Drs. Andrew and Gladys Willis: Two dreams come true

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One a founder of the Urban Theological Institute, and the other a graduate of the seminary initiative, have both achieved significant academic dreams during 46 years of married life

The Rev. Dr. Andrew Willis“It’s been a dream come true to see the Urban Theological Institute (UTI) at the seminary become such a success,” said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Willis, co-founder of UTI some 35 years ago with friend and colleague the late Rev. Randolph Jones, a United Methodist pastor. “The idea had a lot of critics, and many thought it would never work.”

Willis, now Auxiliary Bishop for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in its Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Jurisdiction, as well as serving as pastor of Redemption Church, 40th and Broad Streets in Philadelphia, well recalls believing in the UTI concept with Jones for several years. “Many African American pastors were successful, serving as pastors while they frequently held regular jobs. They needed and wanted an accredited education where they could study part-time, evenings and weekends, while they continued to work and lead their congregations.”

The challenge facing Willis and Jones was to find a reputable school that would share in their dream. Initially they were rebuffed by  schools they approached. Then they were encouraged to contact The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, (LTSP), a school they had never heard much, if anything, about. They made an appointment with LTSP’s then Dean Faith Rohrbough.

“We were surprised to see how cordial and open she was to our idea,” Willis recalled. “There were a lot of questions, of course, and it took a year to sort them all out. They wondered if there were enough students out there not of Lutheran background, not of the race of the majority of students, who would enroll at the campus. But eventually we began advertising, and they [African American students] began coming in,” recalled Willis. UTI classes started in the 1980-81 academic year. For many years, Willis’ chief UTI role was to be chief recruiter. He has also taught Christian Education and Church Polity in the program.

Willis said part of the success of UTI is “that students really have respected each other. Not everyone who enrolled passed. It’s been a demanding program academically. It is not a two-track system where the academic expectations have been different from those of traditional day students. Everyone gets the same degree.” Many “traditional” white seminarians have found  their perspectives enriched by studying alongside their peers in UTI classes.

Willis noted an outgrowth program of UTI called “Preaching with Power,” initiated two years after UTI’s founding, “went a long way toward putting UTI on the map.” Conducted for a week every March, the annual “Preaching with Power” invites noted African American preachers to guest pulpits off campus for memorable sermons. Each sermon is followed by a teaching afterglow during which guests and students ask the preacher about the sermon’s development. In the process, they may hear about UTI for the first time.

The Rev. Dr. Gladys WillisWillis’s spouse of 46 (almost 47) years, the Rev. Dr. Gladys J. Willis, has shared a UTI role as well, but a different one. Dr. Gladys Willis was heading the English Department at Lincoln University when she decided to fulfill an ambition and dream to seek ordination in the Church of God in Christ by first earning professional ministry credentials from UTI.  (Dr. Gladys Willis already held a PhD from Princeton University.) A challenge was that COGIC did not at the time ordain women.

Gladys Willis said it was a challenge “to move from the head of the class to the one being taught in such a program. It humbled me quite a bit.” She recalled attending her first class, in systematic theology, with Prof. George Thompson. “I entered that class with trepidation because I saw so many men in the room. Later a couple of women joined in.” She said she needn’t have been concerned. “Dr. Thompson and other colleagues provided me with some of the richest moments of my life in the way they conducted classes that were usually filled.” She recalled fondly classes taught by all of her professors, including many from the LTSP faculty familiar to traditional day students of the time. “[The late] Professor John H.P. Reumann always brought a stack of books to class to teach us New Testament. He was an excellent teacher. So were faculty members Dr. Robin Mattison (New Testament, retired), Dr. Robert B. Robinson (Old Testament), and Dr. Robert Bornemann (Old Testament, d. 2009). They gave so much to the program, and their teaching was not watered down in any way.”

She recalled her fellow students, from different traditions and often without much in the way of exchange in the regular world, “were truly cordial and wonderful to each other in the classroom. We had debates in and outside of the classroom. Our classes were like little families in the way we supported each other.”  She completed her studies in 1996.

In September, 1988, Gladys Willis fulfilled her dream of becoming ordained in COGIC. She now serves as assistant pastor at Redemption Church, alongside her husband.

Read remarks about Preaching with Power from
UTI co-founder the Rev. Dr. Andrew Willis and
UTI Director the Rev. Dr. Quintin Robertson

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