In early September, national scholar, author and speaker Alton B. Pollard III will take on the role of president at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He’ll succeed Michael Jinkins, who retires on Sept. 2.
Pollard was dean of the School of Divinity and a professor of religion and culture at Howard University for 11 years, and before that, he served as director of black church studies and chair of American religious cultures at Emory University.
He also has a few degrees under his belt from the likes of Duke and Harvard and has published several books, including “Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman” and a new edition of W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Negro Church.”
Pollard, a Minnesota native, has only been in Louisville a few weeks now, and he tells Insider he’s getting acclimated to his surroundings before his job officially begins. He’s looking forward to discovering what this city is all about and getting plugged into the community.
“For me, community begins and ends with worship,” he says. “In those sacred spaces where our common denominators of time and space evaporate and we can be linked with something greater than ourselves, those are powerful and precious moments.”
Pollard attended a service at the Highland Presbyterian Church last Sunday and says he was amazed by how many people had a connection to Louisville Seminary.
“I want to visit as many Presbyterian congregations as I can,” he says. “And beyond that, I want to be in the mosques, the synagogues, the temples and see as many interfaith events as possible.”
Pollard explains it was the actions and values held by Louisville Seminary that drew him to Louisville for the position. Those values include building bridges and engaging the world.
“We endeavor to reach across religious, racial, cultural, gendered, political and any other divides to advocate for the best of the human condition. We belong to each other. That endeavor begins here at Louisville Seminary,” he explains.
His first order of business as president will be to develop a work plan and objectives for the school. And most importantly, it’ll be to make connections with people.
“My orientation is to begin with people first and invite the plan to flow from there,” says Pollard. “That has always worked for me, because at the end of the day, it’s our relationships that matter most. So my first couple of weeks here have focused on meeting the Louisville Seminary community, and that will continue as students arrive back on campus, faculty return and the pace picks up.”
He’s most looking forward to celebrating and advocating for human relationships in Louisville and beyond. After all, that is what first drew him to the field of sociology.
“Sociology has always interested me because it talks about the collective endeavor,” he explains. “But the endeavor doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a profound sense of the self. The examined life is a beautiful thing, and when we join others in the same endeavor, we can establish a tremendous sense of community.”
Before Pollard gets to work on this endeavor, and as he finds his way to his neighborhood grocery and hardware stores, we asked him some very important questions …
What’s the most surprising thing on your Bucket List?
That I do not have a Bucket List! I live life as I experience it. My place is in the present — not mired in the “would haves,” “should haves” or “could haves” of the past or a future that is yet to be determined. Every day is exciting for me. Every day is a day with its own meaning and purpose.
What poster was on your wall in junior high?
There were several actually: Growing up, my team was the Milwaukee Bucks, so Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had to be on my wall. I was a big Kareem fan because he was what I would call a “cerebral athlete.” He had a stellar mind beyond sports, and I think people misinterpreted that as a sort of aloofness, when in fact his life was bigger than basketball.
I was (and still am) a huge baseball fan, and Tony Oliva from the Minnesota Twins was my favorite athlete. He was an offensive star who was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before his knees gave way. I don’t have my Tony Oliva poster anymore, but I have an autographed baseball from him in my office.
Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a place on my wall as well. Everything Dr. King was doing for Black Freedom, he was doing for not just me in my life, but the lives of everyone in our country.
In keeping with Dr. King’s message, I also had a poster of the Statue of Liberty, which reminded me of the value of dignity and human rights for all.
If you were mayor, to whom would you give the key to the city?
Keys would go to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They have personally experienced and witnessed violence and oppression, and they have committed their lives to compassion among all humanity.
Yes, they are of different faith traditions and cultural backgrounds, but they see the world through both the pains and joys humanity shares.
To reach people — to celebrate our humanity — across religious and cultural differences is what I aspire to in my life and my faith witness, and I believe it is what Louisville Seminary aspires to in its faith witness.
A great example of this faith witness is the book they co-wrote a couple of years ago, “The Book of Joy.” It is one of my favorites.
What are your preferred pizza toppings?
Pineapple, ham and barbecue sauce. I have loved these toppings since I first ate pizza. I’m not a top chef, but I know what I like. Back in the day, before pineapple was a popular topping, I used to ask for these toppings all of the time.
It’s hard to find a place that serves a pineapple and ham pizza with barbecue sauce. Maybe I’ll find one here in Louisville.
If you could be any age for a week, what would it be?
This kind of goes back to the Bucket List question. I like the age I am now. The past is gone. The future is uncertain. Now — right here and now — is the best time to share yourself with others. When our son was in preschool, he came home and had this recurring refrain that all of the children learned:
No one looks the way I do.
No one says the things I say.
No one plays the way I play.
No one does the things I do.
I am special.
I am me.
There is no one I would rather be than me.
That’s how I feel about every day. It’s a great day to be alive and share yourself with other selves.
What famous person do people say you resemble the most?
No one lately, however, growing up it was Tony Oliva, my baseball hero. Later it was Reggie Jackson, known as “Mr. October.” Most recently it was Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as the president of South Africa.
I started going to South Africa a lot in the 1980s because I was very much involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and in the 1990s and early 2000s when things were really transforming in South Africa. I served as a monitor in the first elections in 1994.
I found myself in a lot of sticky situations during those years. Mbeki was president after Mandela, and a lot of people, especially in South Africa, said I looked like him.
Who would you most like to be stuck with in an elevator?
I didn’t even have to think about this one. As soon as I read this question to my wife, Jessica, she started laughing and told me, “I already know what you are going to say.” I said, “Yes, I do, too,” because there is no one who could possibly be better to be stuck in an elevator with than my wife. She is the love of my life. She is the best and most phenomenal person I know.