Meredith Coleman-Tobias ’09 M.Div.
B.A. Spelman College 2006
As a Religious Studies major at Spelman College, an historically black college for women, womanist thought was a meta-narrative through which much of my initial academic and ministerial training took place. Both the Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry (WISDOM) Center and Religious Studies department at Spelman helped me process and understand the lifetime of black women’s spiritual communities of which I have always known.
My life has been a constant merging of religion and African-American women; from unapologetically Baptist female family members to the women-centered prayer group my mother regularly attended in my childhood. I came to Yale Divinity School in search of how this context could directly inform my call to both ministry and the academy. Seeking to work with Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes, I was excited to take this journey. Implicit in much of my Divinity School career has been a living into the womanist impulse as defined by Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Both my ministerial and academic callings have been informed by a vision that “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves the struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” This community-sustained theo-artistic focus has made the past three years a surprising journey of discovery.
During my first year at YDS, I took a class entitled “Christian Education in the African-American Experience” with Professor Yolanda Smith. My classmate and friend, Elijah Heyward, III ’07 M.A.R. and I crafted a final project entitled The Table. We used the table (particularly the Sunday dinner tables that defined so much of our shared heritage) as a metaphor to create a theatric paradigm of Christian education. Concurrently, I worked with Professor Shannon Craigo-Snell during weekly independent study hours to understand the academic connections between theater and theology.
The summer following brought a tremendous opportunity to participate in a Yale Summer Session course in Swaziland as a Teaching Assistant and researcher. Through the Fund for Theological Education’s Ministry Fellowship, this time afforded me a chance to converge my interest in theater, ministry, and HIV/AIDS pandemics affecting persons in my community and abroad. This thinking became the springboard for a second project entitled Living Water, which was written as the artistic finale for the Middle Passage Conversations on Black Religion in the African Diaspora conference. Dean Townes, the organizer of the conference, had charged me with writing “a play about the Middle Passage.” Elijah and I again collaborated to craft this theatric project. The ministry of the play sought to connect African-American heritage with the presence of HIV and AIDS in black American communities. Visiting Professor Beverly Coyle encouraged my belief that the Middle Passage and HIV and AIDS were traumas that could effectively interpret each other artistically and theologically. Writing the play proved a significant milestone in my Divinity School career. Following Living Water, I found that other outlets at the Divinity School allowed me to work out my interest in performing arts and ministry. From performing Spoken Word in Marquand Chapel services to bringing Swazi theater artist Nicholas Bhekifa Mamba to the Divinity School as a lecturing visitor during the past year, the depth of my calling has grown. I remain an active inquisitor.
The next year presents an exciting new artistic opportunity. I have received a Fulbright grant to study in the country of my father’s maternal lineage, Barbados. Entitled “Performance Is as Religion Knows: A Cross-Cultural Exchange with Spiritual Baptist Churches and Local Theater Communities in Barbados,” this project seeks to examine the bi-directional epistemology of Spiritual Baptist Churches in Barbados. As a decidedly Afro-Caribbean syncretic tradition, the Spiritual Baptists combine elements of traditional West African religions with Protestant Christianity. This dual heritage gives way to a doctrine that privileges biblical faith alongside charismatic expressions of belief. Doctrinally, Spiritual Baptist faith is steeped in the margins of mainline Baptist belief. Traditional profession of biblical faith and baptism is accompanied by unique rites: mourning, thanksgiving, and pilgrimage become ways that the group intentionally performs religion.
As an African-American Baptist, some of these traditions and conflicts are familiar and personal to me. My questions converge between the archive and repertoire of Barbadian Spiritual Baptist faith: In a postcolonial society, how is this syncretism accepted and rejected? How did some beliefs become written while others are acted out? How do various congregations delineate the two religious expressions? Where do I see parallels with African-American Baptist faith and enactment? Where do I see departures? From my work over the course of my time at YDS and my role as ministerial intern in a local Baptist congregation, my observation is that this comes from a vested interest in religious performance as a necessary part of faith expression. I am interested in localizing this observation in a yearlong exchange. Moreover, I am vested in what local theater communities, primarily the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination (University of West Indies – Cave Hill), might create for the Barbadian Spiritual Baptist faith dialectically. As sister cultural institutions, church and theater communities potentially serve as lenses for each other to self-reflect.
Yale Divinity School has encouraged my expansion and passion. I am excited about the opportunities that have unfolded and await the new ones to come. Upon completion of the Fulbright grant, I hope to begin doctoral work in Fall 2010.