Faith Refocused

They are 15 women and five men, ranging in age from 25 to 61. They include a one-time businessman and a former schoolteacher, and represent a cross-section of Protestant denominations, from Baptist to Presbyterian to Moravian.
They are the first graduating class in the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University.

Few in this group receiving their diplomas on Monday are headed for a traditional pulpit. They speak more of social justice than of sin and salvation.
All came to Wake Forest conscious that they were part of an experiment: the creation of an ecumenical divinity school that would, among other things, serve as a counterweight to the conservative domination of the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries.

The school is still a work in progress. Students and faculty have strugged to find a balance between honoring Wake Forest’s own Baptist roots and promoting religious pluralism and academic freedom.

“It’s not without its faults – because whenever you bring all those different voices together, there’s tension and disagreement,” said Stan Cross, one of the graduating students.

“It’s like the Bible. Out of the tension and argument and disagreement comes life,” he said.

Because they were the school’s first students, this group actively participated in helping to refine the school’s mission and identity, Cross said.

“We all felt part of that pioneering experience,” he said. “That awareness adds a sense of responsibility and a real desire to make things work and do our best.”

A call for moderate voices
Talk of starting the divinity school first surfaced in the late 1980s, a few years after the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Many moderates had left or been forced out of posts at Baptist seminaries because they refused to teach biblical inerrancy, the defining conservative tenet.

The Rev. Mike Queen, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington and a Wake Forest trustee, was among those who approached the university’s president, Thomas K. Hearn, with the idea of starting a divinity school.

They argued that Wake Forest -whose Baptist founders in 1838 envisioned it as a producer of ministers -needed to join other Baptist schools that were re-embracing theological education. Over the years, that training had moved to denomination-run seminaries.

Baptist universities, meanwhile, had grown increasingly independent of the denomination: Wake Forest severed its last ties to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in 1986.

But the university made slow progress in creating the divinity school, and some early backers withdrew financial support, Queen said. He nonetheless defends Wake Forest’s approach.

“The university is dealing with so many different constituencies about money, space … we had to make sure that this was going to fit in with everything else,” he said.

The school opened its doors in 1999 with 24 students. Moderates and liberals hailed a new era; conservatives questioned whether the school would ever meet a critical challenge: turning out a significant number of graduates who actually wanted to preach.

Today, the ideological divide remains deep. The Rev. Jerry Pereira, the conservative president of the Baptist State Convention, declined to comment about the school, saying that he doesn’t know much about it.

But Willie Jennings, the academic dean at the Duke University Divinity School, said that other schools are watching and hoping for Wake Forest’s success.

“Everyone … understands that Wake Forest’s seminary is significant and has promise to be a major voice in theological education,” he said.

“We really want them to do well. We’re convinced that the formation of the clergy for the church needs to be done in the context of the university.”

The first year
It wasn’t always easy.

Early on, the divinity school got caught up in the maelstrom surrounding the use of Wait Chapel on campus for a same-sex commitment ceremony. Susan Parker and Wendy Scott, the two women who requested the ceremony, are members of Wake Forest Baptist Church, which holds services in the chapel.
Parker is also a member of the inaugural divinity-school class.

The university allowed the ceremony in September 2000 – but not before a very tense hesitation as officials tried to reconcile the differences between conservative alumni and more liberal faculty and students.

Divinity school dean Bill Leonard would later describe the controversy as a “tar baby.”

“It just fell on me,” he recalled in a 2000 story published in the Biblical Recorder, the newspaper of the Baptist State Convention. “I didn’t go looking for it.”

The controversy erupted at the very time that the students and faculty were trying to figure out what it meant to be starting a divinity school at Wake Forest.
Parker’s classmates supported her but were angry that all the attention of the outside world focused on the union ceremony, said Stephanie Wyatt, a graduating student.

“We didn’t want this union to define us,” Wyatt said. “When we talk about the first year, we don’t talk about the union ceremony. We talk about the anxiety – of saying who are we as a community, as a school, going to be and what does it mean?”

Making a minister
Many members of the divinity-school class remember what Professor Frank Tupper said to them on the first day of theology class in 1999.

“Divinity school is like taking your heart out, holding it in your hand and examining it while still depending on it to give you life,” Wyatt recalled.

Tupper’s words resonated with the group over time as they realized that their education depended on their ability to take their faith apart without killing it or losing it.

For Wyatt, who has deep roots in the Southern Baptist church, that meant asking some very hard questions about what it meant to be a woman, a Baptist, an academic and a person passionate about social change.

“There was a sense of the tug and pull in terms of the voices at the school that mirrored what was going on in me,” Wyatt said.

