In March 1965, more than 25,000 civil rights activists marched in support of voting rights for African Americans. San Francisco Theological Seminary closed for two weeks so that a busload of students and faculty could travel to Alabama. For many, this was a life-changing experience.
SFTS alumni gathered in April to share memories and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seminary’s participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Alumni reconnected, shared experiences at SFTS and beyond, and celebrated justice while enjoying a rich program centered on civil rights.
President Rev. Dr. Jim McDonald and Dean Rev. Dr. Jana Childers updated attendants on SFTS news and initiatives, including information on the Center for Innovation in Ministry, the Mosaic Tribute program, campus housing progress, and new academics including online coursework, certificate and diploma programs, and extended learning opportunities. Trustee Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin (’85) responded via Facebook post: “If you haven’t checked out SFTS for a while, it is time, friends. God is doing a new thing with the Church, and SFTS is on the cutting edge, re-thinking and re-fashioning seminary education.”
In the Faith and the Common Good Lecture, Paul Cobb, publisher of the Post News Group in Oakland, California, reflected on how his experience in Selma shaped his lifelong activism. He began by thanking white folks for participating in the struggle for equal rights. He challenged the audience by asking, “Has this institution changed since Selma? Did it have an impact on your curriculum, outreach, partners, efforts to make it a better place? Did Selma change you?” Cobb charged those who had participated in the march 50 years ago to keep the struggle for social justice alive today. After the lecture, the group enjoyed listening and dancing to live jazz by the Michael Aragon Quartet, and President McDonald joined the band on flute.
On Friday morning, SFTS Professor Rev. Laurie Garrett-Cobbina spoke on race in education and the Church. She shared a story of a formative experience during her final year of seminary when she encountered anger and resentment from peers by unwittingly participating in an act of civil disobedience. She continued with examples of the intertwined nature of race, education and religion and suggested theology students learn to think clearly and strategize to mobilize social change.
During the break, Professor Emeritus Dr. Herman Waetjen signed copies of his latest book, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Last Will and Testament. He had earlier addressed a smaller group to talk about his hermeneutic. This was closely followed by a lecture given by SFTS Professor Dr. Annette Weissenrieder, “The Heart of the Stranger.” She related Bible stories which ask “Who is becoming my neighbor?” and suggested the stories reveal that by getting along with each other and celebrating worship anywhere, “otherness” can be overcome.
A worship service in Stewart Chapel included a tribute to alumni who died in the last year, solos by Rev. Ineda Adesanya (’14), and a stirring sermon by Rev. Dr. James Noel, H. Eugene Farlough, Jr. Chair of African American Christianity. Pointing to the devaluation of human life in the struggle for racial equality, Noel stated, “If black lives don’t matter, no lives matter.” Noel also shared the interesting fact that before he became a public figure, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a stop at SFTS and spoke in Baird Hall.
Dr. Jewelle Taylor Gibbs kicked off the afternoon’s events with the story of her friendship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gibbs spoke of her time as a member of the faculty at UC Berkeley in the late 70s and early 80s, and about learning to use nonviolence to negotiate for increased diversity in the faculty.
Childers moderated a panel discussion about gender justice with Rev. Mary Gillespie, former SFTS professor; Rev. Ruth T. West (‘13), currently on staff; and Dr. Kathryn Poethig, activist for gender equality in the Church. Gillespie spoke of having to decide whether, as a woman, she should become ordained. She said during her time at SFTS there were advances made to support feminism. West spoke about Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, the first African American woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). West said God designed diversity, and trying to assimilate into a white culture can lead people of other races to lose a sense of home and self. Poethig talked about her experience as an activist and as an openly lesbian woman in the PC(USA). She said she finally became certified for ordination in 2013.
The panel discussion spurred a very passionate and engaging conversation among audience members about the fact that SFTS women were not permitted on the bus to Selma. One alumna said some of the women were angry but if it had been five or six years later, they would have climbed on the bus anyway. Therese Stawowy, a Catholic nun who attended the reunion as a guest of Donald Register (’63), recalled that, asa young CAtholic nun, she heard about Selma and knew she needed to go—not as a woman, but as a person. After obtaining the necessary permission from her male Pastor and male Cardinal, she realized she had forgotten to ask permission from the president of her order. Upon receiving her request, her female superior wondered why she was asking permission and said she “should do what her conscience told her.” Childers observed, “These stories must be told and are perhaps the most important thing happening here.” Many gathered afterward into small groups to continue this meaningful dialogue.
After a reception and dinner, Rev. Theodore “Theo” Gill, Jr. and his sister, Laurie Gill Keeran, shared original drafts of writings by their father, Rev. Dr. Theodore “Ted” Gill, who was president of SFTS at the time of the Selma march, and who marched with protesters. Rev. Dwain Epps (’67) reflected on how his life was changed by being at SFTS during such an important time, and Rev. Richard Pyke (’66) led songs and talked of the importance of music in the struggle for equal rights.
As the reunion concluded, Rev. Dr. Dean McDonald, lead organizer of the event, said, “We were blessed to be in the presence of our alumni, and blessed to be joined to their legacy.”
SFTS ALUM SHARES HIS EXPERIENCE AS A PARTICIPANT IN THE MARCH ON SELMA
Richard Macguire (’68) rode the bus to Selma with other San Francisco Theological Seminary students in 1965. While in Alabama, he was among the group of SFTS students given camp duties to support the marchers. This entailed setting up tents during the day while marchers progressed along the protest route, followed by breaking down camp in the morning, after the protesters departed. Macguire and others would then pile into a truck with all the supplies, drive past the marchers, and set up camp again to welcome weary protesters that evening. “I was incredibly impressed with the planning of the whole thing,” said Macguire.
Macguire was interested in social justice before attending SFTS. He came to seminary to learn how to help people change internally, which he still sees as the most important way to stop the perpetuation of hatred. “It’s not enough to address unjust systems and laws,” he said.
Macguire currently lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Maria, who he met at seminary, and works on issues of affordable housing.
Originally Published May 2015 in Chimes Magazine