Dr. Linda Thomas: Pioneering Transformative Leadership in Theological Education

Dr. Linda Thomas speaking at the podium in the LSTC Chapel

Dr. Linda Thomas stands as a luminary figure in the ever-evolving landscape of theological education. Her transformative leadership at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) continues to reshape the narrative through diversity, equity, justice, inclusion and intersectionality.

Dr. Thomas has recently been appointed Interim Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, alongside her role as the Director of the Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies. In these roles, she has come to symbolize change at LSTC, holding the dual distinction of the first woman of color on LSTC’s faculty and the inaugural Black female Dean.

A guiding force in theological education, Dr. Thomas has made significant contributions to the LSTC in her scholarly work and to the institution itself. From mentoring students to contributing to the public church curriculum and leading institutional diversity initiatives, Thomas is revered by her colleagues for shaping an inclusive and forward-thinking educational landscape while embodying the principles of justice and equity in theological academia.

A Unique Academic Journey

Dr. Thomas’s academic journey is marked by her distinctive background. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from American University and a MDiv in Theology from Union Seminary (UTS). Her interdisciplinary foundation bridges the gap between the scholarly and spiritual, positioning Thomas as a formidable force in navigating the complexities of theological education.

At UTS, Dr. Thomas studied under distinguished scholars, Drs. James H. Cone and Cornell West. However, a Hebrew Bible class taught by Dr. Phyllis Trible became a crucible of enlightenment for Thomas.

Most Old Testament classes start with Genesis, but Dr. Trible began her class with Exodus. When they moved on to Genesis, Dr. Tribble revealed that there are two creation stories: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Dr. Tribble’s interpretation of Genesis 1: 26-27 unraveled a fundamental misinterpretation that had previously shaped Dr. Thomas’s worldview. The mistranslation of the Hebrew word ‘hadam’ had perpetuated gender hierarchies. Stunned by this revelation, Dr. Thomas began to challenge the church’s narrative that women were subservient to men.

The Hebrew word “hadam” is translated as “man” and means humankind or a human. Thomas realized that by revising the verse with this newfound interpretation, the passage read, “God created a human. Male and female, God created them.”

“Up to that point, I understood from Genesis 2:21-22 that ‘man’ was created first,” Thomas said.  “Therefore, women were subservient to men, and I had lived my life accordingly.”

Another pivotal moment in Dr. Thomas’s academic development was when her advisor suggested that she choose between focusing on Black theology or feminist theology. Driven by an unwavering commitment to her identity as both a Black person and a woman, Thomas refused to accept a binary choice and embraced her “woman self,” rising above societal expectations.

Her time at Union also exposed her to the challenges within her own community, where Black men questioned the role of women in ministry. This environment fueled Dr. Thomas’s research on Black women in history who were preachers. Sojourner Truth became the focus of her thesis, standing as a powerful example of an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Leadership in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice

In 2000, Dr. Thomas became a crucial part of LSTC’s faculty during a transformative period. With seasoned faculty members retiring, a door was opening for new, more diverse hires.

Under the leadership of then-Dean Kadi Billman, the existing faculty recognized the importance of a more inclusive space. In response, they spearheaded initiatives to expand representation, cultivating an environment that welcomed a spectrum of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

During this shift, Dr. Thomas emerged as the first African American woman to join the faculty ranks at LSTC.

Shortly after Thomas was hired, a significant incident unfolded that underscored the pressing need for addressing issues of diversity and inclusion within the institution.

Three Black women walked out of a class led by a well-respected professor after experiencing racial insensitivity. This event highlighted a racial divide among the students. Many white students defended the professor, intensifying the racial tensions.

Dr. Thomas immediately recognized the gravity of the situation and approached Dean Kadi Billman. She emphasized the necessity of forming a diversity committee to address ongoing challenges, particularly related to race, even agreeing to chair the committee.

The Diversity committee quickly became a platform for addressing racism and inequity directly. Committee members became engaged in advocacy, organized anti-racism and anti-sexism programs, and provided a space for addressing issues of power and inequity. The students, both Black and white, joined forces, ultimately leading to petitions for anti-racism classes and training.

Leading The Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies

Becoming Director of the The Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. Multicultural Center in March 2021, Dr. Thomas’s proactive approach to diversity continued to expand as she brought forth an intersectional perspective to the Center.

A year later, the Center was renamed The Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies. The new name reflected a shift in the center’s focus, one that captures the nuanced experiences of intersecting oppressions faced by marginalized groups.

Thomas understood the value of the word intersectionality, coined by legal theorist Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989 because it acknowledges and analyzes the multiple layers of discrimination individuals may face based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and socio-economic status.  

As the Director of the Center, Dr. Thomas embraces intersectionality as a guiding principle. Departing from conventional multicultural approaches, she insists on addressing issues of power by challenging systemic inequities and fostering an inclusive environment. This includes organizing impactful events, including forums, seminars, conferences, and panel discussions, all centered around theological intersectionality.

In February 2023, during the seminary’s celebration of Black History Month, the Center led a series of conversations on reparations. These discussions, amongst others, caused the LTSC to reflect on its need for reparative work in the wake of the sale of its building at 1100 E. 55th Street. A Reparations Initiative was swiftly enacted by the board of directors.  As part of this initiative, Dr. Thomas plans to launch a reparations studies program.

In addition to her work with diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, Thomas takes pride in her work developing the Public Church Curriculum at LSTC. A member of the original curriculum committee that laid its foundation, she is the only remaining faculty member of that influential committee.

In this role, Dr. Thomas continues the visionary spirit that fueled the curriculum’s initial goals of equipping those called to ministry with a comprehensive skillset designed to navigate the diverse contexts in which they will engage in. Rooted in the convictions of the Protestant Reformation, the curriculum extends Luther’s legacy by challenging corruption, embodying a theology of grace and actively participating in multiple intersecting publics.

The Public Church Curriculum has earned recognition among North American seminaries, and its competency-based, interdisciplinary and experiential approach remains one of the key attractions drawing seminary students to enroll at LSTC.

Looking ahead

Beyond administrative roles, Dr. Thomas’s mentorship emerges as a transformative force. Her humility and immediate support of students create a safe space for them, whether they face difficulty with their advisors or navigating complex theological questions. Her mentorship transcends conventional boundaries, reaching across demographics and fostering a sense of belonging for students from various backgrounds.

Dr. Thomas also remains committed to continuing her mission of ensuring the history of Black women is acknowledged and celebrated. As both an advisor and mentor, she dedicates herself to helping women of color connect with the past, encouraging them to explore their cultural roots and discover the remarkable women who have been ignored by those in power.

Now, in her role as the Interim Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Thomas is surveying the educational landscape with foresight. Her future initiatives include addressing immediate challenges and envisioning long-term solutions.

Her continued enthusiasm for theological studies stems from her collaboration with the seminary’s dedicated faculty, who are instrumental in shaping the next generation of leaders. With a keen focus on impacting students’ lives, Dr. Thomas aims to leave an indelible imprint.

“God calls us to help people thrive,” said Thomas. “That means putting our lives into God’s hands and living up to our potential.”

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