Kenyatta Gilbert and Malcolm Foley
Season 6 - Episode 619
In April, Baylor unveiled statues honoring the University’s first Black graduates, Rev. Robert Gilbert and Barbara Walker. Despite physical limitations and the burdens of being a trailblazer, Rev. Gilbert served his hometown of Waco and made an impact far beyond campus. In this Baylor Connections, his son, Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert, expands on his father’s journey and legacy. Dr. Gilbert, professor of homiletics at the Howard University Divinity School, is joined by Rev. Dr. Malcolm Foley, Special Advisor to the President for Equity and Campus Engagement and Director of Black Church Studies at Truett Seminary, sharing more about Baylor’s efforts to tell the University’s complete history and honor trailblazers like Rev. Gilbert.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are visiting with Kenyatta Gilbert and Malcolm Foley. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert serves as professor of Homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity. A 1996 Baylor graduate, he's an author and nationally recognized expert on African American preaching. Dr. Gilbert is the son of the late Reverend Robert Gilbert, Baylor University's first Black graduate in 1967. His father was recently honored on the Baylor campus with a statue, along with Baylor's first Black female graduate, Barbara Walker. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert founded The Preaching Project, inspired by his father. The preaching project is a ministry aimed at equipping ministers to better serve African American churches and communities. Also, joining us today is Dr. Malcolm Foley, Special Advisor to the President for Equity and Campus Engagement at Baylor. In this role, Dr. Foley facilitates engagement and interaction with and among the many diverse members of our community, and works collaboratively to develop initiatives designed to foster a welcoming and inclusive campus for all. He earned his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School before coming to Baylor for his PhD in religion. He also serves as director of Black Church Studies at Baylor's, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and pastors at Waco's Mosaic Church. Really excited to have you both on the program today, Dr. Gilbert. Dr. Foley, thanks so much for taking the time to join us.
Malcolm Foley:Good to be with you.
Kenyatta Gilbert:Great to be here with you.
Derek Smith:Well, it's exciting to have you both on the program today. Dr. Gilbert, I'm sure you've got this question a lot since the unveiling of the statue or even since the news that the statue was coming. But how did it feel, does it feel to see the statue unveiled and to see your father now as a permanent part of the Baylor campus?
Kenyatta Gilbert:Yeah, so again, I grew up in a household where I had mixed feelings about Baylor based on some of the commentary that I'd heard as a child. And just thinking about the pioneers throughout American history and how his legacy now is being preserved in a context that's not only historically white, but a space or university setting where there is a push or there's a start of just sort of being a little more self-critical about its legacy and the intentionality about that really has been hope inspiring. And so to be the most honest that I can be right now is in that moment, I could not take it all in because I knew that my task was to give some discourse around both gratitude and also challenge to those who were present. I know that my family's reaction to it was much more, they were much more engaged in the moment than I was. And so even reflecting back, I still, because my trip was so brief, I still hadn't had the opportunity to just sit with it, which is somewhat what I'd like to do as an individual without the distractions of cameras and a lot of the commentary that happened on that day. So my hope is actually to get back to Waco whenever possible, just to sit with that moment.
Derek Smith:Well, and deservedly so, I hope you get that opportunity soon. But you mentioned the responsibility of making remarks and a challenge and you gave a moving speech at the dedication. And I'm curious as you share that, was it easy or was it difficult to come up with the words that you wanted to say?
Kenyatta Gilbert:Well, I would say this, I was somewhat providentially, I think, prepared for it. A book was released by Baylor University Press, written by Ryan Andrew Newson, or Newson, entitled Cut in Stone: Confederate Monuments and Theological Disruption. And Baylor asked me to provide an endorsement for that book. And as I read through it, I was very intrigued by what he was trying to say. And I think he did a wonderful job of just painting the picture of how communities and persons think about how they preserve the past and what they choose to remember and not remember. And so I think his expose into this whole notion of Confederate monuments and how we inscribe racism and beliefs about citizenship and religious freedom and try to chart a vision that will have influence beyond the present moment. And how when those things are challenged as being a whitewashing of history or not even thinking about how these depictions further enslave, at least in the minds of those who had been deemed subordinate or inferior historically, how those things often perpetuate a thing that has theological implications. What are you saying about God when you're trying to preserve a legacy where folks were held in bondage? Was that the heyday of your glorious past or is it something that you lament as a wrong toward humanity? So if I were to title anything for that message, I didn't even think about the title until I actually started speaking it. Monuments do matter, they matter no matter what implications are for the larger group. I think when you think about, again, these imposing, these are now very imposing monuments on the campus of Baylor, and it's not coincidental that they're in front of the religion building, for one. So there's a theological communication there. It's not lost on me that my father, when he was funeralized, he was funeralized Waco Hall, which is adjacent to Tidwell, the Tidwell Bible Building. And it's not lost on me that the statues themselves face the Judge Baylor's statue, or at least the Judge Baylor's statue is adjacent, but somewhat in front of these statues of my father and Mrs. Barbara Walker. And so thinking about it symbolically that way, as you make that pivot around that perimeter, you get a sense of history in a different light. And I think that that was very important and it will be very important for others to see as long as Baylor exists.
