Norbert Wilson

Norbert Wilson

Continuing our series, Essential Questions with Duke Divinity Faculty, join host Todd Maberry for a meaningful conversation with Rev. Dr. Norbert Wilson (Professor of Food, Economics, and Community), which took place during the summer of 2020. Listen in as they discuss faith, scholarship, what it is like to be human in a COVID-19 world, and that one time Dr. Wilson experienced the perfect cup of coffee. This interview was recorded in separate locations due to the physical distancing required at the time.

Here is a visual of the Duke University motto that is found carved into stone on Duke’s West Campus:

shield with logo west campus

The motto “Eruditio et Religio” most probably originated from a Methodist hymn by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Titled “Sanctified Knowledge” in the contemporary pre Civil War hymnal, the third stanza begins “Unite the pair so long disjoined, Knowledge and vital piety . . . .”

Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.

Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast. The podcast that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School community. I am Todd Maberry, your host for this episode, as well as the 2006 M.Div. grad and current senior director of admissions, recruitment and student finance. This episode is a part of a series called "Essential Questions with Divinity Faculty." Joining me for this conversation is Dr. Norbert Wilson, Professor of Food, Economics, and Community here at the Div School. His scholarly background is in agricultural economics and his research explores food issues such as access, choice and food waste. He has served as an economist and a policy analyst, and he continues to work on food safety and quality issues and international trade and domestic food systems. His work also explores equity and food access and health. In addition to his academic work and food issues, Dr. Wilson is also an ordained vocational deacon in the Episcopal Church USA. Please enjoy this heartfelt conversation with Norbert Wilson. Dr. Wilson, thank you for taking time to have this conversation with me. I've really been looking forward to it. I think you're a fascinating person and I've been eagerly anticipating this conversation.


Dr. Norbert Wilson: Wow thank you.


TM: I want to start by getting to know a little bit about your background and the people that are important to you. All of us in life need people to support us and love us, encourage us and mentor us. So, I'm curious who is the person or maybe the persons who are most responsible for you being where you are today.


NW: There are so many people who have poured into my life. I could not be here if it were not for my parents. Obviously, I grew up in rural Georgia and my parents were schoolteachers. Actually, I come from a long line of schoolteachers or at least many schoolteachers in my family. Most of my aunts and uncles are schoolteachers on one side of my family. And then my grandmother was a schoolteacher. And so, they instilled in me the importance of education. There was never a question about going to college. And so, I'm appreciative to them in terms of education, but it wasn't just my parents and my extended family. It was also the church community where I grew up. I attended Sardis Baptist Church, which is a National Baptist church in Dawson. And that church taught me how to speak. And that is to say that there were always, at that church and my grandmother's church, they were the ones that taught me about how to give Easter speeches and how to project and how to stand before a crowd and how to organize a gathering. And so, I learned importance if you will soft skills from those institutions. Another institution that was important for me or a group of people was I was active in the 4-H Club.


TM: Oh nice.


NW: And it was important to me. And I'm indebted to that program the Georgia Cooperative Extension systems service and what they were able to provide me again, giving me the confidence. I grew up in rural Georgia in a predominantly black community. I went to an all-black school and 4-H actually gave me an opportunity to interact with people who weren't black and to help me to understand that I can be in these mixed settings and not only be okay, but that I could thrive. And that's not to say there aren't challenges, there weren't problems, but that was an important thing. So, if I may, that's my secular education. And I’ve got to say, in terms of my spiritual growth and development I have to say I'm so indebted to many pastors and family members in particular, I can on all saints day, I often reflect upon the Christian education that I received from my grandmother. It makes me think of Timothy and his grandmother. And my understanding of salvation started from her. And my mother was obviously a part of it, but I remember the yellow children's Bible study books that she had, she had like this series and had these stories. And there was this presentation of Jesus on the cross that still is with me. And I learned at a really young age, that there was this person named Christ or Jesus, Jesus the Christ who gave up everything so that I may live. When I think of my understanding of salvation, it has deep roots in that moment.


