Sushama Austin-Connor’s upbringing in Washington, D.C. was steeped in social justice and service. Her parents, one from Guyana and the other from the Black American South, instilled in her very different but equally powerful perspectives when it came to racial equity. At the same time, her family was actively involved in the United Church of Christ, which emphasizes service and has a rich history in activism. “My parents were both very interested in making sure I knew who I was and where I came from, and that wherever I ended up in life, I would work on behalf of other people,” she says.
Austin-Connor was called to ministry in the midst of a filmmaking career, when she studied ethics and documentary in a year-long research program at Harvard Divinity School (later, she received her Master of Theological Studies from the same institution). She quickly shifted gears, first serving as campaign manager at the United Church of Christ, then landing back at the school’s Cambridge campus to support its Summer Leadership Institute, where urban clergy would spend two weeks creating community development corporations for their churches. “When I arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary in the Office of Continuing Education, I realized we could do something similar very well,” Austin-Connor says. On a practical level, the campus houses its own conference center and lodging options, but it also boasts a beautiful setting and rich theological expertise. The Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) was born, with Austin-Connor as its director.
Each BTLI fellowship program has a theme, and unites the country’s renowned faith leaders and accomplished change agents with academia’s strongest theologians to discuss topics such as wellness, theology, current events, preaching, and more. The annual gathering has established a high-impact national community of practice, allowing leaders to share ideas and inspiration on an ongoing basis. “But what's consistently woven through the work is a focus on social justice,” Austin-Connor explains, “and a deep longing and need to put social justice at the forefront of our work.”
Recently, BTLI moved from the Office of Continuing Education to the Center for Black Church Studies (BCS), which focuses on the historical and current landscape of the Black church. Austin-Connor now serves in a dual role as a program administrator for BCS and Continuing Education. One of her more recent projects in Continuing Education was a podcast, Being Church in the Time of COVID, for faith leaders struggling through the pandemic.
“Our work is all about translating the research of the academy to what people in the pews and pastors in churches are doing across the country,” she says. “We have a vision that is slowly coming true, which is amplifying the voices of ministers and bringing the mission of ministry and scholarship to people everywhere.”