Seminaries start Black Lives Matter courses

People take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York City on July 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

(RNS) Veora Layton-Robinson, a student in her final year at New York Theological Seminary, had signed up for a full load of courses when she decided to add one more: a class on Black Lives Matter.

The minister and elementary school teacher was inspired by the class to start developing a Black Lives Matter chapter with members of her Mount Vernon, N.Y., church and community, convinced that more needed to be done to address police brutality, address concerns about violent crime and help people understand the power of voting.

The additional course has helped her think more deeply about how to address the issues at the heart of the movement.

“We were trying to figure out what to do: Do we want to just sit down and do nothing and just march here and there?” Layton, 38, said of the fledgling group. “How do you be involved?”

Fuller Theological Seminary students erected a memorial  to black people who lost their lives in police custody on the Payton Hall campus steps in Nov. 2016 in Pasadena, CA.  Photo courtesy of Fuller Theological Seminary

Fuller Theological Seminary students erected a memorial to black people who lost their lives in police custody on the Payton Hall campus steps in Nov. 2016 in Pasadena, CA. Photo courtesy of Fuller Theological Seminary

The multicultural seminary in New York City is one of a few that have offered a class focused on Black Lives Matter, the movement and the theology related to it. Yale Divinity School invited movement activist DeRay Mckesson for a one-credit, weekend intensive on leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. At Fuller Theological Seminary, professors discussed the movement in classes and students erected a memorial to black people who lost their lives in police custody.

As more African-Americans are killed at the hands of police, seminaries have begun to engage with the movement and investigate how their theology can be enlisted to improve race relations.

Since September, the New York seminary’s course has looked at historical and contemporary texts that address slavery, mass incarceration, policing and white privilege. Students also attended a service at a New York church celebrating the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

New York Theological Seminary’s Dale Irvin, from left, student Zahir Murray and Rev. C. Vernon Mason attend an event at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City that honored the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Irvin and Mason are co-teaching a Black Lives Matter class at the seminary and Murray is one of their students. Photo courtesy of Semiko Crider

New York Theological Seminary’s Dale Irvin, from left, student Zahir Murray and the Rev. C. Vernon Mason attend an event at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City that honored the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Irvin and Mason are co-teaching a Black Lives Matter class at the seminary and Murray is one of their students. Photo courtesy of Semiko Crider

The Rev. C. Vernon Mason, who co-teaches the New York seminary’s class, said the election of Donald Trump as the country’s next president has made the class even more critical.

“It was almost like a class of lamentations,” he said of the first meeting after Election Day. “Everybody had those expressions, but then part of the class response also was, ‘What actions do you plan to take as a result of this election?’”

Mason said the answers ranged from a desire to mentor schoolchildren who may feel fearful of being deported to starting Black Lives Matter chapters.

The class of 22 mostly black students includes men and women, Christians and Muslims, some ministers and some formerly incarcerated people. Some are making plans to foster cross-racial conversations within their families and communities.

Mason, who teaches the class with seminary President Dale Irvin, sees the course as a way to train ministers to find a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, which didn’t start in the church and has only received support from some segments of religious leadership.

“Part of what we saw as a definite disconnect was the faith community generally — the black church in particular for me — and the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Mason, a former civil rights lawyer who recalled the black church’s larger presence in the civil rights movement.

“Part of the objective of the course was to address that and to have our students basically immersed in what this movement was about.”

The move by some seminaries to study Black Lives Matter, which continues with the mistrial Monday (Dec. 5) in the police killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., follows earlier public statements by seminary presidents.

Wesley Theological Seminary students support a Black Lives Matter march to the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary

Wesley Theological Seminary students support a Black Lives Matter march to the White House in Washington. Photo courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary

In 2015, dozens of leaders of African-American theological schools called for their colleagues to “arise from the embers of silence and speak up and speak out … as African-American men and women are slain in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and beyond.” United Methodist school officials responded with a commitment to “improve and strengthen what we can do to affirm the sacredness of black lives.”

Activist D.J. Hudson, an alumna of Vanderbilt Divinity School, said some Black Lives Matter leaders have received “zero support” or opposition from black clergy and churches.

