This reflection is part of a collection of responses to the theme: “What is Theology?”
By shaunesse’ a. jacobs
“I think it’s time we start thinking about you being baptized.”
“Okay. What do I do?”
“Well, we’re going to spend the summer studying to see if God is telling you now is the time, then you’ll sit on the mourner’s bench during revival. When the Spirit speaks to you, you’ll go before the church and tell them why you want to be baptized.”
“What do I study? Do I get new books?”
“The Gospels and Romans. We’ll get you your own bible.”
“How am I supposed to know when I’m ready?”
“You just know. We’re all going to be praying that the Spirit tells you at the right time. Your great-grandmother prayed for me, and I went before the church when I was 6. I was so scared because I knew they were taking me down to the Lake. We didn’t have the outside pool when it was my turn.”
“Aren’t snakes and alligators in the Lake?!”
“That’s why I was scared! And the water was so cold and dirty.”
This is a close recollection of a conversation I had with my mother the summer of 1999. I was seven years old and set to study the Gospels and Romans, pray that the Holy Spirit would reveal to me the appropriate time to go before my church and inform them why I believed Jesus died for me to be in right relationship with God, and in turn inform them of why I wanted to become a member of the body of Christ (and my church) through the ordinance of baptism. Looking back, that was my first formal introduction to theology—to both what it means and to the reality that I would engage with it professionally and personally for the rest of my life.
I studied everyday throughout July and August of that summer. It was brutally hot that year, well before central air and heating systems became popular throughout northwest Louisiana. This left me reading biblical passages under the lone air conditioning unit in my grandmother’s living room while my cousins and sister played outside, only coming indoors for ice water and a quick sun break. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was reading half the time, leaving me to turn to my mother and grandmother with tons of questions. In true academic fashion, they pointed me to supporting secondary sources, specifically my grandmother’s set of commentaries and concordances to guide me through tensions within the biblical text as I searched for additional answers to questions of redemption, salvation, faith, sacrifice, and so on.
It was finally time for the summer revival. The “big stage” that would be the place where I encountered divine grace and salvation. The Saturday before it began, my grandmother, mother, sister, and I drove the twenty-five miles to rural Louisiana where our church was located to prepare the sanctuary for the week. We vacuumed and scrubbed, moved furniture and changed light bulbs, cleaned bathrooms and stocked the refrigerator. A small pew was placed directly in front of the pulpit, separate from the two columns of pews that filled the main space of the sanctuary. It was on that front pew that I would sit each evening, Sunday through Friday, until the Holy Spirit spoke to me that it was time to be saved.
The first night I fell asleep and got quite the reprimand. I was intent on staying awake and recalling everything I learned the remainder of revival. Day after day passed, but I remained on the bench. My great-grandmother became worried that I would have to “come off and go up again next year.” None of their concern worried me. I held my seat. That is, until 12 August 1999. The Spirit had spoken. At the age of seven, I went before my church community with my burgundy bible in hand to explain how I knew it was time that I joined the body of Christ only for my pastor’s excitement that “another soul would be saved” to overtake my moment to speak. I never got the chance to share communally why I knew, but my heart was confident and unwavering. My grandmother stayed awake that entire night sewing me a new white dress to wear following my full-body submersion later that week. Sunday morning arrived and I went into the murky water that filled the outdoor baptismal pool excited that I would devote myself to dying daily that I may live anew in Christ Jesus. I received a new bible and the right hand of fellowship as a new member of the congregation. Since then, my life has been visibly intertwined with theology.
I shared this story to give imagery to the many meanings that theology has for me as I navigate the many components of my holistic identity. My first encounters with theology were through the amalgamation of faith traditions and rituals that compromised my Black Baptist church in northwest Louisiana. Though coming to faith at the end of the millennium, many aspects of my budding theological purview incorporated the traditions and understandings of God that were shared by my ancestors decades and centuries before my birth. Theology also meant close and critical engagement with the text to pursue my own relationship with God my own way. Theology meant taking the time to listen to the wisdom of others through their personal narratives and adding my own story to that running list. Theology meant fully engaging my physical body to become one with God and one with the sacrifice of Jesus. Theology meant being affirmed by a community of like-minded believers who prayed for God to grant me clarity as I set out on my own mission to know God more intimately. Theology meant toil and reward. Theology meant worry and concern from those invested in my pursuit of God. Theology meant I was never alone because dozens of voices and faces were supporting me even if it looked as though I was standing alone.
