Matthew Hall, newly appointed dean of Boyce College, knows what it feels like to be different. He knows what it feels like to be an outsider, to wake up every morning knowing he’s not like everybody else.
Hall was one of three children, and his family spent six years of his childhood as missionaries in Spain. He was taller than most Spanish kids. He was also better at basketball and worse at soccer than most, a dynamic that flipped when he moved back to the United States. Once, when the international school he attended held a music recital, Hall sang the American folk tune “Oh! Susanna” in English with a forced Spanish accent.
Though he spoke their language, trivial moments like these made Hall realize he just wasn’t like other kids.
“I never could escape the fact that I was an outsider. There wasn’t a day when I forgot that,” he said. “I think that has helped me think through what it means to be reminded every day that you’re in the minority. You don’t have a seat at the table. I think it’s helped me in some small way try to be empathetic.”
Many of Hall’s personal and academic interests have been shaped by this empathy. After earning his M.Div. from Southern Seminary in 2006, Hall worked multiple jobs (at UPS, at a coffee shop, as a call screener for R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s radio program) while contemplating further Ph.D work. As a college student at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, Hall realized he was especially interested in historical studies, and professors and mentors during his time at SBTS strongly encouraged him to pursue church history.
When he started his Ph.D. program at the University of Kentucky, Hall’s empathy deepened for outsiders, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities within the church. His academic studies focused on the intersection of politics and Christianity, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s relationship to race during the 20th century. This passion has only grown more important in recent months, with racially charged events happening seemingly every day, from the Eric Garner and Michael Brown deaths in 2014 to the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deaths and Dallas police officer shootings this summer.
“Why is it that some Christians say, ‘Well, that’s an strange coincidence. What are the odds that two black men would get shot by police officers in the same week?’” Hall said. “But another group of Christians says, ‘This is not an outlier, this happens all the time.’ Why is it that two groups of Christians look at the same thing and have very different interpretations and assessments? I think it’s a vivid demonstration of the power of our racialized worldviews.
“When these events happen, we’re confronted with it in ways that burst our illusion that we’re colorblind and don’t see race, and shows us that race is everywhere in America — and within our churches.”
Hall’s interest in issues of race is not just academic. He participated in a February “What’s the Word” forum, sponsored by the ONE student group for racial reconciliation. He also has a role in Southern’s Hispanic Initiatives, a partnership between the seminary and Latin America, and has regularly made use of his fluency in Spanish and his heart for the Spanish-speaking world. In mid-July, he led a mission trip to Spain from Southern’s Bevin Center for Missions Mobilization.
Hall is aware of the challenges facing Christian higher education these days, but he says at the heart of Boyce College there should be the coupling of a deep love for God and a global mindset — a worldview that extends beyond one’s own life experiences.
“If you’ve grown up in the United States, you have a racialized worldview,” he said. “You may not be aware of it, and if you are in the white majority you probably aren’t aware. Your values have been formed by a racialized consciousness. If you are white, you have had a set of experiences that you have probably benefitted from.”
For Hall, a profound sense of place accompanies his passion for racial awareness. That Hall is the dean of an institution so historically steeped in Southern Baptist identity is not lost on him.
“I feel the weight of that, to be the dean of a college named after James P. Boyce, a man who was Princeton-educated, founding visionary president of this institution that I love, and yet he owned dozens of slaves,” Hall said. “He owned other human beings as property and he believed that the Bible justified that. And as much as I would like to, I just can’t come to peace with that. I can’t come to a casual, glib explanation that he was just a product of his time. It’s just heartbreaking to me.”
Hall said he is inspired by Mohler’s convocation address from February 2015 on the gospel and ethnic diversity. Mohler has recently spoken more forcefully about the issue, saying at the SBTS alumni luncheon during the June SBC annual meeting: “The great failure of the Southern Baptist Convention and the great failure of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is exemplified and realized in nothing more powerful than our failure to our African-American brothers and sisters through more than a century-and-a-half.” Hall, who previously worked as the executive producer of Mohler’s radio show and later his chief of staff, is similarly motivated to acknowledge unapologetically the stain of racism on the history of the SBC and Boyce College itself.
“I’m not petitioning to have the name of the college changed,” Hall said. “It’s Boyce College. It is named after a slave-holding, slave-owning, white supremacist Baptist of the 19th century and it’s important that we acknowledge that and tell the truth to our students and faculty of color. Then we repent of that, we grieve of that, we mourn over that, and we are warned by that as we look toward the future and anticipate this new song that Revelation 5 says we will sing. … We want to sing that song now at Boyce College.”
The student body and faculty at Boyce is “diversifying,” Hall said, which he attributes only to divine grace. “We don’t deserve that, we’re not smart enough to make that happen,” he said. “Any blessing that we experience is just God’s grace to this institution.”
Hall spoke with Towers mere days after the horrific Dallas shootings, in which five officers were killed during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. He sat in his mostly empty office with a clean desk and bare walls. He said he’s not wringing his hands about the future of race relations in the church, and that he would have “no hope this week without the gospel.” Racial peace will happen; that song will be sung.
“I really am hopeful for Boyce,” he said. “What would it be like if students from this school are sent out as ministers of reconciliation?”