Is it a sermon? Donyelle McCray on blurry line between sacred and profane

Donyelle McCray is Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Yale Divinity School and a fellow in Yale University’s soon-to-open Pauli Murray College. This semester, she taught a class titled “Is it a Sermon?” In this interview, Prof. McCray answers questions about the class, Pauli Murray, and the path that led her to the faculty of YDS.

Please tell us about the “Is it a sermon?” class and how it came to be.

Our class is about exploring the boundaries of the sermon genre. We are putting the sermon in conversation with a host of other genres like music—both instrumental and vocal—but also visual art, dance, testimony, even quilting. There is historical precedent for some of these pairings. For example, the Negro Spirituals are sung sermons. And, the medieval English conception of a sermon was fluid enough to include drama, poetry, letters, treatises, and commentaries. The primary aim of this course is to return to this fluidity and see what preachers can learn from people who proclaim the gospel through these other methods. 

One of the assignments for the term is to compose a genre-bending sermon. These sermons have been incredibly imaginative. Students have preached messages that incorporated singing, evocative images, instrumental music, dance, storytelling, and paintings. One person even drew on a budget. Everyone has been willing to go deep and the sermons have been unusually holistic. We usually need some silent time or a full break in order to decompress after the sermons because they are so intellectually and emotionally demanding.

You have keen interest in what you refer to as the blurry boundary between the sacred and profane. Why does that interest you. and how does the idea relate to your conceiving of and teaching this sermon course?

A couple years ago I wrote a short essay entitled, “Sweating, Spitting, and Cursing: Intimations of the Sacred.” I was curious about the domestication of holy speech. Preaching tends to be a highly censored endeavor. There’s tremendous pressure to make one’s message palatable to others and sometimes it can be difficult to flow with the Spirit. This issue often arises in a preacher’s inner dialogue. During the composition process preachers sometimes ask, “Can I say that? Will it upset people?” The task of faithfully articulating the gospel and being sure the more demanding aspects of the message will actually be received by listeners is a delicate art. I was not focused on the sacred-profane dynamic when I designed the “Is it a Sermon?” course, but the issue has come up repeatedly. We’ve had some thoughtful discussions about whether some of the sermons preached in class fit standard conceptions of sacred speech.

Pauli Murray is someone we are thinking about these days at Yale. It’s fascinating to know that you are a fellow in the new Pauli Murray College at Yale—and you  are working on a book about her. Why are you—and, apparently, more and more people in the academy and public—interested in Pauli Murray?

There is a lot of fascination with Pauli Murray these days. I believe it was Susan Ware who said that when historians try to make sense of the twentieth century and reflect on the core issues of civil rights, feminism, sexuality, law, and religion, “all roads will lead to Pauli Murray.” She’s such a firecracker of a person. I’m intrigued by her nerve, her quirks, her resilience, and the way her faith evolves over the course of her life. … I’m glad there’s so much interest, though I also find it tragic that the world was not ready for her brilliance during her life time. My book is on Pauli’s risk-taking. We are living in a historical moment that is demanding faithful risk-taking, and Pauli is a great model.

You have such an interesting background, having worked as a lawyer and chaplain before pursuing the academic career path. How do those experiences contribute to and influence your teaching and scholarship today?

Hopefully those experiences make me more willing to experiment. And, hopefully, I’m also more aware of the fact that my students’ vocations will evolve over time. When I was practicing law, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d go to seminary and become a chaplain. And when I was a hospice chaplain I couldn’t anticipate that I’d become a professor. I want to teach skills that will be applicable for students in a range of settings. I had some extraordinary teachers who did that for me.

But you had another question, “How did my experiences shape me as a teacher and scholar?” Well, practicing law taught me a good deal about research and exploring issues from multiple angles. Yet, even as a lawyer I spent a lot of time explaining the law to my clients. In that respect, I was also a teacher. As a hospice chaplain, I learned the importance of compassionate presence. Part of my role was to listen and receive and be a witness for patients and their families. In hospice, we had to be intentional about tuning into what really mattered because we couldn’t take the next appointment for granted. We had to treat each encounter as if it might be the last. My experience with hospice has an impact on the kind of questions I ask in doing research. It also shapes the kind of space I try to cultivate in the classroom. I want to create a nest where students feel free to experiment and take risks, and I want them to have a real stake in the sermons they preach. None of this can happen if students don’t also feel valued so I work to make that respect clear from the start.   

What would you say to prospective students about this community and what it’s like to study at YDS?

When I came to YDS I expected academic rigor, but I was pleasantly surprised at how loving the community is. The warmth I experience here makes it easier to teach and do research. I also enjoy worshipping with students and staff from a range of different traditions. I’m reminded of how big the church is and how much variety there is in human spirituality. Those reminders probably enhance my work but they are also just joyful.

May 10, 2017