The City Gives Birth to a Seminary

The City Gives Birth to a Seminary

The founding of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus, the Center for Urban Ministerial Education.

by Steve Daman

 

What if you want to start a seminary? Where do you begin? What if, instead of showing up with long-term goals and administrative strategies for organizational development, you choose to allow the color and complexity and diversity of a changing city to shape the seminary? And what if you start by listening rather than directing? And you not only welcome collaboration, you insist on it. What if you launch your first class just three months after you get the nod to start? What would that look like? It would look like CUME, the Center for Urban Ministerial Education, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus.

Eldin Villafañe

In the fall of 1973, Eldin Villafañe and his wife, Margie, settled into student housing at Boston University (BU) and Eldin started work on a Ph.D. in social ethics. Already a graduate of Central Bible College and Wheaton Graduate School of Theology, Eldin had been serving as director of Christian education for the largest Hispanic Assemblies of God church in the country at the time, Iglesia Cristiana Juan 3:16 in the Bronx. His thought was to come to BU, get the degree, and get back to New York. But God had another plan.

 

Not long after coming to Boston, Eldin made his way to a little bookstore on Shawmut Avenue, a store bursting with books and music in both Spanish and English, furnished with vintage display counters and decorated with brightly painted maracas, guiros, tambourines and a variety of flags. The little store seemed dark at first coming off the street, yet the room was always full of cheerful conversation, lively music, and warm Christian fellowship. Eldin struck up a friendship with the manager, Web Brower, who had launched the store in 1970 as a ministry of the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC). The store served as a resource center for the growing Hispanic church community as thousands of Latinos were moving into Boston from across Latin America as well as from New York and Puerto Rico.

 

One day, Web invited Eldin to join the planning team for an inner-city Christian education conference. It was a good fit as Eldin was a seasoned Christian education director and also was well respected in his denomination, the Assemblies of God. Eldin remembers, “They asked me to mobilize some Latinos. And Web and the folks were thinking, you know, if we get 20 or 30 people that would be great. Well, because I had been known in my denomination and I knew the pastors, I was able to bring close to 300 Latinos.” The conference spilled over into two churches. That event built new relational bridges for Eldin, especially with some of the city’s African American leaders such as Michael Haynes, Bruce Wall, and VaCountess (V.C.) Johnson, all on staff with Twelfth Baptist Church at that time. God gave him much grace, he says, and the other leaders valued his contribution to this conference.

 

Somewhere along the way, Eldin was asked to be a guest lecturer for a few seminary classes held at the Emmanuel Gospel Center. In 1973, the same year that the Villafañes came to Boston, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) launched a program called the Urban Middler Year (UMY). Seminarians could choose to spend their second full year of study in Boston, attending classes at the Gospel Center taught by Doug Hall, at that time the director of EGC, and Professor Steve Mott of Gordon-Conwell, with additional help from Professor Dean Borgman and other urban leaders. Students would serve with an inner-city church and be mentored in urban ministry. Then they would return to Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Hamilton for their third and final year. When Eldin spoke at the Gospel Center those few times, he did not realize he would soon be working in partnership with Steve Mott.

 

The Birth of the Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME)

 

In 1969, one of the mandates of the newly formed Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, arising from the merger of the Conwell School of Theology in Philadelphia and the Gordon Divinity School in Wenham, Massachusetts, was to engage the city in some fashion. Both schools had historical commitments to urban ministry that it was unwilling to abandon; however, the specific shape and form for the new institution remained rather unclear. Initially, Dr. Stephen Mott was hired to direct a program to be housed in Philadelphia, continuing the Conwell tradition of training African American clergy. In effect, Dr. Mott became a full-time professor of church and society, located at the Hamilton campus of Gordon-Conwell in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Other GCTS constituencies, particularly urban clergy, also shared this interest that the seminary’s original urban mandate become a full reality. Dr. Michael Haynes, senior Pastor of the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and a longtime trustee of GCTS, took a leading and crucial role at this juncture. He became a strong advocate for the Seminary’s need to be involved in the inner city, and powerfully articulated the plight of the church in the inner city to the Seminary’s Trustees and senior administration.

