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“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman (someone) who is a friend of your mind.”
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Many of you will recognize these words from Beloved by the exquisite writer and sage, Pulitzer-Prize winning author, and Howard University alumna Toni Morrison. It is one of my two very favorite novels alongside Richard Wright’s Native Son. Beloved is a majestic piece of wisdom literature, representing the best in the African American tradition, a seldom-told story of irrepressible love and harrowing black existence during the antebellum period. The quote I read comes from Paul D, a former slave who has escaped to the North and a certain kind of freedom. He is talking about Sethe, the daughter of Baby Suggs Holy, the mother of three, and the love of his life, she who is herself bound by a life filled with dreams deferred and hopes unfurled. Paul D’s words speak to the possibility of embracing life and love and self even in the face of horrific evil and its unspeakable aftermath. Paul D’s is a soaring aspiration, a magnificent affirmation, a divine declaration sung in the key of life, and made wholly possible because of the love of his friends. To the United Church of Christ (UCC), and to all who are gathered here today, you are the beloved friends of Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD). For countless years, you have been the friends of our mind.
In 2002, the friendship between HUSD and the UCC was born anew. Under the leadership of Dean Clarence G. Newsome and in partnership with the United Church of Christ Friends of HUSD, known affectionately as “The Friends,” the First Annual James Floyd Jenkins Pillar of Faith Award Luncheon was held. Every spring the School of Divinity and the Friends of HUSD gather together to host this splendid occasion in support of the American Missionary Association endowed chair and the Ph.D. Program in religious studies. Each year a new class of dedicated moral and spiritual leaders in our midst is recognized and encouraged for their accomplishments in transforming our respective communities into a transcendent community of hope.
We are now ten years into this labor of love named in honor of the late James Floyd Jenkins, one of the founding “friends” of the School of Divinity, and ardent supporter of our cause. We are grateful for Mrs. Anita Jenkins and to her family for fervently supporting us still. Mrs. Juanita Cooper, Rev. Kwame Osei Reed, Rev. John Deckenback, the Central Atlantic Conference, the Potomac Association and our UCC-led planning committees over the years have also joyously sustained us. Finally, our Pillar of Faith honorees past and present have answered the clarion call, raising funds for this magnificent gift called Howard University School of Divinity. United Church of Christ, you have always been a “friend of our mind.” You and our Pillar of Faith honorees have helped us to gather the many theological pieces of faith seeking understanding in this world and put them in “the right order.” Dating back to the conception of Howard University at the First Congregational Church (UCC) and what would become its School of Divinity, our relationship with you has been surpassingly rich. From your support of the defendants in that stirring 1839 uprising called Amistad until this very present moment, the social justice witness of the UCC has inspired us. Due in no small part to your spirited dedication to justice, freedom and equality the friendship between the UCC and HUSD has not waned to this day. It only continues to grow.
Yes in the parlance of the UCC, “God is still speaking,” through you and at Howard University. As has been widely reported, on January 29 of this year Howard’s Board of Trustees approved a new academic plan for the University. Prominent among its many ambitious components was the approval of the Ph.D. Program in Religious Studies for the School of Divinity. Faithfully championed by my Divinity faculty colleagues and several deans over many long years, the proposed Ph.D. program by the School of Divinity and our collaboration with the Friends of HUSD is bearing new fruit.
Board approval of the Ph.D. program is a major achievement in the life of the School of Divinity and Howard University. Our anticipated focus will be on Biblical Studies, Religion and Public Policy, and African American Religious History and Culture. Our scholarly resolve is clear. Our institutional capacity is growing. Our students are excited. Our new day has begun. The School of Divinity is poised to be a difference maker, graduating doctoral students who possess an integrated set of competencies – methodological, theoretical, and practical – for the transformation of the academy, church and world. At the same time, new and unchartered waters lie ahead for us. For example, our faculty will now be charged with the heady and enviable task of constructing the Ph.D. program, first preparing to meet the requirements of our accrediting agency the Association of Theological Schools, next partnering across the University and with our sister theological institutions, all while retooling our existing academic programs. These processes alone will take us a few more years to fully accomplish.
Unquestionably, however, the largest challenge and greatest opportunity before us is to fund and resource the overall program in a season of severe fiscal constraint. Howard University and the School of Divinity are charged with raising the several million dollars needed for us to become operational – to provide competitive scholarship packages, graduate and teaching assistantships, library and database materials, media and technology services, faculty and staff positions, and more. With a lot of help from our friends, the faithful of God everywhere, and especially our Pillar of Faith community, our path to implementation of the Ph.D. program is sure. Along with Rev. Shirley Gravely-Currie, Mrs. Vivian Ortiz and the entire School of Divinity community, your prayers, wisdom and every good assistance are solicited in making this first Ph.D. program in Religious Studies at a Historically Black University come to pass soon. If you have never been to the East Campus and Benjamin E. Mays Hall I invite you to come and visit us. We value your presence. We welcome your wisdom. We need your financial and moral support. The Ph.D. program cannot happen without you but with you and with God all things are possible.
I conclude with these words from another Howard luminary, Zora Neale Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road): “It seems to me that trying to live without friends is like milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee. It is a whole lot of trouble, and then not worth much after you get it.”
To all of you who have come out today on this tenth anniversary of the Pillar of Faith Luncheon, on behalf of the School of Divinity, thank you for being “a friend to our minds!”
Alton B. Pollard, III, Ph.D.
Dean and Professor of Religion and Culture
Howard University School of Divinity
April 16, 2011