Dr. Gail Bowman: the incredible journey to Berea

Nov 13, 2012 2 Comments by

Gail E. Bowman grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, but both she and her older sister were born in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her father grew up in Des Moines, began his college work before World War II and was a Tuskegee airman during the war. But when he returned home newly married, and obtained his degree and teaching credentials, he was told that the school system In Des Moines would not be hiring any Negro teachers, veterans or otherwise. He found work teaching at Marshall College in Wiley, Texas; he and his wife moved there. Since the hospital near them in Texas was so unwelcoming in regard to Negro patients, he took his wife to her family home in West Virginia to have both of the children. After the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling in 1954, Bowman’s father was able to get a teaching job in the Des Moines system and the family moved north.

“So far as we know, at Emancipation, the Bowman family came off a plantation somewhere in Kentucky (!), moved west to work the soft coal mines in northern Missouri then moved north into Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota when those mines played out around the turn of the century. My grandfather was born in Iowa, and so was my dad. Only 2% of the population in Iowa is black. My sister and I were the only black kids in our elementary school classes. It was rough.”

One of the challenges of being a minority, then and now, was race-based assumptions. “When I was about 8 years old, my parents became concerned because my report cards from school reflected poorer performance than they could understand. They made an appointment to go talk to the people at school and were told I was simply not too bright. I didn’t hear about this until I was an adult. They just told me to keep working…hard.”

“As I grew older I began to appreciate my parents’ position — my family’s position — on the matter of race, of being black in America at that time. My parents were both well-educated and recognized that the nation was changing, and that there were opportunities in place that had never been there before. They felt a burden, whether it was ever expressed like this or not, that blacks in their position were building a bridge for others to cross over. Consequently, my sister and I were expected to behave ourselves, do well in school, and be above reproach.

“My closest association with other black kids came through church. At that time, going to church was something black people felt compelled to do for an assortment of reasons. But to be honest, I wasn’t buying it. There was this sign at the front of the church that said ‘God is Love.’ But that wasn’t the message I was hearing in the preaching. I was hearing that God was ticked off at us because of what we did. And the people teaching Sunday school couldn’t answer my questions, so beyond believing in God, I wasn’t sure what to think.”

After high school Bowman enrolled in the University of Iowa. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, though. While I was there I had seven different majors. My father was somewhat concerned about my numerous changes in major. One semester I took a course in Swahili and I remember getting a call from him: ‘What’s the matter? Aren’t they teaching French down there?’”

Three semesters deep in college, Bowman was at home when a friend of her father’s came for dinner and opened the subject of what she wanted to do after she graduated. He asked if she’d given law school any thought. When Bowman responded that the problem with that plan was that she would have to major in political science, he responded that she could just as easily major in history. She returned to school, began a history major, and later added a second major in political science.

“I did well on the LSAT exam and my dad and I discussed what law school I should attend. He asked if I’d considered Harvard. I said it had crossed my mind but the application fee was too expensive. He said, ‘If I pay, will you apply?’ and I said Why not? I ended up getting accepted.” However, a week before Bowman started law school at Harvard, the family got word that her mother had breast cancer.

“The entire time I was in Harvard Law School my mother was fighting a long and painful battle with cancer. At one point I confessed to my mother that I didn’t know if I should continue. But she was adamant. She made me promise that I would finish. And I did.” Bowman’s mother died in the fall after Bowman graduated.

Bowman chose Washington, D.C. as the place to practice law, working first for a small firm and then for the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Carter Administration. When the Democrats lost the Senate (Reagan election in 1980) all the Democratic staffers, including Bowman, lost their jobs. Bowman accepted a proposal of marriage and moved to Los Angeles to take the California bar exam and prepare for the wedding, but the relationship “crashed and burned.” She returned to Washington to look for work and try to put her life back together. She found a position on the House side of Capitol Hill and worked on several exciting initiatives, including the creation of the Martin Luther King national holiday. Then she began to recognize that all was not well with her.

“There were two events that I consider spiritual that set me on the path to ministry. The first was the suffering death of my mother. I was not able to get past that. The other was that I was not enjoying my work. I finally prayed what I did not then realize was a ‘dangerous’ prayer. I promised that if God told me what I should do with my life, I would do it. I had not thought, in my wildest dreams, that a ‘call’ to ministry was coming, but that’s what happened.”

At this point, Bowman was not even a member of a church. A friend put together a list of possible churches and Bowman began trying them, one at a time. “Finally, I walked into a church and knew immediately that I was in the right place. After the service I made an appointment to come back and talk to the minister. During that meeting I told him ‘I think I’ve been called to the ministry.’ He seemed pretty startled but then he asked if I’d been baptized and I said, ‘Of course. I was baptized in the AME church,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, that won’t do. You need to be baptized by immersion!’ When the scheduled date came around I showed up with my hair cut off very short. I didn’t want to have to try to keep my hair dry; I wanted to get completely wet. What I didn’t realize was that this church thought the long hair on a woman’s head is her ‘glory’ and I’d just defiled it. We proceeded when I confessed I was unaware of that passage. After the baptism the pastor sent me to his friend, Lawrence Jones, at the Howard University Divinity School. Dean Jones recommended that I apply; I did, and that’s where I ended up going.