 

Before Gordon-Conwell launched the Urban Middler Year program, there had been talk of doing more for the city. A few years earlier, in 1969, Doug Hall sent a letter to the seminary’s leadership asking them to consider addressing three critical needs that Doug and his team saw emerging in Boston: the need for an urban training component for traditional seminary students, which initially was addressed in 1973 with the start of UMY; the need for research on demographics and trends in the city to keep ministerial training relevant and to inform the pastors; and the need for contextualized ministerial training for pastors already working in Boston.

 

The UMY program was importing eager seminarians into the city. Gordon-Conwell never addressed the research concern, but, in 1976, God sent a researcher to EGC. Rudy Mitchell, still EGC’s senior researcher, has been studying the city and its churches for four decades. But what was to be done about the remaining challenge, the need to better equip pastors already serving?

 

Many pastors in Boston’s newest churches had little or no formal education, many did not speak English, but, with anointing from God, they were leading dozens of Boston’s most effective churches. Doug Hall remembers conversations with busy, bi-vocational pastors who wanted more training, but wondered how to fit that into their busy lives, as they were already feeling burned out. He also heard his friend Michael Haynes voice deep concerns about the lack of access to evangelical ministry training and higher education for urban residents—a gap that had widened in the twenty years since Gordon Divinity School had moved out of the city of Boston in the mid-1950s.

 

By 1976, the leadership at Gordon-Conwell was ready to do more. They began looking for the right person to build bridges among urban church leaders across many ethnic groups, someone who could administer new programs—possibly an urban seminary, and teach and mentor students. Professor Steve Mott asked Eldin if he was interested, and then Doug Hall and his wife Judy drove Eldin the thirty miles up Route 1 to introduce him to the seminary leaders. When the offer was extended, Eldin readily agreed to join Gordon-Conwell as assistant professor of church and society, working alongside Steve. Eldin was made coordinator for the Urban Middler Year program and he was asked to do one more thing: to begin to think about ways the seminary could establish a new and separate program for training and equipping the urban pastors already serving congregations.

 

“There was great interest in doing this, and I just took the ball and ran,” Eldin says. V.C. Johnson, a Gordon-Conwell graduate and ordained minister who was working at Twelfth Baptist, was also already involved in exploring this idea. V.C. and Professor Dean Borgman had been conducting some simple surveys to see whether a program for indigenous pastors and leaders would fly. Eldin and V.C. soon began working together. “I had been named the director of the project, and I started calling V.C. the assistant director right away rather than a secretary or administrative assistant as someone suggested, because she was doing much more. I can remember the meetings I had with V.C. coming up with a name. We were thinking of a few names and then she said, ‘Let’s call it: Center for Urban Ministerial Education.’ And we called it that from day one.” Then came a flurry of gatherings with pastors and leaders from the Hispanic, African American, and Anglo communities. “A lot of folks were very supportive,” Eldin says.

 

Just three months after receiving the challenge from Gordon-Conwell to think about what could be done for indigenous pastors, the Center for Urban Ministerial Education opened its doors in September 1976 at the Second African Meeting House on 11 Moreland Street in Roxbury. “We started with 30 students,” Eldin remembers. “About 16 were Latinos and 12 were African Americans, and maybe one or two were White.”

 

Contextualized Urban Theological Education

 

After a year or two, V.C. left because of her work commitments at Twelfth Baptist. “I wanted the seminary to look like the city,” Eldin reflects, “so I began to pray for an individual who has credentials, and an African American, and God sent Sam Hogan to join the team.” Sam was finishing his second master’s degree at Harvard, a Master of Theological Studies. Today Bishop Hogan serves as a pastor and a leader in Boston with the Church of God in Christ denomination. Other workers were added, such as Naomi Wilshire, Bruce Jackson, Efrain Agosto and Ira Frazier. Doug Hall continued developing his courses in urban ministry he had pioneered with the UMY program, and they eventually became core courses for the Masters of Divinity in Urban Ministry degree, and are still offered today.

 

“I really was given carte blanche,” Eldin says. “I was given freedom. I had been a Sunday School man, and I knew how to organize, mobilize, and that was key because from day one I fought for some issues.” While the school did not immediately offer advanced degrees, “one of the things I wanted was that pastors and leaders would be able to take courses and that when the time came that we would get the degree component, all the coursework they had done would be counted toward that degree,” Eldin says. Eldin fought for them, and four years later, when CUME awarded its first master's degrees, students from his first class were among the recipients.

