Photojournalist who became school bus driver earns doctorate at Asbury Seminary

Gabriel Tait gave up a newspaper career to answer the call of a religious life.
Gabriel Tait gave up a newspaper career to answer the call of a religious life.

As Asbury Theological Seminary celebrates its 90th anniversary Saturday, at least one graduating student is breaking new ground.

While the school doesn't keep official records on such things, Gabriel Tait is likely to be the first photojournalist-turned-bus driver-turned-Ph.D. at the seminary.

"It takes a particular character to give up a lucrative profession and drive a bus to accomplish your larger goal," said Steven Ybarrola, a professor of cultural anthropology and Tait's mentor.

Ybarrola and Tait came to campus the same year, 2006. Tait had worked as a photojournalist for the Detroit Free Press and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He had a big house, a well-paying job and a family, but he felt a calling toward a religious life.

He heard about Asbury from friends but knew little about it. Somehow he found himself crying while looking at pictures of the campus online. Tait knew "there was something going on" and Asbury was the place he had to go.

Moving from St. Louis to Wilmore was a culture shock for Tait, his wife Ilka and their sons, Devon, now 15, and Galen, 10.

"The move," he said, "was absolutely huge."

The family sold $30,000 in stock to cover his first year at school and he soon took up driving a bus for Jessamine County Schools to help make ends meet.

As he finished up his master's degree, Tait started to get restless again. "It kind of threw me," he said. But, after discussions with his wife, he soon enrolled in the Ph.D. program.

Ybarrola said the two worked together to create a project that could merge Tait's passion for mission work with his skill as a photographer.

What they came up with was a twist on traditional mission photography where the missionaries chronicle the lives they are helping. Tait said the idea had roots in his childhood. Growing up in a primarily black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, he rarely saw published pictures that looked like his neighbors and family.

His idea was to allow the people being helped through mission work take their own photographs as a way of explaining to the outsiders what was valued and important to them.

He tried the method on a mission trip to Liberia with great success, he said.

"You can really learn about people if you let them shoot their own photographs and then tell you about them," he said.

Ybarrola said "you are really trying to let the others speak for themselves through photography. That is totally different from what most people do when they do mission photography."

Tait said the mission work, like that trip to Liberia, have been life changing.

But, he said, so has his work driving a school bus.

Ybarrola said he's not surprised Tait finds a way to make his job meaningful.

"Gabe is a really great guy," Ybarrola said. "He is someone who has a big personality. He really reaches out to people and connects to them in a special way."

He said as one of the few black male bus drivers in the district, he see his four-hour route as a chance to inspire kids to always keep striving. He said he shares stories about his mission trips with his students, who range from elementary through high school. He also talks to them about the degree he will receive on Saturday.

After leaving journalism in 2006, Tait is actually returning to the Fourth Estate. He's been hired as a professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. But, he said, he will take his Christian message with him into his new work. "I'm a Christian. I am a believer," he said. "That is who I am."

Ybarrola said Tait will put what he's learned at Asbury to good use as an educator. "I think what will be great is that he himself has a different lens with which to view culture," he said.