Radical Reconciliation: Witnessing Justice at Witherspoon Street

imageOn Sunday, April 24th, I delivered the benediction at my church, immediately hopped in my car, and drove some three hours away to Princeton, New Jersey to attend a very special service at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. It was a worship service “Witnessing for Unity, Reconciliation, and Healing,” correcting a more than a century-old injustice imposed upon the congregation by its own Presbytery.

programIn 1879, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church called its first black pastor, the Reverend William Drew Robeson (you may also know him as the father of Paul Robeson). Rev. Robeson served Witherspoon Street for twenty-one years before the pastoral relationship was dissolved by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. By all accounts, his removal was racially motivated. Robeson was an ardent opponent of Jim Crow and was a force in the church and community for the rights Princeton’s Negro community. The congregation vocally opposed dissolving the pastoral relationship, and his removal severely decimated its membership (see the story explained at Presbyterian Outlook).

This week’s worship service was the culmination of efforts on the part of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the Synod of the Northeast to rectify a racially motivated injustice that left a church ravaged and a minister and his family in dire straits. Acts of restitution have included a public apology from the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the forgiving of the remainder of the debt on the Robeson House, which the church had to sell after Rev. Robeson’s departure but was able to repurchase in 2005. A series of powerful acts indeed by a Synod determined to live into its call to racial justice and a Presbytery that understands that, even though no one living was guilty of these injustices, to paraphrase remarks given at the service, those who are here now are yet responsible.

And it only took 115 years.

There I worshiped with sisters and brothers from throughout and beyond the area, from all different races, backgrounds, and walks of life, all committed to justice and reconciliation, and I thought about how chronological distance might be facilitating such an act. I suspect it’s easier to apologize and make restitution for something from which we have a good amount space (the distance helps us see it clearer). It’s much more difficult to reconcile and apologize for something that’s more “fresh.”

At my denomination’s General Assembly this summer, an overture offering an apology to the LGBTQ community for harms done will come before the body for a vote. So far, the overture has been received in a variety of ways, ranging from enthusiastic support to concerned rebuke, and some offering compromise on the parts that may be viewed as problematic. It’s certainly one overture to watch as we go into our proceedings this summer. Yet, I often wonder how this overture would have been received if it were presented 10, 20, or even 50 years from now, once some distance has been created. It has only been five years since ordination of LGBTQ candidates was allowed in our denomination, and a little over one year since same-sex marriage rites were permitted. Similarly, we have overtures calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, offering an apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and acknowledging and reconciling for killing Korean civilians in July 1950. None of those overtures have elicited the same response or fervor as the one calling for an apology to our LGBTQ family.  Is our reaction to this particular overture informed by our proximity to what it addresses? I have no answers; I simply wonder.

Sunday’s service certainly has me thinking about reconciliation — when it’s easiest to do, when it’s hardest to do, and what realizations facilitate it. And I hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in my spirit, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” I would hope that when institutional sins and injustices are brought to light, or when we recognize there are breaches that must be repaired, we courageously address those things and do so sooner than later. Witherspoon Street should not have had to wait 115 years for justice and reconciliation, but Sunday’s moment gives me hope. It gives me hope that the breaches we’ll bravely face this summer can and will be repaired. I don’t know what the final outcome will look like, but I have faith that it won’t take over a century to do it this time.

On Not Being the “Safe” One

Photo Credit: The Bold Italic
Photo Credit: The Bold Italic

While at the NEXT Church National Gathering last week, I engaged in a number of conversations about race. Some were about encounters with race and racism. Others were about racial justice. But the one that was most resonant for me was a conversation I had with a few other people of color about representation. In that discussion, and in subsequent conversations I would have with other people of color, we talked about what happens when people of color are “at the table” in conversations and in leadership. An interesting phenomenon occurs: it becomes obvious to us very soon that we are there because it is assumed we are “safe.”

By “safe,” I mean that we are expected to (no  pun intended) color the conversation, but not necessarily challenge assumptions. We are there to basically affirm the direction of the mostly-white entity and assure them they are on the right track. They may even value our input or our push-back, but that doesn’t mean it’s well-received when it’s given.

