Perspectives: Black Theologian Day 2022; Reaching Across the Racial Divide

By Will Fenton-Jones*

It all started with an email: “Dear Betty Kilby Fisher, my name is Phoebe Kilby.” Then a response: “Hello Cousin.”

During Perspectives: Black Theologian Day 2022, participants heard the story of Betty Kilby Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby, authors of the book, Cousins: Connected through Slavery, A Black Woman and a White Woman Discover their Past – and Each Other. They spoke about the journey they have shared and offered participants an example of what racial reconciliation can look like.

“Today we have gathered to learn, to hear from another perspective, and to move closer to racial reconciliation,” Bishop Tracy S. Malone encouraged those who gathered October 8 at Strongsville United Methodist Church (North Coast District). “In order to experience racial reconciliation, we have to get in close proximity to the problem, we have to change narratives, we have to stay hopeful, and we have to be willing to get uncomfortable.”

Black Theologian Day is an annual learning opportunity in the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church for pastors, congregations, and faith communities to hear from a Black theological perspective.

This year’s Perspectives: Black Theologian Day offered a practical theology, a Wesleyan-rooted idea. As we learned how these two courageous women began a journey of racial reconciliation together we also learned how we can come to the table as well.

Coming to the Table, a running theme throughout the day, is a national organization with the mission of “Working together to create a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past, from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned.” Coming to the Table played a major role in Kilby’s part of the story.

“Learning about Coming to the Table made me think. Had my own family enslaved people?” she writes. After much research and Googling her own family, Kilby came to discover through a will and other documents that her family had, in fact, enslaved people. Continued research led to Kilby Baldwin’s book, Wit, Will, and Walls.

Throughout the morning, Kilby Baldwin and Kilby took turns weaving the tale of how their paths intersected. Their story brought to reality the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that the children of former slaves and slave owners would be able one day to sit down at the table together.

As the morning continued, participants learned about Kilby Baldwin having been a plaintiff in the lawsuit to desegregate the schools in the Virginia county in which she had been raised, detailed in her book, Wit, Will, and Walls, and watched a documentary about her. Kilby Baldwin’s story of courage, pain, and triumph became a central part of her and Kilby’s path of reconciliation. 

Kilby and others worked on erecting an historical marker at the high school Kilby Baldwin desegregated. She also started a scholarship so descendants of Kilby Baldwin’s family could attend school. This year, seven members of her extended family will receive scholarships.

Executive Director of Connectional Ministries the Rev. Ed Fashbaugh explained the importance of Kilby’s example.

“Black Theologian Day highlighted an exceptional story of grace, forgiveness and love that sets an example for all of us who are working to actively be anti-racist. I was truly moved by the story and the witness of what may be possible if I have the courage to step beyond my own biases and cultural limitations to enter something new.”

Rev. Hannah Weisbrod, associate pastor of Strongsville UMC, said, “For me, the event reminded me again of the importance of this work in our churches. It was fascinating to hear Betty and Phoebe’s story about how they have worked toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It was important to hear Betty’s story of school integration while she was in high school. So often, it is easy to forget that the people who did that work are still here today to share their stories. The fight for school integration was more recent than we realize and the work for desegregation continues today.”

The afternoon consisted of a panel discussion with Rev. Nick Bates, director of Hunger Network in Ohio, and the Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan followed by table discussions. 

“The theology of ‘table’ is important to me,” said Bates. “Coming to the Table is an invitation that everyone is welcome at the table, that it is not our table, but Jesus’ to share.” 

The day ended with participants reflecting on whose stories were missing from the midst of those gathered and with a challenge to learn and hear the stories of others.

This year’s Perspectives: Black Theologian Day was sponsored by the Connectional Ministries office Multicultural Ministries team and the Strongsville UMC group Catalysts for Change which, in learning the importance of racial reconciliation, came across a story about Kilby and Kilby Baldwin in Guideposts magazine. Congregations and faith communities throughout our 10 districts are encouraged to explore similar opportunities for partnership with the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

*Will Fenton-Jones is the Connectional Ministries office Multicultural Ministries director in the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.