Dr. Wylin D. Wilson (Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics) is one of the faculty members who joined Duke Divinity School in 2020-2021 academic year. She joins us to tell stories including about how the highest value of an education is the ability to learn to serve others, disparities in healthcare access in rural America, reasons why it might be okay to move to Durham, NC even during a pandemic, and the gift of solitude.
This interview was recorded separately due to the physical distancing required during the fall of 2020.
Duke Divinity School Library’s York Reading Room mentioned in this episode can be seen below:
Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.
Divcast Series 1 Episode Wylin Wilson Transcript
Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to The Divcast, the podcast of the admissions office that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School community. I'm 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. Today, we are continuing our series called Essential Questions with Divinity Faculty. Our conversation today is with Dr. Wylin Wilson, who is the assistant professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Wilson's research lies at the intersection of religion, gender, bioethics, specifically in rural contexts, and black church studies.
Among her publications is a recent book, Economic Ethics and the Black Church, which examines the relationship between race, religion and economics within the black church through a case study of communities in Alabama. Please enjoy this conversation with Dr. Wilson.
Dr. Wilson, I'm thrilled that you've joined the community at Duke Divinity School. And you and I met for the briefest of moments during your faculty interview. And I haven't really had a chance to talk to you personally about you and your background, so I've been looking forward to this opportunity to get to know you a little better.
Dr. Wylin Wilson: Thank you.
TM: I'd like to start by digging into your background and hearing from you. Who are some of the important people in your life? We all have mentors or people who pour into us, encourage us along the way. So I'm curious, as you think about being a professor now at Duke Divinity School, who is either the most important person for you being where you're at, or who are some of the most important people for helping you get to where you are today?
WW: Okay. So I definitely will say, I'll answer by saying who some of the most important people are for me. First and foremost would be definitely my mother and father, just because they're phenomenal people in terms of how they raised my brother and myself. They were always big on education. And in fact, my father, I'll never forget, for my whole life I remember my father always telling me, "You go as far as you can with your education. You go as far as you can. You don't stop until you get that PhD." And this is when I was in the sixth grade, so that's all I knew is I knew I had to get a PhD because that's just ... And I appreciate how much emphasis my parents did put on education, because of course, given the generation they grew up in, they grew up during segregation.
And their parents of course grew up in the era witnessing things like lynchings and things like that. So for African Americans, it was very important to get an education. You know what I mean? That was so important. And so that is what they instilled in myself and my brother. And that is one of the reasons why I am where I am, because education was always so important to me because of that, because of what they instilled in me, and even my extended family, my aunts and uncles and my grandmother and grandfather. They always, always talked to us about how important education was. And my grandparents, thank God, they're my only living set of grandparents now, they're both 92. And they are just amazing. They have always supported me every step of the way, any time I had a graduation or anything.
It's just the kind of love that I received from my family and the kind of support was just, it was life giving and propelling. It propelled me further and encouraged me to just keep going. And they always, I think what was one of the other things that was really important is my parents and my family, my extended family would always talk about the purpose of an education. So the purpose of your education was never to just so that you can just get ahead as black folk. Right? So it wasn't for you to just get a good job so you can make a decent salary, so that you can get a home and live the middle class lifestyle. It's never just that. But the purpose was always in service of other people.
WW: In service. Yeah. I mean, I kid you not, that is what I grew up with in terms of understanding what this thing called education was about. So it was always connected to service. And I'll never forget my parents saying, "You don't just get an education just to be getting an ... You don't just want a degree just to have a degree. This is about you serving people in the community, you serving people in society." And that just was drilled into me, and I just thank God for that because that is honestly, that's how I feel about my whole educational process. Right? And I see it also kind of in, now of course, in my teaching. And I've been able to kind of witness that. And I do see teaching as a service. It's a service to the students, of course. But then it also is a service to those in the community too, in the broader community. So I thank God for my family.
