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Blanks, Deborah K.

Deborah K. Blanks

1958—

Religious minister, university administrator

Deborah K. Blanks is a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal church who spent ten years as a U.S. Navy chaplain before entering academia as a university dean of religious life. At Brown University and later Princeton she created and facilitated religious services and outreach for the university's faculty and students. In addition, Blanks developed programs that foster understanding between people of different faiths and offered faith-based counseling services.

Involved in Church during Youth

Deborah Kathleen Blanks was born in 1958 in Mount Vernon, New York, where she lived in the home of her maternal grandfather, Samuel Blanks. Selina Lloyd, a local woman served as her nanny, and Blanks remembered Lloyd, a widow with no children, as her first maternal figure. "We were extremely close, and I loved her with all my heart," she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). When Blanks was eight years old, her grandfather married Mamie Gordon, and the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where her grandfather worked as a custodian for the Mutual Life Insurance Company, and Gordon found work as a presser with a local cleaning company.

"In our neighborhood of predominantly African Americans and a small Latino population, we were living the American dream," Blanks told CBB. Blanks's family occupied the top two floors of a three-family unit that her grandparents owned and rented out the bottom apartment. She remembered her grandparents as community and church leaders who gave her a stable and loving home. "They both were hardworking, salt of the earth, good-hearted, committed people to family and community."

Blanks began attending St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, a flagship for the African Methodist faith in New Jersey, when her family moved to Newark. Blanks's grandmother was a member of the church and became a leader of the church's community services. Her grandfather remained a devout Baptist until late in his life and traveled to Mount Vernon on Sundays to attend services at Macedonia Baptist Church. "The church," Blanks told CBB, speaking of St. James, "this particular church, influenced my life greatly." St. James attracted a diverse 3,000-member congregation with people of various ethnicities and economic backgrounds, and Blanks learned about diversity and community integration through her congregation.

Blanks's congregation also served as a source of support throughout her life. "My fondest memory is when an older woman, Anna Youmes, a friend of my grandmother, said to me one day as I was leaving her home that she had something for me," Blanks told CBB. "She went into her bedroom and opened a drawer and took out a crumpled envelope and placed it in my hand. In that envelope was five dollars. I shall never forget the look of love and hope that was etched on her face, and I shall never forget how I felt in that moment that she was making a tangible investment in my life."

Blanks also met two female pastors, the Reverends Mary White Williams and Betty Wilking, at St. James church. In "For Such a Time as This," an essay in the book This Is My Story: Testimonies & Sermons of Black Women in Ministry, Blanks wrote that in seeing Williams and Wilking speaking from the pulpit she learned that "there were no limitations where one could serve in the Kingdom of God." Though Blanks was drawn to and inspired by the church, she was reluctant to step into a public leadership role. She described herself to CBB as an "introvert," who was somewhat withdrawn as a child but eventually found the strengh to overcome this fear through her faith.

Blanks excelled as a student in the Newark public school system and graduated in the top twenty-five members of her class. After high school, Blanks entered Rutgers University's Douglass Residential College in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she obtained a bachelor's degree in political science. Driven by what she described to CBB as a "deep and abiding commitment to justice," Blanks first wanted to pursue a career in law. Toward the end of her undergraduate years, however, Blanks experienced a revelation that convinced her to follow a religious path.

Pursued Studies in Theology

Blanks described the moment she decided to pursue a religious career in This Is My Story: "As the saints of old would say, ‘knee bent and body bowed,’ in a college dorm room, I said yes to the Lord, and began the journey that would forever change and challenge my life." The decision was partially inspired by her college pastor Reverend Henry A. Hildebrand, whose sermons and counseling steered her back toward the church.

Blanks entered a graduate program at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia, where she was one of three women, including her Rutgers classmate and friend Dietra C. Bell, pursuing degrees in divinity. Blanks found two female mentors at ITC who helped her to develop her ideas about the role of women in the church. In This Is My Story, Blanks wrote about a particular sermon given by one of her mentors, Dr. Jacquelyn Grant, in which Grant used the invocation, "Mother-Father God," to begin her sermon. "That was the beginning of a new way of imagining and envisioning God that transformed my thinking and my life," Blanks recalled.

Blanks remembered her years at ITC as among the best in her life and among the most important developmental years for her career. "I know that the three-year journey at ITC liberated me as a preacher of the gospel," Blanks wrote in This Is My Story, "and grounded me as a woman of faith to be a radical representative for the kingdom's sake in the world."

Served as a Navy Chaplain

As she prepared for her graduation in 1983, Blanks searched for a ministry that would fulfill her personal goals. She decided to become a military chaplain because she believed the military would allow her access to a diverse and changing audience and would provide experiences that would challenge both her personality and faith. She was accepted into the U.S. Navy as an active duty chaplain and assigned to the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, Rhode Island.

At a Glance …

Born Deborah Kathleen Blanks on December 2, 1958, in Mount Vernon, NY. Military service: U.S. Navy, lieutenant commander, 1983-94. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal Church. Education: Rutgers University, BA, political science, 1980; Interdenominational Theological Center, MA, divinity, 1983; Princeton Theological Seminary, MA, theology, 1990.

