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Resurrection Power and the Black Church

An interview with Eboni Marshall Turman, director of the Office of Black Church Studies and assistant research professor of Black Church Studies

What are some ways that you see black women working toward a resurrection of the church?
Black women in many ways are flooding institutions of theological education. So, now more than ever, we are seeing black women engaging to be theologically prepared to lead religious communities. More black women are asserting a call to ministry and are actively working toward ordination in their respective denominations. Women are boldly approaching black churches with their skill sets as trained theologians and pastors and seeking ministerial placements more than ever before. And lay women are now becoming more open to being pastored by a woman. Even though the struggle continues, now little girls and little boys have models of women as pastoral leaders. So 30 years from now, 35 years from now, it won’t be so odd for a little girl to say “I want to be a pastor” when she’s 7.  That all allows for a change in culture, a more affirming culture for women in black churches, even though it takes some time.

What is the role of Scripture in the renewal or resurrection of the church?
Black church tradition is by and large a Bible-believing tradition. We emerge from an oral tradition where Scripture continues to be memorized. There’s a great love for the ability to recite, to remember, and to hold close to the heart the word of God. And so we will have to produce Bible scholars who are looking very deeply at how we understand what the word of God is saying in the 21st century, how the Spirit continues to speak to us through the Word. Also, preachers must read their work and proclaim it in ways that are life-affirming to our communities. For as much as Scripture has been beloved of the tradition, Scripture has always been deeply contested by the black church because it has been historically interpreted in ways that have denigrated black people and situated them as dishonorable, bestial, and ungodly. And yet historically the black church has interpreted Scripture in ways that have been life-affirming to persons who have been marginalized. And so we have to re-enter into that space of understanding and interpreting Scripture on the side of the oppressed.

What role can the seminary have in the renewing or resurrecting the church?
I think, in order for the seminary to remain a relevant and life-giving bridge for the parish, that the seminary must deeply consider and intentionally engage how we negotiate difference on multiple levels. This means the seminary must engage the classical disciplines in ways that prepare pastors and those who seek to serve and lead in religious spaces to confront and to transform the -isms that haunt us.

In other words, we can’t do Bible the same way. We need to do Bible, but we need to be able to allow the Bible to speak to who we are today. Yes, we need the classical and traditional, but we need to be thinking in ways that prepare pastors to do theology in spaces of multiplicity. Because the 21st century is a time that requires us to live together, and we’re all different; how do we do that in a way that is pleasing to God?

What do you hope to bring to the Office of Black Church Studies?
What I hope to bring to the office is a fresh vision and a fresh word and voice about who the black church is and who we are called to be. I think that I bring a very precise lens to the work, to understanding what the church needs in the leaders of today. I think because of some of my more provocative perspectives on the direction of contemporary black churches, I see the office almost standing as a mouthpiece for black churches in the academy.

I know that Duke Divinity School has one of the youngest student populations among seminaries and divinity schools, and I want to help young people, to affirm in them what God has placed in them and let them know it’s OK to be young and to be called and to desire “to serve God in the days of your youth.” I want to be a sounding board for issues and concerns that are critical for a new generation of believers, of black believers specifically -- like HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and class. I want to delve into issues of race and mixed race and gender. I want to allow the black church and persons who love the black church space to think creatively and progressively about those things.