The Common Good

Program Aims To Build New Generation Of African-American Church Leaders

Date: October 4, 2013

SAN ANTONIO (CNS) -- The Oblate School of Theology's new Sankofa Institute for African American Pastoral Leadership is an opportunity to build a new generation of African-American leaders, a Chicago theologian declared during the institute's inaugural dinner on the school's San Antonio campus.

The vast majority of the black community is worse off than it was before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, said the Rev. Dwight Hopkins, professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a member of the new institute's Council of Elders.

"One of the clearest advancements since the civil rights movement has been the fact that wealthy black families and black professionals have integrated and benefited from the struggles of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. generation, and this is a good thing," he told a group of about 165 people, black and white, Protestant and Catholic.

"No one wants social relations in America to be based on racial segregation, but the majority of black poor and working-class families have sunk deeper into the pit of being human in an unhealthy way," he said Sept. 27.

Internationally, he said, African-Americans historically have been deeply involved in movements for African liberation, but their involvement has virtually stopped since Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

Today, for the first time in black American history, African-Americans as a community "have no national connections with the African continent," Rev. Hopkins said. "Is it possible to develop African-American pastoral leadership without intimate relations with the land of our origins and with other nations who are our allies in the global arena?"

He said that accepting the challenge of both the domestic and foreign aspects of today's reality for African-Americans is primarily a theological task because the answer is linked with God's calling.

"What has God called each of us to think, believe, preach and do?" he asked.

"(The Sankofa Institute) is precisely what we need today. It offers us theological training for the current and next generation of pastoral leaders," Rev. Hopkins said. "It is connected to African values and at the same time moves us into the future.

The Rev. Allan Boesak, who worked side by side with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela, president from 1994 to 1999, to dismantle apartheid in his native South Africa, spoke the morning after the dinner. His Sept. 28 talk inaugurated the Sankofa lecture series, which will bring six lecturers to campus each year.

Rev. Boesak spoke of the Sankofa bird, which looks backward while flying forward -- a metaphor for the Sankofa initiative, that one has to understand where one has been to make real progress in moving forward.

"We need to return to the past, not to integrate ways that will disable us, but in order to find wisdom for navigating the changes in the world," he said.

Rev. Boesak expounded on St. Augustine's teaching that hope has two daughters -- anger and courage.

"This Augustine is the astute and clear-eyed observer of the realities of life, the prophet disturbed about justice and injustice, who tells us that 'an unjust law is not law at all,' and who asks the question, 'What is government when justice is lacking? It is none other than a gang of robbers!'"

The anger of hope, Rev. Boesak said, means that one refuses to accept what is wrong or to put up with what is driving one to despair.

The courage of hope means to have the firm resolve to pull oneself to one's feet and attack injustice, even if one has to pay a price for doing so, he said. "This is a call to join the struggle for (the) fullness of life."

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, president of Oblate School of Theology, said launching the Sankofa Institute is a major step forward for the school and for the larger community. He quoted Sojourners founder and president the Rev. Jim Wallis as saying that changing politicians doesn't bring progress; to do that, "we have to change the wind," the priest said.