As a Black seminarian and theologian, I cannot speak for the entire community; but I can represent one of many voices across the diaspora as we have come to pursue God on our own with the support and prayers of a multiplicity of community members. After consulting with several members, I consider it safe to say that for Black seminarians, theology is “truth, freedom, survival, resistance, safety, spirituality, and sustenance.” Theology “is being able to navigate the world in a way that lets us interact with God and understand God; a way that allows us to reconnect with the unique spiritual accents of our cultures, of our own people.” Theology is the way of life, regardless of tradition, that keeps us grounded and sane as we navigate the travails of life and institutions. Theology is the banner under which we hide to become rejuvenated when the “storms of life are raging” and we beseech God to stand by us. Despite the occasional feeling that the academic pursuit of theology was never supposed to be ours, theology is always ours because it is the foundation upon which we shape our identities. Out of it and through it we become who we are. We serve those to whom we are called. We wash away the miseries of our day and speak the languages of our people through it. We exude, enact, perform, and live it without saying a word.
You ask me what theology is for Black seminarians. Theology is liberative. It frees our souls in such a way that our bodies can live out God’s revelations in the world, a world that tries to kill us daily and offers no hope at new life. Regardless of our traditions and cultural backgrounds, in theology we are reminded of how indispensable our Blackness and traditions are. We are reminded of how God revealed Godself to our ancestors. We become aware of how God “reveals Godself to us that we may have better relations with ourselves, others, and creation.” In our engagement with self, others, and the world, we work to bring the divine reign to earth by tirelessly working to deter all forms of oppression that seek to perpetuate harm.
For many of us, theology is also Black. Here we do not refer to the ethnic/racial marker of Blackness, but to the rich life perspectives that our Blackness produce. In our many expressions of Blackness, we pursue life, laughter, and community. We embrace and sit in suffering to learn the lessons that will give us strength as we fight tirelessly for victory. We lean into forgiveness because carrying hate is fatal. We promote community and the wisdom of our ancestors because we would not be where we are if it were not for the sacrifices of our forebearers—from the creation narrative’s Adam and Eve to the unknown who walk among us every day. You ask me how our understandings of theology from our particular vantage point shapes our theological voice. It heals our every wound—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—that we may continue going out in the world despite the ways that we have been previously brutalized. In healing all dimensions of our identities, our voices became stronger each day as we declare the goodness of a God whose love knows no limits, whose grace is sufficient, whose mercies extend from everlasting to everlasting, whose justice reigns even when we cannot comprehend what is occurring, whose holiness surpasses human understanding.
The glimpse into my baptismal narrative embodies all of the above qualities that begin to comprise theology’s definition for Black seminarians. As a good Baptist, I would like to end with another story. This one offers a glimpse into my theological community at BUSTH. My mother required a serious operation this past summer and I was terrified to return home for many reasons, the main being I had never seen my mother vulnerable and hospitalized. I altered my plans to be physically present for half the summer to help in her recovery prior to her return to work, writing papers in Louisiana and consulting with professors on the best way to participate in final classes. Before leaving Boston, my fellow Black seminarians forced me to articulate my feelings and process what was happening—if you know anything about me, it is that I do not easily express my emotions. I hated the focused attention and intentionality they gave in making me take the necessary steps to care for myself before caring for my mother and family. They demanded answers to questions so I could understand the complexity of the circumstances upon which I was entering. They held me, literally and figuratively. They dried my tears. They prayed with and for me. They checked in constantly. They cajoled me and sent me off with good tidings. They challenge my faith. They listened as I came back to God. They were community. They were healing. They were liberation, the joys of Blackness, resistance, and sustenance. They were spirituality, truth, freedom, survival, and safety. They physically embodied theology for BUSTH’s Black community. You ask me what theology means as a member of the Association of Black Seminarians. Theology means us, our stories, our lives.
shaunesse’ is a second year PhD student in constructive theology and bioethics researching the various ways communities use religious practices to cope with unjust healthcare systems, and leading various student organizations on camus. Born and raised in Louisiana and having spent eight years in Atlanta, she now resides in Boston learning how to layer appropriately, enjoying the vast assortment of clam chowder, and exploring the many environmental treasures of New England.