Monthly Highlight: Emilie M. Townes

Emilie M. Townes

“In my teaching I want to get students excited about that notion of, you know, you’re not just here to get a Yale degree and have it on your diploma and be able to hang it on your wall…You should be here thinking about what kind of contributions can I make to society….What are you doing that helps enhance the lives of all of us, as opposed to (our) own little idiosyncratic research interests.”  – – Emilie M. Townes

Emilie Townes is a pivotal person in the field of Womanist and Christian ethics as well as a foremother and pioneer in Womanist theology. Cornel West of Princeton University said:

“Emilie Townes is the towering womanist ethicist of our time….In this ice age of indifference and evasion, her powerful voice and viewpoint summon us. And we thank her for her vision and courage.”

At an opening address at the Convocation in 2005, Townes stated that there is a need to live in a “deep walking hope” that shapes lives “in ways that are not always predictable, not always safe, rarely conventional” and protests “with prophetic fury the sins of a world, and sometimes theological world views, that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from our hearts, our beliefs from our actions.”

Townes received an M.A.and  D.Min at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from a joint program at Garrett-Evangelical and Northwestern University in 1989.  She is the co-editor of Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Westminister John Knox, 2011), wrote the forward to Women at the Well: Meditations for Quenching our Thirst and Faith, Health, and Healing in African-American Life (Judson, 2003) as well as authored or edited the following books:

1. Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Orbis, 1993);

2. Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (American Academy of Religion Academy Series) 41rdDhfI8fL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_(Oxford University, 1993);

3. In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon Press, 1995);

4. Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation, ed. (Orbis Books, 1997);

5. Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Care and A Womanist Ethic of Care (Continuum, 1998);

6. Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2006); and

7. Religion, Health, and Healing in African American Life, co-ed. (Praeger, 2008).

Womanist Justice and In a Blaze of Glory are considered seminal works in the field.

Townes also contributed the essays, “Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: A Response” in the tributary book Dancing Theology in Fetish Books: Essays in  Honour of Marcella Althaus-Reid (SCM Press, 2010) and “Black Women” contained In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing (Westminister John Knox, 2000).”  Her formal CV spans approximately sixteen pages.

Effective July 1, 2013, Townes becomes the 16th Dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School for five years along with holding an endowed chair as a tenured faculty member.  Currently, Townes is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African-American Religion and Theology at Yale Divinity School in the area of Christian ethics, Womanist ethics, critical theory and studies, as well as postmodernism and social postmodernism.

At Yale Divinity, Townes is the first African-American and first woman to serve as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs.  Her interests also focus on health and health care; the cultural production of evil; analyzing the linkages among race, gender, class, and other forms of oppression; and developing a network between African-American and Afro-Brazilian religious and secular leaders and community-based organizations.

Prior to coming to Yale Divinity, Townes was the Carolyn Williams Beaird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Professor of Christian Social Ethics and Black Church Ministries at St. Paul School of Theology, and the first African-American woman to serve as President of the American Academy of Religion (2008).  She was named outstanding Alumna of the Year by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago in 2008 and indicted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.

Townes serves on a number of boards including the Advisory Committee of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. She is also active in forging networks between Afro-Brasilian feminists and U.S. womanists, in her writing and scholarship.  She is also on the editorial board of Theology and Sexuality, the Journal of Religious Ethics, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Second Opinion, and the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion.  Townes also serves as the president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2012-2016), is a fellow of Saybrook College, and is an ordained American Baptist minister holding honorary degrees from Washington and Jefferson College (D.D.) and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (D.H.L.).

Townes has also served as pastoral leader of the United Faith Affinitas, an LGBT congregation in Chicago, and interim pastoral leader of Christ the Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church in Evanston.  She is a founding member of the Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale that seeks to bring a progressive religious voice to the education of seminarians, spark lively debate on the interplay of religion and politics in the university, and speak to the pressing social issues of the day. She is also the founder of the Middle Passage Conversations on Black Religion in the African Diaspora Initiative at Yale.

Townes is also a proponent of mentoring and one of her goals when accepting her current position at Yale Divinity School was to develop a strong mentoring program for pre-tenure faculty by:

  • “Coordination of the Supervised Ministries field work program in relation to the school’s larger curriculum
  • Working closely with the dean of students to provide academic support for students
  • Supporting the new urban ministries initiative
  • Helping continue what she termed the “positive direction” the school has taken regarding diversity in the areas of campus ethos, curriculum, admissions and new faculty hires
  • Working on a process that will help students on issues of ministerial formation and discernment of careers and goals.”

With the announcement of her new post, you could sense the impact Townes has on so many students and peers from posts and letters found on social media sites.

Richard McCarty, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs states:

“Emilie Townes is an amazing scholar, a wonderful mentor to students, and a leader in theological education.”

Townes has already blazed so many trails and inspired a generation of scholars – however she is not done.  I believe that Townes’ impact will continue to touch students interested in Womanist Theology as well as Christian Sexual ethics across the globe.  She teaches her students to start talking and listening – “getting to know each other by fostering genuine conversations.”   A tall order for students living in a world of text messaging, social media, and instant messaging.  Townes continues to impact and teach at the most basic level to facilitate change.

I am grateful for the way Townes has touched my life with her writings and thank her for all her work and dedication to students and future scholars in the field.  She is an inspiration, an educated woman with great humility, love, and elegance.


Categories: Academy, Black Feminism, Christianity, Ethics, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, General, LGBTQ, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Postcolonialism, Sexual Ethics, The Black Church, Womanist Theology, Women and Ministry

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