Three years ago, when Tejai Beulah's beloved and accomplished grandmother died, she had little idea that their last moments together would inspire her to find her own calling.
Beulah, who will receive her Master of Theological Studies degree from MTSO May 21, plans to pursue her Ph.D. at the Drew Theological School, aided by a full-tuition scholarship from Drew and a $20,000 Doctoral Fellowship through the Fund for Theological Education.
These remarkable honors cap three years at MTSO, a time marked by Beulah's persistence, flexibility and a rekindled passion for history.
Beulah is one of a growing number of MTSO graduates pursuing doctorates. Her fellow May graduate, Laura Pressley, has been accepted into Ohio University's Counselor Education Ph.D. program. Three other recent graduates are currently engaged in doctoral studies as well.
Beulah's studies begin this fall in the Historical Studies program within Drew's Graduate Division of Religion.
"I'll be looking at Christianity and race," she says. "I'll more than likely focus on 20th century studies in terms of looking at the Civil Rights movement."
She wrote her MTS thesis on Vernon Johns, who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and is considered the father of the Civil Rights movement.
"He is an unattractive character to talk about," Beulah says. "Vernon Johns was a very angry man. This man was born in 1892, and he was tired of hearing the same stories about black men being beaten by the police and black women being raped."
Beulah says the message Johns preached at Dexter Avenue in the late 1940s and early '50s made many of those who heard it – black and white – deeply uncomfortable. He believed the well-to-do African-Americans in his congregation were nonetheless shackled by their reliance on majority whites for their prosperity. He challenged them, Beulah says, "to throw off the shackles of oppression through farming. This offended them because they didn't want to have any semblance of anything that would make them look like slaves."
Beulah's study of Johns was enhanced by a trip to Montgomery on March, funded by MTSO's Student Enrichment Program. In Montgomery, she located an out-of-print collection of Johns's sermons. She eventually persuaded the owners to part with the book briefly, allowing her to photocopy the entire collection.
At Drew, Beulah says, "I will probably always try to blend my research within the areas of Civil Rights and religion." And she hopes to add to the body of knowledge about Johns, about whom surprisingly little has been written: "I know my thesis with him is not the end of my interaction with him."
Once she has earned her Ph.D., she says, "I would like to teach history in a seminary setting, and particularly African-American history."
Beulah speaks with a clear sense of vocational purpose and direction – something she's quick to point out wasn't always the case. A native of Youngstown, she earned an English degree from Xavier University, with minors in history and in gender and diversity studies. She followed that with master's degree in African-American and African studies at Ohio State University. But she was unsure what was next. In January 2008, not long after she earned her OSU degree, Beulah spent her 25th birthday with her grandmother, Ellen Young, a self-taught Baptist preacher.
During their visit, "she prayed for me, and she took her oil out and anointed my head and hands. And that was our last visit."
Young died that April, and as Beulah reflected on a regret of her grandmother's, she chose the next step in her own life.
"My grandmother never thought that she was a very smart woman," she says. "She never had the opportunity to go to seminary, so I said, 'I'm going to go to seminary.' I thought I was coming here to prepare for some sort of ministry, but I didn't know what sort of ministry."
Beulah earned a scholarship to MTSO and enrolled that fall as a Master of Divinity student. By the end of her first semester, though, she had serious doubts about the path she was on.
"I was preparing to leave," she says. But she decided to make the most of her scholarship by finishing out the school year. Among her second-semester classes was Church History I, taught by Professor Diane Lobody. And quickly, within that classroom, Beulah realized she had found her calling.
"I had a light come on, and I realized, 'Yes! History has always been it for me.'" She shifted her focus to the MTS program, and things fell into place.
"It's been full speed ahead since then."
Now Beulah looks forward to doctoral studies as she completes the seminary degree her grandmother never had the opportunity to pursue.
"Coming here was a way to honor her," she says, "but then I actually ended up finding myself."
Methodist Theological School in Ohio prepares transformational leaders of many faith traditions for service to the church and the world. MTSO offers master's degrees in divinity, counseling ministries, theological studies and practical theology, as well as a Doctor of Ministry degree. For more information, visit www.mtso.edu.
Danny Russell, director of communications