The Rev. Emilie Townes, the new dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, is anything but the ‘same old Vandy’ 

Divine Inspiration

Divine Inspiration

On a Friday night in late August, Vanderbilt University's Benton Chapel is filled with faculty, students and alumni, and their curiosity is palpable. After an international search, the university's divinity school has named a new dean.

That in itself is momentous. The new leader will be tasked with heading the faculty, ensuring the school's financial health, and generally overseeing its scholarly pursuits. But at an institution known as Schola Prophetarum ("school of the prophets"), the dean's role goes beyond administration. The call here is to light the path; to look toward, if not see, the future — and to lead the people into it.

Even without that mantle, though, the prophet arriving tonight at Vanderbilt would turn heads.

Onstage to install the new dean are Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt's chancellor, Richard McCarty, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Harold Attridge, the former dean of Yale Divinity School. Flanked by them, draped in a purple robe, is Vanderbilt's new spiritual leader.

Even without her striking cords of gray and black hair, the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes isn't hard to distinguish from the aging white males on either side. She jokes later that as the ceremony was being put together, its organizers began referring to the arrangement onstage as "Emilie and the guys."

But that's not the only way Townes stands apart from Vanderbilt tradition. As Bonnie Miller-McLemore, a Vanderbilt professor of religion, psychology and culture, says in her introduction, she will be the first African-American divinity school dean "in a school and a location with both a troubled and redemptive race history." She is only the second woman to hold the position.

There is likely no one prouder than the woman looking on from the front pew — her partner, Laurel Schneider. She too is joining the university, as a professor of religious studies. It wasn't long ago that she and Townes celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

From there, the ceremony proceeds with much pomp. Several musical selections follow from the Temple Church Choir of Nashville. Speakers (including the aforementioned "guys") lavish Townes with praise, cataloguing her academic accomplishments. She has a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She comes to Vanderbilt from Yale University, where she was associate dean of academic affairs at the divinity school — the first woman and first African-American to hold that position. She was the first African-American president of the American Academy of Religion, and in 2009 she was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Science. She is also the author of several books on womanist theology and ethics.

By the time Townes arrives at the podium to deliver her convocation address, the only one who looks unimpressed by the guest of honor is the guest of honor.  

Townes seems like the kind of person who would shoo you away if you called her a prophet to her face. But she speaks like one, with the gentle humility that can get you welcomed into an Old Testament town, and the truth-telling force that can get you chased out. At the Vanderbilt of 50 years ago, that might well have happened.

Vanderbilt Divinity School, however, has a reputation as a liberal oasis at odds with the widespread conservatism of the surrounding campus. It has butted heads with the rest of the university over issues such as the civil rights movement and apartheid. If the religious right holds sway over much of Tennessee, Vanderbilt Divinity is a bastion of the religious left, producing scholars, clergy and theologians who challenge rather than uphold orthodoxy.

The appointment of an openly gay black woman as dean, however, would appear a bold move even by its standards. From the beginning, her address, like her presence, signifies a break with the phrase so hated by the university's athletics department: same old Vandy.

"When I was in third grade," Townes tells the room, "I decided to read every book in my elementary school's library."

Growing up in Durham, N.C., she says her school was, like most black public schools in the 1960s, "segregated by color and resources." But as a child, she says, the library seemed enormous. She set out to read her way from wall to wall. The first section contained Greek and Roman mythology.

"I had never heard of such from Rev. Moore's weekly sermons, and certainly not in Ms. Minor's Sunday School class," she recalls. "More than one God? People actually believed that? Gods could be capricious, not the Holy of Holies I knew? Gods could marry? Mere blasphemy.

"But I kept reading. And somewhere in the midst of that first section of books, I became aware of the fact that my world was expanding. I did not always understand it. I couldn't really articulate it. But I had this sense of more."

Her parents, both professors at North Carolina Central University, did not discourage their daughter's romp through fields of forbidden knowledge. Along with her teachers, Townes says, they cheered on her exploration.

Just a few shelves away from the finish line, though — late in the fourth grade, she remembers, or early in the fifth — she hit the encyclopedia, that wonderful and awful record of human history, the past refracted through the attitudes of the present.

She got to the "S" volume, where she came upon the entry on slavery. What she found, she tells the crowd, came as a "gut punch."

"What did I find that sucked the wind out of me in that article?" she asks. "Cartoonish and offensive caricatures of black folk eating watermelon. Stereotypes of smiling black folk working in the field with tattered clothes. A monstrous cavalcade of sambos and mammies and pickaninnies."

The room is silence itself.

"With all the righteous indignation that a nine or 10-year-old could muster," she continues, "I went to the librarian and my teacher, with my fingers marking the page in the encyclopedia. They could tell from my face that something was wrong. All I could do was open the page and say, 'This is not right.' "

They agreed, she says. At home, she and her parents were relieved to find that their copy of the encyclopedia, a newer version, contained an updated section on slavery, without the caricatures. At school, the old encyclopedia was thrown out before the new one even arrived. Then she drops the rhetorical hammer.