“Divinity school helped me find ways for all these parts of myself to talk to each other,” Wyatt said.

Today, Wyatt’s home congregation in Knoxville, Tenn., which has ties to both the Southern Baptist Convention and the moderate Cooperative Fellowship of Baptists, is voting on whether to ordain her.

If the congregation does, as expected, Wyatt will be the first woman to be ordained by the congregation. She plans to work for the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, a nonprofit organization that deals with issues of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, and eventually return to graduate school for a doctorate in biblical studies.

For Cross, the divinity school curriculum, which includes instruction in biblical studies, church history, theology, homiletics (the art of preaching), spirituality and
pastoral care, transformed him from a self-described “moderate to conservative Baptist” to “one of the more radical students,” he said.

He almost didn’t come to the school when he found out that it had an open- admissions policy and that Parker, his classmate, was a lesbian.

Now she is one of his best friends.

“My whole attitude about homosexuality is changed because of her,” he said.

“That’s one of the ways in which I’m transformed,” he said. “I want to help the church step out of the boxed situation it seems to be in.”

Cross entered divinity school at 48, after a career in business. He has found a job as the minister to men at the Rescue Mission in his hometown of Roanoke, Va.

Different paths
Hearn said in 1999 that he hoped many students would ultimately choose ministerial work.

But the conservative challenge – that liberal divinity schools don’t make ministers – is still out there.

Leaders at the Wake Forest divinity school are careful to argue that “ministry” should be broadly defined.

“Better we form people who know how to have a certain presence,” said Jill Crainshaw, an associate dean and the director of the school’s vocational development program. “I’ve never intended us to have a toolbox mentality.”

The curriculum aims to help people form what is called in church circles a “ministerial identity,” she said. Students are required to complete internships in churches or other ministry settings as a way of figuring out their vocational paths.

The Southern Baptist Convention forbids the ordination of women, and even in other denominations, the traditional ministry remains male-dominated.

That has presented a special challenge for the divinity school as it tries to guide this year’s graduates -the majority of them women – into jobs that will allow them to do their chosen work, Crainshaw said.

Three of the graduates will complete residencies in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Jennie Hemrick, 49, worked as an advocate for battered women before she entered divinity school. She is seeking Presbyterian ordination and hopes to work in ecumenical social ministry.

“My passion is to help faith community leaders understand that there are two people involved in domestic violence…. We can no longer say that it doesn’t exist in our church homes,” she said.

Leonard also sees no single career track for divinity-school graduates.

“We really have to prepare students for religious communities that are in what I call a state of permanent transition, and we are doing it inside a university that is trying to diversify itself. I find that challenging and a bit invigorating … certainly invigorating,” he said.

Part of the challenge is knowing that many people in this new generation of ministers wear their denominational affiliations loosely, Leonard said. Yet the way to ordination is through Christian denominations.

“Denominations still become a necessary entry point, but they’re not necessarily helpful in dealing with these broader cultural issues,” he said.

Leonard has always made it clear that he wanted a diverse school, one that reflected the state of modern religion. The faculty includes a Benedictine monk, a black preaching professor and a feminist biblical scholar, along with well-known academics who are veterans of the struggle between conservatives and moderates within the Southern Baptist Convention.

There is, however, no self-described conservative Baptist. And diversity for the student body has been a challenge, as it is at many schools.

The graduating class is all white, and mostly female. Subsequent classes have brought more balance: Seven out of the school’s 65 students in 2001-2002 were black. Men were also better represented.

“We’re trying to recruit students,” Leonard said. “We don’t know what future profiles will look like, and we won’t know until we get accreditation.”

Because it is so new, the school has not been accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. The accreditation process begins this summer but will not be completed until 2005.

“I think we all get impatient with that,” Leonard said. “It really is stages of growth.”

Graduation from an accredited school is generally a prerequisite for ordination, but students can ask for exceptions in some denominations.

A work in progress
Even though many of these graduates will not have a traditional pulpit, they will be asked to preach from time to time and will be judged as ministers by what they say, said Brad Braxton, the divinity-school professor who teaches the art of preaching.
Those first graduates will begin to develop the school’s reputation in the outside world.

“It begins to form an identity about what students come here to do,” Crainshaw said.
Jennings said that historians will be watching closely to see how the school deals with issues of diversity, theology and the complex interplay between cultural issues and religious beliefs.

“In many ways, it’s unprecedented – to have a major university found a seminary at the end of the 20th century,” he said.

“It’s going to be a very important test case for gauging the character of Christianity in the South in a very modern university at the turn of the century.”

For his part, Leonard downplays such talk.

