The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Ph.D. is Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian at Washington National Cathedral .“The Legacy of the White Lion,” an article by Douglas on reparations and the church, appears in the July issue of Sojourners magazine. Douglas spoke with editorial assistant, Hannah Conklin, about her vocational journey, the task of faith communities today, and the inspiration she finds in her family tree.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Hannah Conklin, Sojourners: As a priest, educator, and theologian, you find yourself at the unique vocational intersection of ministry and scholarship. How did your journey begin?
Kelly Brown Douglas: When I was about 7 years old, I remember riding with my parents through the inner city of my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. It was a cold, rainy evening. I looked out the window and noticed a little girl and boy crossing the street. They were about my age, and Black like me. I presumed them to be sister and brother. They were a bit disheveled and not properly dressed for the bad weather. And, from my young-girl perspective, they looked poor and hungry. Tears filled my eyes as I imagined for them a life of struggle. In the midst of those tears, I made a silent vow that one day I would come back and rescue those two children from the blight of Dayton’s inner city.
As I got older, the thought of those children never left me. They created within me a deep sense of accountability to the poor and marginalized people of our society. I was determined to find a vocation that would make a difference in their lives. But aside from the thought of those children there was something else that motivated me: My love for Jesus.
Conklin: What were your early experiences with the church like?
Douglas: I grew up in St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, the only Black Episcopal church in Dayton. Every Sunday I would awaken my parents, asking them to take me to church. On most Sundays, I attended both the 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services with Sunday school in between.
One of the reasons I liked going to church was because I loved hearing stories about Jesus. One of the most compelling, yet saddest, stories I heard was about his manger birth. As a little girl, I simply could not understand how people could allow a baby to be born in a cold barn, in a manger. I cried every time we sang, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus Lay down His sweet head.” Every time I heard that hymn, I was reminded of the little girl and boy I had seen on that rainy evening. Somehow, I instinctively knew that there was a connection between Jesus’ manger birth and their inner-city life.
Conklin: At a young age, you felt a deep connection between Jesus and the marginalized in our society. How does that realization continue to shape the work you do today?
Douglas: It was understanding this connection that eventually led me to theological study with James Cone, after passing through a period of profound doubt. Nevertheless, both my journey to the priesthood and the work that I now am doing as both Dean and Canon Theologian is about my being accountable to those children. For I am clear that such accountability is about nothing less than partnering with God to build a just future where all persons are treated and respected as the sacred children of God that they are, in the diverse ways in which they reflect the richness of God’s creation and, hence, of God.
In this regard, faith communities are the only communities that by definition have no accountability to the present; rather, their accountability is to God’s just future. And so, it is the task of faith communities to lead the way toward that future, as it is the task of theologians and theological institutions to hold faith communities accountable to their very faith. This understanding provides the foundation and motivation for the work that I am doing now.
Conklin: As you cast your vision for reparations in the July issue of Sojourners, you reference influential thinkers like civil rights leader James Forman and author Ta-Nehisi Coates. In your own life, who would you consider a source of inspiration?
Douglas: As I have said on many occasions, my greatest inspiration comes from my enslaved forbears. I knew my great grandmother, whom we called Mama Mary. She was born into slavery. When I think of her, I think of those people who were born into slavery, died in slavery — and never, ever breathed a free breath and never dreamt that they would breath a free breath. Yet, they fought for freedom anyhow. They fought for the freedom that they knew they would not experience, but they knew would be — for they believed in the freedom that was the justice of God. It is because of them that I am here doing what I do. And, so it is they who inspire me. For if they didn’t give up, then I absolutely have no excuse to give up — no matter how bleak, how hopeless things may seem even as we continue to navigate the harsh realities of slavery.
Conklin: Confronted with those feelings of bleakness and hopelessness, what sustains you? What regular practices do you engage in?
Douglas: I am sure not only to engage in the spiritual disciplines of morning prayer and reflection, but I also am sustained by daily exercise. I enjoy spinning, and I am an avid Peloton cyclist. I also enjoy jogging regularly. These two activities are essential to my physical and mental well-being. And I like to laugh — my sisters and I text daily and enjoy laughs together. I try never to forget the sheer joy of life and maintain that laughter is a signal of transcendence.