Daily Planet Correspondent
It’s a simple rule: If you see a brick building in the Bay Area, it’s probably really old. And, not surprisingly, the same goes for organizations housed within those brick buildings.
This is certainly the case for Hobart Hall, the red brick Julia Morgan fortress on Dwight Way and Bowditch Street that has housed the American Baptist Seminary of the West for the better part of 80 years – with a brief interruption.
More or less a gutted exoskeleton since the onset of its extensive renovations in January of 1999, the landmark may yet be reborn by October of this year.
“It used to be so dark up here,” recalls ABSW President Keith Russell, standing in the hollowed-out work-in-progress that used to be his office. While once somewhat dimly lit, the combined effect of the removal of several walls, large windows (with no panes yet installed) and a lovely Spring afternoon conspire to shower Hobart Hall’s third floor with light.
“I used to sit my desk facing right at the Campanile,” continues Russell, pointing straight down Bowditch at the 100-yard-high tower in the distance. “This is going to be a lovely space, I think.”
It certainly was before the extensive retrofitting/renovation/technological upgrade. Constructed between 1919 and 1921, Hobart Hall was the first institutional project Morgan designed in the “Tudor Revival” style she would utilize so often thereafter. The Hall’s attractive exterior has long complemented the internationally renowned Maybeck masterpiece First Church of Christ, Scientist across the street, and the ornate interior (now safely packed away awaiting re-installation) featured two stories of oak paneling that Morgan reportedly paid for out of her own pocket.
While Hobart Hall has served as something of a symbol of the seminary (and, as Russell attests, without its ample office space he and the rest of the ABSW’s professors and administrators are crowded into a former dormitory across the way), the ABSW had been around long before Morgan designed the brick beauty.
Disagreements over slavery during the Civil War era led to a schism in the Baptist population. Those objecting to the practice split off from the more well-known Southern Baptists and became what are now known as American Baptists.
American Baptists missionaries founded the ancestor organizations of today’s ABSW back in the 1870s. The seminary reached Berkeley by 1904.
“We’ve been here a long time, doing our thing,” says Russell. “We’ve been training pastors for churches on the West Coast for 128 years.”
The ABSW is of the nine schools that joined forces in 1962 to form the Graduate Theological Union. (You may have noticed a preponderance of seminaries on North Berkeley’s “Holy Hill.” Across town, the ABSW is somewhat isolated.) All told, over 1,300 students attend the schools of the Theological Union, taking advantage of a situation Russell says one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
“It’s the only thing of its kind in America,” claims the ABSW president, who also serves his school’s 100-odd students as a professor of pastoral theology. “You have so many denominations cooperating: Catholics and Protestants, and you also have Jewish and Buddhist centers.”
Yet the ABSW’s partnership in the atypical Graduate Theological Union isn’t its only unique aspect. In order to better reflect the wide variance of races and cultures within American Baptist communities, the seminary actively pursues a “Multiracial and Multicultural” environment. What’s more, the ABSW was the first theological seminary in the nation to admit women on equal terms with men.
“This school in particular has a major focus on being multiethnic and multicultural, and that makes us very unique,” says LeAnn Flesher, a professor of the Old Testament. “One of our goals is that students leave this place with the ability to apply what they learn here in a variety of contexts. They could move from a mixed congregation to a black congregation to an Asian congregation quite comfortably.”
And the first seminary to admit women on full terms is still very much committed to the cause.
“We are a big supporter of women in the ministry,” says Flesher. “Upwards of 50 percent of the student body is female, and it’s been that way since I got here (six years ago). We even work aggressively to help place (women) ... which is still a difficult thing, for women to get placements even in the most mainline denomination.”
In addition to being diverse and sexually proportionate, most of the ABSW’s students are also a little older. With two-thirds of the student body coming from off campus and a good chunk of them holding down jobs during the day, the ABSW offers a number of its classes at night.
“We serve adult needs; second-career people as well as young people right out of school training for the ministry,” says Russell. “Students who are very young and very old sit in the same classrooms.”
The 128-year-old seminary is in the midst of an effort to overhaul its curriculum, moving toward training leaders “for the church of the 21st century.”
“In the past, theological education has been very theoretical, with a lot of time on books, theoretical ideas and concepts,” says Flesher. “It’s not been very heavy in practical applications, helping students build the bridge from school to the church. The new curriculum, along with being multiethnic in focus, is also heavy into building up that practical application.
“It’s a lot of work,” sums up Flesher, “but it’s fun. We’re having a good time with it.”