Emilie Townes asked her first theological question in the seventh grade.
“Can you be a racist and a Christian at the same time?” she polled the teachers at her junior high school.
It was the late 1950s in the South. Almost everybody was a Christian, yet racism also was rampant. In fact, one teacher’s insistence on calling blacks “Nigras” rather than “Negroes” had given rise to Townes’ inquiry.
The answer, she learned, is a resounding no.
Now the Rev. Townes is a social ethicist, Baptist minister and theologian. She will deliver a free lecture tonight and lead a brown-bag lunch discussion Wednesday as part of Gonzaga University’s celebration of Women’s Studies Month.
Townes is an associate professor of Christian social ethics at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.
Now she works to give a voice to those oppressed in America, particularly women and minorities.
“The church is as flawed as any human institution - that’s why I still have hope,” Townes said during an interview Monday. “I’m an evangelical. I take tradition very seriously, and I’m saying we can do better.”
Townes was raised in North Carolina, the daughter of two university professors. In college, the only major she found that could hold her attention was religious studies.
She got three degrees - a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate - from the University of Chicago. She also received a second doctorate from the Joint Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.
She was ordained an American Baptist minister in 1980.
Townes describes her formative years as “blessed and lucky.”
“It wasn’t until I went to divinity school that I realized that a large group of people out there thought women weren’t supposed to become ordained,” she said. “That’s a credit to how my folks raised me but also luck of the draw.”
Now Townes uses her expertise to bring new interpretations to Scripture and its modern-day applications.
“Most theology is done by white guys - unmarried white guys at that,” said John Downey, GU associate professor of religious studies. “It’s not like she is way out there. She is applying what we all do in theology, only she is asking questions specific to gender and culture.”
Townes frequently lectures on the issues of the oppressed within the Christian church. Those include women, homosexuals and minorities.
In her presentation today, Townes plans to explore the Old Testament notion of communal lament, which she says is necessary before the healing process can begin.
Communal lament is the process in which a society gives an honest accounting of its problems, then seeks to remedy them.
Lament is different from “bitching and moaning,” Townes cautioned. “Whining is really about me and not anything else.”
While many theologians who take on women’s issues complain they are not afforded the same respect as those who specialize in more traditional realms, Townes said she isn’t worried.
“I really don’t care what others think,” she said. “I think it’s more important to be faithful than to worry what kind of status I receive.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FREE LECTURE Emilie Townes will deliver a lecture, “To Heal the Spirit: Healing and Hope in Communities of the Dispossessed,” at 7 p.m. today at Gonzaga University’s Jepson Center. Townes also will lead a brown-bag lunch at noon Wednesday in GU’s COG, where she will discuss her experiences as a black female theologian. Both events are free and open to the public.