Sit down with Willie James Jennings ’84 and you’ll be simultaneously intimidated and put at ease. There’s no way you can take a look at his accomplishments and accolades without a sense of awe. And there’s no way you can listen to his stories without being invited into his joy as a storyteller.
Here’s his own introduction he shared with Calvin alumni, like the beginning of a story you want to keep reading:
Willie James Jennings is the son and the last child of Mary and Ivory Jennings, two remarkable Christian people raised in the heat of the south.
I am the son of these two very wonderful people who, with the courage of their ancestors, loaded up their their young family and migrated north to unknown climates that were strange to them. I have older brothers and sisters, so the legacy of a large family poured into me.
I’m also the husband of a wonderful Bermudian woman by the name of Joanne Browne, now Joanne Jennings, and the father of two stunning daughters, Safiya Jennings and Njeri Jennings. Family is who I am.
I’m also someone who, from the very beginning, has had questions about God— real questions about who is God?, why is God?, and questions about me, why am I here?
The man can tell a story. And he just set the foundation for his own.
Jennings is a theologian and ordained minister, currently serving at Yale Divinity School as an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies. An outstanding scholar in the areas of liberation theologies, cultural identities and anthropology, Jennings’ award-winning The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a landmark in the field.
After graduating from Calvin (BA, religion), Jennings earned degrees at Fuller Seminary (MDiv) and Duke University (PhD, religion). And yet for all of his academic prowess, Jennings aims to write for the common person. Earlier this year, his newest work, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, hit the shelves, and he hopes academics and nonacademics alike use the book as a devotional.
For Jennings, it’s about hospitality: “When you’re an academic and you do the kind of work we’re doing, it’s important to see yourself first as a writer trying to communicate clearly to people who take some of their precious time to sit there and open a book.”
In fact, he wrote Acts to read like a novel. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise from a man whose childhood was steeped in storytelling.
“My parents fed you a steady diet of story from the time you got up to the time you went to bed,” Jennings said. “You get it for breakfast, you get it at lunch, you come home for dinner, at night before you go to bed—it’s just a constant stream of stories.”
Another theme from his early life that has continued to influence his work: questions.
The Jennings family table was famous in its Grand Rapids neighborhood because of a standing invitation for food and conversation. For example, his father would entertain all visiting evangelists, regardless of their religious background.
“They would think they’re getting a convert,” Jennings said of his father, whom he called a serious Christian. “But he liked to listen and he liked to ask questions. He liked to see a mind at work.”
Today Jennings carries on his father’s tradition in looking for minds at work, among his neighbors, his students and culture at large.
“I have never seen a diminishment of people with questions about God,” Jennings said. “They are all around us. I have seen more and more people not able to hear them.”
Jennings believes that the questions we naturally ask often are questions about God, though we may not always realize it. And as a Christian and educator, he gets to point out the root of these questions: “[A person is] asking a question about God’s life and their life. They’re asking a question about what makes God happy and what makes God unhappy.
“Once someone realizes that’s what they’re doing … the fire begins.”