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Opinion: Racial diversity is thriving at Wesley Bible

After a few days in my role as Vice President of Academic Affairs, I read the Peer Report for our Association of Theological Schools (ATS) accreditation. We had obtained 10 years of this group which accredits more than 250 seminaries across the country. This report showed that in 2020, 63% of our student body were non-white students and 45% of our student body were female. About two-thirds of our black students were born in the United States and one-third live in Africa. While some other schools have a higher percentage of non-white students, most of them are racially monolithic. I learned that, according to the ATS, we are one of the most racially diverse schools in the association and represent a unique balance in theological education. Although there are no prizes for this stuff, I bet we are the most diverse seminary in the country.

I moved to Mississippi to take up this position at Wesley Biblical Seminary. As a Yankee and an underdog, I was taken aback by this news. How is it possible ? WBS is located in the Deep South, a “conservative” seminary in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition that is committed to the authority of Scripture and holy living. Yet WBS is a leader among ATS institutions when it comes to diversity. Like Sesame Street, it felt like “one of those things isn’t like the other.”

After hearing this news, I approached colleagues with institutional knowledge, decades of experience, asking, “Did you know? Most looked up from their desks with an expression of surprise that turned to satisfaction. One said, “Wow…it felt like we were doing something right.” Here’s what I learned, there was no racial diversity plan, we didn’t appoint a racial diversity officer, and we didn’t treat minority students any differently.

Our main campus is located in Ridgeland, MS, the most diverse city in Mississippi, and Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state. These facts give our diversity opportunity a distinct advantage. If our institutions do not reflect the demographics of our culture and the Kingdom of God, we need to think about how that can change.

At the same time, saying “We have to have a certain percentage of students/faculty/staff from a certain minority” creates tension and is based on the expectation of equality of results. I found an old book, by E. Stanley Jones, from 1944, helpful in understanding American ideals. He suggests:

What and where is America? America is a dream, unrealized. A dream of equal opportunity… a place where race, birth and color are transcended by the fact of common brotherhood… (Jones, The Christ of the American Road, Abingdon, 1944, 60)

The way to achieve this American dream, according to Jones, is through achieving equality of opportunity. What the popular literature of our time suggests is that institutions deploy principles of equality of outcome. For example, quotas are mandatory, diversity officers are institutionalized and serve as moral guardians against inequality. Diversity trainings are instituted that assume disproportionate outcomes are systemically linked and caused by white supremacy.

I’m not saying that institutions without diversity ignore it. Nor am I suggesting that WBS exists as an institution free from racial tensions. Could there be other factors contributing to the non-diversification of institutions? Absoutely. Factors such as regional demographics, educational requirements, admission standards, prices, etc. will influence the diversity, or lack thereof, of an institution. I don’t deny that systemic racism has contributed to the lack of diversity in some other institutions. I emphasize that WBS’s path to diversity has not been through racialization. To make it a matter of race is to minimize the reality we enjoy.

The train that separates people into oppressed groups will never stop. The doctrines of equality of results lead us down this path. After going beyond white and black, we will then be challenged to have results that reflect other racial groups, countries of origin, sexual minorities, economic levels, educational experiences, fat or thin minorities, levels intellectuals, and the list goes on. Instead, an equal opportunity application is a way to get through this difficult environment; that’s what WBS did, and it seems to have worked, and it’s beautiful.

After the tragedy of George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, WBS President Dr. Matt Ayars reached out to Board Member and Episcopal Leader of the Church of Christ (Holiness) denomination, Bishop Joseph Campbell. Like other institutions, we were trying to figure out how best to respond to this national moment. Bishop Campbell, also an alumnus, said, “In the heart of the Deep South, I found respite at WBS, a place that treated me neither worse nor better because of my race.” Then, the bishop forcefully challenged our president “Don’t change! The bishop’s opinion prevailed.

Some might suggest, “Well, it seems Bishop Campbell doesn’t fully consider the scourge of white supremacy and systemic racism. Perhaps a bishop from an African-American denomination in the Deep South has an understanding that academics don’t have on this subject. African-American entrepreneur Charlies Spaulding, said that if minorities are given equal opportunities, they “will take care of other equalities by [their] own character and achievement” (Jones, 78). At this point, I think Spaulding, Campbell and Jones come together. I could be wrong, but I believe WBS is on to something, a wholesome and holy application of equal opportunity in theological education.

Dr. Andy Miller III is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary.