donnell-williamson-story.jpgAs I reflect over my seminary journey, I realize how God has guided my steps far beyond my imagination. I never intended on coming to seminary. I thought of it as a compromise: attending Candler was my Nehemiahian approach.  However, I’m thankful that I did. I’m grateful that I complied with God’s pushing. Though it made little sense then, and my walk makes a little more sense now, the journey has bested much fruit. I can boldly say now that God was never interested in how I felt about going to seminary. During this season of Lent, my finitude foregoes me as I’m reminded of the Deuteronomic mantra God also shared with Joshua: Be strong and courageous, Donnell! 

Strength and courage (alongside love) are the dominant themes that fully capture what it has meant for me to live as a seminarian. 

When I agreed to come to Candler, I did not know what to expect. As an undergraduate student, I studied sociology. Even then, my work reflected my religious proclivities, but I had little background knowledge of theology outside of Sunday School classes. There’s something breathtaking about studying one of the most rudimentary and foremost systems known to humanity. 

My decision to accept my offer to Candler came seven days after the passing of my Uncle Shun. Let me share briefly how his death shifted my academic trajectory. My father passed when I was young and my uncle stepped in to help raise me. He was a father figure—a towering intellectual and practicing attorney who knew the internal workings of the system and aspired to mentor young men (as with many other black families) as a testament to hard work, resilience and perseverance. 

Our last conversation involved me telling him about my graduate school acceptances. On that day, my uncle insisted that I ought to consider attending seminary more seriously. Seven days after that conversation, he passed. Love, courage and strength were united in my uncle’s final words to me.

Uncertainty met me at the doors of my first semester at Candler. There were days I was grateful for the opportunity, and there were other days where death appeared to have confiscated two of the most meaningful and impactful individuals in my life. Death, which has become one of my main research foci, haunted me. I, nonetheless, entered Candler’s doors with a little baggage.

I found myself in classrooms with individuals like Nichole Phillips, Robert Michael Franklin Jr., David Pacini, Brent Strawn, Steffen Lösel and Anthony Briggman. People who did not know me, but took interest in my journey and my research interests. They encouraged me to think critically about Scripture, philosophical doctrines, dogmas, and the Christian faith. They silently disarmed me of my self-inflicting excuses as they journeyed alongside me in developing a more self-assured young man who was no longer alienated from the work he dreamt of doing.  

Dr. Franklin, in nearly every class, would encourage me, and other students, to always “disrupt the equilibrium.” That takes courage.

Dr. Phillips reminded me to believe despite the trials many Black women and men undergo, and to continue pressing forward with a sound faith. That takes strength.

Dr. Pacini forced me to read the text closely and critically and pushed me beyond my comfort zones. That takes courage.

Dr. Lösel, in what felt like a divine message, grabbed me one day by the zippers of my jacket and told me that I must take my scholarship seriously and buckle down. That takes love.

These professors, and so many others, saw something in me during my first year that I did not see in myself. Through their teaching, the Gospel was renewed in my life. Through their support, God’s faithfulness rendered itself as more than the compromise that I initially reduced it to when I agreed to attend Candler. 

As I await graduation on May 13, 2019, I can look back at my Candler experience and recognize the overwhelming amount of love and support that carried me through seminary.  I’m grateful to the classmates who gave me their notes after I had finished working a long shift before class or simply reminded me of the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m grateful for the Candler staff members, individuals who opened their doors and lent a listening ear to a tired seminarian (special shout-out to Kelly Garner Shannon in the Registrar’s office). I’m grateful for the organizations that fed, lectures that nurtured and communities that uplifted inside of those ivory Rita Anne Rollins Building walls. I’m grateful for the opportunities to serve as a German exchange scholar for Candler and to have spent a year traveling Europe and learning more about Christianity.

Here’s my ode (of love) to Candler. A tribute filled with thanksgiving to a place, which has brought together some of the best human beings on this side of the Mississippi River, that believes in investing in real students, committed to real change in a real world.

Photo: Donnell poses in front of The Holy Trinity St. Serigus Lavra in Moscow, Russia, during his year studying abroad through Candler.

Campus photo: Janelle Hiroshige