Lee Hinson-Hasty is coordinator for theological education and seminary relations in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the PC (U.S.A.). Through his work Lee hopes to capture and share a more expansive view of theological education, of church leadership and of vocational discernment as he sees through the eyes of some exciting Presbyterians in and related to seminaries.
Brian Blount, president and professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary, was seven years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what has come to be known as his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago this week. Blount described it as “almost biblical in its proportions.” I tend to agree. As the parent of a seven year old myself, I continue to meditate on the speech and the dream.
When I hear MLK’ Jr.’s speech my mind pictures Earnest Covington. Earnest Covington was my mentor during the summer of 1987. We worked side by side for a commercial construction company, something he’d done for thirty years. I was only a summer help on break from college.
Born in the late 1930’s, Mr. Covington worked from the time he was a teenager on construction sites all over the southeast. Living up to his first name, construction superintendents clamored to get him on their job. The reasons were obvious. He instinctively knew what needed to be done and he did it. He was on time, worked hard, never complained, and made everyone else on the job look good. I think he taught me how to do 90% of what I did that summer. On particularly hot days with little shade, he taught me how to stay hydrated, focused, and work with others to get the job done right. On our breaks, he shared with me his story, his faith, his homemade cornbread, his fried okra that he grew in his garden, and his down home wisdom.
One day he took me to his home and another day to his church, a Missionary Baptist congregation where he served as a Deacon. Both were sacred moments. When he needed an extra set of hands to help a neighbor, he asked if I would help and I did. I owed him much more and learned something everyday we were on the job together.
I called Earnest this week. We had not talked in twenty years. He still remembered me and I remembered his voice and strong southern accent. “I remember you.” He said, “You worked hard.” “You came with me to church.” All three statements nearly put tears in my eyes. As we took time to catch up with each other, I learned he had only recently retired. He did not want to complain, but his health “could be better.” He preferred to talk about common friends and old times and he wanted to know about my family. He was especially pleased to hear I was a minister. “Sounds like you are doing alright,” he said. “I’m not surprised.” I asked him repeatedly about himself and he repeated it often, “We are doing fine. Can’t complain.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was, it seems to me, not his own, but a divine dream and a dream for all God’s people. It recognized things could be better, much better. In a sense, he filed a complaint that could not wait because, everyone was not doing fine. His theological education including a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University, rootedness in the community, and care for the marginalized enabled him to articulate that dream pictured in the minds of many in his time and ours. It was after all given during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Make no mistake, the topic was racial injustice, but the context was poverty and freedom just a few days before Labor Day.
King had a mentor too, Howard Thurman, one of his professors at Boston University who taught him about non-violent resistance, among other things. Theological students like, King, craft words that articulate the lives of people like Earnest Covington who cares for everyone he knows, shares all of who he is and what he has, and expects nothing in exchange. We all need true mentors. Seminarians often say, and researchers have noted, that it is the professors that really make the difference in seminaries. They are mentors.
We also need those who can speak God’s deepest truths in our time. What we are commemorating this week on the 50th anniversary of the March and the speech, it seems to me, is just what NY Times columnist David Brooks calls “an exercise in applied theology.”
In a portion of a video interview below a Committee on Theological Education member, Max Sherman, gives thanks for those who have mentored him and helped him articulate truth. Barbara Jordan, the heralded African American Texas politician and daughter of a Baptist minister must be in that category for Max. He posits that those who were formed by seminaries or those that seminarians have formed have an impact on all our lives. They often serve as our mentors. It’s easy to forget the impact of a theological education. But those like MLK, Jr, Brian Blount, Max Sherman, Barbara Jordan, and Earnest Covington are witnesses to how theological education matters because of mentors and teachers in their lives.
On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I am giving thanks for Earnest Covington, and the pastors and deacons at his church who have nurture his love, faith, trust, hope, and dreams. Maybe this Labor Day and this Theological Education/ Seminary Sunday (September 15th) we can have a season of giving thanks for mentors who have shaped us. “Happy birthday and thank you, Earnest!” I’m glad you were born in August. Not a bad month for birthing divine dreams.
Dreaming in Louisville,