Spring 2009 | by Kay Wible
Angela Shannon and Rohan Preston share common bonds—literary talent, love of the arts, a 15-year marriage, two daughters, and Bethel University. Both are highly respected writers on the Twin Cities arts scene, and now, as faculty members at Bethel, they’re both broadening the cultural horizons of students.
Shannon, an assistant professor of English, teaches creative writing, college writing, and poetry. Preston, the lead theatre critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is Bethel’s current journalist-in-residence; he also teaches the English course Topics in the Arts, and is helping coordinate a fall conference at Bethel on Faith and the Arts.
Shannon has a bachelor’s degree in theater from Florida State University and a master’s in fine arts from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She grew up in higher education. Her father, John L. Smith, is past president of Fisk University and her mother, Juel Smith, taught at the University of South Florida.
Born in Jamaica, Preston grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has a degree in English from Yale. A prolific essayist, poet, and journalist, he was a news stringer for the New York Times and later, an arts critic with the Chicago Tribune. Though his wife was part of Chicago’s thriving theatre community during the same time, it was at a lecture by civil rights activist Cornel West where the couple met in 1990. Before long, they were attending church and going to plays together, and married in 1993.
The couple connected to Bethel after they moved to Minnesota 11 years ago. Shannon’s book of poetry, Singing the Bones Together, a 2004 Minnesota Book Awards finalist, caught the eye of Donna Johnson, who was then associate campus pastor at Bethel. Johnson invited Shannon to campus for a poetry reading, which later linked Shannon to an open faculty position. Now her poetry and dramatic talents enrich the entire Bethel community, most recently at a musical-literary revue as part of 2009 Black History Month, and as narrator of her own sacred poetry for the 2008 Festival of Christmas.
Preston’s first brush with Bethel was two years ago as a panelist in the annual Journalism Through the Eyes of Faith conference, which explores the role of faith in media. Impressed with his insight and experience, journalism professor Phyllis Alsdurf invited Preston to serve as journalist-in-residence. He joined the English department last fall, and now walks his students through his process of writing theater criticism; he helps provide front-row seats to various theater productions so they can write their own reviews.
Both Preston and his wife bring a lifelong faith tradition to their classrooms. “My faith is part of my family heritage,” Shannon says. “I pray for my students, and I’m always looking for God in whatever we’re exploring.”
“My family was involved in both Baptist and Catholic churches in Jamaica,” adds Preston, who has fond memories of reading the Bible aloud to his great-grandmother as a child. “I try to honor God with the knowledge and techniques I impart in the classroom.”
Preston is author of a collection of poetry, Dreams in Soy Sauce, and co-editor of the anthology Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence. Fitting for poets, the Psalms provide their favorite scriptural inspiration. “They speak to the soul,” Shannon says.
Besides game nights with daughters Adisa, 6, and Adera, 11, the couple enjoys reading together and theatre outings. In January, the family shared history as part of the throngs in Washington, D.C. who watched Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Preston won an editorial award for his work on “A Dream Fulfilled,” a package of video, still photography, and words, capturing President Obama’s election.
Says Alsdurf, “They are people of uncommon grace and generosity who take real delight in sharing their literary gifts and their wealth of connections with those of us at Bethel.”