“Unity when possible, truth always.”

Those words, spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are as relevant today as when King spoke them and should always be on the minds of ministers, Dr. Johnny Hill said during a breakfast held Nov. 13 as part of the Hardin-Simmons University Symposium.

“The prophetic does not undermine the pastoral,” Hill said.


Dr. Johnny Hill

His comment was in answer to a question by HSU President Eric Bruntmyer, who posed questions to Hill in an informal conversational style as part of the breakfast program.

Hill is dean of the Divinity School at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. The university was the first historically black institution of higher education in the South and is among the oldest in the nation. It was founded in 1865 by Henry Martin Tupper, a Massachusetts soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War.

While on the HSU campus, Hill gave several talks and met with faculty and students. A noted scholar, Hill is the author of Prophetic Rage: A Postcolonial Theology of Liberation and The First Black President: Barack Obama, Race, Politics, and the American Dream. He has written numerous articles and essays and presented at colleges, seminaries and universities across the nation.

Bruntmyer posed a wide range of questions to Hill, from his background to his military service to his current life. Some of the questions were about the challenges of being a minister. Both men stressed the importance of theological education for a minister. They pointed to men like King and Dr. James Simmons, namesake of Hardin-Simmons.

“They understood that legacy is much more than packing a church,” Hill said.

Pastors are called to be agents of transformation, he said, and that comes with learning the art of critical thinking. Bruntmyer asked Hill for one piece of advice he would give young pastors.

“Guard your prayer life,” Hill said. “That is absolutely critical.”

Hill grew up in Vidalia, Georgia, home of the famous Vidalia sweet onions. Bruntmyer asked Hill how he made it out alive, growing up with seven sisters.

“Barely,” Hill joked.

Neither of Hill’s parents was educated, but both stressed the importance of education to their children. Hill constantly was told by his parents and others around him that he could be whatever he wanted. At Easter, he would give recitations in the church and was cheered by the congregation.

“I internalized that growing up,” he said.

After high school, in keeping with a family tradition, Hill joined the military, serving in the Army for four and a half years, including one year in South Korea. During his service, he entered a speech contest, with the topic, “Why I’m Proud to Be a Soldier.”

“I actually won that speech contest,” he said.

It was during Army service that Hill was encouraged to go to college. He finished his Army service with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, then enrolled in a community college.

From there, Hill earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Morehouse College, a master’s degree in divinity and theology at Duke University Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at Garrett Seminary. He is Founder and President of The World House, an interfaith coalition of faith leaders from diverse religious and cultural traditions working together to continue Dr. King’s dream of racial and economic justice.

Bruntmyer asked Hill if he ever felt called to full-time ministry. Hill said he thought ministers had a negative stereotype attached to them and wanted to be a scholar instead.

“For a long time, I kind of pushed it away,” he said, before understanding that “faith and reason don’t have to be opposed.”

Hill also delivered a powerful sermon during the worship service at noon Nov. 14 in Logsdon Chapel. Hill noted that church attendance has been on the decline for years, but the witness of the church continues. That is a reminder, he said, that although the gospel never changes, Christians must find new ways to share it. The church faces many challenges today, Hill said, but the power of God is stronger than any challenge.

“He can take up from a cross to a crown,” Hill said.

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