But mentored and inspired by the Rev. James Lawson, an activist who trained young civil rights workers in the 1960s, Hudson helped found the Nashville, Tenn., chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“He trained us just like he trained the students 50 years prior,” she said of time she spent with him while he was in Nashville to mark the anniversary of sit-ins there. “That’s how I cut my teeth on activism and community organizing.”

Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes said current students continue to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and also are involved in the campus sanctuary movement that has developed at several colleges, especially since Trump’s election.

Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans is the Dean of the Morehouse School of Religion. Photo courtesy of Mount Carmel Baptist Church

The Rev. Joseph Evans is dean of the Morehouse School of Religion. Photo courtesy of Mount Carmel Baptist Church

The Rev. Joseph Evans, dean of the predominantly black Morehouse School of Religion, said it is necessary for seminaries that are mostly white or have white leadership to emphasize that black bodies should be treated with dignity.

“There are a lot of young people speaking out on Black Lives Matter that may or may not have a church affiliation whatsoever yet they have figured out that the human body matters,” said Evans. “So seminaries need to be really in front of this, not behind it, leading the way.”

But he said beyond adding a class on the Black Lives Matter movement, these schools also should have more black divinity school deans, such as Townes.

“If seminaries do not share power, Black Lives Matter classes don’t matter,” said Evans, who is also an associate professor of preaching at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of black schools. “Because if black lives matter for real, you’re going to see an uptick in black presidents at white institutions.”

The Rev. Asa Lee, an African-American dean for community life at Wesley Theological Seminary, said his Washington, D.C., school has African-American professors teaching its core areas of focus, such as theology and preaching, and one of them taught a “Pastoral Care Post-Ferguson” class in the spring.

“It’s still a ceiling that’s being broken,” he said of blacks in leadership at seminaries.

Wesley students have participated in Black Lives Matter protests, and two students who are ministers have worked to address food deserts — urban neighborhoods with no nearby grocery stores — by developing a food pantry partnership in Washington.

Veora Layton-Robinson. Photo courtesy of Veora Layton-Robinson

Veora Layton-Robinson. Photo courtesy of Veora Layton-Robinson

Layton-Robinson, who has had debates with teacher colleagues about why she says “black lives matter,” instead of “all lives matter,” hopes more seminaries will follow her school’s model and help educate people about the movement’s emphasis on African-American lives.

“It can birth other people to do certain things more than they have done before,” she said, adding it takes people out of their comfort zones. “It’s very important that we continue to learn about ourselves, about our history, and be able to teach others about ourselves and about our history.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


Click here to post a comment

  • Veora Layton-Robinson, photo in this article shows she is racist with the black fist of power that was prevalent throughout the 1960s.

  • But — and this is important — that’s NOT “unusual” for Black Lives Matter. You and George are to be commended for noticing that photo. What you saw, is no accident.

    BLM is not the Second Coming of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. BLM is not a Christian group. They’re not an NAACP-type non-violence group.
    BLM >> anger, intimidation tactics, potential violence.

    But many Christians, including some black churches & seminaries, are afraid to call out BLM on some of their words & deeds & violence (and their astonishing hatred & bigotry against police officers of ALL races). And other folks just go ahead and endorse BLM, no caveats no reservations, as you see from the RNS article.

    So what to do? Well, for me, I try to pass along those caveats and reservations (including those in relation to Christianity). Point out that REAL problems exist with the BLM, both on their website and in the streets. Don’t give ’em a free pass anymore.

    Just letting people know that ALL lives matter (including the blue ones).

  • BLM is a racist theology being being currently put forth by black seminaries. They are abandoning their charge to teach their students the scriptures–untainted by contemporary politics, which leads us to see a gradual evolution from the Jewish idea of “God’s chosen people” to Christ’s teaching and example of embracing Samaritans in his era. The final message of the Gospels is, “ALL lives matter!”

  • I’m not sure why anyone in a religious studies path would benefit from absorbing racist and socialist propaganda?

  • Black Racism does not add to the conversation, it subtracts from it. Rev King is suitable material, not Socialist Propaganda wrapped in a phony shroud of religion.

    Content of character has nothing to do with race, or it does if Socialist use it to divide people… BLM is only about division…

  • Holy crap. What a collection of uninformed comments, and that’s the nicest way I can put it. “Black Lives Matter” does not mean, and never has meant, that no other lives matter. You don’t need to be afraid of them, which is at the root of the issue.

