To my memory I never met her, although her name calls to me with familiarity and kinship, and we walked the same brick walkways across the Southeastern Seminary campus, the paths that devoured many of my shoe heels and likely hers. Donna Forrester was a doctoral student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, then from 1984 to 1989 the campus chaplain, controversial because of her gender, during those most painful years of the seminary’s fundamentalist takeover.
Denying the Bible. Destroying the Faith. These were the accusations ricocheting through the walls of fundamentalist churches across the nation. The seminary had to be cleansed and saved, they were saying. Among other grievous sins, it was training women as ministers, and even had a woman theology professor and a woman chaplain, they said.
Donna knew what she was getting into. She was warned before taking the job that she was entering a warzone. I was far more naïve, entering as an MDiv student in the summer of 1989 as a wide-eyed life-long Baptist, expecting to live the next 3 years of my life in a Jesus-loving paradise on earth.
My Southern Baptist upbringing had been almost a checklist of rules: Attend church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. Give to the church the first 50 cents of your $5 weekly allowance. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t “cuss.” Don’t have sex. Don’t question God. Ask Jesus into your heart, and you’ll be saved once and forever.
I hungered for more. My private relationship with God called me to something deeper, something more life-sustaining. Once in a while I caught a glimpse. When I was nine years old, my mom taught the children’s January Bible Study on the book of Job. It was the first time I’d ever heard an entire book of the Bible and talked about it. Later sometime in my teen years, Mrs. Evelyn Wilson, our pastor’s wife, taught the youth Vacation Bible School class in the living room of the parsonage, and we learned about other books that didn’t make it into the Bible. I was fascinated and longed to learn more. In college I took a class on the New Testament in which we studied the Scripture from a historical perspective: What was going on in the context of the writings? What did first century Middle Eastern life look like? Who were the writers? How did they write, and to whom? I loved that class like no other and was sad to finish it. I was hungry, thirsty – perhaps like a deer panting for streams of water.
At age 28 I enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with a foreign missions dream. I loved seminary. I studied Theology, Apologetics, Issues of Ministry to Youth and to Older Adults, Other Religions, Pastoral Care (including courses in counseling for addictions and counseling in sexuality issues), the Bible in context, Church History and Baptist History, Missions, Church Administration, even Church Libraries . . . I visited Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I spent one summer church planting for the Home Mission Board. Another summer I spent eight hours every day translating Scripture from its original Hebrew into English, eleven hours if I count class time.
Despite some valuable and life-changing intentional learning in seminary, my greatest lessons might be the outside-the-classroom ones with which I’ve been wrestling for 25 years as I’ve tried to make sense of the denominational war on whose battleground I unintentionally found myself. I am still processing but have come a long way since my 1991 graduation.
I have learned that we never know the entire story of any controversy if we have only heard the story from one side. I’ve learned that all of us are products of what we have been taught and of our own experiences. I’ve learned that God is greater than any human mind can fathom and that those who claim to have all the answers might be the ones who know the least. I’ve learned that what we often pass as Christianity is merely “ianity,” missing the Christ for whose life and teachings we are named, the Jesus whose main message is to love God and each other and to care for the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten. I have learned that the most difficult lessons are those we have to first unlearn – like that white people are God’s favored, or that women’s purpose is to serve men, or that God favors America, or that Christianity is Republican, or that everything in life is black or white, right or wrong, clear and simple.
This week I read Servant Songs (1994, ed. Thomas Bland), a book of reflections on Southeastern Seminary, written by several of the faculty and administrators who were replaced during the takeover, one of the chapters of which was written by Dr. Forrester. I fell in love with her, bonding with her every word, until I knew I must meet her. I finished the chapter, determined to find where she is now and make a road trip, even if just to meet her for lunch. But a quick google led first to her obituary. I missed her by just a few months. New Year’s Eve, 2015, following a battle with cancer. Age 66. I wept. As if a part of me had just died.
The story is a beautiful one though, a God story. For even after death, God continues to use true servants – like Mother Teresa, Lottie Moon, Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer - and Donna Forrester - to teach, to heal, to exemplify sacrificial Christ following, walking across hot coals or heel-crunching brick walks.
In Servant Songs Donna describes Southeastern’s late 1980’s students as falling into one of three categories: those sympathetic to the fundamentalist takeover, those supportive of the previous seminary faculty and administration, and a third category of students who tried to stay out of the controversy, who must have, according to her, buried their heads in the sand. I think she missed this one.
I was in this third group, a definite minority, but not because I chose to ignore the war. It was because I didn’t know which voices to heed. I began a popular weekly prayer and praise fellowship in the basement of the women’s dorm, with one rule – that we would pray and sing together without mention of the controversy. Although a few from the second category attended occasionally, one finally informed me that my one rule was hurtful to only them as they were the ones being hurt by the controversy. The war was their prayers. It was their song of lament before God.
Early in my first semester I thought I was going to a Missions fellowship meeting, and as the meeting progressed I realized I was sitting in a Women in Ministry meeting. Mostly women sitting in a large circle, a few men also, all angry and hurt. They were surprised and glad to see me there. I never told them it was an accident.
I remember a research paper I wrote for my Old Testament class in which I processed and synthesized some challenging reading assignments, then let a friend read before I turned it in. The fundamentalist friend complimented my work and suggested I add a disclaimer statement to the end letting the professor know I had satisfied the assignment but that the paper was not a reflection of what I believed.
Another day I was visiting a woman in the dorm, of the moderate camp, who was frustrated with my ignorance about the whole denominational war. She told me one day I would get it. At that time I saw her as arrogant and insulting, but she was right. Eventually (and slowly) I did get it.
Most of my professors were those who would soon be leaving. Yet I never met any professor who fit the accusations that bounced off all the walls. All my professors and instructors exemplified great depth of content knowledge, profound respect for Scripture, and deep spiritual maturity. I am so grateful for those years in which there is no doubt my Christian faith, my biblical understanding, and my own spiritual formation were strengthened. My sincerest thank you (and apologies for any paper disclaimers!) to Sam Balentine, Bill Clemmons, Albert Meiburg, Dick Hester, Richard Spencer, Thomas Bland, Thomas Halbrooks, Glenn Miller, George Braswell, Fred Grissom, John Eddins, Michael Hawn, Robert Culpepper, and Furman Hewitt. Also Jacqueline Anderson, Charles Beckett, Charles McMillan Jr., Hal Melton, RG Puckett, Russ Bush, and Roger Nix.
And to Donna Forrester who inspired these reflections with her own, and with whom I still hope to have lunch once I get to where she is.
Note: Dr. Donna Forrester died Dec. 31, 2015 at age 66, following a 14-year battle with brain cancer. She held an MDiv from Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville KY and a DMin from Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest where she returned to serve as campus chaplain 1984-1989 leaving in the exodus following the fundamentalist takeover. Then she served as Minister of Pastoral Care and Counseling 1989-2006 at First Baptist Church Greenville SC, and in 2000-2001 as national moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Photo credit: from SEBTS' 1988 directory