Derek Smith:And Dr. Foley, you've been doing a lot of work on this side, on the Baylor side as it relates to more completely telling our history and honoring people like Reverend Gilbert and Ms. Walker. And I'm curious, as you look at that, what role do these statues play in your mind in that work and what's still yet to come?
Malcolm Foley:Yeah. So to go back to some of the things that Dr. Gilbert was saying, I think there are two things that these statues can symbolize. It's both a moment of celebration, but also moments of lament, because we celebrate particularly the achievements of these two individuals, but we lament the fact that this was necessary at all. We lament the fact that for 118 years of Baylor's history, it was a explicitly segregated institution that specifically kept Black people out. And those are years of the building of a particular culture through policies and practices that are meant to keep people out. And that's fundamentally unjust. And so as we seek to look forward, particularly as an institution, the goal has to become a more just and equitable institution, one where folks are not only welcome, but also have an opportunity to shape the institution to be those things. So this particular work with the statues came out of the work of the commission that we did on historic campus representations. I had an opportunity to serve on that commission. And one of the recommendations that came out of it was actually the recommendation to erect these statues. Included in that is also, because the purpose of that commission was to investigate particularly Baylor's history with slavery and the ways in which Baylor's own wealth was founded on slavery and all these kinds of things, one of the other recommendations was the formation of a monument or a memorial to the enslaved who built the original campus, done in the middle of Founders Mall to recognize, hey, these are founders of the university who have been historically ignored, historically exploited, and also historically ignored. And so what's on the horizon is we're doing planning for that work, but we also want to make sure that all of this is in the context of what I call the three Rs of reckoning, repentance, and reconciliation, which is in many ways the narrative of the gospel. It requires a reckoning with our sin, that is a flat out recognition of it, recognition of its evil, but also repentance from it, that is turning away from it and toward the Lord and toward our neighbor, and ultimately reconciliation that Christ has created a new community that bears witness to actual justice and equity. As an institution, that we only happens if we intentionally work towards it. So that comes with both symbolic gestures like these monuments, but also kind of a reshaping of the way that we operate with one another so that people can actually ... Once again, it's like the change to, for example, admitting Black students, that's one move, but it takes another level of effort for particularly Black students, faculty and staff to actually feel like they're a member of the community, not just this kind of ornamental add-on, so to speak. And so that's the kind of work that we're continuing to be engaged in. The statues are great, beautiful, world-class, I mean, Ben Victor is an amazing, amazing sculptor, does amazing work, and he was wonderful to work with too. And this was a particular project that he was really excited about because he saw the significance of it. But even if one were to ask him or me or Dr. Gilbert, I think you would always come away with the understanding, hey, this is a good piece of a broader work.
Derek Smith:Very visible piece of that, but more to do as we visit with Dr. Malcolm Foley and Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert. And Dr. Gilbert, I'm going to ask you some questions here about your father that probably no way to summarize adequately in a short amount of time, but we want to get to know your father better. And I think when people see the statue, it's going to tell some stories about him, a man who carried physical burdens and the burdens of being a trailblazer. Could you tell us, just a little bit about who your father, the man he was?
Kenyatta Gilbert:Yeah. So my dad was a devoted father, devoted family man first and was deeply, deeply committed to both the church, as well as the church's work in society. And I thought his perception of what is required to do justice and to do that in a way that is courageous as well as loving, I saw him really wrestling with how best could he be a humanitarian? How best could he both hold folks accountable for their claims to Christianity, or even claims to being fair and being politically progressive? How best can I hold folks accountable, but at the same time, how can I be a person who empathizes with those who would do better and be better human beings toward other human beings, but would need some steering, some direction in which to go? And so I thought he was a very unusual man, driven despite his disabilities. I knew very early in life that he was committed to ministry, committed to people, and that was, of course, not lost on me. I did not want to be a minister at all. That was not on my agenda. I saw what he endured from childhood, and I saw how he stood out because of his disability. From the time I was small, I saw his health progressively degenerate. And so he was on crutches, and then he eventually was wheelchair bound. And then I ended up, my brother and I had to begin to lift him from his bed to the car. And it just seemed to be a very routinized sort of childhood, lost in some ways just because of the caregiving role that we had to assume. And reflecting back on it, what seemed to be, at the time, I guess in our teenage years, an overtaxing burden, ultimately became a way in which we ourselves became more empathetic with humans who have some limitation, some obstacle or challenge, be that physical, emotional, what have you. And I'm not so sure, given my own thinking about my own life, I'm not so sure I would have the same empathy if I had not taken care of my dad in the way that I had.
Derek Smith:And your father dealt with arthritis even as a very young man, and a variety of things, is that right?
Kenyatta Gilbert:That's correct. That's correct.
Derek Smith:Severe arthritis, yeah.
