How does history influence my responses and responsibilities?

Office Door SignsThis week marks the beginning of my life as a seminary professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. In the course that began this Monday, one question we will ask is: When can theology be private and when must it be public? It never occurred to me as I designed this course that I would feel compelled to make a public theological statement during my first week of teaching.

Outside my office at VTS hangs a plaque dedicating the space to the memory of Alexander Watson Weddell: “soldier of the Confederacy, student of this seminary, and presbyter of the Diocese of Virginia”. When I first saw this, I was stunned. I reread it several times. I considered what I might hang up to cover the plaque. Then I stopped, took a deep breath, and got curious. Who was this man? What was his story? Could my discomfort be leading me toward something important?

I reached out the VTS archivist who was able to tell me about this “soldier, scholar, priest”. Alexander was born in 1841 and was wounded in 1862, when he was 21 years old. After the war, he was a lawyer and newspaper editor in Petersburg, VA. In 1868, he enrolled at VTS and was ordained in 1870. The work he and two other ex-Confederate Episcopal Priests did with African American families led to the establishment of St. Stephen’s Normal and Industrial School, which later became Bishop Payne Divinity School, which eventually became part of VTS.

For the last several months, I have been grappling with what means to me to be on faculty at VTS. What will it mean to regularly work in buildings built by enslaved people? What are the ethical responsibilities of leaders whose institutions’ current stability has its roots in what was a fundamentally unjust and unethical financial and social system? How does our communal racist and classist history continue, generation after generation, to shape our perceptions of reality?

I do not think the current day leaders and members of institutions and communities can be held responsible for what happened in the past. At the same time, we can’t deny or cover up these realities. The ministers and leaders of these communities must acknowledge the privileges we enjoy are a legacy of those unjust systems, and we are morally obligated to leverage the resources at our disposal to address the current day manifestations of systemic discrimination.

Today I added two additional signs outside my office door (“Black Lives Matter” and “Diverse, Inclusive, Accepting, Welcoming Safe Space for Everyone”). I did not cover up the plaque; even through I know it will continue to make me uncomfortable. It is an artifact of our history as a seminary and church. It is part of our story, but it is not the end of our story. The combination of these three signs reminds me:

  • Covering up or denying what makes us uncomfortable is detrimental to our souls.
  • Being curious about the context and complexity of a situation fosters empathy.
  • Using my personal resources to make the world a more just and compassionate place is not optional.

The Rev. Stacy Williams-Duncan           August 11, 2016