“From the very first night, I loved divinity school. This is where all those questions I had asked in Sunday School were being answered. I really got my money’s worth, because I arrived not knowing much more than the 23rd Psalm, and that there are four Gospels. I enjoyed writing papers there. One professor asked me where I learned to write like that and I said ‘in law school.’ (Law school, I figure, is the perfect generic graduate school experience.) All in all, I was in seminary for four years because I started out part-time.”

After seminary, Rev. Gail E. Bowman could not find a job in the D.C. area. None of the black churches there hired female pastors. She ended up at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

“I enjoyed working there (PTS). I loved hanging out with the Presbyterians, but my job there was administrative and the President of the seminary told me I did it so well I’d probably never be given any other position there. So I started checking out all the appropriate papers for job openings. I had accumulated a big stack of periodicals in my office and was on the verge of sending them all to recycling when something made me yank one from the stack and flip through it one more time. I saw an ad from Spelman College in Atlanta (historically black, all female) — they were looking for a College Minister. The possibility of that was so exciting I couldn’t apply fast enough.” She ended up spending five years at Spelman.

“Then, during a change of administration at Spelman, a representative from Dillard University (historically black, co-ed) in New Orleans turned up in my office asking me to consider a move. It took two visits, but I finally did. New Orleans wasn’t an immediate hit with me but Dillard was. I adored it. By the end of that first year I began to ‘get’ New Orleans, and eventually identified it as the ‘home on earth’ I had always been looking for. Then, in 2001, we got one of the massive grants from Lilly, one of the PTEV’s (Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation), and we were set with funding to try all kinds of exciting initiatives.” Things went well until August of 2005.

“The Dillard campus, my home and the homes of lots of our staff and faculty were in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans which was completely inundated by flood water from the Katrina disaster. Here’s the most effective way I’ve heard of expressing the damage done to the university by the flood: Debris removal ALONE cost $25.9 million. We could not return to the city for four months. Many of us finally returned on December 16, 2005, moving into a downtown hotel that would serve as our campus for the next seven months. I had been told all was lost in our area; ‘throw your keys away.’ Coming on campus, I ran into some facilities people who told me my office was okay. So I found my keys, which I had not, thankfully, thrown away, and went in and the only thing that I saw different was a line of silt on the windowsill. The chapel itself was fine, it had not flooded. We had roof damage, but that was it. The chapel was the only building on campus that did not flood.”

“Having the chapel functional helped us a great deal in the months of rebuilding. We were able to have an outdoor graduation ceremony in July ’06 on campus by staging it out of the chapel. Of course, we had to set-up port-a-potties and fresh water because nothing was working. The landscaping was not the usual beautiful Dillard landscaping. But we were back."

Life on campus returned to normal very slowly. “In some ways, rebuilding the physical structure was easier than re-building our spirit. That was such a tough journey. Katrina posed huge issues for us theologically. Lots of folks voicing opinions in the mass media blamed the devastation on the sin of New Orleans. One of the things that offset that meanness was the enormous out-pouring of prayer and help. The help — the importance and the value of it — was indescribable.

“I love New Orleans. There are so many races of people there, and so much cultural exchange. Mardi Gras, with its peculiar history, is just one of many ways people have invented to be together and enjoy each other. I didn’t always go. Sometimes I just stayed at home and worked (I’m a writer on the side). But it felt so good knowing that, around me, my city was having a good time.”

On May 18, 2012, Rev. Gail E. Bowman, J.D., said good bye to Dillard University in an eloquent letter that can be read online (see link, below) and, a short time later, she appeared at Berea College and assumed the roles of Director of the Willis D. Weatherford, Jr. Campus Christian Center and College Chaplain.

“Berea is so interesting! There is so much to learn here. The community and what we are trying to do resonates with me because it brings together so many aspects of my life experience. Berea is race, it is history, it is possibility, it is quality; it’s Appalachia but it’s also the world. Our convictions require us to get along with each other differently than many other schools, and the struggle to live up to God’s expectations of us keeps us moving. This realization — that this was God’s project first — is part of what makes the Campus Christian Center central to the mission. Howard Thurman (African American theologian and author, favorite writer of Martin Luther King, Jr.) said ‘A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.’ The ideals of Berea, our commitments, are such a crown, and we in the CCC are honored that we have a role to play in the everyday and overall growth of this ‘beloved community.’”

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