Professors are characters. This is a reason the Harry Potter fantasy rings true. Whether teachers in a haunted institution start out strange, many of us grow into characters. When I arrived at Yale Divinity School in 1990, the portraits on the wall might as well have been enchanted, for all the stories swirling around. One history professor had stepped into a trashcan while lecturing on Luther, and evidently did not miss a beat. A bible professor had read straight through the same lecture twice in a row. He did not pause to look up to see his room full of students looking back at him, pens down, amused.
A favorite story is of a beloved teacher named Margaret Farley, a Sister of Mercy who was the first woman on regular faculty in 1971. We were told Margaret Farley had staged a “sit-in” in one of the restrooms in the Divinity library. Yale Divinity School had been admitting women for generations, but there was only one restroom in the school not marked “Men,” and no restrooms for women in the library. So, Margaret Farley and several other women sat down in one of the library restrooms, insisting they would not leave until the sign was changed.
Duke Divinity School is also replete with tales of eccentricities and everyday heroism. As the long struggle for Civil Rights in the South became a televised, national reckoning with racial terror, faculty members at Duke Divinity School pushed vocally for the desegregation of Duke University. In 1948, Divinity students wrote a petition urging Duke University to admit African-American students, a “gradualist” process that led eventually to Duke admitting African-American undergraduates in 1963. (Duke was one of the last major universities to desegregate.) My colleague Professor William Turner graduated from Trinity College in 1971, and some of us ask him still to tell about faculty members who held other colleagues to account for what might be politely called “quietism.” One such professor was Dr. Frederick Herzog. Dr. Herzog died during a faculty meeting in 1995, so I did not have the honor to meet him. He seems to have been Duke Divinity’s Professor Dumbledore, calling other teachers and their students to be courageous, even in their own hallowed hallways. Duke Divinity School was the first seminary in the U.S. to require every student preparing for ministry to take a course in Black Church Studies, and, due to the tireless witness of some, we still do. In the early 1970s, intrepid women at Duke Divinity began a Women’s Center, and the newly configured Divinity buildings now include a Women’s Center and, thanks to the after-hours mischief of a few colleagues, a hospitality space for children.
Duke Divinity School needs a new Room of Requirement, and one that shows up on every map. (That is a Harry Potter reference.) In addition to our chapel, with crystal clear windows that open up to the trees, and our inviting, fair-trade and locally grown café, we need a hospitality space for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. As one coworker put it, we need a designated space that “does not need to be negotiated at any given moment,” because “sexual minority students already have to do a lot of negotiating day in and day out.” Much as I might wish that LGBTQ students would not need safe sanctuary in the midst of a Divinity School, according to them, they do. By naming even a cozy space for the LGBTQ Divinity group “Sacred Worth,” the school could witness to students across the university that some Christians affirm the God-created beauty and dignity of “sexual minority students.” Given that much of the disapproval aimed at Duke students who are LGBTQ comes from people who profess Christ, a designated space at the professional school that trains people for Christian ministry would send an important message of welcome.
Duke Divinity School is one of thirteen seminaries founded by and sustained by the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church officially recognizes the “Sacred Worth” of LGBTQ people, but we do not officially as a denomination yet recognize the sacred calling to ordained ministry of LGBTQ people. That will change. In the meantime, I see no need for our blessed United Methodist ties to prohibit hospitality space. We currently welcome faculty and students to this United Methodist school who speak from Christian traditions that do not recognize the ordination of women, a standpoint that goes manifestly against the long Methodist witness for women’s ordination. To be blunt, Duke Divinity School currently welcomes people who are confessedly non-egalitarian, but we do not have one single “out” LGBTQ faculty member. The symbolism of “Sacred Worth” space could reverberate through our historied hallways, changing the stories to come.