Long before tragic events of 2020 led to vigils and protests throughout the nation, PBA leaders, students and alumni were opening dialogue and pointing to the biblical mandate for racial reconciliation and justice. From School of Ministry professors to Residential Life staff, right up to the University president, Palm Beach Atlantic has tackled tough questions about racism, inequality and white privilege. That prayerful questioning has led to a new PBA position: the Fellow in the Council for Intercultural Engagement, as a long-term response to these issues begins to emerge.
For many students, the questioning began in open forums hosted by Residential Life, with a diverse panel of students leading the discussion. Margaret Homan, as a freshman, called it “incredible,” hearing minority students talk about their feelings and experiences.
“I learned more in that night than I had in my entire life about thinking differently and going beyond my own world view,” Homan said.
When that forum was held for the first time several years ago, some 130 students showed up, tuned-in and carried on discussion until well after midnight.
The forum drew such meaningful student response that it became an annual event. Since that time, Residential Life staffers have collaborated with other groups and with faculty to promote more conversations among students coming from diverse backgrounds. As white students listened to students of color, their typical feedback has been: I never thought of it like that. Now I have a better idea, so I can adjust my expectations and my behavior accordingly.
For the most recent race panel, the student group MOSAIC organized the discussion leaders. MOSAIC is an organization that helps students “see, celebrate and explore cultural diversity,” said Dannemart Pierre ’07/’10 M.S., director of First Year and Transfer Experience and also director for multicultural student programs.
“It’s not just about race,” said Pierre, but race or racism is often the underlying issue as students work through topics such as diversity, opportunity, equity and justice.
MOSAIC has hosted chapel services to deepen the conversation. In one service students heard from a panel of faculty and staff who either were inter-racial couples or had done inter-racial adoption. “More than any other chapel we’ve done, we get requests to do that one again,” Pierre said.
MOSAIC-sponsored chapel services also have featured worship music in Gospel rap or Spanish. That simple touch, Pierre said, provoked comments from students such as “It was the first time I walked into chapel and felt like I was part of the community.”
Since 2016, Dannemart Pierre has directed the student organization MOSAIC, helping students “see, celebrate and explore cultural diversity.”
Psychology major Josmery Botello took a leadership role on the MOSAIC planning team and thrived in the experience. She decided to join in MOSAIC housing, where students of different cultural backgrounds live together and engage in regular conversations about race and diversity. “I’m excited to learn more and do more after I graduate,” she said. “I want to use what I’ve learned to grow where I am or change where I am.”
Botello is from the Dominican Republic and came to PBA after living in the diverse city of Miami. “I think many PBA faculty and staff are trying to make the PBA culture more inclusive, diverse, pluralistic and welcoming for students of color,” she said. But she’s concerned that some topics for conversation become “too binary, such as being Republican or Democrat,” such that one side cannot agree with the other. And, she said, those conversations too easily lean toward stereotypical conclusions.
“I want to use what I’ve learned to grow where I am or change where I am.” - Josmery Botello
To counter stereotypical assumptions about race, in his course The Church in Society, Dr. Terriel Byrd assigns white students to visit one Sunday with an African American congregation and assigns students of color to visit a predominately white church. Later, the students complete a writing assignment Byrd provides to help them develop an appreciation and sensitivity to other cultures and races in their worship.
Byrd, a scholar in the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., teaches the course Urban Justice Issues. “We can’t talk about God’s justice apart from talking about reconciliation,” he said.
Jordan Smith, a 2018 Master of Divinity graduate, said that Byrd and other professors in the School of Ministry helped him understand the role of a pastor as community activist. “At PBA, I really saw that it is definitely part of your calling,” Smith said.
Smith is assistant pastor at Memorial Presbyterian Church, located at the edge of the PBA campus. He joined School of Ministry faculty planning a theme of race and reconciliation for the annual Jess Moody Faith & Culture Forum on Feb. 13. There the University hosted prominent guest speakers: Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise and national speaker; the Rev. Dr. John Nunes, president of Concordia College-New York; and Dr. Oscar García-Johnson, assistant provost for the Center for the Study of Hispanic Church and Community at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Members of the PBA family and visitors from the community packed the DeSantis Family Chapel for the morning session of the forum, titled “A Dialogue on Racism: Looking Back, Looking Forward.” That evening the program continued at The Tabernacle Church, a historic, African American church. The church and Palm Beach Atlantic have numerous ties, and work together on community service projects. Deacon Matthew Stevenson is a PBA trustee, as is Mami Kisner, wife of Pastor Gerald D. Kisner.
