One of the remarkable qualities about Dr. Sharon Ellis Davis is the number of hats she is genuinely qualified to wear. The former chaplain for the Chicago Police Department, who also served the force in records, patrol, and crime scene investigation, holds the Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick and the Ph.D. degree from Chicago Theological Seminary. She is Senior Pastor of God Can Ministries UCC and has taught three different courses at McCormick. In terms of her range of expertise, Davis may be the perfect choice to succeed the Reverend Dr. Deborah F. Mullen as Director of the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies. From 2004-2009, Mullen carried three distinct titles, taking her administrative duties every bit as seriously as her teaching. By all accounts, Davis will ably carry on this tradition.
The first African American woman to be named chaplain for the Chicago Police Department, Davis served officers and their families, particularly in instances of injury or fatality in the line of duty, for 15 years. This very unique role profoundly shaped her understanding of ministry as one of presence and accountability. Like Mullen, Davis has been called throughout her career to occupy difficult spaces.
“I have been with the families and friends of white police officers who have been killed,” she said. “I have been with them and heard their stories. But I also have seen African Americans killed in our neighborhoods, too, and the disproportionate number of African American men in our prison system. So I think one of the gifts God has given me is the ability to hold those realities in tension and when appropriate speak these truths to power.”
One of the social realities Davis grappled with first in her own private life and then more broadly in a professional setting is domestic violence. Herself the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a police offer, Davis found inadequate responses to her experience from both the police department and her church. She used this as an opportunity to confront these institutions and help them establish structures for addressing the reality of domestic violence within their own four walls. Her D.Min. thesis at McCormick in 1995 was one of the practical vehicles for doing this work and she continued her exploration of this and related issues a decade later in her Ph.D. dissertation, Hear Our Cries: Breaking the Gender Entrapment of African American Battered Women.
As an adjunct professor at McCormick, Davis has taught “Pastoral Care with African Americans,” “Pastoral Care in Times of Crisis,” and “Sexual and Domestic Violence.” Now as the Director of the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies, she takes on a full schedule of events including the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Service of Praise and Worship in January and the African American Church Leadership Lecture in March.
But in terms of her role as a director and how the center might serve students at McCormick, she wants to be both a supportive presence and resource for helping future leaders think critically about the very institutions they will serve.
“To be an African American, a member of the police force, and part of the Church has given me a different perspective,” she said. “I feel as though I’ve been able to occupy a place in which I can both appreciate the value of institutions and also critically analyze and identify their failings – without being burnt by them.
“So what I find so meaningful about teaching in a seminary is that I can teach ministers-in-training how to do social analysis, to look at violence against women in the pulpit, to understand the ethical implications of our organizational structures and our doctrines, to understand who we are truly empowering and disempowering in our churches. I’ve been so blessed to be able to do that work.”