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Impacted by gun violence, divinity student examines identity and death

By Claire Asbury Lennox | Emory Report | May 8, 2019

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The first in his immediate family to go to college, Donnell Williamson Jr. is an academic with a passion for Søren Kierkegaard and Frederick Douglass. Photo by Lisa Stone, Candler Communications

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During his years in Candler School of Theology’s Master of Divinity program, Donnell Williamson Jr. has found meaning not only in the classroom, but in community, across an ocean and within himself.

Williamson is an academic with a passion for Søren Kierkegaard and Frederick Douglass. He came to Candler after studying sociology of religion at Morehouse College, and after graduation, he’s headed to Brown University, where he will pursue a PhD in religion and critical thought.

He grew up in Shelby, North Carolina, learning Bible verses, reciting them at age four to soothe his grandmother when her only son — Williamson’s father — died from gun violence. “I didn’t know what they meant, but they gave her some type of peace and solace,” he recalls.

From then on, family and friends told him that he would be a pastor, though he knew that wasn’t his calling.

After Williamson finished at Morehouse — the first in his immediate family to go to college —his cousin, a beloved father figure, suggested he consider seminary. One week after their conversation, his cousin died, another victim of gun violence in Williamson’s family. 

“How do you actually grieve this? I started questioning God, going through a spurt of depression,” Williamson recalls. “And I heard it clear as day: ‘Just go to Candler.’”

At Candler, Williamson, a self-described “Kierkegaard fanatic,” was eager to study death and despair. He wrote his theology and ethics capstone on the ironic reversal between Kierkegaard and Frederick Douglass. 

“I’m interested in Douglass because many people use him for political science or sociology or African American studies, but we very seldom talk about him in a religious scope. I really want to see what that looks like,” he explains. “That’s something I’m interested in for my PhD program.” 

A gateway to the world

This year, he took his academic interests to a wider audience as the organizer of a colloquy honoring the centennial of theologian Karl Barth’s “The Epistle to the Romans.” He invited Candler professors David Pacini, Steven Kraftchick and Kendall Soulen to speak to what was ultimately a full-capacity crowd.

Candler has also served as a gateway to the wider world, giving Williamson the opportunity to study for a year at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany, one of his best seminary memories. Not only did he make what he calls “lifetime friends,” he was able to explore his own inner workings — particularly his identity as a black man and how others perceived it away from the American consciousness, where race is an inherent factor.

He recalls a conversation with a German peer who wanted to know more about Williamson’s roots beyond the U.S. “He said, ‘But where are your people from?’ It got to the point where he asked, ‘Aren’t you African?’ Well, yeah, but there was this thing called slavery and the Middle Passage, so I don’t know where in Africa my family comes from.’”

Williamson left the exchange offended. But later, he watched that same peer approach a white American, who clearly wasn’t bothered by the probing. He decided to talk with the man and explain why he had been offended. “He said, ‘Oh no, we Germans just think that everybody from America is an immigrant!’

“And I thought, that’s my privilege—I didn’t even recognize that I just assumed that the U.S. was mine. Everybody is an immigrant. I didn’t realize that he wasn’t trying to attack me. He really wanted to genuinely know where I was from and have a conversation. I was so caught up in what it meant to be part of the black experience that it became an identity, and weaponizing blackness was an identity.” 

He continues, “Germany taught me how to love myself. I had time to think about what it means to be human — not necessarily what it means to be black. I’m not saying that I’m negating my blackness, but setting aside the projections and negativity that people have poured into me, telling me that this is what I must represent, these are the battles I must fight. If I do fight them, I’m going to do it my way.” 

Williamson also took the opportunity to travel, spending Thanksgiving in Paris and Easter at the Vatican, where he had the “phenomenal” experience of attending the papal Easter service. When he visited Russia, any stereotypes he’d had going in were quickly turned upside down. “This guy realized we were foreigners. He took his hand in the shape of a heart and put it over his chest, gave me a hug and kissed me on the cheek. He said, ‘We love you. Come back.’ To hear that from a Russian and have a different experience [than what the media shows] was completely eye-opening.”

Connecting at Candler 

Back on campus for his final MDiv year, Williamson has served as an ambassador in Candler’s Office of Admission and Financial Aid, connecting with prospective students. He’s most enjoyed taking prospects on tours, sharing spaces that have mattered to him, and introducing them to professors. “It shows that we really are a community and relationships are important,” he says.

Williamson can speak from experience; his relationships with faculty mentors and their commitment to his individual experience have proved to be a highlight of his Candler career. He holds a special connection with Laney Professor in Moral Leadership Robert Franklin Jr., who was president of Morehouse when Williamson attended and has been his professor at Candler.

“I’ve talked to him about how to do a methodology for a paper, but I’ve also asked him, ‘How do I remain conscious of the problems within the black community without becoming so focused on scholarship produced by white men in Europe?’ I am attracted to the thoughts of Kierkegaard, but everyone may not be,” Williamson says.

And then there’s the access that Candler has afforded as part of top-ranked research university Emory, where he has taken classes in different departments — all of his German preparation for Munich was done through Emory College’s Modern Foreign Language department — and sought out other expert scholars.

“If you have a question about law, go to the law school. If you have a question about health and science, go to Rollins [School of Public Health].” And if you have a question about religion in connection with any other topic? “There’s a person here on campus who can talk about it.”

Williamson recalls expressing interest in how African traditions were syncretized into Christianity, and “someone recommended Dianne Stewart. I just walked across the Quad, and here is this professor who does African religious work.”

“At Emory,” he says, “you’re right here.” And Williamson has soaked up every moment of being “right here”—in the thick of this community of scholars, unpacking his identity, his vocation, and what’s next on this path that only he can walk.