Garrett-Evangelical News

Stephen Ray Installed as Neal F. and Ila A. Fisher Professor of Theology

EVANSTON, IL, April 2009 -- Stephen G. Ray Jr. was installed as the Neal F. and Ila A. Fisher Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary during an April 1 service in the Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful. He succeeds Henry Young in the professorship.

stephen-rayBefore joining the Garrett-Evangelical faculty as professor of systematic theology last August, Ray was associate professor of African-American studies and director of the Urban Theological Institute at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia; associate professor of theology and philosophy at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and lecturer at Yale Divinity School and Hartford Seminary.

He is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and has served as pastor of churches in Hartford and New Haven, CT., and in Louisville, KY.

Ray received a doctor of philosophy in theology and African-American studies from Yale University and a master of divinity (summa cum laude) from Yale Divinity School. Among his awards are the Hooker Fellowship for Excellence in Theological Studies; Charter Oak State College Distinguished Alumni Award; Kentuckiana Metroversity Distinguished Teacher of Adult Learners; and The Associated Church Press 2006 Award of Excellence for Column Writing.

He is the author of two books: A Struggle from the Start: The Black Community of Hartford, 1639-1960 and Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility. He is co-author of a third book: Black Church Studies: An Introduction.

Ray stepped onto this theological path when he was 25 and already carving out a successful career in insurance and financial planning. He had settled comfortably into a corner office in a Manhattan skyscraper and the affluent lifestyle that came with business success. He had married Susan Parris, who worked for Aetna Insurance in Hartford, Conn., and they lived in homes in New York and Hartford.

"I was enjoying my life," he said during a recent interview, when he "got a clear call from God" that he couldn't ignore. "My mother always said, 'When God asks you to do something, you do it.' "

So he sat down to talk with his pastor about his call and before he left the office had agreed to serve as director of the church's new Safeguarding Program, a place of last resort for people for the city's poorest residents. After 3 1/2 years at Safeguarding, he worked for the City of Hartford, helping the chronically unemployed find work.

He considers those years, 1985-89, when he lived and worked every day with the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in his community, to be the most formative part of his ministry.

"I saw how people had been passed over by the economy," he said. "I saw how government policy and tax policy during the Reagan administration really affected those most vulnerable. The experience bent my work toward social-justice concerns. ... It helped me get a sense of the way systems worked. I had to massage systems to try to weave webs that relieved distress. It also made me aware of how political and economic systems destroy people."

Ray had been considering attending seminary when he learned on a Monday that funds for his jobs program had been cut. By Friday, the last day Yale Divinity School would accept applications for admission to its next class, he made his decision.

"I got it done just in time, and I got accepted," he said, smiling broadly. "That is one reason why I believe in providence."

During his second year at seminary, 1990-91, he fell in love with systematic theology... and began to appreciate the life of the academic. He graduated with honors the following year and immediately enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Yale University.

While working on his doctorate, he was ordained in the United Church of Christ, and for more than 10 years worked regularly as pastor or on a church staff. He was also invited to assume a key role in the Hartford Black History Project, where he worked as project historian and museum curator for two years, developing significant skills that continue to serve him well.

He was attracted to Garrett-Evangelical because of its "commitment to serve the church as it is becoming and not trying to force it to be what it was," he said. "You can see it in the way this seminary embraces diversity. Garrett is living into the future and not trying to create a false past."

Ray's work circles around two poles:

1)      Development of a consequential approach to theological constructions. "By that I mean being aware of the effect of theology on real live human beings and their communities and the rest of creation."

2)      Faithful reinterpretation of the tradition. "In too many cases the power of Christian tradition has been hijacked and used as a tool by the powers of oppression and hegemony. It became as clear as day to me when doing theological work on the issue of slavery how Christian tradition had become captive of this regime of white supremacy. ... That's why all the work I do is doctrinal in nature."

Stephen and Susan Ray will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in November. They have a daughter, 19-year-old Kiara.

Garrett-Evangelical is a graduate school of theology of The United Methodist Church founded in 1853. Located on the campus of Northwestern University, the seminary serves more than 500 students from many denominations and various cultural backgrounds, fostering an atmosphere of ecumenical interaction. Garrett-Evangelical creates bold leaders through master of divinity, master of arts, master of theological studies, doctor of philosophy and doctor of ministry degrees. Its 4,500 living alumni serve church and society around the world.

UMC Logo Garrett-Evangelical, a seminary related to
The United Methodist Church, welcomes
students from a wide range of faith traditions.