Although she was only a few years old at the time, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney has vivid memories of events surrounding the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“At two years old, I thought I had been in his church, that my family had attended that location. As much as memories can be formed at two, I recall with clarity what I saw on the television, and my initial formation as a person became inexorably linked to King’s assassination. It was a traumatic event for me at such a young age,” she said.
Today King’s life and work are key factors in how Gafney understands herself, her story, and her work as a seminary professor and biblical scholar. She devotes her academic life to studying the Hebrew text of the Scriptures of Israel and traces her commitment to and love for the textual literacy that has shaped her academic research, theological commitments and her personal life to her parents and as well as to her academic mentors.
Gafney’s parents decided that from an early age both she and her brother would receive additional education outside the classroom and they focused on reinforcing their children’s historical and cultural literacy from the first spelling assignments onward.
“I would come home with words like ‘hat’ and ‘cat’ to learn. Then my mother would give me words such as ‘alligator’,” Gafney says. “Teachers themselves, my parents recognized the need not only to build our general literacy but also pass on our history as a people of African descent, which we would not receive in the classroom.”
Gafney recalls checking out her first library book, “She Wanted to Read,” the story of educator, civil rights activist, and presidential advisor Mary McLeod Bethune. While Gafney admits that her parent’s curriculum was decidedly ad hoc, she notes that they maintained a respect for learning that ran beyond the classroom and found its key component in African and African-American history. To this day, Gafney considers herself a bookworm with a clear sense of being a part of the African diaspora.
Her writing and sermons reflect her deep commitment to biblical literacy and to wrestling with the text. She traces this to her participation in black Christianities, a combination of traditions that she calls “bibliocentric.”
“In black Christianities, traditions maintain a high regard for the Bible and out of that, also adhere to a significant respect for the preacher and preaching,” Gafney said. “All of my methodology stems from close readings of the text, starting with the Bible and taking it seriously even with all of its issues. We have to wrestle with its patriarchy, androcentrism, violence, and sexism, as well as its liberative and inclusive emphases.”
For Gafney then, her academic commitments keep her rooted in linguistics and Ancient Near Eastern literature in an effort to develop and maintain deep ties with the formative text for Christian traditions.
Maneuvering the academic world and biblical scholarship as an African-American woman, however, has not been easy. As an undergraduate at Earlham College in Indiana, she was one of only seven black students in its 1000 plus student body. While pursuing her Master of Divinity at historically-black Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., Gafney and fellow students discussed their ability and need to be culturally bilingual, in order to survive in a dominant white culture. When Gafney then began her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Duke University she was only the fourth African-American student to enter the program. Her experience highlights the reality that biblical studies have until recently, been a closed field to many African and African-American scholars.
“There are few institutions today whose faculties are composed of members of primarily African descent,” Gafney said. “The fact that it is not possible to even have 20 to 25 percent proportion of African descent faculty means that on one hand, little has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. However, those of us who are here have arrived not only because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy but also because of the white folk who will partner with us. We were sent to graduate school by our white men and women faculty who were perhaps shaped by Martin Luther King, Jr. Those relationships and mentorships testify to what the Civil Rights Movement accomplished.”
Gafney was mentored by Dr. Gene Rice, her Hebrew professor at Howard. Dr. Rice encouraged her to enter the field of Hebrew, even as he warned her only half-jokingly that it was the “last site of despotism in the civilized world.” Gafney also sat at the feet of Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm, the George Washington Ivey professor emeritus of biblical studies at Duke, during his retirement to a monastery in the mid and late nineties.
“The women would sit outside the monastery chapel listening but would send me in knowing that I was an ordained woman,” Gafney said, “Fr. Murphy was the one who sent me to Duke, and when he returned to the university to live out his final days, I was able to spend time with him. He was incredibly special to me as a mentor.”
These mentors, combined with her dedication to church ministry and rigorous academic work, helped propel Gafney as she became a US Army Reserve chaplain, was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Episcopal Church. Even amidst her success, she believes obstacles in the academy and the church persist for all groups historically located on the margins.
“There is a deep vein of sexism that continues to run through churches, broadly and in the African-American church, specifically,” Gafney said. “More than a little irony arises among readers of the biblical text who will wrestle with support for slavery but not with women’s subordination. The Bible is androcentrist as well as a patriarchal text, and we have to confront this when it comes to recognizing women as being fundamentally human. Until women are not regarded as a second species of humanity, we will continue to have unequal access to service in the church.”
Gafney argues that increased church and denominational respect and opportunities for women does and will occur via education and thoughtful shifts in language. She notes that once the AME denomination removed language that restricted serving as a trustee or delegate to men, it was only a matter of time women would and could be ordained. Yet Gafney understands that even where women can serve the church freely, resistance to female leadership lingers.
To help model and teach future pastors, religious leaders and biblical scholars, Gafney and her colleagues distribute a self-evaluation form at the beginning of their courses to help students examine who they are and what they bring from their gender, ethnicity, class, and other lenses—and how this all affects their interaction with a biblical text or a field of study.
“It is acceptable to have our perspectives but we need to be aware of them as biblical scholars. We have to name and identify barriers present in ourselves that do not permit us to recognize others as fully human who bear the image of God. We then have to teach people through these barriers,” she said. “In the words of King, if some of us are not free, none of us are free. The work of God is not yet done; the ‘beloved community’ is not yet here. We must continue to work toward the eradication of biases and hierarchy that organize and divide us.”