When Valerie Bridgeman’s mother watched her playing with friends in rural Alabama in the 1960s and ’70s, she observed a sign of things to come.
“My mother used to say that I was the littlest thing on the playground, and I was the first to stand up for other kids who were being picked on,” Bridgeman said. “That must have been the start of my life as an activist.”
“My mother did very little talking about her faith, but she lived it out in very specific ways,” she said. “And all of her children in some ways are activists. It’s a commitment for us that’s grounded in faith and in the notion that to be a Christian is to participate in the changing of the world for the better.”
Bridgeman’s activism takes a number of forms. She participates regularly in demonstrations, including several in Ferguson, Mo., over the past year. While participating in a recent demonstration in Ferguson, Bridgeman relied on her well-known role as a preacher to lead those gathered.
“I didn’t lead a chant because those people didn’t know me as a voice. I led song and prayer because people in the church know me as a ritualist and a worship leader.”
Along with her fierce commitment to social justice, Bridgeman brings a reputation as respected and sought-after preacher to the classrooms of MTSO. A visiting faculty member since early 2014, she was appointed associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible effective July 1 of this year.
Prior to coming to MTSO, Bridgeman was a tenured associate professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary. She also is the founding president and CEO of WomanPreach! Inc., a nonprofit organization that instructs preachers in speaking about issues of equity and justice both in the pulpit and in the public arena.
“Dr. Bridgeman is known broadly for her prophetic voice regarding important issues for the church and the world. I expect she will help those we’re preparing for ministry to find their voices as well,” said MTSO President Jay Rundell.
Bridgeman approached the opportunity to teach at MTSO cautiously at first.
“I was reticent, to say the least, to be in a mostly white environment and in a rural one, too,” she said. “But I can honestly say that this faculty, staff and administration are the most collegial people I’ve ever been around. During my time here, the community opened up to me, welcomed me, and made me believe that my voice, my teaching, my passion for the church, my scholarship, and my activism fit who and how this institution is.”
Bridgeman chuckled that she finds herself in the Greater Columbus area at a seminary that includes a certified organic farm:
“I’m a city person. I couldn’t wait to get off the farm, and here I am back on a farm at MTSO.”
Bridgeman’s commitment to teaching and living out her social justice principles are always at the forefront of her thoughts as she weaves together her background and her current thinking.
“I’m a black woman from the South,” she said. “But there are some privileges associated with my life. I’m an educated black woman with a middle-class income. Poor and often people of color – but not just people of color – who are outside of power structures move me. I really believe that none of us is free until all of us are free.”
“I truly believe that we are in a web of relationships,” she said. “If my success is based on the oppression of someone else’s success, then my success is not really success at all. And the inequities in our world, both as a Christian and as an educator, I am bound to both expose and oppose. That’s my work, and I feel very much called to it.”
After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Seminary, Bridgeman graduated from Baylor with a Ph.D. in biblical studies with a concentration in Hebrew Bible and secondary studies in ethics. At Baylor, she realized she wanted to be part of an institution that truly valued teaching, not just research.
“I felt called to train the church’s leaders. And I don’t mean to train just the church’s pastors, but to train people who represent and who together can be representatives of God and the earth. For me, the training of leaders for the act of service or the work of ministry has to do with helping people see God’s ‘What if,’ to help people see beyond what they’ve always seen, to think beyond what they’ve always thought, to have a holy imagination.”
“My activism is always about what are we paying attention to right now, right where we are,” she said. “I see folks traveling to help poor people in Africa when there are poor people right around the corner from their church who they disdain.”
“And as for students, the song line that I quote to them all the time is from the movie Sister Act: ‘If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention,’” she said. “But for me it’s not even the ‘be somebody or go somewhere’ part of that line. It’s the paying attention,” she said.
The need to pay attention infuses her teaching in other ways.
“When I’m teaching a biblical text, I tell students, ‘We’re going to doing something radical here. We’re going to read the text,’” she said. “There’s a perception that if you’re progressive and liberal, you don’t take the Bible seriously. I’m like, ‘We take the Bible really seriously here.’ Whether you are preaching it, or you are studying it from a biblical interpretive point of view, or whether I’m teaching Hebrew Bible, or whether I’m teaching preaching, the text has in it the ability to force you to see. Then you have to make ethical decisions. You have to pay attention.”
President Rundell believes that the MTSO campus will be paying attention to Bridgeman in important ways over the coming years.
“Dr. Bridgeman brings a special blend of scholarship, creativity and energy to our campus and the world around us,” Rundell said. “She is just the disruption we need.”
Methodist Theological School in Ohio prepares leaders of many faith traditions for lives of lasting significance in service to the church and the world. In addition to the Master of Divinity degree, the school offers master’s degrees in counseling ministries, theological studies and practical theology, along with a Doctor of Ministry degree.
Danny Russell, director of communications