Moving Doorposts: A Pastoral Letter from Interim Dean Jill Crainshaw

Interim Dean Jill Crainshaw sent this letter to School of Divinity students, faculty and staff on Monday, February 25 as a reflection on the recent conversations at Wake Forest University about community members’ experiences of racism.

Dear Wake Forest School of Divinity Community,

Earlier this academic year, I attended a worship service where a student preached her initial sermon in her predominantly African American church. I was excited and pleased to celebrate her “yes” to God’s call and her congregation’s affirmations of that call. I heard as if for the first time one of the texts read in that service:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried…
Isaiah 6:1-4 (KJV)

Moving doorposts. That is the work I aspire to do as a teacher, minister, and administrator living out my calling at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

This week I and others at Wake Forest University have been confronted with the oppressive and damaging realities of our institutional and individual stories. I hear God calling to me through these events as I connect them to how the Spirit spoke to me through my student’s licensing service. What we do with these realities — and with our personal and corporate stories related to them — has the potential to move some doorposts, to transform who we are as a community of learning and who we are as individuals living in a broken world.

What I heard in that worship service in the reading from Isaiah is that moving doorposts means shaking foundations. Moving doorposts dismantles architectures that have controlled and limited the access points to what, in the case of this biblical text, were deemed the most sacred or holy places. The ancient reality is true today; some foundations in our world need to be shaken and some doorposts need to be moved.

My colleagues and students at the School of Divinity teach me every day. When it comes to racism and white privilege, some people have been and are denied access to doors that others enter and exit with a measure of ease every day. It is not enough for me only to use my place and power to hold those doors open for others. I need to work with others to move the doorposts. We have a responsibility in the work we do together at the School of Divinity to shake the foundations upon which oppressive and limiting structures have been built. Beyond that, we have an opportunity to acknowledge, imagine and celebrate more entrance ways to the truths and mysteries of God’s justice, love, and grace, truths that are too often hidden behind closed and even locked doors.  

For me as a white person who is a Christian minister and theological educator, doing this work requires that I recognize the brokenness of my personal story and acknowledge the extent to which I benefit from and participate in white privilege every day. In the Presbyterian (PCUSA) tradition where I am an ordained minister, I and other worshipers are invited every week in worship to do this necessary work of repentance through corporate confession. In the prayer of confession, when it is done in a spirit of honest self-reflection, we repent of our individual sins and of our communal immersion in the sins of the world. We confess “what we have done and what we have left undone”— sins of commission and omission. Then upon hearing announced God’s promises of forgiveness and grace through Christ Jesus, we share God’s peace with each other with renewed commitment to the work of justice-making to which we are called as God’s people.

This is how I believe we move doorposts and dismantle unjust structures. We repent and then, renewed by God’s promises of forgiveness, we turn our hearts, minds, souls and bodies yet again to the concrete actions that must be done to right the wrongs we have done and that we encounter in our communities and world.

I am humbled to be part of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity where I am surrounded by faculty, staff, students, and alumni from diverse contexts and traditions who are doing extraordinary work that moves doorposts. I see embodied in our courageous leaders, teachers and ministers tangible hope that diverse people dialoguing and working together can imagine and build new spaces and places for life and worship, spaces with lots of doors and windows — perhaps even open spaces where God’s Spirit blows through freely and neither doors nor walls are needed.

In Isaiah’s ancient text, God’s voice shakes the foundations of the temple. Some verses later after acknowledging his own life and shortcomings and seeking God’s forgiveness, Isaiah responds: “Here am I. Send me.”  Last semester, my student said “yes” to God’s call on her life. She and others in the School of Divinity community say “yes” to God’s call every day and in faith enter into and go out through the doors of Wingate Hall at Wake Forest University to face the dangers and possibilities that await them in their ministries of justice, reconciliation and compassion. I respect and honor their courage and commitment.

We have an opportunity at this historical moment to move doorposts. We also have an opportunity as religious leaders to encourage and equip others to move doorposts. I invite each of you in the days ahead to share with me your wisdom and insights about how we as a School can do that work that is so vital to our learning community and to our callings to share God’s healing and reconciling presence with the world.

Two years ago Dr. William Barber wrote an op-ed in which he quoted Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” I conclude with this prayer-poem inspired by William Barber and Frederick Douglass:

“These times we’re living in
call for courageous people,”
the preacher said that day.
I am not brave.
Never have been.

Bravery is something to be
read about in storybooks
where quixotic heroes
ride out on prancing
stallions to do battle,
sabers flashing in
magnificent sunlight.

Bravery is something to be
prayed for in church
where harsh living
daylights must first pass
by saintly stained-glass
sentinels of bygone years
before being transmuted
into the kinder, gentler
beams that caress Sunday
morning’s bowed heads.

Isn’t it?

Or maybe we should
pray for freedom,
like Frederick Douglass did,
walking in faith
until our legs are braver
than our thoughts.

So, in this present cloud
of unknowing, being not
brave, we resolve, if
we can find the honesty
to do it, to live on
as best we can,
stringing together each
momentary breath
like pearls of hope to
place with the gentleness
of a lover around our
fear to name its wounds
as our own and journey on
not in spite of
but with it.

For out there, where the
times we’re living in
call for courageous people,
the groaning ground that
soaked up the life-blood of
all who died unjustly just
trying to live
needs the redeeming touch
of feet determined to walk
with their fear until
their legs have learned
to move each day to the
rhythms of justice,
mercy, and love.

May we all know peace and courage as together we continue to say “yes” to God’s call in our lives.

Digital signature of Jill Crainshaw (DO NOT USE WITHOUT PERMISSION)

Jill Y. Crainshaw
Interim Dean and Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology