MSR speaks with United’s new president, Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes
By Robin James
The United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities is currently celebrating 50 years of service. Since July of 2012, Reverend Dr. Barbara A. Holmes has been the first African American woman at its helm.
Her artist’s sensibility, imaginative approach to ministry, and creative problem solving are already being viewed as both inspiring and what’s needed to move the institution forward. Well known as an outstanding leader in theological education and an inspiring lecturer and teacher, Dr. Holmes hails from Memphis Theological Seminary, where she was professor of ethics and African American religious studies and served for five years as vice president/dean of academic affairs.
Raised in the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut, Dr. Holmes is an ordained minister recognized in the Disciples of Christ and also a member of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis. Her educational background includes an M.S. in education from Southern Connecticut University, M.Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary, J.D. from Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University, and Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University.
For 10 years, she practiced law as a litigator and corporate attorney and then decided to pursue her childhood desire to enter the ministry. She has also written several wide-ranging articles and is the author of books published by Augsburg Fortress that include Dreaming (2012), Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2004), Liberation and the Cosmos: Conversations with the Elders (2008), plus Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently (Trinity Press International, 2002), and A Private Woman in Public Spaces: Barbara Jordan’s Speeches on Ethics, Public Religion, and Law (Trinity Press International, 2000).
The MSR spoke with Dr. Holmes (BH) on her role at United Theological Seminary.
MSR: As president of the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, describe your vision for the institution going forward.
BH: This school has…a legacy in the Twin Cities very involved with diversity and justice and programming in the arts. My intent is to move us into the next century toward the future of theological education. It is shifting rapidly.
I don’t know if you’re aware of the Pew religious survey, but it indicated that most people now consider themselves spiritual rather than religious. So, the emphasis on training pastors for the church is still our priority, but we are also looking at ways that we can connect to inter-faith communities, ways that we can promote justice and be interfaced between theology and politics, creating careful and good conversations around issues that most faiths have a lot of problems with. I call it creative dialogue.
[We] also [need] to make certain that we integrate all of this into one piece. It isn’t just theology and the arts as separate entities, but the best way to worship God is through the arts. We think that everything we do has sort of [an] artistic element to it: our movements, our speaking to one another, the resonance of our bodies in the world, the interface of nature.
All of it is of one piece. And, we like to separate things into categories as theologians, but it’s all one. We are one people. We look different. We think different. We believe different things. But we’re one people under God.
MSR: Given your expertise and knowledge in the theological field, what role do you feel theology or spirituality plays in politics, or what role should it play, if any?
BH: I think that most people who are called to difficult work — and politics is difficult work — do so at a degree [of] inner-urging. In theology we call it a “calling.” We’re operating out of a calling, meaning that you’re in the right place at the right time, doing what you came to this earth to do. Then there is some faith basis that always propels us.
Sometimes it’s not public faith or going to church where everyone can see you, but you’re operating in a way that is full of integrity and full of faith. So, it doesn’t mean that you dis-launch your faith or use it as a vehicle for elections or for public conversation, but it is the space out of which you operate. And if you’re operating out of faith, it becomes evident to all who see you.
MSR: Now that the voters have made their decision regarding the marriage amendment, I wonder what your thoughts are on that amendment. Did the debate conflict with your views? How do you feel about the outcome?
BH: I’m very excited about the outcome. Our school was a proponent of the defeat of the amendment. And we had petitions. Our faculty wrote a theological piece on what it means to be a community under God. So, this is a school that promotes justice in every single area of life. I was delighted that those amendments were defeated. I believe that God loves all people without footnotes or exception.
MSR: In recent years, the Black Church has come under fire for not assuming its once prominent leadership role in the Black community. Today the spotlight on that conversation has somewhat diminished, although it still remains very much on the minds of many African Americans.
How can the Black Church regain the trust and confidence of the Black community that it once had as more and more people of color look for support and guidance, and perhaps reassurance for a brighter tomorrow?
