August 22, 2011

Embracing Diversity and Urbanization

The fall semester officially begins today, and one of the last preparatory events is the annual faculty retreat. While we usually meet close to Shawnee, this year we journeyed to Milwaukee, WI, where Central in Wisconsin has been in operation for over six years. Funded by the generosity of the American Baptist Housing Ministry of Wisconsin, our retreat took up critical issues for theological education. Are we preparing leaders for an increasingly diverse and urban landscape?

The context of a retreat helps shape the learning, of course. Meeting in two very different ABC churches and one of the communities sustained by the housing ministry, we learned of the theological commitments that shape these expressions of the reign of God as it gathers strength. On the first day we dealt with definitions of diversity as we looked at the shifting demographics in North America. The often quoted statistic is that by 2050 there will not be an ethnic majority and the kind of racial differentiations that occupy us today will be of lesser concern. In our deliberation we recognized that Central has been characterized by ethnic diversity almost from the very beginning and that minority students have shaped the educational practices of Central in a significant way. Through a presentation by Dr. David May we learned that Central is doing very well in growing a diverse student population. In the academic year 2009-2010, 50% of Central’s students were non-Caucasian; better put, the enrollment reflected 36% African-American, 5% international students on visa; 2% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 5% who did not identify ethnically according to these categories.

Two members of Central’s faculty helped broaden our thoughts of ministry in an urbanized world. Rev. Dr. Carmen Porco has led the ABC housing ministry in Wisconsin for over 35 years and has gained great insight about the forces of a new urbanism. The central question for him as he examines systemic injustice in terms of education, health care, and housing is: “What are the institutions that keep people in this condition?” He urged that theological education prepare people to “put the church in the street.” It is more important to “behave Christ” than simply wear the label of Christian as we embrace the common humanity of people and express disciplined compassion.

Dr. Wallace Hartsfield II challenged the current practices of preparing leaders for urban ministry settings. He offered several provocative suggestions, which include a more integrative curriculum, new language for parish, a new awareness of the holy in the dense realities of developing cities, and ministry as facilitation of new environments rather than the presumption that the “parson” will fix it all.

It was a great joy to witness the significant ministry of theological education jointly sponsored by Central and ABC of Wisconsin. Dr. Timothy Ashley, veteran theological educator, and Dr. Arlo Reichter, Executive Minister of the region, have poured their lives into this collaboration, and it is flourishing. Persons are able to receive a fully accredited degree through Central in Wisconsin, and the impact on the churches is growing as leaders are further formed for ministry. Embracing diversity and urbanization chart the future for Central—and the church.

Molly T. Marshall

To learn more about Central as a “demonstration plot for the Reign of God,” continue visiting our website.

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