    Statistics in every area show repeatedly that systemic racism in America disproportionately affects POC. Yes, some black people are racist. Racism exists among people of any skin hue. In America only white people have the power to create a system that discriminates among POC. Whether intentionally racist or not is irrelevant. The issue is less about assigning blame and more about facing reality. The problem exists, it’s real, it need to be changed to create a level playing field.

  • Re “she is racist with the black fist of power”; “Unusual for a seminary student and future minister”; “BLM isn’t even close to MLK and the civil rights movement”; “The Black fist of Power shows no love for ALL mankind”; “BLM is a racist theology”; “I’m not sure why anyone in a religious studies path would benefit from absorbing racist and socialist propaganda”; “Socialist Propaganda wrapped in a phony shroud of religion”; “BLM is only about division”; and, most emphatically psychologically projecting, “You need a lesson in History, but then again, you probably would not believe it”:

    3/5 clause. Slavery. Burnings. Bombings. Lynchings. Segregation. White supremacists. KKK. Jim Crow.

    Atlanta. Omaha. Chicago. Tulsa. Selma. Neshoba. Birmingham. Greensboro. Tuscaloosa. Montgomery.

    Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King. David Parker and Jared Wilson. Ralph Nicoletti, Michael Contreras, and Brian Carranza. Justin Sigler. William A. White. Benjamin Haskell. Michael Jacques and Thomas Gleason. Gary L. Eye and Steven Sandstrom. Officer Michael Slager. Dylan Roof.

    Just a little history.

  • So you don’t believe that this movement should be studied by theologians? Whatever you think about it, it should be studied and understood. Don’t wallow in your non-intellectualism and ignorance if you are a Christian. No wonder most people think science is superior

  • Don’t use the term “racist” since it makes you sound unintelligent.

    Use the term “white supremacy.” it is more precise. Is that better for you?

  • Ask your local police or sheriff’s department if they (the officers who work the streets every day/night), regardless of their race) are convinced that BLUE lives matter to the Black Lives Matter organization.

  • I appreciate the offer, but as a black man in America, I stand by my comments. (You don’t mind if I play the race card on this one, do you?)

  • I am not a politically-correct person, so I will use the words I desire even if it makes one uncomfortable. However, thanks for your comment.

  • The chiefs of Minneapolis and St. Paul have said on tv more than once that they don’t see BLM as an enemy.

  • You are not a “black man in America.” If you were a black man you would care about how black men feel about police violence and their mass incarceration. These are the issues that BLM seeks to address. You are a liar. Shame on you.

  • This person is an internet troll and a liar. People like this spread fake news and information. I am glad you called it out.

  • I am not politically correct but you sound like you need a lesson in history yourself. Stop acting like mass incarceration is not an issue for black men. You are a hypocrite. Nasty person talking about fists. Mass incarceration and shooting of black men! Doesn’t matter who does it! Keep the focus on that instead of your nonsense!

  • Mass incarceration of black men and their murder by police and other black men.

    Are you so selfish to see that this is not an issue that BLM seeks to address, and they are the ONLY ones talking about it. You are a hypocrite and a liar. There is no socialism in anything I have said.

  • I have seen the Black fist of power in action, have ever seen this problem yourself; alternatively, do you really care to understand. Blacks are not the only lives that matter, all lives matter, but the Blacks do not care about anyone but themselves. By the way, are you too scared to show a picture of yourself?

  • “Blacks are not the only lives that matter”
    You are a white supremacist, I knew it.
    We are talking about mass incarceration and violence against black men by police and other black men. You want to make it about white people. Selfish and hateful. Stop talking and thinking about white people for a change. Focus. We are not talking about your problems or issues in this article, “George”

    Not your stupid black fist of power that no one has ever written about.

  • No-one who chants “Pigs in a Blanket, Fry em like Bacon” has a legitimate place at the table in Civil Society!

    No-one who advocates for the murder of anyone has a place at the table in Civil Society.
    Portland ‘Black Lives Matter’ leader OPENLY advocates for MURDER of police

    No-one who advocates violence has a place at the table of Civil Society…
    BLM idiots chant “What do we want?, Dead Cops” and other repugnant stupidity!

