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Inspired by Bishop Bell

Inspired by Bishop Bell

Michelle Tedford March 13, 2020

Dara Delgado coined a phrase to describe herself: “Ecumenically confused.”

She says it with a laugh, but as a long-time student of religion — she received her doctorate in religious studies from UD in December — and a soon-to-be professor of religious studies and Christianity at Allegheny College, the question is bound to come up: “What religion are you?” The long answer also sheds light on why she found UD to be such a perfect fit.

Dara Delgado, wearing a hat and glasses, gestures in conversation in our photosFirst, to her origins: Her family was originally Methodist, but when her grandmother converted to the American Pentecostal tradition, the rest of family did as well. Delgado was also raised with a strong Catholic influence, growing up in an Italian Catholic enclave in Utica, New York, and attending Catholic schools. “I could do everything but go to the Lord’s table,” she said. “I was raised Christian in a traditional Christian home, but with a little Pentecostal spice on top.”

Fast forward to 2013 to a moment when Delgado, a new mother, is multitasking: She’s rocking her infant daughter in a baby seat with her foot while editing an old master’s paper for publication, all the while thinking about that dream she had to someday earn her doctorate. With the support of her husband, Iván, she began filling out applications for doctoral programs.

“I can’t tell you how the University of Dayton popped up on my radar,” she said. But she remembers being impressed by the diversity of dissertation topics that came out of UD’s program. Her interactions with faculty members confirmed UD was a place where she could explore the origins as well as the intersections of faith.

“You’re encouraged to dig deeper and go wider but to also think in different ways that you maybe didn’t originally,” she said. “That was a selling point before I got here, and it was the confirmation once I got here.”

It was during a conversation with the professor of her evangelicalism and fundamentalism course, William Trollinger, that she shared her interest in a little known-figure in the American Pentecostal church, Bishop Ida Bell Robinson.

“I was curious about her, but there was little scholarship around her,” Delgado said. “When I shared the encyclopedic version of her story with Dr. Trollinger, the look in his eyes was a child at Christmas. He stopped me dead in my tracks and said, ‘Dara, that’s your dissertation topic.’”

Her research would eventually take her to Teaneck, New Jersey. It’s where the Bell family still lives and, coincidentally, where Delgado’s family was from.  

“All of my young life, I had been riding a bike up and down their neighborhood streets, probably being very loud and disruptive, not knowing,” she said.

Over a Thanksgiving holiday during a visit with extended family, Delgado dressed her family in their Sunday best and took them to the church where the bishop’s family are still pastors, Bethel Holy Church-Mount Sinai.

“The congregation was amazingly warm and welcoming and hospitable,” she said. “And it was a surreal moment for me to be in a space where I knew that Ida Bell had been.”

The bishop, who died in 1946, founded the Mount Sinai Holy Church of America, which today has approximately 100 congregations in six countries, including the United States. Delgado spent time with the church’s historian, Bishop Minerva Bell — who married into the family — and reviewed more than 25 years of the church’s denominational records from its founding until after Robinson’s death.

“She is my best friend in my head, and I enjoy talking about her a great deal,” said Delgado, who added that Robinson still has a lot of teach.

“She’s not just a Pentecostal figure,” Delgado said. “She is a woman, a person who is significant to American history, American religious history, black history, women’s history. ... She existed during such a high point in our American religious history, our American history, she’s a part of this fabric that’s doing a lot of things: She’s around during World War II, and she’s pastoring people during the Depression, and she is in the thick of Jim/Jane Crow. And so she’s operating not in this little corner pocket; she’s in a major metropolitan area and she’s being seen, she’s allowing her body — her physical black female body — to be seen and to be heard. And she’s actually demanding it in some ways. So she’s got a lot to say about the period, and she’s got a lot to say to us about where we’re headed in terms of gender justice and race justice and religious rights.

“And so the story goes beyond the dissertation and hopefully it moves from the University of Dayton into the larger world.”

UD's four female doctoral grads in religious studies