Kenyatta Gilbert:Very severe. His skin shed, he had both rheumatological arthritis and psoriatic, so his skin would be inflamed and his wrists were frozen. And over time, he had difficulty eating, but he was very independent, and so he did not want anyone to feel burdened by taking care of him. And so he ate by himself, he tried to brush his teeth. The only thing he could not do was he was immobile in terms of walking, but he could talk, he could preach, and his jaws were frozen. And a lot of people didn't know that he could barely open his mouth, but he was an amazing singer and preacher. And I don't know if you know May Jackson, but May Jackson was an amazing leader in Waco as well, and she had a show called Minority Forum, and she had him on that show. And she told him that he looked well, he looked well because despite his physical limitations, there was a light in him that when you sat with him, you began to see the human. You didn't see his limitations as much. And there was just something about that, about the way in which he conversed and engaged you, that his limitations were irrelevant in some ways. And though gave him tons of medications in the mornings, in the afternoons, in the evenings, so that his pain would be alleviated so that he could do what he needed to do. So I don't know how I got into that, but that's just sort of the ritual of a child having to care for a father, and just the sacrifices my mother made to make sure he was able to do what he felt called to do. So as an adult now, it's hard to believe that I'm 48, he died at 50, and I'm as close to that age now, it's amazing to me how much he accomplished in the short time he had on earth.
Derek Smith:And Waco was his hometown as it is yours, and he served, his limitations didn't keep him from serving. He was pastor at Carver Park Baptist Church among many roles. What did you learn about serving the community from what you saw from him and the various roles that he undertook?
Kenyatta Gilbert:Yeah. Yeah. That you can accept no excuses for not doing what God calls you to do. And in order to manage the workload that is given to you, you need God, you need grace. You need the things that are transrational, that sometimes don't make sense. You need to have a sense of care for other people. Love has to be foundational in the way in which you do life, if your life is to matter, as it has been purposed to matter. So I think I have that commitment. Often I shoulder a different sort of burden because I'm not physically limited as he, and also share in his footsteps in some ways, to carry some of his commitments forward and then reimagine what mine are and also do that separable from what he was committed to in the central Texas region. I see my platform expanding in a different way educationally, ministerially, and I try to pay that forward by investing in the future, just as he did for so many young and aspiring clergy and students. So in terms of pioneering, it was not just about him.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections, we are visiting with Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert and Dr. Malcolm Foley. As we head to the final few moments of the program. I wanted to ask you, as we appreciate you, Dr. Gilbert, painting such a beautiful portrait of your father and Dr. Foley, you've got to work with the families, the extended Walker family and the Gilbert family. And I'm just curious, what has that meant to you as you've got to know them and play a role in shepherding this process?
Malcolm Foley:I mean, I'm thankful for the opportunity I had even just to liaise between them and the families. For me it's actually just been a continuous inspiration to learn from Dr. Gilbert particularly, but also Ms. Walker, not only to learn their experiences, but also to be continually pushed by them. Because throughout this entire process, at least I felt just a deep responsibility to not only do justice to Reverend Gilbert's memory and to Ms. Walker's life as she continues to live it. But I also, throughout this process, didn't want it to be communicated as just kind of a one and done, just a one and done situation. The gravity of this particular act, as I said before, is important. But all the more important, and this is something that also comes as a result of being constantly pushed by Dr. Gilbert and others, is to be reminded that this is a piece of a broader project, a broader desire for the university to become, like I said, to be a more loving institution. Which is, if we think about it, kind of weird language to use, because generally when we think about institutions, we don't think about love. We think about, especially if we're thinking about businesses, we're just thinking about business continuity. But if we're, as a university, to have the ambitions that we do to be a preeminent Christian R1 institution, that not only speaks to the kind of education that we engage in, but it has to seep into the very way that we operate.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Foley, I really appreciate you both taking the time to visit today. And I think you've painted this picture very well, but I want to ask you as we wind down, Dr. Foley mentioned you all worked very closely with Ben Victor in what these statues would look like, both families did, and we see the image of your father as a man, trailblazing, caring, physical, and burdens of trailblazing. I'm just curious as people, Dr. Gilbert, take a look at those statues as they visit, what is it that you hope they see, think, and feel as we close out today?
Kenyatta Gilbert:Yeah. I want them to know that first and foremost, God matters, and that the power of faith can help you to overcome any and every circumstance that you might find yourself challenged by. I want them to know that education matters, and that if we are mindful of our historical past, we can actually do something of consequence for the future. And so when folks pass by those statues, I want them to see themselves as pioneering in their generation. And if those representations mean anything, I would hope that over time they're not ignored, but that folks can take inspiration from two lives that have been incredibly lived.
Derek Smith:Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Foley, I really appreciate your time today and all the work you've done to bring us to this point and the work that will continue. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today on Baylor Connections.
Kenyatta Gilbert:Thank you. Thank you.
Malcolm Foley:Thanks for having us.
Derek Smith:Great. Wonderful to meet you both and to visit today. Again, Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert and Dr. Malcolm Foley, our guests today on the program. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this in other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us today on Baylor Connections.