A Portrait of Elaine Heath

I WORK REALLY HARD to recognize my place in this world. I am a white, cis-gender male with an interesting connection to history. But before all that came to light I was at a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. That’s why I’m writing today, out of great concern for the institution where I laughed with friends, I cried over papers, and ultimately found God amidst the mess. To say that any divinity school experience is easy is a frivolous pursuit, but to say that Duke’s engagement with theology is easy is absurd. You see Duke Divinity has always been a place of diversity of thought, culture, and personalities. As far back as I can remember I have always seen Duke as a place where this was addressed in healthy, and sometimes not so healthy ways. I was excited when Dean Elaine Heath took the helm when I was in seminary, I thought it would be a chance for progression of thought and forward momentum for an institution I deeply love.

Now we’re here, two years since taking the helm at Duke Divinity School she is being replaced by Greg Jones, a former dean who prides himself on “traditioned innovation.” While I reached out to Dean Jones and committed to pray for his success and for the success of Duke, I feel like we are either going back to the future or forward to the past. For those who claimed Elaine was “a puppet for white males to control” I can assure you that was not the case. In fact, those who sought protection for themselves and other groups might soon find it worse off than where we once were. Just ask LGBTQ graduates who studied during 1997-2010.

Elaine Heath was a Godsend to Duke and we didn’t know how to handle it. We did not know how to receive the gifts and graces she had because we were guilty of being a complacent institution with poor dynamics of communication and transparency. These facts are not Elaine’s fault, and to suggest they are part of her doing is preposterous.

Out of all this, none of us, alumni, students, faculty, and staff win in this debacle. We may find ourselves deeper in the hole of institutional decline because we failed to recognize the gifts of someone who wanted to help us be better. That’s the problem with Duke University Divinity School: We live in our own bubble.

Let me tell you a story about Elaine Heath. It was a year ago this month that I turned my resignation in to a North Carolina church and found myself at the center of a firestorm of epic proportions. Elaine was the first from Duke Divinity’s faculty to reach out to me and offer support and prayers. I will never forget sitting in the entryway of my condo in Boone where I lived at the time with tears streaming down my face as she prayed for my wife and I as we navigated new and uncertain territory.

She endorsed my book, she listened carefully to people, and most importantly she fought for the wellbeing of students whether those students know it or not. She did so much “behind the scenes” work that wasn’t appreciated. After a hospital stay for my bipolar disorder she was instrumental in re-integrating me to the community with prayers and fervent support. For that I will be forever grateful.

I didn’t always agree with her, but I trusted that the God who called her was completing a good work in her and with our institution. It’s sad to see that Duke didn’t recognize that as well. It’s sad to see that we are moving away from a beloved albeit shattered community and further toward institutional brokenness that so many places of higher learning have succumb to. We can and must be better. We can and should be more careful to place blame without knowing the facts behind the walls of the ivory tower. We are Duke after all, and lest we become another historical site for those who wish to study the history of religion, we must trust that God was working through Elaine Heath for a better and more brighter future. On behalf of a broken body of alumni, students, faculty, and staff, I’d like to echo the refrain I’ve heard time and time again from countless places: Thank you Dean Heath, you have no idea the difference you made.

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