We must find ways to deepen our particularities and also transcend them as we search together for a community that recognizes the identity of all people. We must find a universalism that has all our names on it. Love builds community that recognizes the humanity of all. That's what the gospel means.
—Dr. James Hal Cone
During my first semester of seminary I was awe struck. My biggest class was Introduction to Theology with Dr. James Cone. Each week I sat in the front and just soaked in every lecture. By the sixth week, when we got to Black Theology, Dr. Cone preached—because anyone who knows him knows he preached, not lectured—about the method and analysis of Black Theology. When he opened up the floor for questions I raised my hand. Nervous yet confident I asked Dr. Cone what he meant by “Black” in his theology, because I wasn’t sure he was speaking about the realities of Afro-Latinxs and other African/African-diasporic people’s. Instead of becoming defensive because I was challenging *his* work, Dr. Cone looked at me and merely responded, “well, it sounds like you got a project!” He continued, as he often did, by stating the importance of “finding your voice”—understanding your positionally in the world, wielding your story, and speaking with the people in your community. Dr. Cone could have trashed me right then and there for even daring to challenge this veteran, this patriarch. Yet he didn’t. Because Dr. Cone wasn’t interested in defending his project, indeed his project could speak for itself. Instead he was interested in having people find their voice, find their drive, find that fire deep within them to do something greater than he ever could. And for me, as a first year masters students, that spark Cone gave me changed my view of self as a scholar and as a person. It gave me confidence to engage my work differently, to dare. Put differently Dr. Cone tapped into that which was there all along, and pulled it to my center. And because of that I was never the same.
A few months later we were at the American Academy of Religion. Dr. Cone was going to deliver the Niebuhr lecture, and I spotted him outside the conference room preparing his notes. I asked if I could sit next to him and if he felt prepared for his address. He looked at me and said “I’m gonna light them up Jorge!” I ask why? And then Dr. Cone said as only Dr. Cone could, “because the academy thinks it’s incredible but it’s really just full of irrelevant bull shit! They talk about the poor and oppressed and don’t do anything to actually affect change outside these damn walls!” So I looked at him and jokingly say, “well, it looks like you’re going to light them up indeed Professor” and we just laughed. We sat for a few more minutes before he proceeded to light them up.
That exchange meant so much to me. It was simple, and funny in some ways, but it showed me so much about Dr. Cone. It showed me that even with the fame and notoriety, at the end of the day his heart was with his people. And because of that at a certain point he realized that freedom, or at least the potential for freedom, demands that we call bull shit, bull shit...
Months later I was with Dr. Cone in his apartment and he actually thanked me for sitting next to him that morning at AAR. He said having someone with him helped him reach deep into his voice. His comment felt so random because we were at his place to discuss my Ph.D. application. I had asked him to be one of my recommenders so he invited me over to talk about my academic interests. He told me to bring cheese and crackers to pair with white wine. I brought bravearían red and triscuits, which he loved so much that in the next few events he hosted he served *that* cheese. It was something we laughed about for months to come.
While in his apartment I told Dr. Cone about my interests in applying to history programs over theology, about the questions I had, about my dissertation ideas. And I’ll never forget that Dr. Cone looked at me and said “oh yes Jorge, you have to become a historian!” I remember being so thrown off that this world class theologian would say this. But he continued: “you have to become a historian because historians change the world.” For Dr. Cone, only those who truly understood the past could motivate others to change the present and, even more, to press the future. That’s why so much of his work was historical, examining the context before articulating a theology.
And Dr. Cone was extremely supportive of my application because he said I had found my voice—something which still means so much to me.
Like all of us, Dr. Cone was a complicated figure. He made mistakes—mistakes that affected people close to me—and had his own limitations in perspective. And also, when I met and developed a relationship with Dr. Cone, I encountered an individual who was reflective on his life and interested in pouring into the next generation. Dr. Cone was an inspiration for me personally, an individual who saw something in me and went out of his way to tap it out. And like me, I know there were others he fed with life. So for me, his loss isn’t just about losing a Professor whose class I once took. His loss is about losing a Professor who inspired me to greatness, and consistently walked alongside me, challenging me to never be trapped by the bull shit, to never forget my voice, and to make sure I changed the world.
Rest in power as you join the ancestors Dr. Cone. Thank you for inspiring so many of us to find our voice.