 

The idea of “contextualized urban theological education” soon became the underlying philosophy of CUME. To “contextualize” means you have to keep listening to the needs of the city, Eldin says. “You have to be faithful to the reality that is there, and then you have to discern what the Spirit is doing, even in the immigration patterns. Right from day one we started classes in English and Spanish. Two years later, we saw the growth among the Haitians coming to Boston. I asked Marilyn Mason, who worked with EGC, if she would help me convene Haitian leaders. And what we did then became a principle. Here is what you do. You get one or two key leaders, have them convene others for a meeting, and when they get here I say, ‘Look, we are here to prepare leadership. But you need to push us. What do you want to do? How far do you want to go? Do you want a certificate or a degree program? We can do it, but you have to push us so I can push further up.’ And of course with critical mass and the key leadership we had among the Haitians, one of the first ones who started to work with us was Soliny Védrine.” Pastor Védrine was busy planting a church in Boston. He also worked as a bookkeeper to support his growing family. With a law degree and a recent theological degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, Pastor Sol began to teach Haitian pastors in Creole. Pastor Sol continues to serve the Haitian Christian community today through the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

 

“Later we did the same thing with the Brazilians. Ruy Costa was doing Ph.D. work at BU with me. Through him we convened the Brazilians and they began to come,” Eldin says. CUME began offering classes in Portuguese. Today, Dr. Costa works as executive director of the Episcopal City Mission in Boston.

 

For a while, CUME even offered courses in American Sign Language taught by Rev. Lorraine Anderson, when she served as senior pastor of the International Community Church in Allston.

 

Boston’s Quiet Revival is understood as an unprecedented and sustained period of Christian growth in the city of Boston beginning in 1965 and persisting over five decades. As CUME got momentum, there was, at the same time, robust church planting in Boston, particularly among these immigrant populations. In 1965, when the revival began, there were 318 churches in the city. Fifty years later, despite the fact that many church plants are short-lived and not a few mainline churches have closed; there are now more than 575 Christian churches within city limits, according to EGC’s research.

 

“My perspective is that we have to be discerning and faithful to what the Lord is doing. I believe the Lord is sovereign in the world, so movements of people to different places don’t just happen because they happen,” Eldin says. “We have to ask, ‘What is the Lord doing by bringing all these people? What does it mean?’ We want to serve the city. We started with these four languages because they represented a strong Brazilian community, a strong Haitian community, a strong Latino community, and of course the bottom line, we want to teach in the language of those who are marginalized from society at that time, these people who are very gifted. So language, immigration, all this was tied to the revival.”

 

The move of God that started among the Hispanic churches and then ignited among other people groups, by and large identified with Pentecostalism. “The Quiet Revival is a move of God through Pentecostal churches, be they classical Pentecostal or independent,” Eldin says. “Many of these churches were Spirit-open churches, and even when they were Baptist or otherwise, they were very charismatic. When I started CUME, the greatest majority of students were Pentecostal. The reason I teach theology or ethics is because I am concerned that all churches, but Pentecostal churches particularly, need solid theological training.” As an insider in the Hispanic Pentecostal movement, Dr. Villafañe has written extensively about this in The Liberating Spirit: Toward an Hispanic American Pentecostal Social Ethic (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

 

One of the reasons the Quiet Revival has endured and prospered for almost fifty years and the churches continue to be strengthened is because CUME was there from the beginning. EGC Director Jeff Bass says, “I think CUME is the most important Christian organization in the city, because you are backfilling theology into this movement that could have gotten weird, and it has not. There are a lot of strong churches today because there are so many hundreds of CUME graduates out there that have learned theology, and have learned Living System Ministry, the principles we teach here at the Emmanuel Gospel Center as well, such as the importance of unity among the churches, or that God is at work in the city and you have to join in with what he is already doing. We are impacting people to collaborate, to understand the living systems, to ask ‘system questions,’ not to be lone rangers, and to be on the lookout for unintended negative returns.”