This is the case even in spaces where people have the best intentions. They really do want to hear from you, but that’s the nature of white privilege — it’s not used to being challenged. They may want you there, but they hadn’t entirely counted the cost of your presence. This is why I’m very selective of the “tables” at which I sit, and the teams and boards on which I sit are the ones who “get it”. I am prepared to bring me — all of me — but those with whom I sit must be prepared to receive it all.

So, on that note, I just want to make a general appeal to all my beloved white friends and colleagues: Please don’t expect me to be the “safe” one. I’m not her. I can’t be her.

I will be laudatory when praise is due. I will be supportive, genial, and pastoral, because that’s what I aim to be in my interactions with all. What I won’t do is placate. What I won’t do is soften harsh realities to spare sensibilities. As a pastor, I care deeply about your feelings, but I care nothing about your fragility. Because I care about you, I’m not going to let you do well-intentioned harm (especially if I am the one in harm’s way).

Thankfully, most of the people in my life don’t ask that I bring anything less than myself when in their presence, which is largely why I call them “friends.” There is so much freedom in being able to give audience to a voice that would be otherwise marginalized. I offer that none of us will ever be free as long as we give so much power to our fragility. That fragility is the biggest obstacle to justice, I argue, because people will go to great lengths to protect themselves and their notion of their inherent goodness, remaining unaware of the harm they continue to perpetuate. Know that if you invite me to a conversation, I will bring my own words. I will tell my own truth, not with the intention of attacking or making anyone else feel bad, but because I know my truth is valid. I will be the one who lovingly challenges you to do and be better, so that we can all get free! Trust me, I love you, but if you respect me, you will not expect me to be “safe.”

When Healers Need Healing, Too: On Why It Is Important How We Witness

Today’s read is the second in a series of guest posts from Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Charnessa K. Pleasant. Charnessa is sharing a series on the importance of self-care in the work of activism.


Charnessa K. Pleasant, LCSW, MLS
Charnessa K. Pleasant, LCSW, MLS

You know, on most days, I really dislike my relationship with social media.  I seriously do! I am one of those people that when the alarm goes off at 5:30am, my phone is the first thing that I grab (I’m really working on being consistent on thanking God for seeing another day, I really am, ya’ll).  I grab that phone and I check all social media sites to see what I’ve missed.  And without fail, it doesn’t take long for me to reach a point in my timeline where I hit the one story that attempts to set the tone for my day.  Pick any one: the blockage of federal funding for Flint, Michigan; the refusal to hear Supreme Court nominations during the current administration; MSNBC parting ways with Melissa Harris-Perry”, the shooting of another African-American male in Salt Lake City, Utah.   After some time, I begin to see recurring articles, even articles that were published years ago that speaks to events that are happening in today’s climate.  I immediately begin to feel overwhelmed and heavy in spirit because it becomes all too much.  So, I keep scrolling along to the next postings rarely stopping to give space or voice the feelings that were provoked due to the previous post.

I want to speak a bit on the intersection of witnessing, activism and self-care and why it matters as to how we witness when we talk about self-care.  The notion of witnessing is one of personal significant to me.  In 2008, I found myself at a crossroads in my personal life.  Without belaboring the story, all of my coping mechanisms had shut down, any set of skills I had for managing my life were totally worn out.  I was stalled out in life.  It wasn’t until after several years in therapy (yes, I am a therapist who has a therapist) that I finally gained a gem of insight as to what was happening to me in 2008:  I was moving through life (similar to how we scroll) without fully witnessing.  Let me provide some context for what I mean by witnessing. To witness, by definition, is: [noun] an “individual who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing; a beholder, spectator, or eyewitness”; [verb]: “to bear witness to”.

When I say that I was moving through life without witnessing, it’s not in the way that you may be thinking.  I was fully aware of my lived experiences, trauma, pain, etc.  I would sit in my therapist’s office for weeks and run my story up and down; what happened, who the players were, the coping skills that I used (which included narratives that I told myself about what was going on).  I had witnessed it, for sure…or so I thought. It wasn’t until my therapist introduced one simple concept that changed the way that I interacted with myself from that point forward: the concept of curiosity.  She sank my battleship! What I realized today is that up until 2008, parts of my life has been witnessed in the noun form of witnessing; I was a beholder, an eyewitness to things external of me.  When my therapist introduced the tool of curiosity, I shifted from being a visual witness to a witness who bore (verb: to carry, hold; to birth).  What she was challenging me to do was to set aside the events that I experienced and to bring forth the emotions that it triggered.  This.Was.Heavy.Work!

