Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/26 2016

The First 50,000 Harriet Tubman Bills

Harriet-TubmanDo some quick math. 50,000 $20 bills is…

$1,000,000.

That first million has an important historical significance worth remembering. I’ll explain.

I’ve been fascinated by Harriet Tubman for some time, and several years ago had the chance to do some research and writing on her life. Her story is quite interesting.

Harriet Tubman was born as Araminta Ross in the early 1820s. Christianity was an important force in her life from her childhood. In her early 20s, she married John Tubman. She began to go by her mother’s first name and her husband’s last name, and thus came to be known as Harriet Tubman.

When her owner died in 1849, his will set Harriet free. Unfortunately, in addition to his will, he also left behind outstanding debts. Realizing that she would likely be sold to settle those debts, Harriet chose instead to escape.

Over the next 20 years, Harriet became an unstoppable force. According to some estimates, Harriet helped more than 300 people reach freedom. That record made her the most successful liberator in the United States and eventually earned her comparisons to Moses. She gained a reputation as a powerful speaker on behalf of abolition.

During the Civil War, she served as a scout and spy for the Union. After the death of John Tubman, Harriet married a former slave and Civil War veteran Nelson Davis. She then shifted her focus to advocating for women’s suffrage. She also created a home to care for the aging and in particular for those who had nowhere else to go.

In 1913, the liberator, speaker, spy, visionary, and scout died as a resident of the facility she had built. She left behind two biographies that she worked with a friend to complete and publish over the years.

As someone who cared for the aging, who freed slaves, and spent her life fighting for equality, why does that first 50,000 matter so much?

Because in the 1860s, Harriet was so notorious for her own escape and her role in freeing others that there was a bounty on her head. To be more accurate, there were many bounties on her head. The total value was somewhere around $40,000.

But that $40,000 in 1860 would be worth significantly more today. By some estimates, it would be worth roughly $1,000,000. Harriet had a bounty of $1,000,000 on her head! By the time 50,000 $20 bills are in circulation, something fascinating will have occurred. Instead of having a bounty of $1,000,000 on Harriet Tubman’s head, we will have a picture of Harriet Tubman’s head on $1,000,000.

I wonder what she would think about this.

Some have pointed out that Harriet Tubman might be less than thrilled to have her face put on money. Her own life’s work was more concerned with real justice than poetic justice. Others have argued that this symbolism represents a significant moment in American history, one we should celebrate, not downplay.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be an “either or”. Maybe this news can be both a reminder for us of the significance of Harriet’s legacy and call to each of us to work for what’s right.

Either way, the moment that 50,000th bill is printed, something truly amazing will have happened. It will commemorate the legacy of Harriet Tubman—but whether it calls us to battle injustice, we’ll have to wait and see.

The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.

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1/7 2016

Three Wise Men Walk into a Manger

 

three wise men with gifts

Fresco, 3rd century AD
Capella Graeca, Catcomb of Priscilla, Rome
italiamedievale.org

You know that nativity set that sits in your house? If you’re a little bolder, maybe it sits on your lawn.

It’s older than you think. At least, part of it is.

Most nativity sets today are really the combination of three streams of art. The center is what used to appear in paintings entitled “Madonna and Child.” It depicts the infant Christ with Mary and sometimes Joseph. Off to one side you have the shepherds, which appeared separately in paintings called “the adoration of the Shepherds.” And then comes the really interesting part. The adoration of the Magi.

If you caught our Epiphany Kit in 2016, you may have seen how interesting the Magi are. But their legends only tell part of the story. The magi as we find them in our nativity scenes are actually the result of centuries and centuries of artistic development. Everything from their posture to the style of their caps can be traced throughout the centuries.

The progression and development in the pictures is fascinating. Over time we see their caps become crowns, we see them take on different ethnic traits, and we see their posture change. These kinds of developments are worth considering, and Karen Bowden Cooper, former curator of the Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology at the Seminary, has highlighted some of these developments and their significance in an excellent ebook entitled “A Journey with the Magi” which looks at the changes to the magi in Christian art.