    The real goal of BLM is to maintain control of the “Black Community” in an environment where the Liberal Progressive slave owners have lost control of that victim voter block.

    The real goal of BLM is to maintain the status quo… A separate “Thug Life Culture” incomparable with Civil Society, and which keeps intelligent blacks from exploring routes to joining Civil Society.

  • How does an affirmation that ALL Lives have value, become a racist idea in your head?

    Doesn’t denying that all lives matter make YOU a racist?


    Read the REAL platform to see the “real goal” for BLM and stop being such a ignorant human being!

    It sounds like YOU DO NOT CARE about mass incarceration of black men and violence against black men by police and other black men.

    God despises ugly liars, but you don’t fear Him, do you??

    Why do you not care about black men in this society and these salient issues? If you can’t answer this question THEN GO AWAY

  • Please EDUCATE me… Where did I Lie?

    I don’t know a single White Supremacist, have never met one, but I certainly don’t deny your fellow racists exist!

  • I know for a fact, that a police officer of any color is far more likely to be killed by a Black man. than to be killed by one. I know that Blacks are murdering each-other in such great numbers, that the percentage vs. police violence is insignificant in any sane persons head, and I know that Blacks are far more likely to be involved in criminal activity, so the incarceration rate is largely reflective of that fact.

  • I also know that “Fake News” is the new Media Matters code word, since phony calls of racism have finally lost their effectiveness…

    racism is so small in our country that the Liberal Media has to invent or manufacture it, to even report on it…

  • You are the bigot because you think only one group of people matter. You are the problem in America because you think small minded and cannot see the big picture.

    I know you were too young to understand the “Black Fist” because this was during Vietnam war where the blacked cried they were doing all the fighting. I am white, and I was in the Infantry in Nam and seen very few blacks in combat, and the ones that were, were NOT crybabies like the black man today, they were indeed men.

  • That is good, “white supremacist” I have a Chinese wife and a black son, white supremacist, got you. Go home and cry like a baby you are.

  • So, what you are saying is that the Native American lives do not matter, or the Hispanic lives do not matter or the Jewish lives do not matter, I can go on and on. However, I think maybe your educational level is too low to understand that ALL LIFE MATTERS, not just one group.

    For your information, there are more Black-on-Black crimes committed each day, and they deserve to go to jail. If they are too stupid and resist the Police, then they deserve what they get.

  • we. are. not. talking. about. that.

    keep changing the subject so that it is on anyone but black men you bigot

  • We are not talking about native americans or jews here.
    Just black men. People whom you have called stupid, criminals deserving of police violence, and cry babies. Generalizing white bigot words that are disgusting and filthy. You don’t even sound human to speak about other people that way.

    And stop lying about your “wife and child.” it is dishonorable.

    Everyone can see what you are.

  • Everything that you cite above points to adverse effects on black communities and in particular black men and you will still say that black lives are “the same” as everyone else’s. do you hear yourself? BLM began because of this violence. It is at epidemic levels. They will address it and end it because you do not care. You will not deal with it. Because if this kind of thing happened to white men it would be a national crisis. White supremacy means that white lives matter more than anyone else’s. I have not said anything about racism. It’s a word that you use. But white supremacy is real. You just proved it.

  • When I talk, it is for all Americans, not just one group. You are so narrow-minded that you cannot see the forest, for the trees get in, your way.

  • Logically, all lives matter. But people don’t think logically. And skin is such an easy way to otherize: “we” don’t even have to look at “them” closely, let alone under the surface.

    Everybody knows white lives matter. Look at racial opinions, assumptions, likes and dislikes, public services, social programs, drinking water, communities, education, employment, positions and promotions, management and boardrooms, wealth, housing, home ownership, car ownership, history books, art books, literature, research, medicine, health and safety, technology, monuments, politicians, celebrities, entertainment, advertising, marketing, the media, law enforcement, stop-and-frisk, stand-your-ground, prison sentences, voting rights, jury selection — notice who gets selected for what.

    This isn’t about “merit”, considering how flexibly people tend to define that term. It’s about real, genuine, honestly equal opportunities. Means. Mentors. Contacts. Open minds. Open hearts. Open doors. In this century.