 

“The churches, CUME, and EGC,” Eldin says, “were part of the institutional ‘feeders’ God used to help nurture the Quiet Revival. The trio of EGC, CUME, and the emerging churches nurtured an amazing renewal in Boston over the past four decades.” He calls the relationship “triple nurture,” as there was an organic ebb and flow among the three living systems, each nurturing and being nurtured, shaping and being shaped.

 

Starting in the late 1960s, EGC began pouring resources into the immigrant church communities. EGC created pastoral networks which are still in place today; provided state of the art street evangelism equipment used by urban churches to reach their own neighborhoods; ran a multi-language Christian bookstore that was both a supply center and a relational networking hub for urban pastors; and offered a Christian legal clinic which worked to help pastors and church members with immigration issues, churches obtain tax exempt status, and church leaders negotiate red tape in renting or buying properties. Supporting CUME in training indigenous pastors was another important contribution of EGC to fan the flames of the Quiet Revival.

 

Today, through applied research and issue-focused programs, EGC equips urban Christian leaders to understand complex social systems, to build fruitful relationships and take responsible action within their communities, all to see the Kingdom of God grow in Greater Boston. EGC is helping leaders engage issues related to gender-based violence, urban youth, public health, homelessness, urban education, and refugee assimilation, to name a few. By learning to align to what God is doing in Boston, Christian leaders are creating innovative and effective approaches to what some see as intractable problems.

 

CUME, now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary-Boston, is a seminary shaped by the Quiet Revival. But as both the revival and the seminary are interconnected living systems, CUME has also shaped the revival, giving it depth and breadth. “One of the problems with revivals anywhere,” Eldin points out, “is oftentimes you have good strong evangelism that begins to grow a church, but the growth does not come with trained leadership who are educated biblically and theologically. You can have all kinds of problems. Besides heresy, you can have recidivism, people going back to their old ways. The beautiful thing about the Quiet Revival is that, just as it begins to flourish, CUME is coming aboard.”

 

To that end, CUME helps students achieve Paul’s charge in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately” (NET).

 

A further contribution of GCTS-Boston beyond theological education is that it fosters cross-denominational and cross-ethnic collaboration by providing a safe, neutral place for emerging leaders to build close relationships. The students know each other by name, grow to love each other, and find it easier to work together on common goals. They know they are not alone. They learn that they are part of a growing network of men and women who are passionate about the Church in Boston. This collaboration strengthens and empowers each individual as each one stays connected with others.

 

Eldin says that CUME intentionally provides space for leadership to get together. The goal is that the emerging leadership will build relationships and that out of those relationships more Kingdom fruit will grow. Most of CUME’s classes are held in the evenings as many students work during the day, either as pastors or in some other employment or both. In the middle of the evening there is a welcome coffee break when students gather informally around snacks. Once, Eldin says, someone in the business office challenged that idea, thinking it would be better stewardship of both time and money to teach right through. “I said, ‘Don’t you touch that! When we get to heaven, we might find that might be the most important thing we did!’”

 

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary-Boston (CUME) today serves 300 students per semester, representing nearly forty denominations and twenty countries. It has had strong and capable leadership following and expanding on Eldin’s vision of Contextualized Urban Theological Education; leaders such as Dr. Efrain Agosto, Dr. Alvin Padilla and Dr. Mark G. Harden. The school’s qualified faculty members are already working in the same ministry context as the students. Courses are offered evenings and weekends to accommodate working students. In addition to English, various courses are offered as needed in Spanish, French, Haitian-Creole and Portuguese. GCTS-Boston offers master’s programs in several disciplines and Th.M.- Doctor of Ministry in Practical Theology. Nearly forty percent of the students pursue the Master of Divinity in Urban Church Ministry. GCTS-Boston students gain the foundation and skills they need to be effective coworkers with God as he lavishly pours out his redeeming love across the city of Boston.

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The article was developed from a conversation with Rev. Eldin Villafañe, Ph.D., Founding Director, Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME), Boston Campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (1976–1990) and Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and was originally published online by the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Nov. 2013. Excerpts were published in Inside EGC, Nov-Dec 2013, a newsletter of Emmanuel Gospel Center. With additional editing by the author, and by Aida Besancon Spencer, Eldin Villafañe, and John Runyon, the article was reprinted by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Africanus Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, April 2016, p. 33.