To me, perhaps the most interesting thing is the consistency of their depiction. Throughout history, almost every picture you see shows three magi. Naturally this coincides with the number of gifts, but I still find it interesting that artists don’t imagine two magi, each with all three gifts, or six magi with one gift per pair, or any other configuration. Throughout history, we have settled on the idea that there were three of them, one per gift.

Another constant is that the magi are usually depicted as having travelled quite a distance. Again, Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly where they come from. They’re just “from the East.” Think about conversations you have with people you meet. Here in Pittsburgh, someone who says “I’m from back East” usually means New England, not Asia. Yet we have historically connected this word “magi” with the word “East” and chosen to depict the magi as visitors from a distant country.

Scholars are divided on who the magi were, how many there may have been, and where they came from. Artists, however, are not. Music, sculpture, and painting usually show us three magi from a distant land. Scholars are interesting, but in this case, I like the artists.

If you want to read more, or don’t want to choose between scholarship and art, you owe it to yourself to check out Dr. Bowden Cooper’s ebook “A Journey with the Magi.” You get scholarly and artistic insights combined in a way that could only exist in a museum curator.

As you pack up your nativity set this year, let yourself spend an extra second or two looking at those three little wise men, and appreciate the centuries of history that have given them to you.

The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program and Master of Sacred Theology (ThM) Program. He previously served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with youth groups, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.

Updated 12/21/17

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12/18 2015

How can I do Christian mission work faithfully?

mission and social work“How can I do mission work faithfully?”

A youth pastor asked me this question recently—it had really begun to bother him. So much has been written about the complexity of Christian mission work and the pitfalls with various approaches that he had started to get frustrated. He wanted to obey the Christian command to love the neighbor, and the great commission, but was starting to wonder how to do both faithfully.

There are lots of people and organizations who teach and write about this. Our own World Mission Initiative does a tremendous job helping people think through various approaches to mission work. There are also bloggers doing a good job asking these questions. I’ve come to appreciate some of the insights from the self-proclaimed “very worst missionary,” who highlights some of the complexity with different models of mission work.

With the Miller Summer Youth Institute, we’ve started thinking about our mission component in several ways that may be of help for your own youth ministry. Here are a few words to describe the way we try to structure our mission work.

1. Systems-focused At SYI we also spend time not only addressing the needs of a community, but also learning about what systems have intentionally or unintentionally contributed to those issues.

We work closely with John Creasy at the Garfield Farm to help provide food to a community, and also to learn about the systems that have contributed to hunger and to explore ways to address those systems. John is also the pastor of a nearby church, The Open Door and helps us see the impact of his congregation on the neighborhood.

2. Interconnected Not only do we work with the Garfield Farm, but we also frequently worship at Valley View Church to connect with the members who live and work in the neighborhood. The pastor, Chad Collins, is always gracious when it comes to helping us see what is happening in the church and neighborhood.

3. Long-term Though students at our summer program only take part in the hands-on work over their time with us, the organizations we partner with take time to show them the long- term impact of the partnership with SYI. When students come back for a reunion two years after their summer program, they hear about the amazing subsequent developments. Mike Stanton at Open Hand Ministries does a great job showing us the long- term impact of home ownership and the economic issues at work in the neighborhood.

4. Integral The mission work we do is not confined to a few hours on a weekend. Through our hands on work, seminars with the organizations, and worship at the local churches, we weave the mission focus of SYI into the fabric of the program itself. On Sundays, we will also worship at East Liberty or Eastminster Presbyterian Church, both of which support Open Hand and the Garfield Farm. Mission work isn’t an event within SYI, it’s an inseparable component of the program.

As you think about the mission work that your youth group does, consider ways to make it systems-focused, interconnected, long-term, and integral to the overall ministry. It won’t look like it does at SYI, or at the church down the street. That’s okay. Focus on building the right ministry for your own situation in your church or community.

How have you tried to be faithful in your own mission work? Let me know in the comments!

The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.

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