Chance Encounter with Family of Bishop C.H. Phillips

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As we Recap 2016, I am reminded of a moment of what can only be described as divine synchronicity while we were on the road filming the documentary about my grandfather, Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr.

We were in the Atlanta area filming at a family gathering when we decided to take a detour to visit the historic Phillips School of Theology. As one of six seminaries located at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Phillips School of Theology trains women and men for ministry in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The seminary was originally founded in 1944 in Jackson, Tennessee, on the campus of Lane College, by Bishop C.H. Phillips and Bishop J. Arthur Hamlet. The then Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Johnson, Jr., served as the first dean of the seminary before it moved to Atlanta in 1959. In fact, it was while Dr. Johnson was president of Phillips School of Theology that he successfully applied to become the first African American student to attend Vanderbilt University. Although he already had a doctorate in theology, Dr. Johnson’s stated goal was to attend Vanderbilt to obtain a PhD in New Testament studies in order to teach New Testament at Phillips School of Theology and thus improve the seminary’s chances of receiving accreditation.

This past July, we arrived at Phillips at mid-day, at the height of the sweltering. mid-summer Georgia heat. The sun punished us mercilessly as I gathered my family and our camera man into the building. The school was actually closed due to summer intersession, but the dean had been kind enough to arrange for the building to be opened for our project. Upon entering, we went directly to the room in which my grandfather’s photo hangs on the wall, the first of several deans to lead the seminary. It was then that another family entered the building – a woman accompanied by two men. I observed the woman’s excitement as she immediately pointed to a portrait on the wall and turned to pose next to the portrait while her family took photos. 

Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” Such a meaningful coincidence can provide an “immediate religious experience” as participants are suddenly opened to a connection between the objective and subjective worlds. Jungian synchronicity has been explored by many, and is generally understood as an affirmation that one is on the right path and that the path is being blessed with guidance from that which is beyond the physical, visible world.

Synchronicity might best describe what happened when moments after the building was opened, I, a descendant of Bishop Johnson, came face to face with a descendant of Bishop Phillips. Marie Grandberry, the great, great granddaughter of Bishop Phillips, resides in Milwaukee and had just arrived in Atlanta on a trip to visit family. She arrived on the same weekend that I was visiting from Arlington, Virginia. She and her family decided to stop by to see the seminary named after their ancestor. The only reason they were able to enter the building was because we had made prior arrangements to have it opened.

Upon meeting Mrs. Grandberry, we learned of our shared connection and remarked at the improbability of our encounter. I explained my biography and documentary projects, and then we together pondered that there must have been a strong connection between Bishop Phillips and Dr. Johnson as they worked to start a seminary for African Americans.

Phillips School of Theology was founded ten years before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in public education and about 20 years before widespread desegregation in higher education. At the time, only one accredited seminary was available to African Americans, namely the United Methodist’s Gammon School of Theology. Opening the door of advanced theological training to African American clergy would have a profound impact on African American churches and communities as they sought to improve conditions, open doors, and fight for racial equality. Bishop Phillips and Dr. Johnson shared this vision and set out to make it a reality on the campus of Lane College.

I could not pass up the opportunity to ask Mrs. Grandberry if she would be willing to be interviewed on camera, although neither of us were dressed or prepared for a formal interview. She graciously agreed, and in our interview, she spoke beautifully of our ancestors efforts at opening the doors of theological education. She and others connected to Phillips School of Theology and ITC will be featured in the documentary about Bishop Johnson.

In addition to the seminary, Bishop Phillips participated in founding numerous churches throughout the CME connection, including Phillips Chapel in Nashville (pastored by a young Rev. Johnson), Phillips Metropolitan in Hartford, and Phillips Metropolitan in Dayton. Bishop Johnson went on to be the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt University, a New Testament professor at ITC, and a Bishop in the CME Church. According to ITC Professor Dr. Riggins Earl, as a New Testament professor, Bishop Johnson impacted a generation of African American ministers who went on to be leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, teaching them to interpret the New Testament for social justice. Bishop Johnson’s books, The Soul of the Black Preacher and Proclamation Theology continue to be recommended reading for students of black theology and black church history.

It all started with a shared vision, illuminated by a chance encounter, at Phillips School of Theology.

 

The Bishop Joseph Johnson History Project wishes to acknowledge funding from the Lily Endowment via the Louisville Institute and from Vanderbilt University. Filming for the documentary will next occur at the Pastor’s Conference of Phillips School of Theology in January, 2017. For more information, contact info@bishopjosephjohnson.org.

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