We witness well with our sight while paying little to no attention when we witness by way of our emotions or intuition. We come by this behavior rather innocently as we do not live in a society that supports or cultivates effective and meaningful leadership of self, which requires us to rely a great deal on listening intuitively.  There are experiences taking place within us that pierces past our visual sight; a conversation being held about where we are hurt and what we need.  As I mentioned in my previous piece, we have a tendency to override this second layer of witnessing and in doing so, it has the potential to start a rapid decline in our mental and emotional wellness. So, why is how we witness important in social justice activism and our self-care?

Let’s go back to the beginning of this piece.  I started out talking about my experience while scrolling my social media timeline.  On first glance, I am reading story after story on all kinds of topics that are of importance to me: domestic violence, gender and racial inequality; discrimination.  As I read, I am witnessing the shit that we do to one another.  Immediately, I am hit with anger and frustration so I scroll along while completely ignoring the fact that I am still suspended in anger and frustration.  I do nothing with it (that I’m aware of).  So I go on about my day, I throw myself in my work; I repost these articles feverishly with the hashtag #staywoke.  I engage in heated dialogues; I through my hands up when I see that people “just don’t get it”.  I come home exhausted….and I am still unsettled in my spirit.

Ok, hit pause!  Had I taken the time to become curious about my anger and frustration, what I would have really gotten to was how helpless I feel when I read about these events.  Curiosity would have me sit with the feelings of what it is like to feel helpless, afraid and scared; to not feel protected.  Anger is an easy state of being to access and we have endless [most times harmful] coping mechanism to help us ease anger.  I am not arguing for or against anger; it most certainly has its place.  The fire and passion that accompanies anger serves as a primary catalyst that motivates us towards activism. We may convince ourselves that “the cause” is larger than my feeling.  I may even give myself a half hearted pep talk and get back on my grind because at the end of the day, a mother is without her child; a family has been torn apart; someone has been hospitalized, [insert your field of advocacy here]. So we keep going….unsettled and all

However, helplessness and fear requires a different kind of attention from us and these emotions and feelings are oftentimes neglected as we advocate for forward progress. It requires a raw vulnerability with oneself, one’s abilities and one’s limitations.  For me, it forces me to acknowledge that progress is slow that the road to change may have a lifespan that is longer than my natural life. This is the narrative of my witness that bears and carries the heaviness.  I get why we hate to acknowledge it…I get it.  But I also understand that in acknowledging the emotions invoked by my secondary witness, I learn to hear clearer what I need in that moment: a hug, reassurance; someone to hold space as I grieve.  It’s from this place that I learn to give myself permission to step back as I see fit because I understand that it is really okay to take care of myself AND come back to advocating when I am recharged and well. This is where meaningful self-care takes place.


 

Charnessa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina where she currently serves as a therapist in community mental health. Her private practice, The Healing Collaborative, PLLC, focuses on address the needs of women’s emotional health and wellness.   She received her B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and earned Masters in both Women and Gender Studies and Social Work from Eastern Michigan University. She currently resides in North Carolina with her husband where she enjoys discovering micro-breweries, catching up with her DVR and perusing the aisles at her local bookstore. Find her on Periscope at @thehealingcollab, on IG at @thehealingcollaborativepllc or email her at wishnwellness@gmail.com if you want to learn more about her approach to the world of mental health and wellness.

Our New Day Begun – 2016 Recap

 

ournewdaybegun2016

Another installment of Our New Day Begun is in the books, and I feel incredibly blessed to have heard from some dynamic leaders in our denomination. A few closing observations:

1 – None of those featured are “cradle Presbyterians.” Like me, everyone I spoke to had come to the denomination from another (or no) tradition. I was surprised by this, actually. I expected at least one of them to have been in the PC(USA) from childhood. And I wonder about the implications of that.

My colleague, Aric Clark, recently posed the question of what the PC(USA) will look like in the future. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I replied, “Browner.” But that’s not a joke, or even a misty hope; it seems to be a trend. And I find it fascinating that these leaders came from somewhere else, bringing with them those perspectives and experiences to this tradition. It’s apparent to me that we’re being called here. What is God saying in that? If I were to posit what it means, perhaps it means our denomination must resist any temptation to be insular in our thinking, and be open — truly open — to the “new” things God desires to do with us. We do not and will never again look like the denomination of reunification, and that’s a good thing.