They are really and truly a big part of why I think the way I do, and then the folks who helped to shape me intellectually, some of my professors, like Dr. Alton Pollard. He is now president of Louisville Seminary. And he was just a big influence in my life, just the kind of love that he has for people, and his whole emphasis on inclusivity. Everybody is welcome at the table. Liz Bounds, she's another big influence intellectually. These were my professors at Emory. So yeah, so I do have people who influenced me intellectually outside of that grounding, that secure grounding and foundation that I got from my family.
TM: What are your parents’ names? And where did you grow up?
WW: Erma and Wiley Dassie. And I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida.
TM: Okay. You named that education was a really important part of your background and upbringing. Can I assume that faith also was as well?
WW: Oh, gosh, yeah. Without a doubt, yeah. Oh, yeah.
TM: So, maybe as a way to introduce that, could you share any moments where you experienced the presence of God?
WW: Yeah, yeah. I would say first and foremost, through watching how my parents lived out their faith, I just literally grew up watching them always serve people. It was so cool because no matter what, whatever job they had, no matter what they did, because they were educators themselves, they worked in the field of education in terms of adult and community education. But then Dad also was a human resource administrator as well. But no matter what job they had, they always, always, always were serving other people. So people in the community, people at church, if anybody had a need. And people even knew. They were like, "Hey, you need to call the Dassies. Call Deacon Dassie. Call Mother Dassie." And people just knew that.
They knew that they could call Deacon or Mother Dassie because that was how my parents lived. They literally, and still live lives of service to the community. And I think that has been a huge blessing in shaping my faith, and shaping literally my experience of God's presence because I literally saw God move and work in the lives of not just my parents, but in the lives of people in my community through the love and care that my parents gave as well. And then my grandparents, of course, they are awesome people. My parents are the way they are because of the nurturing and the faith that was built into them by my grandparents. Yeah.
TM: Do you remember any specific moment when your parents were serving others and it made a difference in your community?
WW: Yeah. I remember one instance, this was really lovely. So there was a ...lovely and tragic, right? But there was a gentleman in our church, and he fell ill. And his illness was something that was a stigmatized illness, so that he would be shunned by the community if people found out this is why he was ill. And I remember my mother and father, and they would go with a couple other folks from the church. They would go to his hospital room, they'd sit at his bedside even for hours, rubbing his feet, caring for him, loving on him, even though he'd been ostracized by others in the community because of his illness, and I can go ahead and say it because this was back in 80s/90s, so it was HIV AIDS. Right?
And so people were still kind of, people were kind of freaked out. And it was a real stigma associated with having something like that. But anyway, to see that kind of care and love for this man who was dying of AIDS was just ... It's something you don't forget. And I'll never forget, I remember asking my parents. I'd say, "Hey, what's," because no one would say what he had because this was that time. Right? And so people wouldn't really say. But my mother raised us, she always said, "If it happens on Earth, we can talk about it in this house." And so I knew that I could always ask them. You can always talk about anything. So I would ask them, I'd say, "Hey, guys, no one's really saying what's wrong with this guy. So what's wrong with him? What is he dying from?" And my parents were very clear. They were like, "Yeah, we can talk about it." They'd say, "Yeah. He's dying of AIDS."
But no one wants to talk about it. People are kind of not wanting to talk about it. They said, "But yeah, that's what he's dying from." And just to see how they loved on him and cared for him and were right there. I mean, until this man died, they were with him, and so that was powerful for me. You just don't forget things like that.
TM: Yeah. That's a remarkable story and has all kinds of echoes in scripture and the life of Jesus in particular. I'd love to pivot and talk a little bit about your scholarship. You're a professor of theological ethics here at Duke Divinity School. And your research is at the intersection of religion, gender, bioethics, specifically in rural context, also the black church. If you had to talk about what you do as a professor and what you study to someone that doesn't have a theological background and explain all that in a couple of minutes, what would you say to that person?