Career: United States Navy, chaplain, 1983-93; Brown University, assistant university chaplain, 1994-97; Princeton University, associate dean of religious life, 1997—.

Memberships: Association for College and University Religious Affairs, president; New Jersey Board of Examiners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, board member; Princeton Senior Resource Center, board member; Community House, Princeton University, advisory board member.

Awards: James H. Clark Preaching Award, Turner Theological Seminary, 1983; Navy Service Medal, U.S. Navy, 1989; National Defense Service Medal, U.S. Navy, 1993; Naval Commendation Award, U.S. Navy, 1993; Princetonian Ray of Light, Princeton University, 2002; Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers Inductee, Morehouse College, 2003.

Addresses: Office—179 South Harrison St., Princeton, NJ 08540.

Blanks was one of two African Americans in her class at the Naval Chaplains School, and though she was enthusiastic to serve a diverse congregation, she was soon faced with the realities of sexism and religious discrimination, largely as directed by other members of the pastorate. Blanks remembered her seven-week training period as one of the most difficult times in her life and was relieved when her instruction ended and she was transferred to the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia.

At the Portsmouth hospital Blanks was responsible for ministering to a 500-bed facility, and she designed and implemented a clinical orientation program for student officers and reserve members of the Chaplain Corps. Blanks also served as a junior member of the Bio-Medical Ethics Committee and the Sexual Assault Committee. In 1989 Blanks entered a postgraduate education program through Princeton University and received a second master's degree in theology in 1990. She then served as a chaplain at the Marine Corps base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where she had a congregation of 6,000 military members and dependents in the largest housing complex in the Marine Corps. She was the recipient of both the Naval Service Defense Medal and the Naval Commendation Award in 1993 for her years of dedicated service.

Entered Academia

During her ten years with the Navy, Blanks felt that she was repeatedly made to suffer sexism and racism from her peers and superiors. Given this, she was relieved to leave the Chaplain Corps in 1993 and looked forward to finding a more welcoming position elsewhere. A friend contacted her about an assistant university chaplain position at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Blanks spent some time contemplating her future and realized, as she wrote in This is My Story, "my calling was to embody the presence of the sacred in a secular setting."

In the academic world Blanks found the same racially, educationally, and ethnically diverse audience that attracted her to the Navy and also found peers that offered her a welcoming and instructive atmosphere. Blanks's superior and mentor, Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, helped her to adjust to and excel in her new position. "Rev. Cooper Nelson embodied the essence of excellence as a pastor on a university campus," Blanks wrote, " and became the perfect role model and mentor for my next chapter of pastoral ministry."

During her three years at Brown University, Blanks found that the challenges and rewards of academic ministry suited her personality and her gifts as an ambassador of the church. She found it rewarding to minister to individuals who would go on to become leaders in the future of society. Among her accomplishments at Brown, Blanks served as a member of the Racial Discrimination Policy and Procedures Committee and helped to establish policy for the management and intervention of racial harassment issues on campus.

Blanks's decision to leave Brown was based on personal concerns. After more than a decade away from home, she wanted to be closer to her family in New Jersey and chose a position at Princeton University. Blanks became an assistant dean of religious life at Princeton in 1997 and the third African American to serve as dean of religious life at a major university in the United States. Blanks was promoted to co-dean in 2001 and associate dean in 2002.

During her time at Princeton, Blanks implemented a number of programs for the university. She was one of the faculty members responsible for ministering to students following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and helped to organize interdenominational prayer vigils and meetings. She was also responsible for organizing the Princeton Achievement Alliance (PAA), which helped to create a mentoring program for first-year students at the university and also helped to create the Religious Life Council, in which students of different faiths meet to discuss issues regarding communication and coexistence.

Blanks believed that God guided her throughout her career and chose obstacles and challenges that would help her grow as a pastor. "Only God could call a shy, quiet teenager and raise her up to be a voice in the church, military chaplaincy, and academy for such a time as this," she wrote in This Is My Story. From her role in academia Blanks influenced the lives of many students, and she considered herself privileged to serve in this capacity. "Nothing is impossible to one who believes and works diligently to bring things into fruition," she told CBB. "I would encourage African Americans entering higher education to have faith in God, faith in themselves, to dream big, work hard, and choose a path in life that they are passionate about—something that gives them great joy every day."

Selected writings

Contributor

Larue, Cleophus James, ed.,This Is My Story: Testimonies & Sermons of Black Women in Ministry, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Sources

Books

LaRue, Cleophus James, ed., This Is My Story: Testimonies & Sermons of Black Women in Ministry, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Periodicals

Ebony, October 1, 2005.

Online

"Office of Religious Life," Princeton University, http://web.princeton.edu/sites/chapel/deans07.html (accessed May 28, 2008).

Other

Additional information for this biography was taken from an interview with Deborah K. Blanks conducted via e-mail on May 26, 2008.

—Micah L. Issitt

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