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Professor focuses on role of faith in social and philosophical issues

Monica Coleman

Professor of Africana studies at UD and an ordained elder in her church, Monica A. Coleman studies how religious beliefs address suffering and injustice.

Editors note: The following question-and-answer interview with University of Delaware Professor Monica A. Coleman was part of a series of conversations in the UD Research Magazine. The theme was UD Disruptors. As a research university on the leading edge, UD has a multitude of creative thinkers and doers.

Society often remains silent about mental illness and sexual and domestic violence despite the millions affected half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental disorder alone at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In her work as an award-winning scholar, author and minister, University of Delaware Africana Studies Prof. Monica A. Coleman shares both her expertise and her own struggles, offering a powerful new vision for healing through faith.

Q: What do you study, and what led you into this field?

Coleman: I study the ways that religious beliefs address suffering and injustice. When preparing for a career in Christian ministry, I discovered the academic study of theology and fell in love with the different ways people have thought about God over time even within one religion. I found this diversity very liberating and wanted to share it with others. As a womanist theologian, I write and speak about what happens when one places black womens spirituality at the center of our discussions about faith. As a philosophical theologian, I study peoples religious beliefs within the framework of what we think about how the world works. I do this to offer an alternate vision for hope and healing.  

Q: Can you recount the tipping point the idea that produced your aha! moment?

Coleman: When I was in college, I took an elective in Harlem Renaissance literature in the African American studies department. I loved the class and changed my major to African American studies (what UD calls Africana studies). I had long been interested in black religions, African American literature and black history, but I didnt know I could major in something I studied for fun. 

As a second tipping point, when I was 18, other students from my college and I went to South Africa to help prepare voters for the first free democratic elections in that country the elections that voted Nelson Mandela as president. That experience concretized my sense of the global African diaspora and ignited my passion for connecting academic knowledge with grassroots activism.

Q: Were there many naysayers and how did you navigate that?

Coleman: Yes. My parents didnt understand what I was doing. They thought studying black people wouldnt get me a real job. Likewise, I wasnt raised to be a religious leader. That wasnt an option given to girls at the time and place where I grew up. So there was a lot of ageism, sexism and misunderstanding around my career choices. I kept telling them I would teach. When I received support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship), the Ford Foundation (Ford Diversity Fellowship) and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, that helped me and so many other people of color to grow in my career and for my parents to see that it was a viable career option.  

Q: Has anyone in particular inspired you to think differently? 

Coleman: I had a lot of excellent role models and mentors. Im afraid to name one for fear of missing some: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Renita Weems, Marjorie Suchocki, Angela Y. Davis, J. Lorand Matory, Delores S. Williams. They all showed me a way to think critically as a scholar, how to genuinely care about my students intellectual and personal growth, and how to take our academic knowledge and share it with a wider public through writing, preaching, public speaking, visual media. This was what I wanted to do and they showed me that it could be done and personally validated this approach to being an academic.   

Q: What is your favorite problem at the moment?

Coleman: Im thinking about loss. Human finitude is a long-time philosophical problem, and Im thinking about strategies for how we navigate myriads of small and significant losses in our daily lives, and the kinds of rituals and creative ways we can claim life in the midst of them. Ive worked it out philosophically, and now I want to add a lived religion dimension to the way I write about it.

Q: Why do you want to keep doing this work?

Coleman: I really love what I do. I feel a vocational calling to this work. I like thinking about the big questions of faith and offering various ways to think about it, and sharing that with a wider public. I believe rituals are not only endemic to human societies, but critical for our creative engagement with the world. When people tell me even through DMs on Instagram that something Ive said or written makes a difference for them, then I have a lot of energy to keep going.

Q. Does your disruptive side prove challenging at home?

Coleman: Its the only way my family knows me.

More on Monica A. Coleman

Professor of Africana studies at the University of Delaware and an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Monica A. Coleman focuses on the role of faith in addressing critical social and philosophical issues. She believes spiritual activism leads to social activism and shares principles for growth and liberation to help change the world to be a more just place. She is a Harvard graduate and holds a master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt and masters and doctoral degrees from Claremont Graduate University. Her books are required reading at leading theological schools across the U.S.

Article by Tracey Bryant; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Published Dec. 9, 2019

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Monica Coleman, a scholar, professor of Africana studies and an ordained elder in her church, offers a powerful new vision for healing through faith.
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