WW: Yeah. So I would say that my research and my teaching is very much centered on what we call vulnerable populations, centered on people who are considered maybe what we would say the least of these among us, people who are marginalized economically, socially, politically, people who just belong to ethnic or racial groups that have historically been discriminated against or counted out, so our Native American indigenous populations, Latinx, immigrant communities, and African American. And so I would say that, then you add on top of that rural populations. So you have these populations of folks who are suffering from marginalization within society in various forms, but then also then you add being rural, so you add geographical isolation to that, and all that comes with that. Those are the folks that I'm concerned with, their health and their wellbeing. And when I say health and wellbeing, that includes spiritual health and wholeness, so shalom. Right? Their full, the wholeness, yeah, wholeness.
TM: How do you see your work as making a difference in the lives of people who are vulnerable?
WW: Yeah. So what I hope my work will do, I hope that it can one, just so a couple of things. The first thing that I would hope my work would do for people is to allow them to have a voice, allow them to have a place. A lot of times, marginalized populations are populations of people that we may see them, but maybe we don't really pay attention to them. Or we make policies about them and their communities, but we may not really listen or take the time to really listen to what life is like, or go and see what life is like in marginalized communities. So I'm hoping that through my work, it will give people a voice and center them in conversations where they're not normally centered.
And then, I hope that my work then can also call us, those of us who are the folks who are determining or deciding the life chances of folks around us and within our society, I hope that my work can be a call, calling us into who God would have us to be as servant of our society, of everyone in the society, so calling us to keep on saying, "Hey, you guys. We're ignoring people. We're really not hearing their voices or centering their voices, such that this conversation can change, and change in such a way that we can make impacts in the lives of those who are vulnerable and who are marginalized, change the way we look at people." Because a lot of times, we look at folks through maybe a lens that it I guess colored by implicit bias. Right? And we all have implicit bias.
None of us can escape that. We swim it. We're like fish. We swim in this culture that we're in. And so I would hope that my work is helpful in just kind of calling us to this transformation, not just intellectually, but even in our hearts. If we really, really, really get to the matter of our hearts. And how do we see people? How do we hear people? Are we seeing or hearing them? Down to those kinds of issues.
TM: Would you be able to describe a time when you felt alive, like when some of those hopes that you had were actualized in real time?
WW: Yeah. I would say in my work in the Alabama Black belt, in the rural areas in Alabama. This was when I was on faculty at Tuskegee University in their bioethics center. And I was also on faculty in the college of agriculture there. And what was so lovely about that is it brought together just the two aspects of me as a scholar because agriculture, I always tell people, is my first love. So I would hang out with this, it was a group of African American women, and they call themselves a loosely fitted cooperative, agricultural cooperative. And they were these organic farmers, and they were just dynamic women because they had farms in the community, but they also were very much these advocates for healthy eating and healthy living. And how do we care for ourselves and care for our community?
And so I just enjoyed hanging out with those women. And we did write an article together, and that was just so much fun. But I also did work in the rural churches, part of what we did as the bioethics center there is we worked with a lot of the rural churches that were trying to deal with so many of their congregate were suffering from health disparity and lack of access to healthcare. And so just being able to work in the community and work with churches. One of the churches had a community garden, and I just used to love, at the end of the day, I would take off my suit and put on my overalls and go and just put my hands in the dirt. It was awesome.
So yeah, so I felt that is truly, like I say, where I really felt alive because as you're tending the actual garden, as you really have your hands in the soil, there are these dynamic conversations that are going on about people's health and about people's hopes and dreams. And so there's just this healing that's going on at the same time because healing comes from so many different places and in so many ways. Some people, they're being heard. They're in that garden, and they don't have anyone to talk to all week. But when they get to that garden, they know that there are folks there who are just going to listen. They're just going to hear them. So I just loved it. I could say doing my work in the Black belt in Alabama in the community was, that was life giving. Yeah.
TM: That's wonderful. On the opposite side of that, we all have moments of struggle and hardship. Do you remember any particular moments when you wanted to quit when things weren't going well?