"How many versions of that 'S' volume do we have in our academic disciplines?" she says, prompting an audible response from a crowd now itself feeling punched in the gut. "In our churches? In our communities? And how can I and others model what my teachers did, and provide others with larger and more accurate visions of who we are, and how we can be, in the household of God?"

By the time she finishes, the audience is punctuating her remarks with the kind of involuntary "Ohhhs" reserved for exploding fireworks and soul-stirring sermons. And with Emilie Townes at the head of Vanderbilt Divinity, they may come to see both.

That's not because Townes cuts a divisive figure. On the contrary. In her new office on the Vanderbilt campus, seated before shelves that already bulge with books, she talks with a teacher's welcoming candor — a much different thing from a politician's practiced frankness. When a reporter stammers inquiries about deeply personal topics, from her church affiliation to her sexuality, she plunges ahead with neighborly directness. Her manner relaxes people to speak openly about subjects they usually tend to tiptoe around — another quality that made her an especially compelling candidate.

The divinity school sought someone capable of bringing the community together, according to Carolyn Dever, dean of Vanderbilt's College of Arts and Science and chair of the search committee that recruited Townes. That is inevitably one of the challenges of a nondenominational school, which actively seeks to populate itself with diverse believers professing a wide spectrum of beliefs.

Dever says Townes shows an ability to do that. "She does manage to bring people together and unite people in contexts that might be divisive," she says.

Vanderbilt provost McCarty says the university was looking for "someone to come in and make us better." He says there was not even a moment's pause about Townes' sexuality — which he says is "not relevant" — or how hiring her could be perceived outside the university.

"I wouldn't want it to be seen as, well, this was just a poke in the eye to my faith tradition," he says. "That's not what it is. And that would be that nanosecond of concern that some people may interpret it that way. Our charge was to get the best possible candidate for our divinity deanship to say yes. And we got the best candidate — and thank God she said yes, because she is going to be an amazing leader on our campus and in our community."

Like Vanderbilt Divinity School, Townes grew up Methodist. She is now an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church. The Vanderbilt Divinity School left the Methodist church in 1914 and now describes itself as "interdenominational." But they have arrived at a very similar place. You can't talk to one, or about the other, without returning to the words "social justice."

Townes traces that emphasis back to the Rev. Doug Moore, her childhood pastor.

"He was a marvelous example of holding together deep spirituality, with an unrelenting social justice message," she tells the Scene. "He did both those things. And that's what formed me."

But Methodist ministers are always on the move, and Moore left for another church as Townes was entering her preteen years. By the time she got to high school, she had become disaffected. Her childhood had given her a "high understanding of what a church should be," she says, and when her church stopped matching up to that, it felt like "going to a lie." So she left.

"When later pastors came along, and almost all of them were emphasizing spirituality and not really wanting us to get involved in the events of the day, in my teenage years, I had to take a powder on that," she says. "I was seeing the inequities in our school system. We were going through desegregation. I was watching the lack of even treatment between kids whose parents had money and position, black or white, and those who didn't. And I was raised to speak out against that, and did. But the church wasn't there for me, and it wasn't there for a lot of kids who could've benefited from hearing that they were important too."

She didn't leave God, though, because she says she never believed he had left her. So instead of going to church on Sunday mornings, she would take her mom's car out to Duke Forest, to a bluff overlooking a river. She found it "a lot more worshipful" place than her church had become.

As they had when she set off to conquer her grade school library, her parents gave her space. She had been raised in a household where it was OK to ask questions, she says, though allowing her to search with her feet was "an incredible leap of faith."

"My parents, I don't know how they got this in their head, but they had decided, 'We've given them all we can in terms of structure and values,' all that," she says. " 'And now we have to let them go and find their own way.' Now I know they were probably watching me, but they did it in such a way that I didn't know."

Eventually she made her way back to the organized church. Having gone back to Durham many times since her youth, she says, she's found that most of her friends from those days have too. They're all back in the church, she says, being "a thorn in the flesh" of their pastors.

Agitating for social justice, and for the church's increased commitment to it, can mean any number of things. What's striking about Townes is that she represents a demographic trifecta that would seem to make her voice on such matters particularly strong. Each one — her gender, her race and her sexual orientation — has been used at various times in the country's history, and in some cases still today, to keep people from advancing in society, politics and the church.

Of course, one's race and gender are impossible to avoid. You wear them wherever you go, and encounter the slights and injustices (or random privileges, as the case may be) that our society bestows upon them. Sexual orientation, though, for those outside the established norm, is different. It can be hidden from the outside world, even from people themselves.

"I think I became conscious of my attraction, to girls at that age, in eighth grade, so about 13," Townes says. "And being a little bit on the precocious side — which is sometimes helpful and sometimes a bit of a burden — I decided that was too young to know, yes, this is really what you want to do, this is really who you are. So I made a pact with myself. I'm just going to date guys and see what happens until after college. And if I still feel this way, OK, this is who I am. And it's the way God made me."

She says she didn't grow up learning about an angry, judgmental God, but a God of justice — "and that's a very different thing," she says.

