“The Odd Couple”: Two Divinity Alumni Continue to Break Barriers in a Time of Pandemic, Protests, and Zoom
Ten years ago, two people stood together in the pulpit of Manning Road Methodist Church to deliver the sermon. Typically two people don’t preach a sermon together, and that wasn’t the only unusual element of the service: one preacher was a middle-aged man in his 50s; the other was a young woman in her 20s. He was Baptist; she was Methodist. He was African American; she was white—and Manning Road Methodist Church is in Durban, South Africa. Their sermon was titled “The Odd Couple.”
Those two preachers, the Rev. Dewey Williams and the Rev. Bonnie Scott, were both students at Duke Divinity School and were in South Africa for a field education placement in the summer of 2010. Their time there and that joint sermon continue to shape and inform their ministries today.
A Summer in South Africa
Williams was working as a child protection investigator for Durham Social Services when he was accepted to study at Duke Divinity School. He had years of experience in both church and social work ministry but longed to finish seminary. In addition to the academic rigor at Duke, he was intrigued by the possibility of a field education experience in South Africa due to his interest in Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid.
Scott had studied South African history as an undergraduate, and she wanted to see and experience the country and people she had learned about. Williams and Scott didn’t know each other and don’t recall ever having a conversation before they were assigned to serve together as summer interns at Manning Road Methodist Church in Durban, South Africa. Not only were they ministering in the same church, they were also sharing housing and transportation. “We traveled together, we shopped together, and we did church service together,” Williams said. “We often received stares because of our differences. Once when we grocery shopped together, the clerk had to double check to be sure we were buying food together.”
During their time in Durban, South Africa was hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the world’s most-watched sporting event. With schools closed, Williams and Scott helped to run a holiday club for children, including writing curricula and staffing, as well as regularly preaching for Sunday services at Manning Road. The pastor, Roger Scholtz, suggested that they team up for their farewell sermon that summer.
“When we took on the task of preaching together, I suggested the story of the woman at the well with Jesus—an odd couple,” recalls Williams, referring to the text found in the Gospel of John, chapter 4. “We envisioned how the barriers between Jesus and the woman at the well could have prevented them from ever having a meaningful experience. Bonnie and I could have allowed our differences to create barriers, but as we got to know one another’s stories we discovered our similarities outnumbered our differences. The sermon truth is that what worked for us is a God-given blessing that can work for all of us.”
Field education in South Africa provided many opportunities to witness barriers both built and broken. Williams and Scott were there only 16 years after the end of apartheid, and through the lens of the church were able to see different ethnic groups learning how to live together. “Manning Road Methodist Church was a large urban congregation, and they were seeking to navigate their way from being a historically white congregation that offered a Zulu worship for Blacks to a congregation that was more blended and representative of the population of the city,” Williams said.
“Experiencing a new place and people expands your view of the world, but it also tends to shed light on the place you call home,” Scott said. “South Africa did that for me. It gave me a new lens on church, race relations, inequality, wealth—and definitely a greater appreciation for soccer!”
Formation for Ministry
Field education placements are required for every master of divinity student at Duke Divinity, and they are intended to provide opportunities for students to practice ministry skills, discern God’s call on their lives and vocations, and reflect theologically with an experienced supervisor. Ten years after their time at Manning Road Methodist Church, Williams and Scott continue to see how their field education experience there has formed their ministries.
Williams is now the pastor of Mt. Bright Missionary Baptist Church in Hillsborough, N.C. “My field education gave me a renewed focus on working on cross-cultural approaches to how churches might benefit in the U.S.,” he said. “My takeaway was that blending cultures in the church is possible, but it only occurs when power is shared in the church. That’s always a sticky issue, especially when racial diversity is a factor. Even if Black and white people worship together, it will end when we focus on who has power over the church’s pulpit and purse. My first Sunday at Manning Road Methodist Church I preached two of the four services. A Zulu preacher preached the other two services. I was told by Pastor Roger that it was the first Sunday in the history of the church, founded in the 1860s, that they had not heard a white preacher in any of their services.”
Scott is the pastor today at Trinity United Methodist Church in Germantown, Md. “My time at Manning Road Methodist taught me creativity in ministry,” she said. “The church simply didn’t have access to the vast ministry resources most American churches can afford, so we did everything from scratch, in a way that stretched and honored our creativity. For the Holiday Club, we wrote the curriculum: ‘Crossing Borders: Passport to the Promised Land.’ On the last day our theme was ‘God Celebrates Our Diversity,’ and we held a talent show.”
We closed the week with a talent show, by far the most wonderful and unique talent show I've ever seen. All week, the kids signed up as groups or individuals. The 20 acts were not what I expected. Two boys brought in their remote control cars, and sent them zooming up and down the aisles of the church. A couple of seven-year-old boys brought in soccer balls and showed off their “soccer skills.” Some of the counselors created a choreographed dance with two little girls to the “Waca Waca” World Cup song. The littlest boy of them all, six years old, did a single cartwheel as his talent and everybody cheered! There was piano, interpretive dancing, singing, and a 30-second handstand walk down the aisle. The talent show was the most remarkable celebration of diversity in which I have ever taken part. At the end of the show, the kids all joined together in a raucous chorus of the South African praise song “Jabulani.” Many people would not have had the eyes to see the beauty of this makeshift, low-budget talent show. But for those who could see, it was spectacular.—Rev. Bonnie Scott D'11
That creativity and celebration of diversity continues to be a theme of Scott’s ministry today. Her church is located in Germantown, often ranked one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the U.S. “We often find that widely available ministry resources don’t reflect the diversity of our congregation, so I’ve often worked with church members and colleagues to make it up ourselves, trusting the Holy Spirit has already given us what we need. We created a program called ‘Summer in the Spirit’ for middle- and high-schoolers to pray, play, and serve; it took a lot of inspiration from my time in South Africa.”