WW: Yeah. Let's see. I guess I'll say a really difficult moment, I don't know if I will say I wanted to quit, but it impacted me so that it was extremely difficult because Tuskegee of course, Tuskegee University is in the middle of Tuskegee National Forest, which means that it's basically in the middle of nowhere. There's not ... The nearest hospital is about 20 mile drive away. And that may not sound like much to some people. Right? Depending on where you live, it may not sound like much. But if it's already a place where you have high poverty rates, people don't really have good transportation, or can afford transportation. So people were pretty much stuck when an emergency happened and they needed to get to the hospital. Right?
Or this is what happened to me that really impacted me. I had a student of mine who had an asthma attack. He was one day out there practicing doing some drills because he was on the football team, and he had an asthma attack. And it was a simple asthma attack. No one should have to die from an asthma attack in America. Right? You think, "Oh, we have a healthcare system that ... " I mean, that's something simple. But because we were out in a rural area, the paramedics could not get there in time enough. And this young man died. Now that was difficult because you don't send your child to college and ever expect that you'll get a phone call saying that your child is dead, particularly from an asthma attack, from something you've managed all this child's life as a parent. They've taken the care and the time to manage, and now he dies from this, something that simple.
So that was a struggle for me, that because ... You know about health disparities. You know about the issues with rural health and all that. But when you experience it in that way, I struggle with that. Yeah, I did.
TM: That's awful.
I have one final bigger question to ask you. We've been talking about your work at Tuskegee. My understanding is that after that, you went north and went to Harvard, where you taught as a part of the medical school and also the divinity school there. And now you're here at Duke, so I'm curious to hear the story. How did you end up at Duke?
WW: Yeah. So it's a funny story because sometimes I even sit back and I'm like, "Huh? How did I end up at Duke?" It's just funny. No, really, because it's funny how life goes. Right? Opportunities open up, and you're just like, "I'll be doggone." So yeah, I had been teaching, like you said, teaching, teaching there in the Boston area and in Cambridge, of course, at the div school. And it's so interesting because a lot of my students were saying to me, "Hey," there was the students at the med school especially were saying, "Hey, there was a former faculty member from Duke that you should meet." And so I was like, "Okay, that's great." But yeah, but it was so great to meet one of the faculty members here from Duke. And we did, we kept in touch.
And so basically, it put Duke on my radar screen in terms of learning about the theology, medicine, and culture program. And then with the opportunities opening up for a teaching opportunity here, I got really excited because my husband and I, we're from the South. And as much as we love, we made so many beautiful friendships in Boston, and we love it, and we love the people for sure, but our families are down South, or families are down here. And we've been saying for a bit of time, "Man, our parents are getting older. And we would love to be closer to our families."
So when the opportunity opened up at Duke, we were super excited because we're like, "Hey, we get to go back South." We were like, "These birds are flying South," so we were super excited about that. And literally coming to Duke actually feels like we're coming back home. I mean, we've said that so many times. And sometimes we're on a walk, and we'll just look at each other and we're like, "We are home." So it's really a blessing to be back South and to be closer to our families, and to be in a place like the div school, where like I said to you earlier, I really feel like you feel embraced, and you feel a sense of community, a sense of belonging. And you just feel like the people here are very nurturing. And that has been really life giving, and that's exciting. Yeah.
TM: Yeah. Well, all that makes sense to me, especially hearing how important your family was for your formation that just physically you'd want to be in closer proximity.
TM: I'd love to finish with something I hope will be fun. And this is a lightning round, where I just toss out things to you, and I'm looking for one or two word answers to get to know you and your tastes and preferences a little better, the first one being: Would you consider yourself an early bird or a night owl?
WW: Early bird.
TM: What's a book that you've read recently?
WW: Oh, yeah. Okay. Think. Which one do I want to choose, right? Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, probably, yeah, Atul Gawande's On Being Mortal, those are two. Yeah, so just stop there. You said one or two word answers.
