This fall, Duke Divinity School welcomed Dr. Wylin Wilson to her position as Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics. Dr. Wilson holds a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Business from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a Master of Science in Agricultural, Managerial and Resource Economics from Cornell University, a Master of Divinity from Interdenominational Theological Center and a Ph.D. in Religious Social Ethics from Emory University. Her research lies at the intersection of religion, gender, and bioethics, including rural bioethics and Black Church studies. In a conversation this fall with Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellow, Dorothy Adu-Amankwah, Dr. Wilson spoke about the formational experiences that have led her to her current work in bioethics, where she focuses on the issues pertinent to and the voices of vulnerable populations.
Dr. Wilson’s academic trajectory is rooted in her childhood environment in Tallahassee, Florida. Her interest in agriculture as an industry was sparked through her experience with 4-H, a youth organization that encourages hands-on projects in the areas of health, science, agriculture, and civic engagement. While attending a camp organized by 4-H and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Dr. Wilson notes, “[I learned that] much of agriculture was now a part of corporate America, which is what led me to Agricultural Business.”
Dr. Wilson also grew up attending a rural church in the Southern Black Belt, a region that was supported by the slave economy and is still home to many African Americans. She witnessed the importance of the rural church to community development, particularly for vulnerable populations. “From the very beginning,” Dr. Wilson says, “I have always wanted to look at the role of the church, or faith communities, in the economic and community development of the rural South.” After completing her undergraduate degree in Agricultural Business, Dr. Wilson completed a master’s degree in Agricultural Economics at Cornell University. There, she began the research on faith communities in rural areas that would eventually lead her to seminary. For Dr. Wilson, she did not attend seminary with the work of ministry on her mind. “I would always tell people that I am on the PhD track,” she says with a laugh. She did not yet understand that her work of research and teaching would be its own call to ministry. She now says that God “had the last laugh” when, after completing her PhD, she found herself serving in the church in the rural South, moving beyond the roles of teaching and researching.
Dr. Wilson’s research on the intersection of health, economics, and community development continued at the Bioethics Center of Tuskegee University, where she worked with churches in rural Alabama. Her observations in this work brought home how critical health is to community development. “You have got to do economics and health at the same time,” Dr. Wilson reflects. “I kept hearing about people’s illnesses and health disparities. Churches were calling my office with requests to start health ministries.” Through this experience, her initial work on economic justice in the rural South, described in her first book, began to shift toward a new approach to bioethics. “I am grateful that I came to bioethics through the rural southern Black Belt,” she states with passion. “I came to bioethics through my work with vulnerable populations whose experiences are often ignored by mainstream bioethics.” Rural bioethics, in Dr. Wilson’s telling, centers on the everyday realities of rural populations. “These communities become the epistemological starting point,” she explains. “What I like about centering rural populations is that it changes our focus, the questions we ask, the priorities we have; [we begin to ask] where and how do we enter these communities. Once you start asking different questions, that is when you can start on the path of transformative and liberative practices of bioethics.”
As Dr. Wilson has born witness to the ways that race, gender and class impact bioethics, she has developed a theological framework informed by womanist and Black liberation theology. “I would do an injustice if I were to go through an entire semester [of teaching bioethics] and not include vulnerable populations and issues that are very important to vulnerable populations; if I didn’t include minority voices and only stuck to the canon that is predominantly white, male, privileged voices.” Dr. Wilson is currently writing a book, Womanist Bioethics, arguing for an expansion of bioethical practice through listening to the voices of those who have historically been excluded.
Dr. Wilson notes that the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative “allows me to engage healthcare professionals on issues that are so important to them…so many of the issues that we deal with in the field [of healthcare] are deeply theological issues. I enjoy teaching and speaking to future and current providers about these issues that deeply touch at the core of who we are and who God is calling us to be.” Her advice to current and prospective TMC fellows is summarized in a quote from the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, a womanist theologian: “Do the work that your soul must have.” Dr. Wilson continues:
“Always keep at the forefront your faith and the call of God on your life, because that is what will sustain you when the rubber meets the road. Even when you are practicing your vocation, there are times when you will question, “Why am I doing this? What is the point?” but when you understand that you have answered the call of God on your life and you are doing the work that your soul must have, … [and] cooperating with God in the work that God is doing in this world, that is powerful and that is what will truly sustain you. You can remind yourself that you are walking daily in this partnership with God and making the world more of God’s kingdom. To me, there is nothing more powerful than that.”