Theological Education in Action: Adult Learning about Race in the Student Interracial Ministry of Union Theological Seminary, 1960-1968

Open Access
Moll, Kirk August
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
November 08, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Elizabeth Jean Tisdell, Dissertation Advisor
  • Elizabeth Jean Tisdell, Committee Chair
  • Edward W Taylor, Committee Member
  • Kenneth Brian Cunningham, Committee Member
  • Charles David Kupfer, Committee Member
  • adult education
  • adult learning
  • racial attitudes
  • transformative learning
  • Transformative Learning Theory
  • Intergroup Contact Theory
  • Faith Development Theory
  • theological education
  • Student Interracial Ministry
  • African Americans
  • seminarians
  • Union Theological Seminary in New York
  • civil rights movement
  • African American Churches
  • Southwest Georgia Project
  • Delta Ministry
The purpose of this research is to study the learning experiences of participants in the Student Interracial Ministry (SIM) of Union Theological Seminary in New York. SIM provided the seminarians with an intense learning environment in which they crossed borders including race, gender, class, and culture. For many of these participants, this experience offered them rich opportunities for transformative learning. This study investigated the ways in which participation in SIM affected the racial perspectives of the participants, with special attention to the interplay between religious background, theological education, and faith development. As it sought to understand adult learning about race among participants for whom religion and spirituality were important concerns, this study employed three theoretical perspectives: transformative learning theory, intergroup contact theory, and faith development theory. In the Spring of 1960, graduate theological students at Union Theological Seminary in New York, with its long history of social activism, formed the Student Interracial Ministry (SIM), as a response to the national phase of the African American lunch counter sit-in movement, which began in February 1960. From a pilot project of four students in the summer of 1960, SIM grew into an ecumenical program, drawing a total of 234 students from some 50 protestant seminaries, lasting from 1960 to1968. This interracial program placed white students to live and work in African American churches/communities in the South, and African American seminarians to live and work in white churches/communities in the North, Midwest, and West, serving as assistant pastors for entire summers or full-year internships. It also sent students to work in direct action civil rights organizations, with the largest site being the Southwest Georgia Project led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Charles Sherrod. In-depth oral history interviews were conducted with twelve white participants (10 men, 2 women) who were students at Union Theological Seminary in New York and participated in iv SIM placements in the South from 1960 to 1967. The principal findings were: 1) In-person exposure to the reality and effects of segregation and racism acted as a powerful disorienting dilemma for SIM participants, which in some cases led to the transformation of racial perspectives. 2) Strong affective bonds formed through their experience in the African American community, which provided a supportive context for the transformative process among participants. 3) The religious-spiritual dimension was an important factor in facilitating this transformative process. 4) These learning experiences in SIM are best understood as part of a long-term process. 5) An in-depth immersion experience in a setting that was either racially or culturally different was central to this long-term transformative process. Conclusions and implications were drawn for both theory and practice.