TM: That's wonderful. And what's your grandmother's name?


NW: Her name is, she passed, but her name was Ruby Dean Weston.


TM:  That's a great name. You've named that faith is an important part of your life and background. I think you're also ordained as a vocational deacon, in the Episcopal Church now.


NW:  Yes.


TM:  Was there a moment in your life where you experienced overwhelmingly the presence of God?


NW: Oh wow. That question made me just send a chill through me. The times that I have had the presence of God, it's been more this feeling after the moment. It was like I was in the middle of something. And then I take a step away from that moment. And I look back and I realize, oh my gosh, oh my, there was very special about that time. And I'm deeply appreciative. I'll give you one example of that. When I was in graduate school, when I was working on my PhD, I really had hurdles of the faith. I wasn't sure what I believed? The why I believe? What I believed? I had been taught and I had this, if you will, almost historical knowledge of Jesus. I believe that there was a person that was named Jesus that lived and had died on a cross. Kind of like the way I thought that there was a historical figure named Abraham Lincoln, who had done certain things. But that historical person wasn't always clear to me at that moment, at least what that meant. And so, one of the things that I remember there was a college pastor that I got to know when I was in graduate school. His name is Dave Montoya, who if I may say other people who were important, Dave Montoya was one of these people. He would have office hours, which was kind of the way he kind of thought about it. So, I met with him a couple of times. And what I appreciated about talking with Dave was that he didn't try to push me on to Jesus. He didn't try to resolve the problem. He just allowed me to talk. And we would meet, I remember this place at UC Davis, and I took my family there just this past fall. I remember sitting on those benches with him, and I tell you that to say, I reflect and realize those were moments when God was with not just me, but with us. That those conversations were rich and meaningful and giving. That it wasn't just the two of us. That God was with us. And I am so appreciative of that person and Dave to be open. And that God was speaking, I think, through him, and there are moments that I would go back to that place, that physical place and I wasn't alone. And so no, I can't speak of earth shattering of some major miracle that something fell apart and oh but it's that quiet voice. Yeah.


TM:  Yeah. I've often found in my life how you often look back and then you can see that the presence of God was there.


NW:  Yeah.


TM:  Which it sounds like it was in those conversations. I want to shift and talk a little bit about your scholarship. Your scholarship is in agricultural economics.


NW:  Yes.


TM:  And if you had to explain your scholarship to a person without any educational training in a couple of minutes, what do you say?


NW:  Oh wow, I love the way you asked that question, because I thought you were going to say, how would I explain it to a divinity student, which I'm trying to figure that out.


TM:  I am going to ask about that. I'm going to get to that.


NW: I would say the thing that I do is I am interested in the choices that people make. I want to understand the choices that people make, particularly around food and nutrition. And so I am an agricultural economist, but that means I am looking at not just agriculture and farming, but I look at the foods that people eat, how they fit into their lives, how they make choices, given that there are economics behind. That there is money part of it, but it's also about preferences and how preferences play out. I've been intrigued by how various factors can shape our decision-making context. If you were nudged, how the world around us helps us make decisions. And that we're not- well I do believe we have free will and that we have choices that our choices are being shaped by so many other factors. And it's trying to unearth those that I'm really intrigued by.


NW:  Yeah. And so along those lines then with your background in economics and policy, like why the shift to theological education, and I want to hear from you, what is the story of how you came to Duke?


