God is Making the Impossible Possible: The investiture of Michael J. Brown as President of Payne Theological Seminary
By Kim L. King, II, Executive Assistant to the President/Director of Institutional Advancement
Friday, November 3, was appropriately a day set aside to remember the life and legacy of Daniel Alexander Payne. On the same day, Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram vested the Rev. Dr. Michael J. Brown with the authority of the president of Payne Theological Seminary on behalf of the Board of Trustees at Mt. Vernon Avenue AME Church in Columbus, Ohio. The investiture service was framed by a three-day schedule of events. A gala dinner took place on Thursday before; a symposium and Eucharist service occurred on the day of; and finally, a capstone breakfast was held on Saturday, November 4.
Dr. Brown responded to the act of investiture, in brief, but disproportionately impactful fashion, with a message that “God makes the impossible possible.” This message was inspired—if not anticipated—by the symposium, which wrestled with how churches and Christian organizations in the United States pursue justice-driven and socially-transforming ministries in a religious terrain whereby the influence of organized Christianity has diminished. This provocative topic was matched only by the spirited conversation led by an equally accomplished panel of activists, whose keynote and response were provided respectively by Drs. Alton Pollard, III (professor, Howard University School of Divinity) and Shively Smith (assistant professor, Wesley Theological Seminary). Other panelists included the Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown (professor, Candler School of Theology at Emory University), the Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson (pastor, Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri), Dr. Robert Saler (associate dean and research professor, Christian Theological Seminary), the Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith (founder, Crazy Faith Ministries), and the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson (executive director, Ohio Council of Churches).
President Brown picked up the mantel for justice and social transformation, carefully invoking a few systemic challenges, not least exemplified in what he called a “crisis of leadership in our nation.” The debasement and coarseness of our present political life, he argues, is retribution for the foray toward human dignity we as a national community made some nine years ago. He reminds us that history rhymes where it does not repeat. President Brown notes, “there are still people who not only remember but embrace the ideology that the amount of melanin in one’s skin is sufficient, even if not necessary, proof of the superiority of some over others.”
One cannot help but lament against the backdrop of this crisis, our government’s slow—and incomplete—response to the apocalypse otherwise known as Hurricane Maria, which still leaves much of Puerto Rico without power and water. One cannot help but lament, to use another example, the systemization of incarceration that has left generational voids in many African-American and Latino families. Precisely in this moment of lament, however, we must remain steadfastly encouraged in serving a God that makes the impossible possible.
President Brown eloquently reminded us that “God transforms us by being enfleshed among us.” It requires leaders, in turn, who are as committed to action as much as prayer, and who are stirred “to engage the structures of power, dehumanization, and conflict through the irritant of repeated acts of social justice.”
President Brown’s leadership—specifically, the vision he has for Payne—aims to make incarnate the kind of truth and justice required of an institution that has built its very existence on liberation and the dignity of all humankind. This is why Payne is committed to “flipping the script” of theological education by taking its curriculum to students and their communities as opposed to requiring that they come to Wilberforce, Ohio. This is why Payne plans to create its voice of liberation west of the Mississippi River to the 5th Episcopal district. This is why Payne is committed to spreading its proclamation of social justice beyond the thirteen national districts to the seven international Episcopal districts. Why this commitment? It is because we serve a God that makes the impossible possible.
Making the impossible possible, but in a much more mundane sense, offers Payne the opportunity to acknowledge major contributions to make the inaugural event such a success. In addition to the symposium presenters and Bishop Ingram, Payne thanks Bishop and Supervisor Young; Supervisor Vivian Anderson; Presiding Elders Betty Holley and Earl Ifill; the Reverends Henry Allen Belin, III, Toni Belin Ingram, Charles Brown, Santarvis Brown, Grainger Browning, Jr., Bruce Butcher, Jermaine Covington, Morne Meyer, Mark Tyler, and Sidney Williams, Jr.; Drs. Jeannette Prear-Harris, Michael Miller, and Herbert Marbury; Mr. Derek Anderson; Mses. Adrienne Morris and Valencia Wicker; institutional delegates; and last but not least, the inaugural committee and those who supported in spirit even if not by presence.