Race and Religion at PLNU with Dr. Willie Jennings

Dr. Willie Jennings, Claire Downey and Nick Hancock. Photo courtesy of Claire Downey and Nick Hancock.

Crill Hall was packed with listeners eager to hear this year’s H. Orton Wiley lecture speaker, Dr. Willie James Jennings. Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School. Jennings’ teachings have an emphasis on post-colonial and race theory and he touched on these topics during the Wiley lectures March 21-23. 

His four lectures, titled “The Revolution of Salvation” shared insight on the salvation of Christian life through the sight of mind, body, land, and relationships. Jennings spoke on topics such as whiteness, a way of seeing and being seen in the world, and how it influences and has influenced the architecture of race, religion and nation in Western society. He also shared about the Christian call for genuine communion with those who are not always our first choice and the importance of acknowledging the land we inhabit and the history it holds. 

In an interview with The Point, Jennings expanded on some of these ideas and offered advice on how to move forward as an entire community. 

The Point: Since PLNU is a school that is predominantly white and upper class, what is your main advice for breaking this mold and being more inclusive of minority students on campus?

Jennings: On the student side, the students have to be more intentional in creating a hospitable environment. To make learning about students of color, not making these students your teachers, but asking your teachers to help you learn about the worlds that they come from, so that you can be a part of not only their education, but your own education with them. Everything from chemistry to world civilizations, we should ask how do we make sure that we are learning not only from a Western, white perspective, but learning from their perspectives in order to understand these subject matters. That’s the first crucial step. Students have to ask the faculty to help them learn at a deeper level about the rest of the world present in their midst. 

TP: How can we actionably engage with your lectures here on campus?

Jennings: It’s important to start asking some big questions. What about us as a school finding out about those city board meetings that happen every month? Why can’t we as a school send a delegation of students, faculty, and staff to learn what’s going on? You want to, at this point, step forward and say that it’s our moral obligation to really be a part of this community, not only as a school, but as students. So when we learn this now, and graduate and go back to our own communities, this is what we know we need to do. It’s also important to start to learn the stories of the people that inhabit this area. Who are the various people that are here? What are their stories? What are their struggles? How can we incorporate that into a Point Loma experience? If Point Loma, like so many other schools, is a bubble, the challenge always is to break open that bubble. So that the students, when they come to Point Loma they’re not only being educated at Point Loma, but being educated in Point Loma. And that difference is the whole world. Because to be educated in a place is to learn how to let a place live through you, and that’s key.” 

TP: Do you have any advice to students who are navigating genuine activism while also putting on a full time course load? How can students remain passionate about justice while balancing a life of academics, branching out in community, mental health, etc.? 

Jennings: I always say to students that you want to take the long view of things. So an activist is not someone who is engaged in simply the activity of activism, and activist is someone who is forming their identity inside their work. So while you are in school you are forming your identity as an activist. That means that you approach every class, you approach your relationships with the desire to be formed to be someone who can speak truth to power. So, that means you never have to look at spending that time in study, that time in conversation, that time in resting and being with friends as somehow opposed to or counterproductive to an activist life. That’s all a part of forming an activist life. What all activists learn is that you have to understand the importance of self care in order to do activism. Because activism isn’t about one event, it’s about a life. And that life has to be lived well. My advice to students is that while you are here at Point Loma, take seriously your self care and your serious learning as the preparation to do the kind of activism that will be necessary for the rest of your life.

Written By: Claire Downey and Nick Hancock