The Power of Preaching in Pandemic and Protests
Williams and Scott both graduated with their master of divinity degree from Duke Divinity School in 2011. In addition to their shared field education experience, this “odd couple” also shares the distinction of being nationally recognized, award-winning preachers. Scott won the Jameson Jones Preaching Award from Duke Divinity School and the David H.C. Reed Preacher/Scholar award, given to one graduating seminarian in the U.S. Williams won top honors in the Theology of Joy and the Good Life sermon series competition conducted by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture for his submission of five sermons, “Joy on Death Row,” that he preached to men on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C.
So perhaps in this summer of 2020, marked by pandemic, protests for racial justice, and economic turmoil, it’s not surprising that they reconnected over the power of a sermon. On Sunday, August 2, Williams and Scott are joining together to revisit their joint sermon from Manning Road. “The Odd Couple” will make the case that God has the power to break down all the barriers to fellowship and flourishing.
“I was looking at photos from my field placement from 10 years ago and saw the photo of the worship program that had the sermon title, ‘The Odd Couple,’ on the cover,” Williams said. “I thought about the initial awkwardness of Bonnie and me in South Africa together and how it worked. I also thought about the racial tensions that have flared in the U.S. and even worldwide following the police killing of George Floyd. I thought about how more Blacks and whites were standing together to oppose injustice. I thought our sermon was right for the moment in South Africa, but that it is also right for this current moment in the United States.”
“Dewey reached out to me about a month ago, and I was so grateful for the invitation!” Scott exclaimed. “This time of COVID has definitely revealed to me how lonely I was in pastoral ministry. I have an amazing congregation of layfolk, but I had been doing too much of the preaching and teaching as a solo act. I was keen to accept Dewey's invitation to collaborate.”
In 2010, Williams and Scott could stand together in the pulpit. In 2020, they live and minister in different states—and the COVID-19 pandemic has required social distancing that would make it difficult for them to physically share the same pulpit space even if one of them were to travel. But paradoxically the pandemic has also made it easier for them to share the pulpit virtually, as congregations around the world have become used to church services on platforms such as Facebook Live and Zoom.
Both pastors have seen the toll that the pandemic has taken on their congregations. “There is a hardship in not going to see the sick or people that have to go to the hospital,” said Williams. “We have not had any of our members die so far, but we have had members have deaths in their families, and we were not able to serve these families in person.”
But they are both also keenly aware of the opportunities and even imperatives for ministry in this time. “COVID-19 has been a great unveiling for pastors and congregations,” Scott said. “Personally, I'm recognizing how lonely I was in pastoral ministry, and how much the craft of preaching (something very dear to me) has suffered as a result of trying to do it all myself. COVID-19 has inspired collaboration with other pastors and given me time to engage theology and Scripture in new ways.”
“On the first day that we were not all gathered in the church building, I told the congregation that I was excited about this season because we will all learn together what God is going to do,” Williams added. “I was excited because it represented changing the way we do things in the church, and God can give us new procedures and techniques to share faith and to share the gospel.”
The connection between their experience in South Africa and the current protests for racial justice has not been lost on these two ministers. “In this public moment, I believe pastors are called to a heightened level of public witness that is both challenging and humbling,” Scott said. “I live 20 miles from the White House, so participating in prayer vigils and public protests has been part of my vocational work. With everything now online, pastoral work is increasingly public and vulnerable. The sermon I would typically write for a specific congregation, with whom I've cultivated a loving, trusting relationship, is now available to the world! I think pastors ought to be honest with themselves and their congregations about how hard that can be. It's simultaneously an opportunity and a challenge.”
At Manning Road, Williams sat in meetings of the church stewards as they debated submitting the name of a pastoral candidate who was of Zulu descent. This year, Scott led her congregation to form a racial justice team and hired a racial justice intern, a young woman of West African descent, to plan for a year-long program of education and advocacy.
“I've been encouraging my congregation to focus on the opportunities that this season provides, rather than rushing to get back to ‘normal’,” Scott said. “I've always been wary of technology in ministry, but now is the season to embrace its advantages. Right now, the majority of my congregation is meeting for worship in cell groups (small groups/class meetings) over Zoom. Folks tell me that they are deepening relationships they never would have on a typical Sunday.”
“My prayer is that we will come out of this pandemic with new expressions of ecclesia for our current generation,” said Williams. “If we endure this and return to being the same church we were before—Shame on us!”
Ten years after this odd couple was assigned to serve as interns at the same church in Durban, South Africa, they continue to preach that barriers—whether age, race, gender, denomination, or even distance—can be overcome by faith and through the Spirit.
A video of the full Breaking Barriers service and of the joint sermon "The Odd Couple" is available.
August 2 Service Details
Breaking Barriers Sunday Worship
Trinity United Methodist Church of Germantown, Md. and Mt. Bright Missionary Baptist Church of Hillsborough, NC
August 2, 2020 at 10:30 a.m.
"Christ Challenges Our Inequities"
Dewey Williams and Bonnie Scott preaching
Zoom worship meeting ID: 828 5649 2129
Meeting password: 758769