A Sad and Racist Experience at Southern Seminary (Year: 2002)
My wife and I got married in August 2002. A week after our honeymoon, we left Florida for Louisville, KY to study at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and to be trained for the Christian ministry. I was working towards my Masters of Divinity with an emphasis in Biblical and Theological Studies, and Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek). I loved Greek, and still do:-)
Life was very difficult for us in Louisville; we applied for several positions in the city. No one has given us a call. We were at the point of desperation. We had bills to pay and were living on the campus housing of the Seminary. Rent was due. Bills were overdue. Our fridge was empty. All our savings were gone. Katia, my wife, was actually pregnant with our first child: Terrence.
A good friend of mine, who is African American and a retired army veteran, was also studying at Southern. He knew about our hard life, rather our circumstances. We would often meet together to pray, fellowship, eat, and talk about life and theology. This same friend has informed me about a job position at the Campus bookstore. He said ” Lou, I saw a hiring sign posted on the front door of the Seminary Campus bookstore. I was excited and convinced that I was going to get this job. I would not be denied, and that our circumstances would be improved if I get this position.
With a positive attitude and faith or belief in Christian stewardship, compassion, and empathy, as we were trained to express these virtues toward one another as a community of faith. What else should I expect in a milieu where our seminary professors and Christian theologians taught us to love and care for one another, as well as to support one another in times of need? To my great disappointment, classroom teaching is not the same as real life experiences, and that the great theological formation I was receiving in the classroom was absent in the lives of many of my classmates and even seminary professors.
On the same day my friend informed me about the position, I went to the book store manager to apply for the position. The manager, who was working on a PhD in Christian Theology, refused me the application and said that he was not hiring. I insisted that there’s a hiring sign posted on the front door. He repeated that he was not hiring. About one or two weeks later, he hired a seminary student, about my age, to fill up the position. The only difference between this young man and I was that he was white and I was black. However, both of us were Christians, but our skin color made a difference. He was the privileged one; I was not.
When I told my friend that the bookstore manager has denied me the job application, he advised me to take the matter to Dr. Daniel Akin, who was then the Dean of the School of Theology. Interestingly, a lot of us minority and black students at Southern Seminary were comfortable to talk to Dr. Akin because he was a relational and compassionate human being. He cared about students and loved them. We black students at the Seminary truly believed that Dr. Daniel Akin would listen to our complaints and act justly and christianly. He was a genuine person.
Dr. Akin acted immediately and swiftly called the manager into a meeting. While I did not know the precise nature of the meeting, Dr. Akin admonished him to apologize to me. In the following day, the store manager called my number and apologized for his racial prejudice towards me.
There were few administrators and professors at Southern who were like Dr. Akin and cared about minority and black students. Some of them did not want us to be in their classroom and treated us unfairly—very badly. They did not believe in our potential to become good pastors, good academics or theologians. Some of these professors at Southern Seminary graded us harshly and would not even provide feedback on our essays. There was a particular professor at Southern, whose name I would not mention here, who never gave a grade higher than a C to black students. We black students knew each other’s burden and often talked to each other about the common mistreatment and racism we were subjected to because our black skin—from those who were teaching us the Word of God and how to be good Christians. We as black students never felt that we were treated equally as human beings, students, and Christians.
I wanted to stay at Southern to pursue a PhD in New Testament. (In fact, I went to Southern Seminary to study with Dr. Robert H. Stein, a world-renowned New Testament Scholar and specialist on the Gospels and Biblical Hermeneutics). However, because of various incidents of mistreatment and racism I and other black students encountered or received from the faculty members and the campus community as a whole, I decided that it would be best for me to pursue the PhD elsewhere, at a different school. While I loved the good education I received from Southern, I “hated” the seminary environment because of its failure to practice racial justice, treat students of color equally and with dignity, and extend Christian love and empathy to those of us who were the least privileged.
After I was through with a second Master’s degree I was working on at the University of Louisville, I left Southern seminary and Louisville with great joy and sense of relief.
*This is the first time I recount this story in public, after 14 years of its occurrence. There were other racially-motivated incidents that happened to me and other black students on the campus of Southern Seminary.