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A Q&A with Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes


A Q&A with Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes

Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes is one of the featured speakers for BPFNA's 2016 Summer Conference. We were recently able to ask her a few questions to learn more about her and her passion for social justice.

Rev. Dr. Townes is the current dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is also the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. She has been a pioneering scholar in womanist theology, a field of studies in which the historic and current insights of African American women are brought into critical engagement with the traditions of Christian theology. She also currently serves as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2012–2016) and was the first African American woman elected to the presidential line of the American Academy of Religion, which she led in 2008.

BPFNA: What led you to become involved in your current peace and justice work? When or how did you know this was the work you were called to do?

ET: Growing up in the late 50s and 60s and seeing the power of nonviolent protest and the important role that my home church played in mobilizing Black college students in my home town to effect change.

When desegregation hit my home town and I saw the ways in which some White Christians responded by fleeing to the county so that their children, who had been some of my playmates and friends, would not have to go to a high school that was predominately Black. It was in the environment that had a school demographic of Black folk across the class spectrum, poor Whites, and a small White liberal student body that I began to realize that I need to put my faith into action.

BPFNA: What gives you strength and what keeps you motivated to do this work?

ET: I do not do this work alone—I work in community. I keep motivated because I can see the power of change from time to time and live in hope rather than despair.

BPFNA: Who inspires you? Who are your role models?

ET: My mother’s mother (Nana) and the older Black folk of her generation who helped raise me: my parents, my sister, friends like fellow ethicists Katie Cannon and Marcia Riggs and sociologist of religion Tex Sample; my students; my faculty colleagues who speak and care about groups across the board; and folks in the mosque, pew, and synagogue who try to live their faith large and expansively.

BPFNA: What do you hope Summer Conference attendees take away from this week focused on breaking social and structural injustice?

ET: A greater ability to see the connections between various forms of oppression and a more astute sense of what it means to work with coalitions and allies to craft deep strategies to eradicate injustice.

BPFNA: What’s one thing people can do in their own communities to raise awareness about or work toward changing these systems of injustice?

ET: Live our faith rather than just talk about it.

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