The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM) hosted the inaugural intensive of Project Access in Oakland, CA on July 12-15, 2015. The only program of its kind, Project Access provides African-American LGBTQ seminarians and other students from underserved populations with programming around critical thinking, contextual education, academic writing/readiness, collegial support and ministerial formation. Denominations and traditions represented in the cohort included United Church of Christ (UCC), Nondenominational, TFAM, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Unitarian Universalist and Interfaith. Seminaries represented included Pacific School of Religion, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Chicago Theological Seminary, New York Theological Seminary, Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Interdenominational Theological Center, American Baptist Seminary of the West, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, Brite Divinity School, and Memphis Theological Seminary.
Background of Project Access
TFAM, led by Bishop Yvette Flunder, is a coalition of congregations, clergy, activists, and faith-based organizations established to promote ministries of liberation and radical inclusion in communities on the margins of church and society. Project Access originated in part, as the result of TFAM’s success in encouraging significant numbers of persons to pursue theological education. “As an organization still in its early years,” Flunder states, “we have over had a hand in the decision of over 75 individuals to enroll in seminaries across the country.” While mainline denominations continue to see a decline in the number of persons pursing theological education and church attendance, TFAM is seeing the opposite as LGBTQ/same-gender-loving individuals within the African-American community and beyond claim their voices; embracing God’s call to ministry and to establish new progressive congregations. Describing the core mission of Project Access, Flunder notes that the program seeks to “equip seminarians with the skills to speak liberating truths back into their communities of origin and to create entrepreneurial ministries on the margins of traditional religion.”
The Association of Theological Schools, the primary accrediting body for theological institutions in America and Canada has been following the demographic trends and shifting landscape of theological education. In a 2008 report on seminary trends, Daniel Aleshire indicated that, “schools have increased racial/ethnic enrollment significantly over the past thirty years… the percentage of enrollment comprising racial/ethnic students has grown from about 5.8 percent in 1977 to 33 percent in 2007." TFAM’s increasing influence is having meaningful impact on the changing landscape of both theological education and conversations in progressive Christianity.
Flunder states, "Along with the increased number of racial/ethnic ministry and LGBTQ students, there is an increased number of students entering seminary today who face significant academic challenges; particularly in the areas of writing, research and critical thinking. These findings have been borne out in current studies and focus groups and are primarily due to gaps in high school and undergraduate education programs. These skills are not being taught or retained at a level necessary for graduate school. These same challenges also significantly affect student retention. Many students enter seminary and find that they lack skills necessary to successfully meet academic expectations. Others simply never enter seminary due to perceived academic barriers. In addition, seminaries are accepting increasing numbers of provisional students, who enter seminary programs needing academic support, yet have not had the resources required to help them succeed."
Rev. Kendal Brown, who serves as the program manager for Project Access indicates that the program is modeling a way forward for theological institutions needing to refashion outdated models to meet the demands of a vibrant and emerging population of seminarians. Brown comments, “At its core, the issue of providing culturally-competent theological education is a justice issue. Seminarians of color making the tremendous investment of pursuing graduate-level theological education deserve formation that adequately and efficiently prepares them for ministries within the context they are called to serve – one that honors the contextual nuances and rich traditions of the African-American religious experience as well as the challenges of doing ministry in emerging contexts. It was our desire to create a space wherein the starting point for theological reflection is the experiences of African-American LGBTQ students. Seminaries must develop culturally competent curricula to meet the needs of one of the fastest growing populations in mainline seminaries across the country.”
Summer 2015 Intensive Recap
Held as a pre-event to TFAM’s biannual convocation, 30 Project Access students along with 15 continuing education students from around the country gathered on the campus of City of Refuge United Church of Christ for three full days of lectures, worship, small groups, shared meals and casual fellowship. The intensive featured Dr. Renita Weems, noted womanist scholar and Hebrew Bible professor and Rev. Troy Sanders, chaplain, church planter and doctoral student at Interdenominational Theological Seminary. Weems provided students with opportunities to address and grapple with the barriers often faced by African American seminarians attending predominately white mainline seminaries -- including the challenges of navigating curricula that privileges white mainline perspectives, remaining connected to communities of origin, and the tenuous process of analysis and constructing new theological worldviews. Kelsey Hamilton-Layer, an MDiv UCC student currently enrolled at Lancaster Theological comments, “Project Access has been life-giving. I feel we are building bridges and blazing new trails all at the same time. This is an invaluable tool for seminarians engaged in the work of progressive theology.”
A small number of participants in the program are in the pre-seminary stage or are currently enrolled in non-graduate level certificate programs with a goal enrolling in master’s level programs. For these students, the intensive helped to demystify the seminary experience and lessen the anxieties for a segment of students who feel ill equipped for graduate-level education. Recognizing the barriers often faced by students coming from working class backgrounds and backgrounds that shun critical analysis of the Bible, Weems pushed participants to own their voice and do the work required of critical thinkers and writers. Through discussions focusing on canonization, human sexuality, gender and the mass shooting in Charleston, Weems led students in dialogue around thinking theologically and connecting current issues to their formation and ministry. Students expressed deep appreciation for a space that honored both the unique gifts and challenges of the African-American LGBTQ experience. Using opinion pieces by David Brooks and Michael Eric Dyson, students discussed the basic elements of academic writing and argument construction. Stressing the need for public engagement, Weems shared, “ministry cannot be a way of escaping the world. Clergy must see themselves as theologians empowered to shape public discourse.” Throughout Weems’ sessions students received both affirmation and challenge to offer their best selves to work of preparation for professional ministry within contexts in need of skillful and committed clergy.
Rev. Troy Sanders led students in conversations around reclaiming their experiences and digging deeply to trace their religious identities and heritage. Employing the rich tradition of storytelling, Sanders led students in conversations that prompted them to move toward owning both their individual and collective stories as LGBTQ persons shaped in the context of African-American Christianity – to sort through theologies that reify oppression and woundedness. Exploring conversations around the events in Charleston, students were invited to examine the ways in which their theological worldviews shape their interpretations of current events and ways of pastoral engagement.
Seminarians participating in the program will come together twice a year for three-day intensives and receive ongoing mentoring and writing support. During other times of the year, students will participate in webinars, complete reading assignments and reflection papers and engage with mentors and peers via online platforms. The next intensive will be held in January 2016.
There are still a few remaining slots for eligible participants. Individuals must be enrolled at least half-time in an accredited theological institution. Persons applying to seminary will be considered on a case-by-case basis.