When The Well asked me to write a series about how Christians in higher education sustain their faith in the workplace, it resonated as an especially fitting topic for me — an English professor who has an ongoing fascination with practices that cultivate and deepen our relationship with God. I was delighted at the opportunity to talk with Dr. Andra Gillespie.
Andra Gillespie is Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University and Director for the James Weldon Johnson Institute (JWJI) for the Study of Race and Difference. In addition to teaching courses such as Introduction to American Government, African American politics, and graduate classes in racial and ethnic politics, she serves as a political commentator for local and national news outlets. Her second book, Race and the Obama Administration, is due out in March 2019.
It’s great to talk with you, Dr. Gillespie. I’m interested to hear more about your life and calling. Can you tell me a little bit about your work at the Johnson Institute?
Sure, I’d be glad to. There are probably three things we’re known best for that I can describe here:
- We offer a Visiting Fellows program where scholars come to spend a year at Emory in study and research. We have had writers finishing biographies of civil rights leaders or sports leaders, people researching the Latinx civil rights movement and church involvement, scholars studying rhetoric and civil rights movements and urban renewal. We’ve hosted academics researching incarcerated women, ethnic pride (particularly from female perspective), food deserts, and surveillance. One particularly unique project involved the study of Black pinup girls — the NAACP provided these posters after getting requests from African American soldiers who said they needed it for morale, and they intentionally looked to highlight more than looks in these models. It’s a wonderful space to work, and the scholars have the opportunity not only to present their work, but also to hear about work being done by people across the country.
- We also host a weekly event entitled the Race and Difference. Every Monday at lunch, we bring in local and national speakers presenting academic research on contemporary questions of race and intersecting dimensions of difference. We’ve recently covered topics like race and political violence in the Americas and anti-Chinese violence in 1885.
- Our institute also sponsors an evening dialogue series with a keynote lecture. Panels of four or five scholars gather to talk about a specific theme. Discussion topics have included immigration, Whiteness, and the movie Black Panther. We cover topics across a broad range of fields: English, political science, history, American studies, and law.
I especially appreciated the phrase you use in your Director’s Letter to summarize the values of the Johnson Institute: “We hold certain values dear: respect for all people, a commitment to telling the less-told stories of marginalized groups, and an abiding commitment to the empirical tradition.”
Our goal is to make Emory a destination place to study race and difference. We aim to offer a safe space for academics to invest themselves in what could become groundbreaking work related to race, civil rights, etc. Even our location in Atlanta, Georgia serves as a catalyst for this kind of study since it is a city with a variety of different immigrant communities and a long history of civil rights activism.
The work you do both as a professor and as the Johnson Institute Director is so important, and it’s such a privilege to hear about it. I’m especially interested to ask about the way your spiritual practices undergird your work. May I ask — who has been the main spiritual influence in your life?
My mom led me to Christ when I was a toddler. She taught me from an early age that people aren’t born Christians, but have to accept Him. This is what I have chosen to do for much of my life.
When I was a child, one reason I made that choice was because I didn’t want to go to hell. But as I got older, I understood more and more, so that during my teen years, I affirmed my commitment to Christ on a few different occasions. By the time I became a college student, I understood the importance of not just accepting Christ, but making him the Lord of my life through day-to-day choices.
Could you describe some of those daily decisions?
I try to follow my mom’s lead and read my Bible in the morning. And prayer is something that I work on. There are times when I’m really busy and I realize I’m so focused on getting through the Scripture that I’ve not really prayed. So I have to be mindful about that.
I also make sure I go to church, which can be hard because I’m out of town a lot for work-related commitments. So, I have a lot of home-away-from-home churches. But I do have a regular church in Atlanta, and I attend my mom’s church in Virginia quite frequently, which is where I tithe.
One of the reasons I advocate for consistency with these disciplines is that I know how easy it is get out of practice. Missing one week may not be a big deal, but continuing to not go can become a habit pretty quickly. I think I am afraid of that happening, so I try to keep up my spiritual disciplines, even when it is by rote or out of habit.
What are some of the ways these daily practices have impacted you in your work with students?
Though I don’t always recognize it at the time, hindsight has often allowed me see how maintaining those disciplines — even during the dry seasons — has allowed God to continue working on my heart, preparing me for what might be ahead. For example, I have been aware at times that students gravitate towards me because they have heard I am a Christian. This keeps me cognizant of how important it is that my life aligns with my beliefs.
At a research institution, there is an expectation that you’re not going to give as much time to your students as to your research. While I don’t feel a problem telling students “no” when I can’t accommodate their schedules, I think that because I’m a Christian, I want to be willing to honor the personhood of my students by being as generous in my time with them as I am able to be.
The student population with whom I work is 10% African American, 10% Latino, 25% Asian American, and 55% white. That kind of diversity, combined with the fact that college students are in formative stages, often creates ministry opportunities. There are times when kids come to my office to talk about classes or career paths. Sometimes I just need to listen and encourage them. I’m not there to give them life advice, but if I need to steer a student towards counseling, for example, I can take time to do that. It’s important for me not to say, “I need to get back to my computer.” My job as a Christian faculty member is to care about the people who are in my life — to care, to love, and to show mercy wherever I am.
How do your spiritual practices influence your interaction with colleagues?
In the political part of higher education, people can be very self-centered. My goal, though, is to try to remember that I’m doing my work with an eye towards pleasing God and not pleasing other people. I can be competitive, but I try to stay focused on the fact that my identity ultimately comes from Christ, and not from my research or academic accomplishments.
This mindset was put to the test relatively early in my career, when the chair of my department told me I wasn’t going to get tenure. I’d been nervous all day, but when I got the news, I actually felt a sense of calm. “This is what the ‘peace that passes all understanding’ feels like,” I thought. It was tough, and I didn’t know how the situation would be resolved, but I knew God was with me and that I needed to trust Him. There was actually something about knowing I might be denied tenure that gave me a sense of release. I continued praying and my mom asked people in her faith community to pray as well. Soon, I went through an appeals process and was awarded tenure after all. This was certainly an experience where I saw God working in my life personally, and where I needed to rely more on God than my abilities or accomplishments.
There have been a few times when a colleague has pulled me aside to let me know that she knows I am a woman of faith. At one point, another colleague told me, “You’re a light.” All I could do is laugh and say, “Praise God!” because I know I’ve had some temper tantrum moments.
I’m still growing, but I hope I can continue examining my everyday choices through the Christian ethical lens. For me, that consistency is key, especially as somebody who studies race at this particular moment and is looking at the differences we see across racial lines. In a time when it’s so easy to focus on the other people’s shortcomings, Christian disciplines take my focus back to my relationship with God. That is the relationship that equips me to relate to people in a way that honors and conveys Christ’s love for others.