"It was never an issue for me that I had to reconcile sexuality or race or gender or class or any of those things with the Gospel message," she says. "It seemed to me that's exactly what the Gospel is about. Inviting the fullness of who we are into the household of God, and welcoming other folks in."

To say it was divine intervention that brought Townes back to organized religion would be a cliché, if she didn't have a testimony to back it up.

In college, at the University of Chicago, she says she was burning through majors, in search of one that "really captured" her. She was discussing her quandary with a secretary in the school's Physical Sciences division when an answer materialized.

"I said, I want a major where there's always going to be questions," she says. "And it will keep me thinking. And we looked at each other at the same time and said 'religion.' "

Several years later, she found herself presiding over an internal debate between going to law school or divinity school. (As it turns out, she says, this is not an uncommon dilemma. In fact, she adds, it's a fork in the road at which Chancellor Zeppos could have gone either way. "In another life I think he might have been a theologian," she says. "He's very well-read in theology.")

One day, while sitting in her room with her leg propped up in a cast — she says she had a penchant for busting up her knee during basketball season — she was looking out the window at students coming and going to class. She was reading an autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila.

"She was a Catholic mystic who had a fairly erotic relationship with Jesus," Townes explains, "and I was reading one of these really flowery passages of St. Teresa. And I said, 'OK, I have to put this down because this is getting too much.' "

Staring out the window, she mulled over whether to go to law school or to divinity school. At that moment, she says, she heard a voice behind her say, "Go to divinity school." She thought it was one of her friends who knew that she'd been struggling with the decision.

But when she turned around, there was no one there.

"And about the time I looked and saw that, this big wind rose up out of nowhere, and I thought, 'That was a sign,' " Townes says. "So I hobbled down to my friend Barb's room, down the hallway, and she said it scared the life out of her.

"I just looked at her and said, 'It's been decided. I'm going to divinity school.' "

Vanderbilt Divinity School has long had a reputation as a relatively radical institution in a Bible Belt city. Its statement of Purpose and Commitments includes commitments to "combat the idolatry of racism and ethnocentrism," oppose "the sexism that has characterized much of the history of the church and western culture and is still present in our society," and confront the "homophobia that prevails throughout much of the church and society."

In an article several years ago in the Scene ("Searching for God," Jan. 11, 2001), Rob Simbeck describes "two watershed events" that can now be seen as monuments to the school's legacy of mischief-making in the name of justice.

The first, in 1960, involved civil rights icon James Lawson, then a 31-year-old student at the divinity school and a leader of the city's downtown lunch counter sit-ins. When Lawson told the Nashville Banner that he would encourage students to "violate the law," Simbeck writes, he was given an ultimatum by Vanderbilt's chancellor at the time, Harvie Branscomb: Quit leading the sit-ins or be expelled. Lawson was ultimately expelled, which prompted most of the divinity school faculty to offer their resignations.

The second event revolved around Sallie McFague, the only other woman to serve as dean of the divinity school (and Simbeck adds, the first woman to hold such a position at a religious institution in this country). During a 1978 regional Davis Cup tennis match at Vanderbilt, McFague took part in student protests against the presence of a team from the apartheid state of South Africa.

There's little doubt that Townes is of a piece with this legacy. At her convocation address, a little more than a month after the Trayvon Martin verdict, she did not shy away from engaging with the cultural and political debate that was raging beyond the chapel walls. In a forceful passage that crescendoed to meet the crowd's applause, she invited those present to "rewrite the notion of standing our ground."  

"Stand our ground, not with weapons, not with fear, not with stereotypes, not with hatred," she said. "Stand our ground, with a living witness. With a curious spirit. With love and righteousness. With joy and laughter. With the world in our eye. With God before us, God behind us, God over us, God under us and God all around us."

Vanderbilt professor Ellen Armour, the chair in Feminist Theology and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality, says Townes "really gets the divinity school."

"[She] fits in very well with how the divinity school sees itself, its commitment to both academic rigor and social justice," says Armour, who served with Dever, dean of arts and science, on the search committee. "It's very hard to imagine anybody who embodies that more than Dr. Townes does."

McCarty says he hopes there are several "eternal truths" about the divinity school — among them, its commitment to being nondenominational as well as pursuing social justice and strong scholarship. Townes can talk at length about all three, and she says she's in "hog's heaven" to have found a school that brings them together. And while there are those who may see potential conflicts between the school's various commitments, they all seem to intertwine as she speaks.

She says she believes God's revelation is ongoing. If that's true, one can stay grounded in his or her own religious tradition, while engaging with others with curiosity and not fear — an idea she says the divinity school encourages in its students.

"God speaks in a variety of ways, and when we try to confine God to speaking only one way to only a certain group of people, then we're really creating God in ourselves," she says. "We're not letting God be God. And that, to me, is the great challenge of faith. Do we have enough faith to let God be God? To let God examine our hearts, and sometimes change us? Imagine that."

If the answer is yes, maybe there's another update in store for the encyclopedia.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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