In the mid-1980s, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker coined the term “womanist” as someone who “values the soul and the well-being of the Black community.” A few years later, theologian Delores S. Williams became a leading voice in the development of “womanist theology” as an approach to understanding God and the world that centers around the experiences and insights of Black women.
Over the past couple of years, Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University has made a conscious decision to give voice to the historical and contemporary exploration of Christian faith based on African-American women’s unique experiences and contributions.
As a result of that commitment to womanist theology, the Quality of Call Initiative for Women in Ministry, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Trinity Seminary announce the appointment of Denise Rector as the first joint Doctoral Scholar in Residence.
The DSIR is awarded to ELCA women of color working on completing their dissertations in theology, biblical studies, or religion. The fellowship supports the practical and professional requirements doctoral candidates need to complete their dissertations in fields that serve the ongoing reformation of the church.
The fellowship will give Rector time for dissertation research and writing while teaching a reduced course load to Trinity Lutheran Seminary students. She will receive a salary and benefits for two years and additional mentoring and professional development funds.
Rector is completing her doctorate through Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on womanist theology, race, and history. Her dissertation explores the feedback loop between historiography and epistemology concerning the construction of African-American racial identities throughout U.S. history and in the church.
Upon earning a Master of Divinity degree from Wartburg Theology Seminary in 2018, Rector knew she didn’t want to be a pastor. But the idea of being a professor appealed to her.
“I became interested in the study of womanist theology when I realized that I wasn’t seeing myself – a Black woman – or the history of Black women represented in the teachings of some of the theology classes I was taking,” she said.
“Womanist theology is a reflection of the impact that culture and history have on theology from the perspectives of Black women. It recognizes the importance of including people of many backgrounds – including other ethnicities, LGBTQ, and those living with disabilities – whose rich, cultural understandings of the divinity of God may not always show up in church on Sunday morning.”
Rector said it was essential to explore these issues faithfully and theologically and to understand their impact on the way church history and American history are incorporated into the teachings of God’s creation.
“For a long time, there has been an Americanist religion that doesn’t always reflect the racial and ethical variety of creation.”
The DSIR is the second recent initiative that the ELCA Quality of Call Initiative for Women in Ministry and ELCA Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment have done in partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary.
“Trinity is committed to looking at American history through marginalized groups and telling their stories of history, theology, and ethics that we haven’t told yet,” said the Rev. Dr. Kathryn (Kit) Kleinhans, dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University.
“The appointment of Denise Rector provides new learning opportunities for Trinity students in terms of her perspective, the courses she will teach, and how theology is shaped by the wisdom, voices, and experiences of Black women,” Kleinhans said.
Located in Columbus, Ohio, Capital’s seminary began in 1830 and has had a long history of supporting diversity in the classroom and the church.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson W. Trout (1920-1996) was a Trinity Lutheran Seminary alumnus, a member of the Trinity faculty, and the first African American elected to serve as a Lutheran bishop. His passionate preaching and commitment to social ministry inspired hundreds of seminary students and touched thousands of lives. Trinity’s annual Trout Lectures honor his life and legacy.
The Rev. Dr. Rudolph “Rudy” Featherstone followed his life calling of leading the African-American Lutheran community and taught cross-cultural theological studies and mission at Trinity.
In 2021, the donor-funded Quality of Call Initiative and GJWE supported Trinity’s activities related to the ELCA Womanist Theology Initiative. This project allows students at all ELCA seminaries to take classes focused on womanist theology, regardless of which seminary offers the course.
The appointment of Rector also builds on the success of “Hush No More: Perspectives from Womanist Theologians,” a series of seminars hosted in fall 2021 by Trinity on the development of womanist interpretation of scripture, and womanist perspectives on pastoral care.
Dr. Mary Streufert, director for the ELCA Quality of Call and GJWE, said the Doctoral Scholar in Residence is an investment in women.
“Supporting women of color working in fields such as womanist theology is also an investment in ministerial imagination and formation in the ELCA,” Streufert said. “I cannot wait to see the Holy Spirit continue to work.”
Rector, who expects to finish her dissertation in 2024, said Black women seminary professors are rare.
“Being here at Trinity Lutheran Seminary has been like landing in the best-feathered nest for someone starting a teaching career. Dean Kleinhans wants to bring in professors of color to be part of the diversity of academia so students have exposure to theology taught with a culturally rich, expansive, and inclusive view.”