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People take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York, on July 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-LUPFER-OPED, originally transmitted on October 6, 2016.

Seminaries start Black Lives Matter courses

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(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?”

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.

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.

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.

Adelle M. Banks

About Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national correspondent at RNS. She joined the staff in 1995 after working for more than 10 years at daily newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Binghamton and Syracuse, The Providence Journal and the Orlando Sentinel.

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