TM: What is your ideal dessert after a meal?
WW: Oh, yeah. I'd say strawberry shortcake.
TM: Okay. What's the last movie that you remember seeing?
WW: I'm trying to think of the name of it. It was some just silly movie that we saw on the Disney Channel. It was just a silly comedy. Oh, I think it was College Road Trip or something. It was some silly little family movie. We have a nine year old. When you have a nine year old, you watch all kind of just stuff that you would just never admit to watching like, "Yeah, I watched that. Don't ask me why, but we watched it. We got a kid, that's why."
TM: Sounds like as a family, you're working your way through Disney+ in quarantine here.
WW: Exactly. Oh, my gosh. Sorry I don't have some profound movie that I've just recently seen, but hey, that's the reality of my life right now.
TM: As someone who just relocated, what's something that you've noticed about Durham?
WW: One thing that I've noticed and that I really appreciate is it's really green. It's so beautiful, all the flowers. It is just gorgeous, I love, it's just beautiful. It's just green and beautiful. I like that about it.
TM: Yeah. Me too. What's some recent music that you've heard?
WW: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. So, Hamilton because we didn't get a chance to see it in person. Right? Because I kid you not, we were planning to go see it right before quarantine. And then we got quarantined, of course. And so as soon as we moved down here and we could get Disney+ and all that, we got it. And the first thing was Hamilton, so we have just been listening to Hamilton soundtrack nonstop.
TM: I've asked this question to many faculty members, and Hamilton is clearly the most popular answer.
WW: Yeah. It's a great soundtrack.
TM: Yeah. I heard it myself on Disney+, and it was phenomenal. Last one here. What's a simple pleasure that you love?
WW: Oh, yeah. I like, and this will sound really probably crazy, but it's true, I love solitude because I'm kind of ... My family always says, "You are so loud," I'm a loud person. I love to have fun. I love to be around people. But oh my goodness, a simple pleasure is just solitude, just being able to sit, and then sit quietly and be at peace. Oh, my God, I love it, sitting out on my ... We have a little swing on our porch, just sitting in that swing. Oh, my gosh, I cannot tell you how awesome that is. And it sounds crazy, but it is so awesome. I love it. I'm not kidding!
TM: It doesn't sound crazy to me. I deeply appreciate solitude. Dr. Wilson, this has been a phenomenal conversation. I appreciate you taking time to talk with me. I started by saying I was so glad that you were part of the community, and I definitely mean that one. I want to end by telling a quick story. I recently met a former student of yours. And knowing that we'd be talking today, and also just curious to learn more about you, I asked, "Well, you had Dr. Wilson. What's she like? What kind of teacher is she?" And unprovoked besides that, this person then went on to just give a glowing references and went on and on about how amazing you are.
I'm going to quote her actually. She said that your course and teaching style was what so many of this person and her peers thought divinity school should be, powerful learning experiences interspersed with communal and personal transformation, so holding together like the head and the heart, as we've talked about in this conversation. So I'm really thrilled for our students that they get to have you as a professor. And I'm so glad that you and your husband now are a part of our community.
WW: Thank you for sharing that. Wow. Thanks. Thank you. I appreciate that.
TM: Absolutely. Well, thanks again for this, and all the best.
WW: Thank you.
TM: Thank you for listening to the Divcast episode. Be sure to subscribe to our feed, available anywhere you find podcasts. You can send us feedback and questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix. Sound design is by Brandon Holmes. Special thanks to Evelyn Archer and Leah Reed, both M.Div. 2020, 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 with a ‘Div did you know’, which is a fact or interesting aspect about Duke Divinity or Duke University that you may or may not know.
Did you know that before Goodson Chapel was build, the Divinity School worshiped together in a small chapel in the Gray Building? That original chapel is now known as the York Room, and students use it today as a meeting space and study hall. I hope you will join us again on the Divcast.