May 2018 – Four Drew Theological School students earned fellowships from the Forum for Theological Exploration—the most ever in one year at the school.
Elyse Ambrose, Ericka Dunbar, Nikki Hoskins and June Hee Yoon join the largest class of doctoral fellows—30 students from 17 schools—in the 50-year history of the Forum. The fellowships provide stipends for PhD or ThD students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups who are enrolled in religion, theological studies or biblical studies programs. Honorees also are invited to attend the FTE Forum for Theological Educators, which this year will take place in Denver.
Drew Professor Traci West, who works closely with the awardees, said they all bring something special to their work. “In each case, their projects break down standard academic barriers with unique expressions of transdisciplinarity and complex theory/practice approaches that deeply honor the subjectivity and spirituality of communities of color,” West said. “The work of these student-scholars constructs cutting-edge notions of justice and innovative scholarly reinterpretations of Christian traditions and scripture.”
In addition to the FTE honor, Ambrose earned a fellowship from the Louisville Institute, as did Abby Mohaupt, a second year PhD student in religion and society.
Since 2007, 15 Drew students have earned 20 FTE fellowships, with four earning more than one. (See below for the full list.)
“(FTE) is in the business of trying to create the next generation of scholarship in religion and theology,” said Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, associate dean at the Theological School. “They are invested in increasing the diversity of scholars and faculty and multiplying the kinds of research and ways of thinking in the theological and religious disciplines. It pays forward. Students—especially those from underrepresented groups—are more supported and empowered when a faculty is racially diverse.” Here’s a closer look at the latest fellows.
Ambrose is studying Christian sexual ethics under the broader umbrella of Christian social ethics.
“For an organization to put their resources and support behind your intellectual pursuit—something that means so much to you as a scholar—is something to be appreciated,” she said. “I’m so grateful for this significant encouragement.”
In addition to her studies, Ambrose is a research fellow at Columbia University’s Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice.
“I want to merge theory and practice,” she said. “I plan to keep my work connected with the community at the grassroots level, through workshops, engaging with everyday people and hearing their stories
To Ambrose, a native of Gretna, La., the support of Drew faculty, especially professors West and Kate Ott, is instrumental in her success. “They’re helping me shape my project,” she said.
Her classmates also have helped.
“Conversations with colleagues here have provided reinforcement and critiques in an environment that is hands-on and allows you to remain true to your work while sharpening your efforts,” she said.
This is the second FTE fellowship for Dunbar, who previously earned one in 2016.
“This fellowship affords me not only financial resources but a network of scholarly and emotional support, writing support, mentorship and other professional development opportunities,” she said. “FTE provides intentional spaces for me to explore my scholarly thoughts and questions and at the same time makes introductions that will be beneficial for me as I continue to matriculate in the program and throughout my career.”
Before Drew, Dunbar, who’s from Jacksonville, Fla., earned associate of arts and bachelor of science degrees from the University of Florida, an MDiv from the Interdenominational Theological Center and a Master of Theology from Candler School of Theology.
“(Ericka’s) interdisciplinarity is distinctive,” Johnson-DeBaufre said. “Biblical studies can be very narrow in its focus. She combines psychology, trauma theory and Africana studies to reread biblical narratives in light of pressing community issues like collective trauma and sex trafficking.”
Her dissertation, Dunbar said, “examines the trauma of sexual trafficking experienced by female and eunuch collectives in the book of Esther and by the African diasporic collective during the transatlantic slave trade.”
She added that the “significance of my project is that it sheds light on the ancient community’s struggle to deal with sexual violence and exploitation, sensitizes us to the wider social/global problem of trafficking and helps us with our current struggles regarding these issues.”
Dunbar’s mentors include professors West, Kenneth Ngwa and Jesse Mann. She also receives academic and ecclesiastical support from Dr. Randall Bailey, Dr. Shively Smith, Bishop Marvin Thomas and Bishop Teresa Snorton.
Hoskins, who also earned an FTE fellowship last year, is pursuing a PhD in Christian social ethics. Her dissertation focuses on black women and eco-religious activism, environmental racism and how faith has helped activists mobilize.
The fellowship enables her to return to her hometown of Chicago to continue her research there. “It also connects me with a community of scholars, activists and institutions that will help me in this project,” she said.
A key focus of her project is Hazel Johnson, an African-American woman whose focus on environmental racism and justice began in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens public housing project, which was built in an area surrounded by toxic materials and waste from manufacturing plants and garbage dumps.
“Nikki is very entrepreneurial,” Johnson-DeBaufre said. “She is actively seeking to shape her own voice in the field in a way that connects across divides like theology and ethics, or womanist and black feminist thought.”
Hoskins, who also has an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School and a BA in religious studies from Spelman College, credits West, Ott, Catherine Keller and Kesha Moore for providing support.
What’s made her experience at Drew unique, Hoskins added, is the combination of activism and academics.
Yoon, who is studying Christian social ethics, compared the doctoral experience to running a marathon.
After all the research, she said, the writing part is like the last five miles. That’s when you can hit the wall, not sure if you can go on.
“It can be lonely,” she said. “This fellowship, it gives me encouragement, confidence. It’s like in the marathon, when people give you water and cheer you on. It comes at just the right moment.”
Yoon credits mentors like West, Ott, and Su Yon Pak from Union Theological Seminary with helping her reach this point.
“Through my studies, and being pushed to go deeper, my teachers and mentors have helped me get to a greater level of more profound understanding,” she said.
Yoon’s dissertation is focused on queer holiness and the Korean-American Christian community.
“It’s because of the work and the studies I’ve done that I now have something to say to the Korean-American Christian community,” she said. “This is an issue that it has not dealt with.”
Yoon came to Drew after taking a class taught by Professor Heather Murray Elkins at Yonsei University in Seoul—Yoon’s hometown—when Elkins was a visiting professor there.
Beyond her dissertation, Yoon, who also has a STM from Yale Divinity School, is pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church.
“I want to contribute to the church community by helping leaders of the church, whether it’s teaching at a seminary or in the church,” she said.
Dong Hyeon Jeong
Lynne S. Darden