“I think theological education in general is a test case,” he said. “We’re a microcosm of what schools all over the country are facing. We have an advantage because we’re new. We haven’t gotten to turf issues yet.”

Parker, who will be ordained at Wake Forest Baptist Church next Sunday, said that the school faces a struggle.

“If this is really going to be a new experiment, we’ve got to keep pushing back against the forces that want to make us into their image of what theological education should be,” she said.

“Are we going to find a way to live in the tension?”

Published May 19, 2002 in the Winston-Salem Journal

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Making a Lake

Photographer Ted Richardson and I spent quite a few weekends one summer rambling around the Deep River, where the Randleman reservoir was about to be built.  We met dairy farmers and homeowners, renters and swimmers and lifetime dam opponents, whose conflicting feelings about the dam we tried to capture in a radio story, photographs and a print story.  Here’s the story that ran on WUNC.


A print version of the piece also appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal, where I was working as a reporter. At the time, I hadn’t had much experience working across platforms (or as a print reporter, for that matter), so I recall it as a great learning experience.

Here is that story:

Willie Coltrane remembers first hearing about the Randleman Dam when he was just a boy.

” I went with my father into Randleman. A neighbor … came running out of his driveway and said, ‘Hold up, Robert. Hold up. I want to talk to you.’ He got out into the road and he said, ‘The Corps of Engineers is surveying up the river for a dam to be built!'”

The year was 1918.

When the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority holds an official groundbreaking ceremony for the $120 million Randleman Dam and reservoir next month, it will end one chapter in a drama that has taken nearly a century to unfold.

In 1937, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam on the Deep River near Randleman as a means of flood control. The project would have taken 10,000 acres of farmland.

Thirty years later, Congress approved the $11 million project, and residents organized to fight it.

Coltrane and his wife, Edith, were on the front lines, even after the project was scaled back, and their land was spared.

“I had started it and in order to help my friend, Thelma Adams, I went right along with her and they were going to take her home over there on the river,” Edith Coltrane said.

She went to hundreds of meetings to speak out on the project and spent countless hours talking with people under the shade of a maple tree in her backyard. Now, at 89 and in frail health, she spends most of her time in a recliner near a picture window in her kitchen. More often than not, Willie occupies the chair a few feet away from her.

“We did everything we could do, sure did,” Edith Coltrane said. “We did everything we could do, except stop it.”

When the reservoir is finished in 2004, it will provide as much as 48 million gallons of water a day to Greensboro, High Point, Randleman and other towns around it.

The path of the water
Most of the people whose homes were in the path of the water have long since sold their land or packed up and moved away from the river. The water authority started buying up land in 1988. What land it couldn’t buy it condemned. The water authority needed a total of 6,000 acres in northern Randolph and southern Guilford counties – about half for the reservoir and half for a 200-foot buffer zone all the way around it.

George Stanton sold 127 acres of his grain farm about eight years ago, but he insisted on keeping his house and about 45 acres around it. At 72, he is one of the last grain farmers in this part of Randolph County. When the river is dammed, the reservoir will be about 200 feet from his backyard swimming pool.

“We’ve always lived on a dirt road. We couldn’t get the road paved on account of the Randleman Lake. It’s paved over yonder and paved over here and that’s as far as they’d pave it,” Stanton said as he sat on his front porch, watching a thunderstorm gather in the sky above the rolling fields. “It’s been a gravel road ever since it was built in 1936.”

Stanton never believed that the dam would be built, and he never put up much of a fight. But others did. Opponents thought that they had scored a victory when the Corps of Engineers dropped the dam project in 1987. The federal Office of Management and Budget had determined that the cost of building the dam would outstrip the benefit of controlling flooding downstream.

But by then, the purpose of the project had also changed from flood control and recreation to providing drinking water for Greensboro and other nearby communities.

State leaders had already seen the handwriting on the wall. If they wanted to build the Randleman Dam, they would have to do it without federal money.

In 1986, the state set up the water authority. Though it studied dozens of other solutions to Greensboro’s chronic water problems, it preferred the Randleman Dam.

Stanton was among the first landowners to sell, but he negotiated the right to farm it until construction starts.

“We just hate to see the farm go because it’s an old land-grant deed farm. Two brothers came in here and settled here and we’ve got the old original land-grant deed,” he said. “But people got to have water to drink. You’ve got to get it from somewhere.”

The dam builders arrived in Randleman a couple of weeks ago to set up shop on a huge graveled lot on the outskirts of town. They’re building roads into the dam site, in a place that locals refer to as “the second bend.” After that, they’ll begin diverting the flow of the Deep River.

Politics: It’s in the water
John Forbis was the mayor of Greensboro when the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority was formed, and he is the only original member of the group still serving.