2 – They are saying the things we need to hear. I loved all of what they had to say, but there are nuggets that I think are especially resonant and need to be heard.

When asked what he most appreciated about our tradition, Carlton Johnson said, “I most appreciate the PCUSA’s interest in matters of social justice, both locally and around the world.  I most appreciate this because I believe it to be consistent with the primary interest of the God of the Oppressed and Jesus the Christ who was very clear of his call ‘to bring good news to the poor.'” I do hope we continue to make him proud in this area, and not abandon this important witness.

Aqueelah Ligonde lauds the contributions of Black Presbyterians to this denomination: “As a whole, I believe that the voices, hands, and hearts of Black Presbyterians have helped to shape conversations and propel movements for the denomination. I think the contributions and dedication of Black Presbyterians has given life to this Church and will continue to give life as we explore new ways to engage and embrace each other across the board.”

Similarly, Perzavia Praylow shares how she has been inspired by the contributions of Black Presbyterians: “…even before I became a member of a Presbyterian church or attended a Presbyterian seminary, I developed an interest in the social and civil contributions of Black Presbyterians in the development of our nation, particularly in the southern United States.”

And yet, Eric Thomas encourages us to look intently to the future: While traditions are important, my experience is that young people aren’t interested in being replicas of their grandparents. Times have changed, and in many locations around the country young folks ‘get it’ in terms of multiculturalism, communications, various expressions of gender and sexual identities, and other multiplicities that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are still trying to catch up to.”

Finally, Joseph Morrow warns us not to make inclusion about numbers: ” To put such a goal at the center of our witness puts it in danger of becoming just another form of status seeking in a newly forming multicultural society. Rather than seek status through numbers, let us first seek God’s reign, justice and righteousness through ministry and learning with people of color.”

3 – Next year’s feature will, I hope, include African immigrants in the church and/or their children. Blackness is expansive. African immigrants are one of the fastest-growing demographics in our denomination. As Joseph Morrow put it, “There is an emerging generation of Black Presbyterians whose families hail from West and East Africa, who will add new dimensions to our cultural identity and its influence on the PC(USA) and US society.” These sisters and brothers come with their own perspective and understanding of their location in this tradition. I’m interested in hearing more about it.

4 – I remain encouraged and excited for our future. God continues to do something amazing, and is in large part using people of color to do it. As much as we may wrestle to find our voice here, it’s needed, and it’s needed because God says so. We have much work left to do, but I’m hopeful for an increasingly inclusive church and look forward to what God will do in and through this tradition.

Our New Day Begun – Eric Thomas

ericthomas

In our final edition of this year’s Our New Day Begun, I am so honored and excited to present Eric Thomas. Eric is a DCE in Brooklyn, progressing through the ordination process, and pursuing a PhD. He’s also a writer and presenter par excellence, and we are blessed to hear from him.


Tell us about your ministry. What are you currently doing?

E stole FPC 2I am the Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn (FPC) and am in my third year of study toward the PhD in Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Drew University in Madison, NJ. I’m also a Candidate for Ministry in the PC (USA). In both my church and academic work I advocate for people to honor their lived experiences in the process of making meaning of biblical texts, their own theologies, and the implications for the practice of their faith. This process takes on significant depth (in my opinion) when the experiences of women, racial-ethnicities, the spectrum of identities, sexualities, and physical abilities are taken seriously. In my academic work, the study takes the form of hermeneutics or the many lenses through which we can interpret texts. In my church work, being able to listen to each other’s stories reinforces that we are on different paths and parts of our Christian journey. The fact that we choose to journey together strengthens our awareness of being part of the body of Christ and agents of God’s justice. We’ve just completed a four-session series called “First Talks Race” where the members asked each other tough questions and listened to difficult answers especially having to do with privilege (white and otherwise). We brought these reflections into our current exploration of “The Beatitudes NOW” during the Lenten season.

You have a background in marketing and the arts. Tell us about that and how (if at all) it informs your ministry.

