The year was 2008. I was in New Orleans for my first academic conference, the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It was a giddy experience to walk the halls with those who had taught me so much through their writings. A living bibliography surrounded me. One thing that struck me was how white this conference was. As a woman, I represented less than 10% of those attending. But when I looked around, I was hard pressed to find anyone of color.
Perhaps that’s why he made such an impression on me. A friend and I were riding the elevator up to the ballroom level for a plenary session. Mid-way there, the elevator stopped and the door opened. Three men entered the elevator. I remember nothing about the other two men, except that they were taller but more deferential. Leading the way was a short, black man with a storied face. His eyes sparkled. He was the kind of man whose whole body exuded so much energy that he couldn’t stand still. Most people look down when they get on an elevator, avoiding eye contact. Not him. He surprised us by looking us straight in the eye, eager for conversation. I’ll never forget his southern drawl, “Now, are you ladies here for the theology-thang? Or for the nursing-thang?”
I’m sure we both smiled, almost giggled, at his energy. “We’re here for the theology thing.”
I wish you could have seen his face light up. “Oh! That’s wonderful!” Then, as if admitting a secret, he leaned in and added, “There aren’t near enough women here, are there?”
At that point the elevator arrived at our floor and we exited. I don’t remember how we responded, but we had the sense that we had met a real character.
Imagine our surprise in the next plenary session when our elevator friend took the stage. It was the venerable John Perkins! I had heard his name before, but didn’t know him well enough to recognize him. Perkins had been imprisoned and beaten unjustly, and had labored long and hard for civil rights in some of the most segregated corners of our nation.
Our encounter was arresting. Here was a man who’d been invited to address thousands of (mostly white) participants. He was neither cocky nor self-centered. He had no chip on his shoulder. In our brief conversation he celebrated our presence at a conference that was planned, led, and addressed by only men. He saw us.