“The student, faculty and staff response to the forum was overwhelmingly positive,” said Dr. Ryan Gladwin, associate professor of theology and ministry in the School of Ministry. But on the heels of that hopeful local dialogue came disheartening national news: the killing of African Americans George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
On May 8 Gladwin, Smith and Byrd were among those leading a local “Run for Ahmaud,” a prayer vigil and tribute for Arbery, who was jogging through a south Georgia neighborhood when he was shot by a white man. Approximately 100 people attended the vigil, including Dean of the School of Ministry Dr. Jonathan Grenz, Provost Dr, Randy Richards and others from the PBA community.
Master of Divinity grad Jordan Smith was among those leading a prayer vigil and tribute for slain jogger Ahmaud Arbery. Participants wore shirts donated by PBA alumnus Shea Stockan ’06, owner of Cyan Shores Screen Printing.
“We acknowledge that the road ahead toward healing and racial equity in our country is long and scary,” read a handout at the vigil. “We will need each other. We march in solidarity for Ahmaud but we march for ourselves too, saying this isn’t good enough and we must do better.”
And then as sorrow and anger intensified across the nation after the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, voices from Palm Beach Atlantic University rang out clearly in response.
The Rev. Kevin Jones, 2007 PBA graduate, speaks to the crowd at the Juneteenth gathering after the death of George Floyd. At left is Francky Pierre-Paul, an organizational leadership student and one of the organizers of the event on the steps of the Palm Beach County Courthouse.
“When we see certain people being mistreated it should make us all angry, but what I want to encourage us with today is that we should turn that anger to action,” said the Rev. Kevin Jones, a 2007 PBA graduate who is assistant pastor of The Tabernacle Church. He spoke on the steps of the Palm Beach County Courthouse, where a diverse crowd had gathered on Juneteenth, the June 19 commemoration of African American slaves learning of their freedom in 1865.
Jones said that since 1865 black men and women have been “free-ish” – still marginalized by systems and structures. He urged the crowd to pray, vote and challenge those systems and structures by getting involved.
In a statement on PBAsailfish.com, Courtney Lovely, PBA director of athletics, told how her heart ached over the killing of Floyd, Arbery “and countless others.” She urged Sailfish athletes to be “Christian game-changers,” working to effect a shift in how people think and act. “My prayer is that you accept His call to speak up and out against social injustice and racial inequality,” Lovely said. “Jesus did.”
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, University president since just May 4, called the PBA community to prayer in a statement released June 3, saying that race and justice are biblical issues “found at the very heart of God.”
Among those at the Juneteenth event were PBA graduates Jared Yamada ’20 (at left) and James Davisson ’19. Davisson served in South Korea last year as the winner of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.
“We certainly don’t have all of the answers here at PBA,” said Schwinn, “but as a Christian university, we are committed to Christ-centered unity and the expression of our culturally rich diversity on our campus and throughout South Florida. As we listen and seek to better understand the authentic and very real concerns of our growing PBA community, we remain steadfast to do all that we can to provide a safe and positive campus environment for all, and be instruments of change not just locally, but across our land.”
Schwinn and leaders across the University discussed short-term actions and also a long-term approach toward positive change. The University established a scholarship for students of color, naming it in honor of Professor Byrd. (go.pba.edu/byrd-fund) Next came the creation of the new position: Fellow in the Council for Intercultural Engagement. Byrd was the unanimous choice as the first to fill the role.
“My prayer is that you accept His call to speak up and out against social injustice and racial inequality. Jesus did.”
- Courtney Lovely
Byrd will assemble this new Council, a diverse task force to include students, faculty and staff. That group will gather information and discuss ways for PBA to “continue to develop as a place of multicultural understanding that reflects the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God,” Byrd said.
“I am excited for Dr. Byrd to bring people together for honest, candid conversations, which I believe will expand the way our community thinks about diversity, equality, and justice,” said Schwinn. University leaders expect those conversations will help Palm Beach Atlantic advance new principles of inclusion in faculty/staff/student recruitment and retention and in the design of curricular and co-curricular programs.
“There is much more to do,” Schwinn said. “Authentic change ultimately comes through a heart change. And that change happens through Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Terriel Byrd will lead the Council as PBA continues to develop
“as a place of multicultural understanding that reflects the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God.”