In most of the arts organizations I’ve worked with (including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Lincoln Center, National Black Arts Festival) my job was to connect people who did not ordinarily connect with the arts to opportunities to participate. I found that the most effective way to bridge the gap was to make an invitation of welcome on behalf of the institutions. There is a correlation between many “major” arts institutions and the “church” in terms of how they represent symbols that are signifiers of belonging or un-belonging. For example, most New Yorkers know Lincoln Center as a cultural icon but never go because they assume or have been taught there’s nothing there for them. The same can be said of churches. Many newcomers to FPC enter because the music draws them in – not the building, not the denomination, but the music. So much can be said about where the “church” “is” today, but part of our challenge seems that we aren’t bridging gaps towards welcome. Both the institutions of the arts and the Church can suffer from the intentional or unintentional assumption that new audiences /new members appreciate and strive towards what the institution has to offer. The inconvenient reality is that people live full lives without ever attending the symphony or a worship service.

What led you to seek ordination in the PC(USA), and how is the process going for you so far?

I grew up in an African American Baptist Church in the Bronx, but spent most of my college years being a soloist or “ringer” in multiple denominational churches. Many doors can open when you’re a tenor who sight-reads music. When I moved to Atlanta, I found a Presbyterian congregation that truly modeled what I thought “church” should be. That community called me out and suggested that I should think about seminary and the path to ordination. I knew that church music would always be part of my life (my grandparents sang in the Senior Choir, my aunts sang in the gospel choir, I had music lessons throughout childhood in the Bronx). It was quite a paradigm change to relocate myself physically and theologically from the choir loft to the pulpit. My teachers at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) helped me to realize that I had gifts at the intersection of academia and the church that I should cultivate. I was given significant opportunities for leadership in and as a representative of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. Members of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta were invaluable in their support of my ordination exam prep and general morale building. I am indebted and grateful to them (ITC, JCSTS, and Presbytery friends) for that. They model what it means to be “under care.”

Tell us about your Ph.D. studies.
My research in Biblical Studies and Early Christianity focuses on Africana Studies and Queer Theory as bases to foreground the lives of queer people of African descent. This work illuminates the problems of gender and sexuality in African American biblical interpretation which assumes a heterosexual subject, and the problems of race and class in queer biblical interpretation which assumes a white subject. It is complicated by geographical locations. My options as a same gender loving man in the NY/NJ area are different from those of a gender fluid person in Iowa, or a person of trans* experience in Kingston, Jamaica. However, we are real people who not only fight to survive socio-political circumstances, We. Read. Scripture. and thus fight to survive and thrive in religious communities. My work explores what happens when our lives are placed at the center of biblical interpretation.

E Janie SpahrWhat are your hopes for your ministry post-ordination?

I subscribe to the adage that we make plans and God laughs, but ultimately I want to be a Reverend Doctor. I would like to pastor a church and teach Biblical Studies (intro courses, exegetical electives, Koine Greek). It would be great to be able to combine cultural and literary studies with biblical exegesis to be able to teach classes like “Baldwin and the Bible,” etc. I hope to continue working with national and community groups that further the causes of LGBT inclusion (and actual hiring) in the Church, as well as with opportunities to support the #Blacklivesmatter movement at whatever local level that I end up in.

How can we encourage other young Black people to pursue leadership in our denomination?

I think we need to provide opportunities to hear from young Black people on their own terms. While traditions are important, my experience is that young people aren’t interested in being replicas of their grandparents. Times have changed, and in many locations around the country young folks “get it” in terms of multiculturalism, communications, various expressions of gender and sexual identities, and other multiplicities that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are still trying to catch up to. In an age of sermon streaming the preachers of our choice, iTunes, YouTube, SnapChat, Bible apps, and various hang out platforms, the older “we” have to determine how to make the congregational experience relevant for them, in ways that are relevant for them. It might mean considering other “young people” times and formats. It might mean “we” have to get out of the way.

 

Our New Day Begun – Dr. Perzavia Praylow

perzavia-praylowOn today’s Our New Day Begun, we meet Dr. Perzavia Praylow, history professor and Candidate under care of Trinity Presbytery. Currently in her last year of seminary, she is serving as supply pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, SC and as a 1001 New Worshipping Communities intern. Perzavia’s background and journey to ministry are incredibly intriguing, and I guarantee that if you don’t already know her, you will — and soon. She’s making moves!


You spent time in other Christian traditions. Tell us about your religious background and what led you to the PC(USA).

