Duke Divinity School is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Office of Black Church Studies, culminating in an evening celebration on April 17 featuring Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams and the Martin Luther King Lecture Series on April 18 with the Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale.

2021 OBCS graduates pose in regalia
2021 OBCS graduates in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Office of Black Church Studies (OBCS) was founded in 1972, the first such office at Duke University and one of the earliest Black Church offices among all U.S. theological schools. The OBCS hosts world-renowned preachers and lecturers, provides formation and pastoral care for students, and leads a variety of initiatives to develop, preserve, and share resources from the Black Church for the whole church.

The celebration on April 17 will include a premiere of a documentary about the OBCS; a concert by Adams, who will also perform two songs with Duke Divinity's Gospel Choir; and a special recognition of the first two Black men and women to graduate from the school: respectively, Chaplain Matthew A. Zimmerman Jr., M.Div. '65, and the Rev. Dr. James Donald Ballard, M.Div. '66; and the Rev. Yvonne Beasley, M.Div. '76, and the Rev. Dr. Sadie Joyner Milton, M.Div. '76.

On April 18, Hale, M.Div. ’79, the founding and senior pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga., will preach in Goodson Chapel and deliver a lecture later that afternoon.

Said Regina Graham, interim director of OBCS: “OBCS is grateful to celebrate those who have paved the way for Black students and others with their unwavering commitment and excellence. Undeniably, they are true leaders, scholars, and pastors, and their contributions to Duke Divinity School's Office of Black Church Studies have been nothing short of remarkable. Their legacy and witness will serve as a shining example for future generations.”

Turner, second from left, poses in front of Goodson Chapel with OBCS alumni.
Turner, second from left, poses with OBCS alumni outside Goodson Chapel in 2013.

William C. Turner, B.S.E. '70, M.Div. '74, Ph.D. '84 (all Duke University), James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Preaching, will also be honored at the celebration event on April 17. A member of one of the first Duke University undergraduate classes to include African Americans, he reflected on the importance of Black students and Black Church scholarship to the Divinity School and the university as a whole:

"Bringing Black students in was a wedge that pried the school open," he said. "It went from a good Southern institution to a world-class university. Colonialism was falling all over the world, and there was a scholarship scarcely known in the West that was receiving new attention, a scholarship that educated white people didn't know about. It pushed back the boundaries of ignorance, forcing the engagement of the school with a broader current. It forced issues cordoned off as a 'race problem' right into the heart of the intellectual discourse."

The work of the OBCS over the past 50 years has had a profound impact on the life of the school, and there is still work to be done to ensure greater equity and to better integrate the rich intellectual and theological resources of the Black Church into academic and ministerial formation at the school. Said Beasley, "When we were there, we appreciated what Duke offered, and we were very conscious of some areas where it could improve. We were very proactive and alert, and always looking for ways that the Black religious experience could become a base part of seminary life."

Alumni and students at the 2010 MLK worship service
Students, alumni, and community members attend the 2010 MLK worship service.

The legacy and ongoing mission of the OBCS will continue to be strengthened through the establishment of the Joseph Bethea Endowment Fund. The fund will support OBCS students, programs, lectures, hospitality, conferences, and travel, and was established to honor Bishop Joseph B. Bethea, the founding director of the OBCS. Bethea was instrumental in Duke Divinity School becoming for the first mainline seminary in the South to require a course in Black Church Studies for graduation. Bethea went on to become the first African American person elected to the episcopacy by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

Said Dean Edgardo Colón-Emeric, "This celebration of the OBCS 50th is an occasion to give God thanks for the many gifts that have come to us from African American scholars, staff, students, and churches. I am grateful for the work of the OBCS and the ecumenical networking and collaboration that has been at the heart of their work."

"I think it's important to mark this anniversary," said Beasley. "It encourages the university to continue its strides on behalf of people of color, to not become complacent but continue to develop programs and a ministry that prepares these students to work in the larger faith community."

Donate to the Joseph Bethea Endowment Fund by selecting "Joseph B. Bethea Fund" on the Divinity School donation website.