Opinion

Change is coming to Duke Divinity School, says gay minister of color

The Rev. Kevin Kim Wright is a minister at The Riverside Church in New York City and a graduate of Duke Divinity School.
The Rev. Kevin Kim Wright is a minister at The Riverside Church in New York City and a graduate of Duke Divinity School.

Ten years ago, during my third and final year as an M.Div student at Duke Divinity School, I arrived on West Campus early one morning after a restless night of sleep. I shuffled into Duke Chapel right after its massive wooden doors opened for the day, collapsed into a pew, and issued God an ultimatum.

As is often the case, God did not respond to my ultimatum and now I find myself a decade later serving a church as a pastor who happens to be gay.

Seminary is a time of testing, formation, deconstruction and rebuilding. A good seminary won’t let you leave the way you came in but will also ensure that you’re not satisfied with who you are when you leave. Looking back, I am thankful for the ways that Duke Divinity School provided space for me to change during my time there and for continuing to provide space for me long after I graduated.

There was space provided by Dr. Amy Laura Hall during a discussion of Eugene Rogers' book "Sexuality and the Christian Body" when she said that one might say that, “It is queer that we are saved.” There was space provided by the late Dr. Allen Verhey who argued in his New Testament Ethics class that same-gender loving relationships might very well be a part of “God’s good future.” There was space provided by professors who compassionately put rainbow flag stickers on their office doors welcoming queer or questioning students to find sanctuary in the presence of a safe ally.

Three and a half years ago, Duke Divinity School provided space for me again when Dr. Richard Hays, who was dean at the time, called to offer me the position of director of admissions. I told Dr. Hays that as a queer person of color, I was reluctant to take the job without knowing if my spiritual, emotional, or economic well-being would be jeopardized.

Dr. Hays listened to what I had to say, expressed his respect for me, and asked permission to share my concerns with three trusted administrators before he came back with a more formal response. I agreed and the next day, while on an afternoon walk, my phone rang with a number from Durham. It was Dr. Hays calling to inform me of two things: First, from a theological perspective, he felt compelled by the bonds of our mutual baptismal covenant to lovingly seek after my well-being. Second, he and his administrators were not only supportive of me, but declared that should any opposition arise, including from denominational officials, they would all have my back.

Although I ended up not taking the job (I decided to stay in a local church setting), the space provided by Duke Divinity School once again allowed me to more fully embrace who I am and to celebrate the work I feel called to do. Even more space was given to me recently by a senior Divinity School administrator who, when learning of my upcoming wedding, expressed her sincere congratulations along with her hope that she would be able to meet my partner soon.

Duke Divinity School is not perfect (surprise!). It is an institution and institutions can be slow to change, obsessed with their own preservation, and beholden to an “orthodoxy of nostalgia.” I am an ordained minister currently working at a large and historic institution and I’m reminded each day of just how difficult it can be to get a big ship to adjust its course. Trust me, I know what it’s like to get impatient at the glacial pace of change and how awful it feels when the weight of patriarchal and oppressive systems bears down on your body and soul.

But on my better days I also understand that change can happen and that it usually occurs best through honest dialogue, strategic and savvy organizing, and a commitment to honor the humanity of people you perceive to be on the opposite side of the table from you. I’ve learned this lesson not only as a means of survival as a queer person of color, but also as someone who continues to work on behalf of other oppressed and marginalized populations.

These days, my prayer is no longer that God would remove my call to ministry or make me straight. Rather, my prayer is that Duke Divinity School will continue to work towards being a place where all people can find space to be their most authentic and beautiful selves. The changes needed for this space to be available will not happen overnight. However, with persistence, prayer, and a large measure of grace, these changes will indeed come if we somehow manage to continue holding onto each other through the bonds that bind us together and in our pursuit of God's good future for all of us.

The Rev. Kevin Kim Wright is the executive minister of programs The Riverside Church in the City of New York.
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