“We always, always had a water problem. This town has no business being where it is. It sits on a large rock outcropping. Everything runs away from it. Subsequently, there’s no opportunity to develop new water resources. The Deep (River) is, when you look right at it, our only option.”

Forbis would be among the first to tell you that the Randleman Reservoir presented a lot of environmental challenges, but he is confident that they have been met.

High Point will discharge 26 million gallons of treated wastewater into the reservoir every day. The lake will be built over a part of an old High Point landfill, and the former Seaboard Chemical plant, a Superfund cleanup site, is about 2,000 feet from the shoreline of the proposed reservoir.

Every public agency that deals with public health and environmental issues has concluded that the water will be safe to drink. All of these factors have been accounted for in three separate environmental impact statements, and millions have been spent on cleanup along the river.

“We’ve run every one of those rabbits to ground,” Forbis said.

Organized opposition to the project has dwindled, as landowners settled with the water authority and environmental agencies declared the water would be safe to drink.

But a few people, including Alan Horton, the dam’s most vocal opponent and a member of the Deep River Citizens Coalition, remain unconvinced. He is particularly concerned about concentrations of phosphorus, which cause algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water.

“When you know you’re going to have nutrification problems in a lake, when you know you are going to have problems treating the water … the engineers say ‘Yes, we can treat the water to the standards,’ but that’s not guaranteeing you safe water,” Horton said.

The coalition and the American Canoe Association have appealed the project’s water quality permit to the state court of appeals, where a judgment is pending, and Horton has threatened to file an injunction in federal court to try to stop construction.

Deep River, shallow water
The water of the Deep River still draws people to its winding shores.

Most every weekend, Tony Ruggiero takes his kids down to the river to play in a deep spot back along a winding path a quarter-mile into the woods near Sophia.

Ruggiero has adopted the river as his own. Each time he comes, he spends time cleaning debris out of the river bottom. As his daughter, Pricilla, splashed onto shore, he pointed to a pile of rusty metal nearby.

Ruggiero moved his family here from Greensboro six years ago, to be near the new lake.

“I’ve had 80-year-old people tell me it wouldn’t be built in my lifetime,” Ruggiero said. “It’s coming and we’re saying, ‘All right!’ That’s all I can say. We love it. We’ve been coming down here 15 years.”

The shore where Ruggiero stood will be covered under six feet of water after the reservoir is filled in 2003. Once it’s built, his children won’t be able to swim in it. The water authority’s rules prohibit swimming and limit the size and type of motorboats on the lake.

Darrell Frye, a Randolph County commissioner who serves on the water authority, said: “I want people to take a little 10 horsepower (motor) and go out there and fish on a Saturday afternoon – that’s OK. Just to have massive recreation, no. And I really don’t think that will happen.”

Frye said that Randolph County officials were adamant that the state would not be allowed to take people’s homes and land for recreation.

Frye has been a Randolph County commissioner for 20 years, and he has always backed the project.

“In 20 years, you make a lot of decisions and you see the immediate results,” Frye said. “That’s the biggest decision I made and I won’t know the value of it until long after I leave office.”

Water-powered development
Herschel Hockett runs the Green Valley dairy farm near Level Cross with his father, Stanton, and brother, Keith. Dairy farming is all he’s ever done.

The Hocketts are remnants of a dairy farming community that has dwindled to just five family farms in this part of Randolph County. So far, they have made a go of their farm by expanding it as aggressively as they can. They will have to sell only 26 acres of their family land for the buffer zone around the lake, but Hockett is worried that it will attract new kinds of neighbors – subdivisions full of people who won’t look kindly on having a dairy farm nearby.

“We pretty much believe that it’ll be built up with fine homes around this lake,” Hockett said. “As long as we’ve got the land right here and there’s nobody that’s even touching us at all, we’ll be able to make our own decisions about whether we’re going to stay in the business or not.”

The bylaws of the water authority prohibit development in the buffer zone, but not on the land beyond it.

If land prices escalate the way Hockett thinks they will, his family will stand to make a tidy profit from selling their land, but it would mean giving up the livelihoods that have defined their lives.

The reservoir will eventually provide about 1 million gallons of water a day to Randleman. The Deep River runs right through the center of town, but it’s never had a very good water supply and the town has to buy some of its water from nearby Asheboro.

The reservoir gives town leaders and residents hope that they’ll be able to attract industry to replace the mills and factories that once dotted the river’s winding shores.

“If it brings in business, it can be a plus, but you’ll never know until it gets here,” said Randleman resident Ed Smith.

Published in the Winston-Salem Journal July 29, 2001

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