BH: I adore the Black Church. It is the grounding out of which my work comes. I grew up during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and I saw the church take a leadership role that was exemplary. I think where we get tangled up is when our individual interpretations of scripture don’t line-up with the overall point of view of Christianity, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, and to love God… The rest of the battles tend to fade in the light of those gray adaptations.
The Black Church’s relevancy will become problematic if they continue to hold on to the past without looking to the future. Young people have to be enjoined. They have to be invited in. And whenever you invite someone in who hasn’t been a part of the power structure before, there are bound to be changes.
As women are entering into the ministry in the Black Church, there will be changes. As this young millennial generation comes forth, they are going to change the church. If Christianity was the way it was when Jesus walked the earth, it might not have ever survived to 2012. It has changed with the people who came into it.
And so the Black Church has to look to the next generation. We’re terribly grateful for the people who got us over. And it’s almost time now to hand over to the next generation what this Black Church will be, how it will work, and how it will evidence its call for justice.
MSR: Do you believe in spiritual intelligence and thinking with one’s soul?
BH: Absolutely. I believe in the scriptures that speak to the intelligence of the heart and the intelligence of the spirit, and spirit guiding us through all of the difficulties of everyday life. There is a book that comes out of the HeartMath Institute that talks with great clarity about the trainings of heart and the ways in which our heart knows things before we can intellectualize. Our heart is the first organ that starts beating. It’s not the brain that begins, it’s the heart.
So, yes, I do believe in spiritual intelligence. I am the descendant of Gullah people on my father’s side, all of the women in this group have been very intuitive, I would even say the shamans of the family.
If you’ve seen Julie Dash’s film The Gullah People, you get a hint of what that was like. They believed in the world here and the world beyond. In my family, the dead came back and gave us life in dreams and all of that kind of thing. I made reference to this in my most recent book called Dreaming.
I will be doing a lecture in April for the Spiritual Directors International [“The Dream Keeping Women and the Legacies of Womanist and Spirituality.”] I didn’t come to belief in spiritual intelligence intellectually. I came to it through the legacy of my grandmother and my auntie and the ways in which they operated in the world, grounded in reality but knowing there’s more than what we can see.
MSR: In 2009, Quincy Jones and art leaders urged President Obama to name a secretary of culture, which was really a call for Obama to give the arts and humanities a cabinet-level position. What are your thoughts on this possibility?
BH: I agree with it wholeheartedly. I would go to Washington to lobby for that. I believe that taking art out of schools for budgetary reasons is so problematic in the formation of young people. I performed in live theater, have done other things in the theater realm, worked with local companies in Atlanta, Georgia, did road shows and worked in Europe and write plays now. One of my sons is a musician and the other son is a filmmaker.
The arts is my life. So, even as I’m working as a president of a school, I’m thinking of ways in which the curriculum can reflect the beauty and the intelligence that emerges out of an arts-focused study. When you are in touch with your body, when you are in touch with your heart, when you can express yourself through music or dance or theater, you are more whole as a person. And if you’re more whole, you’re going to be more effective in the counseling and care of your congregation.
MSR: I understand that you’re looking into setting up a possible satellite campus in the Black community and possibly on the North Side of Minneapolis. Is this true, and if so, do you want to talk about this publicly?
BH: We are exploring sites for extension of the campus, one on the North Side and one in St. Paul.
MSR: Are there any other upcoming events that you would like to announce?
BH: I’m bringing Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who is a friend of mine and president of Stax Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, to the multicultural concert [The Gospel According to Jazz] of the year, Friday, February 8, 2013 at 7: 30 pm, downtown at United Methodist Church. The concert is a free gift to the community. There will be a free-will offering if people want to, but no one has to give. We’re going to do it every year, bring an artist.
So, this is one of the directions for the school. We can no longer be focused on our own campus. We have to be a gift to wider Minneapolis/St. Paul community. We are going to be diversifying our student body in very specific ways and diversifying our faculty.
Robin James welcomes reader responses to rjames@spokesman-re corder.com.