    I highly recommend the basic moral principles of Equality, Respect, Empathy, and Familiarity to anyone who feels justified in breezily buzzing off “Black Lives Matter” with the stupefying sting of “All lives matter”.

  • This slogan used, “Black Lives Matter’” is to the exclusion of all other people which only goes to show that the most NOT ALL the blacks are racists themselves just like other people.

  • I say that Blacklives are the same because i am notba racist. Anyone who says anything diffrent is expressing their own racism. BLM started because of a few FAKE NEWS stories begining with the “hands up dont shoot” whopper, and because the Left understoood that there is so little actual racism in America, that their racist nation rhetoric was becoming a joke. Salvaging that phony paradigm was the important to keep the Liberal Government Plantation intact. BLM is funded by George Soros, Nazi war criminal and humad dog turd. It is absolutely 1 million percent an fabrication of the Democratic Party divide and control Black people.

    BTW, White Supremecy is a belief that whites are genitacly suoerior… Not some phony “white privilage” rhetoric… Anotherbliberal invention.

  • You most certianly were talking about that… Right up to the point that some very simple logic showed how indefensibly stupid your argument was. At that point you desprately wanted to change the subject… By pretending I change the subject

  • Black Lives Matters, has turned, into a hate group, they are a danger, to the safety of all Americans because if you are not black, you are nothing to them, and they will turn on you in a heart beat.

  • I would seriously wager that the St. Paul policeman whose vertebra was broken by BLM protesters (as he lay helplessly on the ground) at the Interstate-95 protest in July 2015,
    along with the OTHER 21 St. Paul-area law enforcement officers who were injured on the same day at the same BLM protest,
    have learned to see BLM as an enemy — a potentially life-threatening one.

  • I don’t know where you get this stuff Floyd, or do you deliberately skew it in as pejorative way as you can? Nonetheless, some of those”injuries” were from slips and falls in the midst of a crowd of people and cops. A greater share came from anarchists who infiltrated the demonstration. They’re a known crowd whom the cops identified. But don’t let facts change your opinion.

    It’s clear that You see BLM as an enemy. As I’ve already told you, local cops don’t.

  • “Where do I get this stuff”, you ask? Umm, it’s called “Five Minutes Of Googling.” Shoot, I didn’t even TRY to give all the links relating to the St. Paul BLM mess.
    Hey, you might like this video — in the same location just one year prior:

    Notice that they saying these words to the very police officers assigned to protect them at this particular event. They’re also saying these words mere hours after the news broke of a police officer being ambushed & executed in another state.

    And then the year after BLM says these words, 21 St. Paul area officers get injured and a cop’s spine is broken. (Blue lives don’t matter to BLM).


    But meanwhile you say that mere accidental “slips and falls” by the police was the issue. You say the mysterious magical “anarchists.” or “out-of-towners” (as BLM puts it), appeared out of nowhere and did all the bad stuff. Wasn’t BLM’s fault. If people get hurt, it’s never the BLM protesters’ fault. Sigh.

  • But of course, George. But what I particularly like, is the fact that as a black *conservative*, I can play the race card in ANY direction — even against the liberals!

  • Ah, shame on me, yes. Meanwhile, I usually advise people to seek out the NAACP, LULAC, state civil rights commissions, city council, or even the ACLU if need be, if they have any racial discrimination or police mis-conduct issues.

    I absolutely do NOT advise them to go to the BLM. BLM is just plain wrong. You can’t solve social problems with violence, terrorism, and intimidation tactics (yes, I’m talking about BLM. Black nationalism with a dollop of hate, of course.)

    You don’t need me to repeat any of that, do you?

  • Floyd, when you pick bad guys you really sick with it. Local news and cops are the ones who talked about the anarchists first. The Minnesota metro has a pretty active anarchist bunch. BLM people aren’t perfect, but you’ll have to look elsewhere than my state to create bogeymen.

    Overall our cops are decent people. So is the BLM contingent. If you want to find bad guys, we have a gang problem and anarchist issues. I can’t speak for gangs, BLM or anarchists in your state, but I appreciate your high level of expertise in mine from X miles away. (BTW, if it’s on the internet, that means is true, right? ?)