In her first year of college, Angela Sims enrolled in premed studies.
By the end of her freshman year, she’d changed her mind. It wasn’t what she was called to do.
“But I find myself coming full circle, still in a profession that’s called to be of help and service with people,” said the first woman president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
Sims, who holds a doctorate from Union Presbyterian Seminary, talked with Minority Reporter about the influences in her life, the role of religion and being a first. Her comments were edited for length and clarity.
Who influenced you, whether a family member, someone considered famous?
My maternal grandmother was a major influence, particularly as it relates to my own religious and spiritual formation. My mother and godmother as well as several aunts and other public educators. They impressed on me … the importance of service to community and the importance of mentoring and being able to identify and nurture the potential in others.
… My doctoral adviser, the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon said that … I continue to wrestle with this notion that we all make compromises every day, but we need to be careful never to foreclose on our soul. For me, it means always understanding what my core values are and what it is that I am not willing to sacrifice.
What drew you to religion?
I’m a child of the church. I’m an in-the-womb Baptist. I think in many ways I tend to lean more toward the definition of religion that’s offered by historians of religion … that is, religion is ultimately one’s world view. But the way in which we think about a world view really in some regards for me needs to be informed by the way in which I understand myself in relationship to all of creation. Not just in relationship to people but in relationship to the earth and all the other elements. … I do see myself and understand myself as a follower of Jesus the Christ. In some ways that calls me to always be attentive to issues of justice, to issues of equity and fairness, to issues of access and equality.
How do see religion playing a role in our country today?
When we think about what’s occurring in the U.S. and we look at divisiveness, we look at the growing number of factions, we look at the way in which rhetoric is used to both affirm and dehumanize, often cloaked in religious rhetoric. I think that we would be remiss not to name the ways in which perhaps a particualare world view is being lifted perhaps in a manner to denigrate and to push to the margins other world views or religious perspectives of other faith traditions. … I think that for a country that at least as part of national myth says that it’s a country that was quote/unquote founded, though this is occupied territory, on freedom of religion, one has to ask oneself, freedom of whose religion?
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration, you talked about historic women African American heroes. Who are contemporary heroes?
When you think about the ongoing work of justice, I like to follow what young folk are doing. I think about Bree Newsome in North Carolina. I think about the young women who started Black Lives Matter in response to a number of killings of unarmed black persons, but particularly the young man in Ferguson, Missouri.
I think about Dr. Pamela Lightsey (and) the work she is doing in the United Methodist Church as it relates to holding her faith tradition accountable to its own language around the issue of the sacred worth of all human beings. I still think deeply about the work Marian Wright Edelman continues to do at the Children’s Defense Fund … It is a continuation of the work that reminds us that in every generation, there are folk who feel called to put their lives literally and metaphorically on the line so that others might be able to live another day.
What prompted your research on lynchings?
I contribute the genesis of my fieldwork about lynching narratives to a gentleman who just died recently at many years of age, Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield in Kansas City, Missouri. At the time, he was the only African American elder of his generation in Kansas City who was willing to talk to me about lynching. It was something he said when I was preparing to finalize my dissertation … that really prompted me to realize that his was perhaps the last generation who would remember lynching in its earlier expressions and they way in which it was used as a means to control human behavior by instilling fear. I recognize that those forces and those stories needed to be documented.
Was lynching domestic terrorism before we had that phrase?
That’s correct. I describe it as such.
What do you see as the role of CRCDS in this community?
That we will be a seminary of and for the community. It means being very mindful of our location in Village Gate, recognizing that … on the other side of those railroad tracks are three ZIP codes that are probably the most … challenged ZIP codes in this city. What does it mean for me to be able when spring comes to walk those areas with someone like Jerome Underwood and perhaps council member Mitch Gruber to get a sense and a pulse of those ZIP codes which are walking distance across those tracks but a world apart from life here at Village Gate.
Most of the institutions of higher learning in this community are being led by women. What does that mean to you?
There are still so many strides to be made, but that perhaps in such a time as this persons in Rochester have said, let’s see what the possibilities might be if there is a cohort of women leaders in higher ed who actually work very very well together and who are very supportive of each other and want each others’ administrations not just to succeed but to thrive and who are or are willing to extend a supportive hand. I’m curious how this city might be a model for others.
What does it mean that you are the first at CRCDS?
Anytime a women is first, I always question what are the challenges before that individual. Anytime that women is first and she also happens to look like me, I think that it will be cautious to say what are the triple challenges that might be before that individual. … It is a privilege to be here. I don’t take that lightly. But it is a divine privilege.
What will it mean to retire the word “first”?
That would be part of the loving community.