We recently caught up with alumna Rev. Leslye Dwight to discuss her studies at Payne Seminary and how they informed her work as a social justice activist.
What brought you to Payne Theological Seminary?
LD: I was enrolled at another seminary when I decided to transfer to Payne Seminary. This was during a rough period in my life. I had a job I hated. I became ill. The other seminary did not offer classes online, and life became very difficult to manage — working full-time for a demanding job then going to class for three hours after a full work day. So I had to shift my schedule. I needed a change. I knew I needed to get into an in-depth program and graduate so Payne became my next option. Payne allowed me to go to school full-time and work full-time due its multi-session semester schedule. It did not feel like I was carrying a full load. If I stayed at the other seminary it would have taken me longer to matriculate since I could only go part-time. Only Payne’s schedule allowed me to work a regular nine to five.
What made you adopt social justice work into your ministry?
LD: I took a liberation theology class with Dr. Miller and it really struck a chord with me. I was getting passionate and angry about everything that he was teaching about. I also became uncomfortable. I was doing youth ministry since I was 16, but I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable in that role, so I asked God “what is it that you want me to do?” It took a whole wrestling and seeking God to understand what that next move was gonna be. “Okay, God, I’m getting frustrated. How come I don’t have a ministry like everybody else?” There are certain people that are called to women’s ministry, and certain people that are called to men’s ministry. I was passionate about a lot of different things. But I didn’t know what that thing, put together, looked like. And in the wrestling, I heard God say the reason I didn’t have a specific population [to serve] was because my population were among the oppressed, and that could take on any form. Oppression is not limited to an age or a gender or even a race, right? So that moved me into social action, which is linked to liberation theology, and none of that would have happened had I not taken Dr. Miller’s class. I began thinking about liberation theology and not just how it manifests in the church but how it shows up in our daily interactions. The AME Church, we were birthed out of a liberation theology and we were birthed out of social action, so why are we not doing more to fight social injustices? We’ll put on a t-shirt and we’ll put on a ribbon but liberation theology demands much more than that.
Tell us what happened at the Samuel Proctor Conference in 2018?
LD: The 2018 Samuel Proctor Conference, which focuses on social justice matters, was in Memphis. I went to the workshops which were great, but during them I was wondering: why we aren’t we doing anything? Why aren’t we being presented with best practices for how to directly engage rather than just talking us what the issues are?
We were at the prayer breakfast getting ready to talk more about social justice, when someone interrupted to talk. They told us about a 16 year old girl, Teriyona Winton, who was arrested on murder charges and was being held in solitary confinement in a Tennessee adult prison.
Statistically this is what happens to incarcerated young black girls. It doesn’t even happen to young black boys. It’s young black girls of color. The state was saying it was a safety issue, but when it came down to it, it was an outdated practice. It was systemic racism.
After the announcement, the conference leaders presented us with an option. They said, “If you want to go and sit-in on the court hearing for this young lady, we completely understand.” And then this room of hundreds of people who were talking about social justice just looked around at each other. Nobody moved. People were like “awwww,” yet were content sitting where they when the courthouse wasn’t even five miles away from where we were sitting.
I told my classmates, “I’m going to go. Do you want to come?” We talked it through and decided we were gonna go. So we got up, left, and went to the court house. We definitely made an impact when we got there. People at the courthouse were asking us, “Who are you and why are you here? What’s your purpose?” But the defense lawyers were excited we were there. They were excited because it sent a message beyond anything they could have said in the courtroom: solitary confinement of a minor is unacceptable.
That day we also had an opportunity to minister to the young girl’s mother and some other family associates. We set up a system where specific churches in the area could send hygiene products to her since they are expensive in jail.
I kept in contact with the lawyer. I was helping him flesh out some things with his court case. We ended up sending her books to keep her mind active and going. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam ended up coming to D.C. the following week. He ended up coming to my job. I had an opportunity to ask him very bluntly about what was happening with that case with that young lady. I asked him specifically what happened with that case and how it related to his platform of juvenile justice reform because that’s what he ran on.