November 21, 2012 / Dennis R. Edwards

Not out of place

While in Chicago for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I had an occasion to greet Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, one of my seminary instructors from back in the day (the 80s!). He was pleasant with me, as he’s always been toward me, and honored the role of pastors by referring to us as something like “the best theological interpreters for the church.” His point was that we interpret and put into practice what comes out of serious theological reflection by academics. Amen!

My encounter with Dr. Vanhoozer was at the publisher Zondervan’s luncheon for authors. Some of my friends know that I’ve had a book deal with Zondervan Academic for a few years to write a commentary on 1 Peter for a new series that is designed to be accessible for most pastors and “lay” people. So I get to attend the authors’ luncheon (I need to finish the commentary so I don’t feel like an interloper at those at gatherings!). Because I’m not a “known entity,” I am especially grateful to have even been invited to be part of the team, and I so much want to do a good job writing.

I confess that I feel particular pressure to do quality work because I am an urban, African American pastor. I was the only African American at the luncheon. This has not been the first time for me in that context, as well as other similar settings, including the alumni gathering for my seminary that happened the next evening.

I also presented a brief paper and was part of a panel discussion at a session of the conference, and my dear friend (and roommate for the conference) pointed out that I was the only African American in the room (I had noticed). Of course, being over 50 years old, that experience is not a new one for me. Indeed, it brought back feelings I and others have had about having “to represent.”

Lest you think I am overreacting, let me share this:
A few years ago at an SBL gathering, I got into the lecture room early. There was a world-renown biblical scholar with a woman I assumed was his wife, already in the room. They happened to be sitting under a chandelier that wasn’t working. I went to the restroom before the session, and as I returned, the woman was coming out of the lecture room. When she saw me, she stared to ask if I was there to fix the light! Mind you: I was wearing a shirt and tie (and pants and all the rest) and had on my conference nametag! What did she see first? My skin? After an awkward moment of silence, she said, “never mind,” and I told her that I saw a hotel worker down the hall. Somehow I felt the need to keep her from feeling badly that she had mistaken me for “the help!” How messed up is that?

God has given me some wonderful opportunities to participate in interesting ministry gatherings. I realize that I am still growing in feeling that I am not out of place. But I am hoping–and feel my hopes are being realized–that none of my bright and talented children will ever have to feel out of place in their own country.