NW:  Oh, wow yeah. So, it was an interesting one. I would say I had never thought that this would be the case. I never considered this. I guess Wylin was recruited, but when they learned about my wife, Wylin was recruited, they learned about me. And they realized that I worked on food and nutrition issues. And they said, this could be the Dean said, "This could be a really interesting thing." I knew of Norman Wirzba's work in food and faith. And they thought wow this could be an interesting way of extending the work of the Divinity school. And at first, I was like, "Oh, come on." And then I realized, wait a minute, this could be smart. Because here's the thing that I think, I hope that I'm able to contribute. We're going to be around a group of folks who are interested in carrying the word of God to the community. And an overriding thing throughout scriptures is this idea of meeting the needs of the poor. Of course, one of the most important images that we have of Jesus is the last supper. But another related one is the feeding of the multitude, depending on which version and how many people were there and all that. But the idea of feeding people is so critical. You can't read through much of the scriptures without running into food and agriculture in some form. So, there's a very natural place for someone like me to be here. But on the other side and thinking about the training of seminarians or people in the divinity school who are going out to into the world, they're going to be facing food ministries. They're going to be facing communities that are in need in some form. And trust me every community is need, even if they're not financially in need, there's a deep need. And so, the question is how do we train pastors to help meet those needs? While I believe in scripture and scriptures are important, folks need to have some training in policy. To understand the world that they're dealing with. I hope that in the work that I do here, that I'm able to raise the consciousness of not only pastors but of people who come through Duke Divinity with an intention of never being a pastor, to be able to engage civil society, to engage the nonprofit sector in a way that is informed through scripture, but also informed by the policies and the realities of people working and living through the challenges that they're trying to address. And so, my hope is that able to raise that consciousness, help people understand policy in a productive way, and to figure out a way of how do we effectively communicate in the public square? Not just coming out of our theological understanding but informed by a theological understanding to do with the policies that are there. And that's a delicate balance. It can go wrong quickly, but I want to make sure that, the students that I have the sort of touch on, if you will, the ones that interact are able to articulate and critically assess and not become policy analyst, I'm trying to create a communist in the Div school. But I want them to understand that. And I realized that coming into Div School and having interacted with folks, I realized my training is in a particular way. And I realized that there is a critique of capitalism and a critique of markets and a get that I fully understand it, but I also know that markets have some benefits. And so how do we balance that? How do we help people navigate that in a way that is truly informed by the realities that we live in, but that is productive? How do we come up with our constructive view of this world? We're not going to suddenly become- we're not going to get away from markets in the world that we know. Unless, I mean hey the pandemic is shifting things in major ways. But I think we must be able to negotiate that. We must negotiate the policy settings that we're in. And I hope that I can train pastors and people who may be, who do not go into the pastorate but who are working in civil society, how to think about and how to understand some of those issues in productive ways.


TM:  That's wonderful. I'm really looking forward to seeing how your scholarship intersects and collaborates with Norman Wirzba and Ellen Davis and others. And I can't wait to see what type of coursework you come up with for our students. And I'm looking forward to hearing how students interact with you. Along those lines of being a teacher scholar. Can you describe a time when you felt alive when you felt energized?


NW:  Oh wow. Okay. That's a good question. I'll tell you a time that I realized, and this is going to be funny to say, when I realized I was human. And in the most wonderful way. And it was at the birth of my daughter and it was not just the birth, but it was the process of being with my wife during the pregnancy. And the thing that it made me realize was I am just another human being and that for generations upon generations of humans, two people have gone through this experience of seeing a baby grow inside the mother and the fears and the worries that every parent has experienced. We experienced that. And the excitement and the fear and the anticipation. We were passing through a way that many people have gone through before, and that many people will go through after us. And that we were, in some ways, it was so beautiful to know that we were just regular people. And I don't want to sound funny when I say it, but I'm just saying, I just realized just how common and basic that experience is. And I realized there are plenty of folks who will never have kids and/ or who don't want kids and for whatever reason I get that. I'm not trying to take anything from their experience, but I'm just saying, I just realized what that was and just how humbling it was, that experience was. And then to see this little person come out, who I was responsible for. Holy moly. What was I supposed to do with this thing? And yet I had just such a deep desire to make sure that she knew she was loved and that she needed me. And so, for all those experiences, this sort of the basicness of that experience, I knew I was human. And by that, I also knew I was alive. And so, I hope yeah. So again, maybe outside of what this being, I realize that can be complicated. I understand that not everyone has the experience of having a kid. I realize families can be lots of different things, and I'm not trying to limit it to one thing, but that was my experience of being, and I'm thankful for that.


