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Seminary inaugurates first black president

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by Robin Farmer
Times-Dispatch

Presbyterians must strip themselves of “dead people’s clothes” if the church hopes reverse a trend of declining membership, the newly inaugurated president of Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education said yesterday.

On a glorious afternoon, Brian K. Blount was inaugurated as president of the 196-year-old seminary in North Side.

About 800 people sat under three tents and witnessed a historic moment as Blount, a former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, became the first African-American to head a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Blount, 51, a native of Smithfield, began serving as president in July after a lengthy search.

A choir from Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, where Blount served as pastor, participated in the ceremony.

A noted preacher, New Testament scholar, author and educator, Blount wove the story of Lazarus with the challenges facing theological seminaries and a shrinking Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination.

Since 1983, “the Presbyterian church has hemorrhaged almost a million members,” Blount said.

“Instead of getting better, it appears to be getting worse. When all the tallying is done, the largest membership loss ever, over 95,000, is projected for 2007.”

But the difficulties are not insurmountable, he said.

“We don’t have to raise a dead man. We just have to, raise the bar of theological education, raise the expectations of seminarians who come here, raise the expectations of the churches where they go after they leave here, raise a vision about the future of theological education, raise enough energy to achieve that vision and yes enough capital to fund it. Are we ready for that?”

He told the crowd to check their wardrobe and asked if they were wearing “living people’s clothes or dead people’s clothes, which are made of a fear fabric.”

Blount occasionally laced his comments with humor, and the crowd responded with warm laughter.

At times, shouts of “preach” and “yeah!” punctuated his sermon.

Are we ready to be flexible, creative, more diverse, entrepreneurial and to teach social justice and spirituality, he asked.

That’s what it will take to transform Union-PSCE, he said.

Referring back to Lazarus, whom biblical accounts say Jesus raised from the dead, Blount said Jesus didn’t go in and get Lazarus. “Lazarus had to get up and come out.”

For some, he said, being dead may be easier than living, as there are no worries, expectations or frustrations.

“Maybe that’s why institutions so often don’t wait for nature to bind them up in death. We kill ourselves off, then bind ourselves up in tombs of lethargy, tombs of tradition, tombs of doing things the same way we’ve always done them, because there’s peace in that, even if there is no transformation.”

Blount brings “a depth of faith and a clarity of vision that is rare,” said Art Ross, chairman of the board of trustees who presided over the formal installation.

One of the most touching moments occurred when Blount’s parents, wife, son and daughter, along with Ross, placed their hands on Blount as Laura S. Mendenhall delivered the inaugural prayer.

Yesterday also marked Blount’s 25th wedding anniversary. He said he told his wife he would have to work on their big day, but they would have plenty of guests.

The inauguration was held at the conclusion of an annual alumni event and a national conference for African-American theologians hosted by the seminary.

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