Westmont Magazine Opening Educational Opportunities for Students from All Backgrounds
Reggie Williams ’95 played basketball in college and formed his identity as an African-American athlete. He came to Westmont to study Greek, Hebrew and theology but didn’t see himself in an academic career; that was something white people did. After graduating, he served as a youth pastor, played professional basketball in Australia and returned to Westmont for four years as resident director in Ocean View with his wife, Stacy Burkleo Williams ’95. He finally found his calling through a master’s program at Fuller Theological Seminary in theology and college student affairs.
“At Fuller, I went to a panel discussion where three African-American men discussed theology, and they all had doctorates,” Reggie says. “The academy looked different to me that day. I took a class from the first African-American professor I’d ever had, and when I turned in my final paper, he told me I should be in a Ph.D. program. He pushed me in that direction, so I stayed at Fuller to earn a doctorate in Christian ethics.”
Reggie received a prestigious Fund for Theological Education Fellowship for his doctoral work, which offered more than monetary support. Workshops on writing a dissertation, teaching and publishing provided invaluable tools. “Graduate school is tough and stressful,” he says. “Writing a dissertation is like drinking the ocean with a Dixie cup. The FTE networking and workshops helped me succeed.”
Reggie’s dissertation, which passed with distinction, focused on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time at Union Seminary in New York City. He befriended Frank Fisher, an African-American student, and was assigned to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a thriving African-American congregation. “Bonhoeffer lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, a significant time in African-American history that coincided with the migration of blacks from the South and the urbanization of black life,” Reggie says. “Bonhoeffer’s friends and biographers observed a significant change in him about this time, and my dissertation explores his personal transformation and experience in New York. He gained important insight into the harm caused by the mixture of Christianity and oppression from what he called the ‘rather hidden perspective’ of an African-American worldview.”
This fall, Reggie joined the faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas as one of three ethicists in the department of religion. In November, he’s been invited to present his work at the annual meeting of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society being held at Union Seminary.
Reggie describes Bonhoeffer as a genius. “Here was a pacifist who was implicated in a coup attempt against Hitler,” he says. “He was one of the most inspirational Christian martyrs of the 20th century, helping to light the way for Christian living at a time when the Christian life in Germany had become confused and darkened by Nazi Christianity.” Interest in Bonhoeffer is growing, and Reggie has written the only book-length treatment of his New York years.
The move to Texas came at a difficult time for Stacy. A sociology major at Westmont, she was involved in social work and community action after graduating. Through Americorps, she directed a project in the Bay Area supervising tutors in a large urban school, and she received training in reading intervention. After returning from Australia, Stacy found a part-time job as a reading specialist in Santa Barbara. “I completed an emergency credential and went into teaching through the back door,” she says.
When Reggie enrolled at Fuller, Stacy worked full time at their children’s Pasadena school. Laid off in 2010 after teaching for five years, she was hired to pilot a reading intervention program aimed at students in kindergarten and first grade with reading deficits. She had written a grant to fund it privately and was getting the program off the ground when Reggie took the position at Baylor. “I wasn’t ready to let that go,” she says. “I’ve stayed on as a consultant.”
In Texas, Stacy serves as dean of students at Rapoport Academy, which their two children attend. “My educational philosophy is student-centered,” she says. “I want to see them develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and move away from rote memorization. Rapoport is a progressive school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math — our son wants to be a paleontologist and our daughter a marine biologist. The school provides an excellent education in a depressed area, and it’s the culmination of my passions for social work and education.We expect our students, who are predominantly African-American, to attend college and be ready. We work with the whole child and help each one set goals.”
An African-American student approached Reggie his first day at Baylor. “When I saw your name, I wondered what a white guy was doing with a black-sounding name,” he said. “You’re the first African-American professor I’ve ever had, and I’m happy to be in your class.” Reggie’s glad all his students will realize that they too can get a Ph.D. if they choose.