TM:  Yeah that's beautiful. Thanks for sharing that. Along the way as being an educator and a scholar, I'm assuming there's been moments when you wanted to quit. Do you remember any of those or any moments of struggle?


NW:  So, I would say our times right now have been quite challenging. And the pandemic and the shift to online education, to working at home with our family or community, however people are working at home. I must admit rather that there have been times I have wanted to give up particularly over the last couple of months. Because the line between work and family life and personal life have been the lines rather have been so blurred. There's not a natural place to be one thing at one time, we're having to be dad and researcher and husband and church member all at one time in one place in the same place. And I feel it's exhausting.


TM:  Yeah.


NW:  And then layering on top of that. I will say the issues of race as we've been dealing with them. Lots of people have been coming to me asking about my opinions about race. What can we do? And while I'm appreciative of the ally-ship that people are expressing, I'm also aware that we've had problems in this country for, well since our founding. And so, the awareness of race now is a little disconcerting because it's always existed. On the other side, I believe that we are really concerned about these things right now, and we want to solve this problem. But once the pandemic is over and our lives go back to some sense of normalcy, and I'm sure we won't be the same compared to where we were before, but I don't know if this urge, this fire to address racial inequalities and racial injustices or if it will go through a different phase and it will just be something else. And so, I say that to say, I'm not giving up, but I'm aware of the wear that this is putting on me. And there are times that I was like I could just drop out and do something else. But I realized that's not the call that I have. And that's not the call that any of us have right now. It's not to just give up, not to turn away from this. We've got to put on and not just put on, we've got to live in the calling that we have. And we're going to have to face some - we're going to have to deal with some difficult issues, but we're not going to be a better people unless we are open and willing to go through those difficult times. So I guess where I'll end up with this is that, yeah there are times over the last several months that I have wanted to do just walk away from it all, but I'm so grateful that I've got an amazing wife. A loving set of parents and in laws who are there to encourage. And none of us are here on our own. And I'm so grateful for so many people. Yeah, it's funny. It's been a challenge, but I'm so blessed to have so many people who love me. And I hope this doesn't sound egotistical to say, I have people love me, but I do. And it's so wonderful to know that I am loved, I am loved. And I am the amazing blessing to be able to love other people. And so, with all that said, I can't give up.


TM: Yeah.


NW:  I can't, I can't. And nor can you Todd. Let me say this, the fact that you were willing to hear these conversations you're in this, and you're going to hear more conversations with the new folks coming in. And there is something about being the listener and taking in these stories and you're going to you have to work with them and create the narrative that makes sense. And that means you're a part of our stories. And so, I just say you can't give up either because our stories are important. We're just a couple of faculty members who are new in there you're listening to it, but the narrative creation that you're a part of is vital. So, I'm appreciative of what you're doing. And I hope that you understand your role in this process.

I hope that doesn't come off as pedantic or paternalistic but I'm thankful for storytellers and so thank you for what you're doing.


TM:  I appreciate you sharing that. And I resonate with a lot of what you're saying specifically around the blurred lines that we're experiencing this moment. So, I appreciate you being willing to share that. I think many people listening to this will also resonate with how beautifully you said that. I want to end with something fun. This is a lightning round where I'm just going to throw out some questions about tastes and preferences and just one- or two-word answer.


NW: Okay.


TM:  We've been going deep here. We can keep this last part light. So, I'm curious, are you an early bird or night owl?


NW:  Early bird


TM:  And I think along those lines I did some research and I've learned that you love a good cup of coffee.


NW:  Oh yeah


TM:  And you've even published an analysis of coffee quality and prices.


NW:  Yeah.


TM:  So, what is your ideal cup of coffee?