My roots stretch from the sky line of New Jersey where I was born to the Sea Islands of South, Carolina where my family originated. Both my faith journey and my education journey have been and continue to be two sides of the same coin. My faith journey begins in my early years as an undergraduate at Drew University—a small United Methodist college in Madison, NJ. My years as a student at Drew shaped my faith. Through campus ministry activities, mission trips to Honduras, study abroad to Ireland and Ghana, fellowshipping with faculty and students from Drew’s Theological School in the “Seminary Café,” I experienced God’s presence in my educational community at Drew.

My sense of call has been nurtured and shaped in church community with God’s people. From the moment that I formerly accepted Christ as my savior I have always been a member of a faith community. During my college years, my church home was Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, NJ. I was baptized at Calvary, a weekly participant of Sunday school and Wednesday Bible study and an organizer of our church’s campus ministry. Calvary was the church that nurtured me in the foundations of my faith. During my graduate doctoral study at The University of Illinois, I was a member of The Church of the Living God. During my nine years as a member at this church, my faith was lived out a lot by “doing” as I came to understand the gifts that God has given me for Christian service. I also accepted my call into the ministry. As a result, I was licensed and ordained as a minister and elder in The Church of The Living God. I served as an associate minister at The Church of the Living God for seven years. I came to believe strongly in the church and the transformation of people through the love of Christ and participation in the gathered community of the Christian church.

After graduating from The University of Illinois, I began teaching at Augusta State University in Augusta, GA. I have come to see teaching with college students and young adults as an important way that I could live out my call. Outside of the classroom, my time in the south thus far has also been driven by a desire to serve God through the ministries of the local church. During my first year in Augusta, I was an associate minister at a historic Baptist church. During my time of service in that faith community, I began to discern that God was reshaping my call to ministry leading me to pursue theological education.

perzavia2My reshaping process caused me to seek out seminaries in the greater Atlanta area. I began seminary at Columbia Seminary. My reshaping for ministry continued as I discerned that God was calling me to pursue candidacy for the ministry of Teaching Elder within the PC(USA). I have been a member New Faith Presbyterian Church since the start of my seminary journey. During my first few months at New Faith, I discerned a call to ordered ministry in the PC(USA) and began the process of becoming an inquirer.

After much prayer, I was led to pursue ordered ministry within the PC(USA) because of the possibilities for service in ministry in relation to my gifts including pastoral/congregational ministry, campus/ministry, new church development and teaching, research and service within PC(USA) related undergraduate and theological education. As I continue along my candidacy and seminary journey, I excited about the possibilities for service within both the local and broader church beyond my seminary studies.

Tell us about where you are in the ordination process and where you’re currently serving.

Currently, I am in my senior year of M.DIV studies as a student at Columbia Theological Seminary. I expect to graduate at the end of the Spring 2016 semester. I am currently a candidate for the ministry of Teaching Elder under Care of Trinity Presbytery located in South Carolina. My home church and congregation of care is New Faith Presbyterian Church. I’m excited that I’ve have successfully passed ordination exams and I’m currently preparing for my final examination related to candidacy. My candidacy process has been and continues to be a journey of growth and formation for ministry unto God within the PC(USA). I have been humbled by the support that I have received from my home congregation and Presbytery of care, the faculty and staff at Columbia seminary and from other teaching and ruling elders throughout the church.

perzavia3Currently, while completing final requirements for theological study at Columbia Seminary, I am serving in a new call as the Temporary Supply Pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. Calvary Presbyterian Church is a small and growing historic Presbyterian Church that is demographically African American. Calvary Presbyterian Church was founded in 1867 shortly after the Civil War. Calvary Presbyterian Church has a rich history of helping to support the development of schools and others churches throughout the greater Winnsboro community coupled with a history of community impact and outreach. I’m grateful to serve and journey alongside of this faith community during this season of transition and growth. I look forward to growing in my pastoral ministry as I continue to learn more about the heritage and ministry contributions of African American Presbyterians within the ministry context of Calvary Presbyterian Church.

