Class of 2021: Divinity student pursues master’s work at the junction of theology and social justice

With a heart for serving others and an interest in the intersection of theology and social justice, Erica Johnson was drawn to pursue a master’s degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School while working at a social services center for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

During the organization’s monthly community meetings, Johnson noticed that the participants she admired most all had one thing in common: a degree from the Divinity School. 

Erica Johnson, Class of 2021, Vanderbilt Divinity School

As she completes a master’s degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School this spring, the Washington, D.C., native speaks fondly of her study of progressive theology. “Instead of arguing over who is allowed in the ‘kin-dom’, we focus on addressing issues through inclusion,” Johnson said. “There is a common agreement that we are all part of the family of God.” 

Johnson credits her Vanderbilt professors with guiding her through her studies while also providing space for her to explore her own passions and theological interests. She pursued two independent studies with Divinity School faculty and engaged in coursework in which she was able to select her own reading lists.   

Johnson said that her professors taught her to be more accountable and aware in her writing. They encouraged her to “name and claim” her unique identity and perspective while remaining cognizant of the audience she is writing for and the action she wants them to take. “Divinity School faculty have shaped me in ways that both demand that I use my voice, but also showed me that I can and should do this work,” she said. 

Challenging the status quo

“We recognize that the world is not as it should be. This spurs a theological imagination and a tenacious spirit.”

Johnson is inspired daily by her classmates. She described a collective “orneriness” among Divinity School students that encourages them to challenge the status quo. “We recognize that the world is not as it should be,” she said. “This spurs a theological imagination and a tenacious spirit.”  

Beyond the classroom, Johnson had the opportunity to volunteer weekly and lead a community Bible study. “We are called through this work to serve others with open hands,” she said.   

Johnson graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in 2015, triple-majoring in child development at Peabody College of education and human development, in African American and diaspora studies, and in medicine, health, and society through the College of Arts and Science. She plans to pursue a doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt Divinity School to continue her study of sociopolitical issues through a theological lens.

Johnson said that the Divinity School has and will continue to shape the ways she asks questions and responds to injustice. “Sometimes we’re called to speak. Sometimes we’re called to serve. And sometimes we’re called to just show up,” she said.   

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.