Returning Home to Lead and Serve: Daniel Heath Takes Helm of New Davidson Forum
Daniel Heath loved everything about Davidson College at first sight.
He arrived on campus at 14, excited to participate in the Love of Learning summer enrichment program led by the late Brenda Tapia. Those summers at Davidson would shape his life and create lasting relationships.
Heath went on to earn advanced degrees in law, music education and theology. He’s now back as the first director of the newly created Davidson Forum, a platform to explore the intersections of the Reformed theological tradition, liberal arts education, religious pluralism and social ethics.
The Davidson Forum will include lectures, seminars, workshops and experiential learning led by the college’s faculty and scholars from other institutions. They’ll cover topics spanning from history to economics, science and religious studies. The intent: To put Davidson’s educational and ethical values to work toward diverse, equitable and just communities.
“I’m thrilled to have a creative license to dream and build upon the work that’s already started,” Heath said. “We are a community that includes people who are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic, or hold a variety of other religious and philosophical worldviews. How do we live in a world together and together celebrate or at least be open and curious about others’ differences?”
The Davidson Forum springs from the Trustee-appointed 2021 Reformed Tradition Working Group’s recommendations for intellectual discourse about the college’s 21st century educational mission in relation to its religious origins and Presbyterian Church (USA) affiliation. The Academic Affairs initiative falls under the leadership of Doug Ottati, the Craig Family Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice.
“Religious studies have not remained still, and Davidson reflects that,” Ottati said. “The Reformed tradition is a worldwide movement, and while what we do here will be distinctive, we want it to be in conjunction with efforts going on in places as close as Charlotte and as far as Cape Town, South Africa.
“We’re excited to have Daniel here. He’s a good, energetic person who’s interested in people having the opportunities to learn about a plurality of faith traditions.”
Heath most recently worked as the student life resident at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Divinity degree. He’s currently finishing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Columbia Theological Seminary. Besides his academic life, he founded and is lead consultant for Church 21, a venture to support faith communities. He’s a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA. In addition to leading the Davidson Forum, he’s excited to also serve half-time as Davidson’s newest associate chaplain.
The move is a return to home for Heath, who grew up in Charlotte, attended Independence High School, and first encountered Davidson through Love of Learning. The program Tapia conceived and started at Davidson’s request aimed to prepare middle and high school students from underrepresented communities for college and successful lives.
“We had a strong relationship, I knew her very well, and was saddened when she died,” Heath said. “She would call me, and I would call her to check in. Love of Learning was so formative, I got to live on a college campus at 14 at a time not many Black students, faculty or administrators were at Davidson. The program was impactful to me, and she was impactful to me. She wanted to make sure we were ready for the world God has gifted and equipped us to lead. I couldn’t help being influenced by her.”
After graduating from Morehouse College with Phi Beta Kappa honors, Heath earned his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
His life took a few unexpected turns.
As a kid, he’d dreamed about becoming the second Black mayor of Charlotte (“Anthony Foxx ’93 beat me to it.”). He planned to major in political science, but when he returned home after his first semester at college, his beloved piano teacher, the late Clara Jones, made him rethink that. She saw him far more passionate about pursuing his musical talents—composing and playing multiple instruments—and urged him to consider what he really wanted.
He majored in music, then went on to law school to become an entertainment lawyer. Opportunities awaited in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Nashville, but family ties kept bringing him back to Charlotte and away from that law career.
His wife, Katrina, also grew up in Charlotte—they met as teenage volunteer Candy Stripers at the old Presbyterian Hospital. Both have close-knit extended families, and they wanted to raise their sons, Jackson, 14, and Jordan, 9, in that mix. Their family includes his sister, Jennifer Heath ‘06.
Heath taught at West Charlotte High School for several years before becoming the contemporary worship and arts director at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. Along the way, he collected a Master of Arts degree in music education from Winthrop University and continued his theology studies.
College Chaplain Rob Spach and Heath met years ago through a Davidson and Covenant Presbyterian Church partnership. Heath describes Spach as a mentor and shadowed him to learn more about the role of a college chaplain.
Spach says he’s learned from Heath.
“I’ve always been very appreciative of him, and there were times in the past that he gave me valuable insights into students’ backgrounds,” Spach said. “I’m delighted to have him as a colleague. He’s so positive and people are drawn to him. He’s got tremendous compassion and brings a wisdom and respect for all people that is exactly what we want and need.”
A Liberal Arts Perspective
Heath wants to build on Davidson’s long-standing commitment to liberal arts education. That includes previous studies of its own history, in areas such as its complicity and benefitting from the work of enslaved laborers, as documented by the college’s Commission on Race and Slavery.
He’s met with Hilary Green, the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies, to explore that history more. Other programs will have scholars addressing how religious beliefs influence political, economic, educational and environmental views.
His return to Davidson comes with a certainty.
“I knew as soon as I set foot on campus that we were moving back,” he said. “It was like this divine connection—the arc of my returning to the place I came to at the age of 14, a place that shaped me. I had tears in my eyes when I walked past Richardson (Residence Hall)—I spent so many summers living there.
“To combine Davidson’s mission and resources and all the work they’ve done toward this gave me a sign that I could serve my purpose here.”