Before the official start of spring semester, Candler’s January term (“J-term”) brought students back to campus for a week of intensive study and discussion in a variety of classes. Two courses were taught by distinguished visiting professors, the Right Rev. Robert C. Wright, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, and Dr. Juan Floyd-Thomas, associate professor of African American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Wright taught “The Leadership of Jesus: God and Good in Motion,” a class open not only to Candler students, but also to clergy and lay members of the diocese as auditors.

Wright leads his J-term class on the leadership of Jesus.For Laura Masterson, lay chaplain for the organization Community of Hope International, the class represented a shift in thinking. “What stood out to me was the idea that leadership, separate from authority, is an activity, and not a trait one inherently owns,” she says. “Anyone can exercise leadership in a group to carry out purpose. Jesus calls Peter out into the water, reminding him that he can do hard things, that fear and doubt need not lead. Leadership takes us safely through loss to a new understanding.”

Masterson cited Wright’s insights, experience, and understanding of community as integral to experiencing the course from the perspective of a lay leader. “The class was a true gift to me. As a lay chaplain, my authority is limited, but my leadership possibilities are not. Jesus showed us that.”  

The experience was equally rewarding for Candler students. “Bishop Wright’s class gave me the opportunity to view Scripture through a new lens,” says third-year MDiv student Brandon Harris. “It pushed me not just to search for spiritual or historical interpretations of the text, but to really look at what Jesus was doing, and how I can then model my own parish leadership after his example. I took away a deeper appreciation for how Jesus led others, but also an interest in continuing to study means of adaptive leadership for a changing church.”

Floyd-Thomas taught “A Black History of Liberation: The Black Church Tradition and the Quest for Social Justice” in his capacity as Candler’s 2016 Sankofa Scholar. The Sankofa Scholar program at Candler was established in January 2014, the brainchild of Bandy Professor of Preaching and then-Director of Black Church Studies Teresa L. Fry Brown.

The series’ name originates from a West African language and underscores the wisdom of learning from distinguished scholars and practitioners of the Black church and community. “Sankofa is an Akan word meaning we must go back to our roots in order to move forward, to gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward,” Fry Brown explains.

Floyd-Thomas’s class certainly felt the weight of the word. Matthew Erdel, a second-year MDiv student, says that he came away with the realization that “the scholarly work of ‘doing’ history is not disconnected from the quest for social justice and the liberation of all people. Rather, contemporary efforts to challenge systemic injustice are at their best when informed by traditions of liberative thought and practice.”

Students examined a wide range of sources, including Harriet Jacobs, Martin Luther King Jr., Dolores Williams, James Cone, Ta-Nehesi Coates, and current hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar. “Dr. Floyd-Thomas helped us to see how the black church tradition and those influenced by it provide vast resources for people committed to the work of social justice in the church and world today,” says Erdel.

ThM student Priscilla Adams felt that the class gave her a chance to delve more deeply into the history of the black church. “I was able to constructively critique this institution in the lives of the local, national, and global community. Dr. Floyd-Thomas gave us a safe space in which to tackle the unpleasantries within the black church tradition, but he did it in such a way as to give us the impetus to work for change,” she says. “Going forward as an African-American woman, I am particularly sensitive to the unique way in which my specific voice is needed in the fight for social justice in the 21st century.”

Top photo: Floyd-Thomas facilitates discussion in his J-term course on a black history of liberation.