area of specialization you have published in peer-reviewed journals, there will always be a white man who has not written the books you have written, presented at the conferences you have presented, who will be considered, nevertheless, more competent to sit on panels that engage in your research all because he is, in fact, a white man who is well respected in his general field of research–research that, at best, loosely engages on the material you have sacrificially spent your academic life pouring over. In lieu of what to everyone should be obvious, albeit uncomfortable, statements of reality and truth, I, as a proud alumnus of the Perkins School of Theology, am calling on the renowned and esteemed Dr. Ted Campbell to make a gesture of solidarity this week by removing himself from the panel in favor of one of his many qualified colleagues. Such a gesture would not only preserve the integrity of the event; it will also provide alumni like myself sufficient cause to continue encouraging aspiring black seminarians to consider Perkins as a space that affirms, encourages, and positions black religious scholars for success.
SMU and the Perkins School of Theology are both better than this.
I know, because Perkins taught me to be better than this.
Grace and Peace,
J.H. Hill, Jr., M.T.S.