NW: Oh boy I mean see you wanted short answers. You can't get a short answer from me on that. But you know what I really do love. And because of the pandemic, I haven't really been able to do this. I love going to a good coffee shop and getting a well-done cappuccino made. Or let me tell you the best cup of coffee I've ever had in my whole life. I got to tell you that. So, I got invited, this is not a short answer. I got invited to the SCAA this Specialty Coffee Association of America. They had a big event and that year it was in Seattle. They have baristas throughout the center. I mean, everywhere. And I went to this one place and I ordered, and I typically don't do this, I got an espresso. And I was still learning to appreciate coffee. So, I got an espresso. And the gentleman behind the barista that I had; he was Danish. I have a dear friend who's from Denmark. And I spent a Christmas in Denmark and just had this amazing time there. And so, he made me an espresso. I never had an espresso that had the level of complexity of flavor that I had in that one espresso. I mean, there was a citrus lemon flavor that kind of came through and it just blossomed as I drank it. I was taken away. I was like, "Oh my gosh this is what a cup of coffee ought to taste like." And I looked at, because they have a name tag and I can't remember his name right now, but it had his country of origin. And that's how I knew he was from Denmark. And I said “tak skal du have”, and he looked at me and he kind of laughed. And I said, "We are brothers we are here in this together." And he just said okay move on. But he was very kind. It was a beautiful moment. That was not the short answer, but oh yeah.


TM:  Actually, I've never had a cup of coffee and that's a story for another time. And you've made me want to try it.


NW: We'll, take baby steps with that.


TM: What's a book that you've read recently?


NW: Oh gosh - oh, oh yeah. I'm trying to think of a book that I have read recently that was- it wasn't the most recent book, but it was a book that I really found phenomenal was The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, I think is her last name. And she just came out with a new book that just got me. My God, what a great book. It's about the great migration of African Americans leaving the south and going to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Phenomenal, great book.


TM:  Are you a dog or a cat person?


NW: Neither. I've never had a pet.


TM:  Neither is fine too.


NW: Yeah neither.


TM: What's the last movie that you saw?


NW:  I don't know if it would count as a movie. My family we just watched Hamilton.


TM:  Hamilton counts.


NW:  Okay, Hamilton.


TM: Hamilton counts. It's on Disney+


NW:  Yeah that's the only reason we got Disney+. We're going to get rid of it. My daughter loves it though. Well Disney+ and Hamilton.


TM:  Duke basketball, UNC basketball, or you don't care about basketball.


NW:  I can't answer this any other way than Duke basketball.  Because I know who pays me.


TM: That's a right answer. What's some recent music that you've heard?


NW:  Oh, okay. So, I'm going to stick with Hamilton. I mean the soundtrack is pretty darn awesome.


TM: Yeah Hamilton counts. Last one. What would you say is a guilty pleasure?


NW:  Oh goodness I love dark chocolate and I have like a couple of bars in the refrigerator and that's it? I don't know


TM:  Do you share


NW:  No, no, nothing- I mean a good mocha can be nice, but I don't like sweet coffee. So no, I drink coffee black. But oh yeah dark chocolate. But I can honestly say maybe that's not a guilty pleasure because of there are some nutrients and good things in chocolate that are good for our hearts. So, is it guilty? Maybe.


TM:  Well Norbert, I really appreciate this. I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and I'm so glad that you're a part of the Duke Divinity School community. And I look forward to interacting with you in the future.


NW:  Todd it has been such a pleasure. You asked great questions and you gave space, and it was such a warm environment. And I'm telling you that the quality of your voice coming through good. So, I can't wait to meet you one day. So, thank you for this time.


TM: Hopefully there is a day in the future where people meet in real life.


NW: I hope so, too. Well it's been a pleasure, my friend.


TM:  All right. All the best.


NW:  All the best.


TM: Thanks for joining us on the Divcast. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can send us your feedback and questions by emailing us at Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix, sound design is by Brandon Holmes, special thanks to Evelyn Archer and Leah Reed, both M.Div. 2021 for working on the foundation of this podcast and providing research help. Our music is from Christian DaPonte M.Div. 2021. We will always end the Divcast with a Div Did You Know? Which is a fact or an interesting aspect about Duke Divinity School that you may or may not know. Did you know that Duke Divinity School was founded in 1926 as the first graduate school at Duke and was originally called the School of Religion? I hope you'll join us again for the next Divcast.