Students, faculty wade in the water of PCUSA multicultural conference

At this year’s Multicultural Conference of the Presbyterian Church USA, “H20: Deepening our Faith, Widening our Culture,” McCormick faculty and students engaged tough questions about the role of theological education in a denomination struggling to reflect and remain relevant to the multicultural world around it.

Led by the Rev. Dr. Frank Yamada, Director of the Center for Asian American Ministries and Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at McCormick, the theological education “stream” of the conference began with a panel discussion on how well theological education is equipped to train leadership and serve the needs of multicultural congregations. Panelists included program directors in theological schools as well as students. While at times pointed and critical, response from the attendees shed light on the felt needs of leaders of multicultural churches.

“The feedback we heard is that we need to be doing some things differently in theological education to address present day multicultural realities," Yamada said. “We’re still working with an educational model that’s based on theological disciplines created 200 years ago. It’s not integrated enough and doesn’t address the particularities of congregations that are multicultural or even those that are more racially or ethnically specific. Broadly speaking, that’s the work ahead of us.”

Biblical Studies at McCormick represents one resource toward this end. In a session co-led by Yamada, Dr. Ted Hiebert, McGaw Professor of Old Testament at McCormick, presented his provocative re-reading of the Tower of Babel story in the Book of Genesis. Different theologies of diversity lurk behind the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, and Hiebert contends that a more faithful reading of the text turns a centuries-long tale of sin and punishment on its head.

“This idea of cultural difference as divine punishment in the Babel story has been very entrenched in Christian thought, and I'm suggesting that neither the historical context nor the original text support this reading," Hiebert said after the conference. "People get really excited about a way of understanding cultural diversity as part of God’s design for human beings, and I think it's because that is truer to their experience as members of thriving multicultural faith communities. In Genesis we see that, in fact, the tendency toward homogeneity is really ours and that God desires to make the one people with one language into many people with many languages.”

Another session focusing on theological education and the multicultural church featured Dr. David Esterline, Director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Theological Education, and Rev. Emily McGinley, Coordinator of the Common Ground Project. Drawing on his experience with the Association of Theological Schools, particularly in the area of accreditation, Esterline reported sobering trends in the number of faculty and students of color in theological schools in North America. Common Ground, McGinley explained, is designed to be a resource for that demographic of students of color en route to predominantly white institutions – which is, statistically speaking, the majority of theological schools.

“Particularly with our Taste of Seminary event, Common Ground tries to provide that space for students of color to share their experiences with other young adults of color, to interact with faculty of color, and be exposed to theologies and texts different than what may be affirmed or presented in their institutions,” she said. “We think that exposure can have an impact on their theological education and what they come to expect from their theological education.”

While a conference gathering together traditionally marginalized groups is an occasion for critique, it is in that very same breath an occasion of encouragement and hope – a hope perhaps most eloquently expressed in Yamada’s sermon during the event's closing worship.

“Friends, we must remember that as we seek to call our churches, indeed the PCUSA and the whole church to these deeper waters of a multicultural church … there will be fear," he said. “… As we wade in the waters, we must never forget that it is in these deep waters—the waters that we first know as Christians in the waters of baptism—that when we die with Christ we will again be raised with him in glory. Indeed, rivers of life will well up inside, overflowing to eternal life... for all God’s people.”