“Where are the dinosaurs in the Bible?” “If I go to heaven, can I leave?” For Nyle Fort, MDiv ’14, questions like these were just the tip of the iceberg in his childhood years.
“I was very curious about things that had to do with my religious formation,” he explains. “I grew up in a lot of different denominations within the Black church, and I had a lot of questions that weren’t being answered.”
When Fort, the son of a mortician, moved from a Black working-class community to a diverse middle- and upper-class community, he started to ask questions about systemic inequities. “I noticed that the streets were paved, whereas in my old neighborhood we had a lot of potholes,” he says. “Our books were newer, and we had access to so many resources. I wondered why there is so much inequality if God is real.”
Fort’s pastor encouraged him to read the Bible from cover to cover and, eventually, to begin preaching at the age of sixteen.
From then on, Fort was a minister. But he never considered seminary until the end of his undergraduate studies, when he started to reflect on the “theological irresponsibility” he encountered in his youth. “I was in a very local context,” he explains. “A lot of the pastors and preachers in my tradition didn’t go to seminary. But I thought that you should have an understanding of the Bible that you preach from. While there was so much love and community and dynamism within the local communities that I was in, I also realized that it was lacking something.”
Seeking formal ministerial training, Fort enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he discovered a passion for activism and scholarship thanks to Mark Lewis Taylor, Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture. After Taylor hosted a lecture by political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, Fort knew he would never be the same: “As soon as I left that class that day, I looked up his case, I read everything about him, and, a few days later, I went to my first protest.”
Encouraging Fort to engage with the work of Black scholars, to grapple theologically with systemic inequities, and to take this work beyond the classroom, Taylor helped Fort to hone his call. “Princeton Seminary was a great space for me to think through how to practice theology, how to practice my faith, which was rooted in justice and freedom,” he reflects.
Fort is currently pursuing a PhD at Princeton University. He is one of this year’s 23 Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellows, and the Newcombe award of $27,500 will support the final year of his dissertation, “Amazing Grief: The Politics of African American Mourning.” His scholarship, the culmination of his childhood questioning, his upbringing as the son of the mortician, and his twofold vocation of scholarship and activism, focuses on how Black American mourning shapes Black activism.
“All Black activism in the United States starts with a response to loss, whether it’s the loss of a life, whether it’s the loss of history, whether it’s the loss of a community through gentrification,” he continues. “All of these different ways that Black Americans have experienced loss, our responses to these losses ends up becoming the stuff of politics, the stuff of activism.”
Editor’s note: Tyler Davis, MDiv ’15, also received a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship this year. An article on Davis and his scholarship will be published in the coming week.