As much as I appreciate our talented faculty and staff, at Palm Beach Atlantic University we’re all about students, so I must share the excitement we’ve heard from students regarding our historic partnership with Florida Memorial University.
Students in the FMU Chorale expressed this excitement richly when they came to PBA on Feb. 28. It was the concluding day of Black History Month, a fitting time to celebrate the new collaboration between Palm Beach Atlantic and the only historically-Black university in South Florida.
Lift Every Voice!
The singers brought us to our feet with a triumphant rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem from which we draw the name for our new program. Thanks to a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, the Lift Every Voice partnership provides graduate theological education within the context of the Black church experience and needs.
Dorenda Washington had been searching for that education and emphasis for years. “I could not find a seminary that really felt like the right place for me,” said Dorenda, who moved to Florida from Houston. She spent a brief time in a seminary, “But as a Black woman, I felt isolated, even studying by myself and figuring things out by myself,” she said. Then she became one of the first students in Lift Every Voice.
“God has answered my prayers,” Dorenda said. “In the collaboration of an HBCU and Palm Beach Atlantic, I’ve found the inclusiveness, the feeling of belonging and community that I wanted.”
Evening classes, understanding professors
She’s working toward her Master of Divinity, with the goal of eventually earning a doctorate and opening a biblical counseling service. Like most of her classmates, she has a full-time day job, taking advantage of the evening classes at Lift Every Voice. That makes a packed schedule requiring time management on the student’s part and understanding on the professor’s part.
“I cannot believe the accessibility that I have to my professors,” said Dorenda. “Never before have I gotten a professor who gave me his cell phone number and said, ‘Call or text me if there’s a problem.’
“And Dr. Jamila Jackson, wow!” said Dorenda. “She has been so incredibly helpful, truly setting us up for success.” (Dr. Jackson is PBA’s new director of theological education partnerships, and she works from an office at FMU.)
In the fall, Lift Every Voice classes will meet on the FMU campus in Miami Gardens, pending final approval from the accrediting agency. Spring 2022 classes have happened on Zoom, with professors encouraging much interaction between students. “It’s not the traditional online model as many would understand it,” explained Jamila, “because the cohort experience is very, very central to our program.”
That cohort experience introduced “a wonderful group of people” to student Julius Sanna. “The networking is amazing and the encouragement is great,” he said. “We share challenges and struggles and information that helps us keep going. It’s absolutely instrumental.”
Scholarships, options overcome obstacles
Julius “lifted his voice” at our Feb. 28 ceremony, singing with his wife, Julia, to provide a worshipful prelude. Like Dorenda, he had been longing for graduate theological education, “but there have always been just all kinds of obstacles,” he said.
Lift Every Voice is designed to overcome such obstacles, with an online option, scholarships and an accelerated program. Students can earn a bachelor’s degree plus a Master of Divinity degree in significantly less time and at a lower cost than it typically takes.
Julius, a Kenya native, hopes to become a pastoral trainer and church planter, perhaps in the U.S. and also in Africa. Meanwhile, in his Lift Every Voice classes, he’s soaking up helpful knowledge for his current job as worship director and outreach pastor at Trinity Delray Lutheran Church.
He recounted writing a paper for the class Contemporary Issues in the Black Church, for which he interviewed several church members from the Delray Beach area. “I was so blessed to hear their stories,” he said, “learning about their struggles and challenges and how they’re fighting those challenges.”
“PBA has sensed the importance of the Black church lived experience,” said the Rev. Marcus Davidson, who taught that contemporary issues class. He is senior pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale and a student in PBA’s Ph.D. in practical theology program.
“I believe,” said Marcus, “that it’s necessary for the time in which we live, to give careful attention to the Black church – from the perspective of deep scholarship – so that the church can continue to thrive and not merely survive.”
Perspective is so important. For those outside the Black community, I invite you to gain a fresh perspective from the message of that historic, revered hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Google and print out the lyrics, then search YouTube for a choir singing this majestic, uplifting piece. You’ll experience “a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” and also “a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
As I strive to learn from the dark past that African Americans have experienced, I must acknowledge with FMU President Dr. Jaffus Hardrick that even today “our world is hurting,” with “some folks spreading hatred.” That’s why, to borrow more words from my friend at FMU, “I’m truly convinced that God is delighted in what we’re doing” with our partnership.
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu) For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/