Published March 5, 2024

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Divinity School held the Sankofa Alumni Preaching Series to celebrate the distinct contributions of the school’s alumni of African descent. The word Sankofa comes from the Akan tribe of Ghana and means “reach back and get it.”

Eric Williams escorts Dr. William C Turner in at 2024 OBCS Sankofa Lectures
Dr. Eric Williams escorts in the Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr.

Established in 2014, this month the Sankofa series marked 10 years of inviting Black alumni to preach at Duke Divinity School during this series on each Tuesday in Goodson Chapel worship.

The Director of the Office of Black Church Studies Eric Williams recalled his first trip to Ghana in 1999: “One of the symbols that really captured my imagination was the Akan symbol of the mythic Sankofa bird, which was a magnificent swan-like creature in forward motion whose head looked back, gleaning from its past yet poised for the future."

Williams would say of the witness of the Office of Black Church Studies, “We are caught up in the same tension today while honoring our past, yet engaging the future with hope.

"Every year, the Office of Black Church Studies brings back alums for the Sankofa Preaching Series to see what the Lord has done for and through them, and anticipate what God desires to do through our work and witness."

Each week in worship, Duke Divinity students shared what “Sankofa” means to them.

Michael Jones, Th.M., at the OBCS 2024 Sankofa Lectures
Michael Jones, Th.M.

Said Michael Jones, Th.M.: “This can often be difficult work when we consider history. History is filled with flawed legacies and sinful acts. Sankofa challenges us to take these histories exactly as they are: flawed, challenging, grotesque. And we learn. Otherwise, we risk repeating their mistakes.”

Sankofa speaks to the importance of remembrance and seeking the knowledge embedded in our history,” said Frederique Ndatirwa, Th.M. We look back to see and feel the scars of a past that still follows us and embrace the resilience of our ancestors that have shaped our present. We honor the stories of those who came before us.

"Together, let us reach back, retrieve the lessons of the past, and move towards a brighter future.”


Sankofa Preachers

The preachers this year were Rev. Marilyn Bowens, M.Div. ’06; Craig Glover Hines, M.Div. ’23; the Rev. Sheritta Williams, M.T.S., ’17; and the Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, M.Div. ’74, Ph.D., ‘84

Between Lent and Black History

During the final week of the 2024 Sankofa Black Alumni Preaching Series, the Rev. Dr. William C. Turner preached the sermon titled, “Between Lent and Black History.”

“No idols. No idols,” repeated Turner to start his sermon, “I’ll be looking only at that first commandment because there is a sense in which keeping the first commandment causes all the others to follow. The greatest temptation for the human creature may well be reflected in this first commandment addressed in the Decalogue, namely to make an idol. And then to bow to it.”

the Rev. Dr. William C. Tuner, Jr. at the OBCS 2024 Sankofa Lectures
The Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr.

Dr. Turner called upon the congregation to give thanks for this first commandment because it was “crucial for the children coming out of bondage. It was utterly crucial for Moses and the children that Pharaoh and his assumed power be put in its place. God always says to Moses and the people, ‘I am the Lord, your God. I brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. I did not ask for Pharaoh's permission.’”

Moses himself had made an idol out of Pharaoh, fearful of his power, that God had to dismantle, said Turner, and we are still making these idols today.

Turner looked back on the story of Exodus to remember what God has done, what God can do. Said Turner, “Sometimes I even like to testify myself, to remind myself to how he brought me out of bondage and I don't know a better language than the language of Exodus.

“The deliverance, the release, the rescue that could not be planned in advance. That human words cannot explain. From sin to salvation. From sickness to health. It's a story that is told to span generations, circumstances, and environments. It gives a vocabulary of victory, a language of liberation, a song worth singing, a testimony worth telling.”

Turner finished his sermon with a call for students to study, to pray, and to learn to discern idols, “resisting their enticement no matter what they call themselves,” be it politicians or professors.

Worship at the OBCS 2024 Sankofa Lectures
Worship during the OBCS 2024 Sankofa Preaching Series

Said Turner, “God specializes in things thought impossible. Have you any rivers that you think are uncrossable? Have you any mountains that you cannot tunnel through? I tell you, I tell you, there is no better story than the story of Exodus.

"Making idols is a disaster and the worthy undertaking remains that is dethroning Pharoah. That you may know how to discern and that is to unveil in the presence of all the idols that threaten to infect our worship of the one true and living God.”

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