In addition, besides my pastoral ministry at Calvary Presbyterian Church, I am currently serving as a 1001 New Worshiping Community Intern where I am engaging a new missional ministry endeavor in the great Columbia, S.C. region. I am grateful to be part of a cohort of interns who are each pursing new missional endeavors within contexts across the country. My training as a 1001 New Worshiping Community intern has been an important experience related to my discernment for ministry service. To read more about the work of the 1001 New Worshiping Community interns please visit this website: http://www.onethousandone.org/#!2015-interns/c1d5m.

In addition to your service to the church, you have a career in education. Tell us about that.

During my freshmen year of undergraduate studies at Drew University in New Jersey, I was enrolled in an African American history course that focused on the history of the Black experience in the United States from Reconstruction to the present. In that course, my first history paper compared and contrasted the educational philosophies of Booker T Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. From that very moment, I became intrigued about the history of African American education and how education was used as a tool of race uplift. In addition, as a student at a Christian liberal arts college, my life and aspirations were deeply impacted by one of my professors –Dr. Lillie Johnson Edwards– who taught African American history. I majored in everything that Dr. Edwards had to teach. Dr. Edwards is a dynamic educator who embraced her role as a college educator. She truly believed that to teach is to touch lives forever. She both inspired my interests in African American educational history and introduced me to undergraduate education as a viable career option.

My intellectual interests in history and the transforming impact of the vocation of teaching on my career aspirations inspired me to enroll in graduate studies at The University of Illinois where I completed a Ph.D in History and a Master of Arts degree in educational policy. Throughout my graduate course work, I developed interests in southern African American history, the history of education, twentieth century race relations and the history of the Christian church in social movements in the United States. My graduate studies in history also made me passionate about using historical knowledge as a tool for social justice. I firmly believe that we can’t began the important work and ministry of social justice and racial reconciliation if we don’t understand our past. Sankofa is a Ghanaian cultural symbol and concept which means to understand our present and to move forward into our future, we must look backwards and learn lessons from our past. As a result, we then can use the lessons from our past as a foundation for transformative living in our present and our future. I use Sankofa as a principle that shapes my ministry as a historian, a writer and an educator.

Since I was a freshman in college at Drew University, my dream has always been to be a college professor. I believe that will always be part of my call. In the middle of a tenure track teaching career at a four year intuition, I took the road less traveled and went to seminary. I’ve been on this amazing journey of discerning and pursing God’s ministry within and between the space of the church, academy and local community. I look forward to seeing how God will continue to navigate my paths between and beyond these spaces and places of service in the future.

At this present moment, I’m enjoying serving in pastoral ministry while learning from and continuing to be formed by the ministry of teaching as a part-time history professor at Benedict College –a historically Black private and Christian affiliated college in Columbia, S.C. My previous teaching career included employment in diverse public colleges and universities including The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Parkland Community College and Augusta State University. My experiences in the last few months at Benedict College have introduced me to the ranging of possibilities of teaching at Historically Black colleges and university. My student come from all over South Carolina, the United States, the Black Diaspora and other countries. I believe that my experiences as a college educator will continue to be part of my ministry to service to God’s church. Related to this, I find that I continually embrace opportunities that promote diversity and inclusion in higher education institutions ensuring that all people have access to higher education. I also believe in the importance of using teaching of history to prepare students to interact with others in our diverse society beyond their college experiences. Regardless of the context of ministry service, I believe that teaching young adults will be related to my service to the church.

What do you most appreciate about our tradition? What do you think needs to change?

What I appreciate most about our denomination and our tradition is that we are connectional. My candidacy processed has been deeply enrichment by opportunities to serve in numerous contexts throughout the broader church. Besides participating in the ministry endeavors of my seminary, Presbytery and congregation of care, I’ve served in other contexts. I’ve had opportunities serve as a supply preacher in congregations throughout Georgia and North and South Carolina. I’ve participated in conferences at Montreat and other PC(USA) related national ministry conferences which have exposed me to our broader denomination. After my first year of seminary, I served as a student assistant at the 2014 General Assembly which was a deeply impactful experience for me. I left that General Assembly with appreciating the roles of committees and councils in helping our denomination to live out our call to be a witness for Christ. Yes, I like committee work!!! Currently, I am serving as an advisor on the committee charged with revising our Book of Common Worship. Considering that I did not grow up in a Presbyterian church and that my journey into ministry within the PC(USA) began when I started seminary, all of these experiences have been essential in helping me to serve within the broader church as a result of connectional ministry endeavors.

How would you say our denomination is enriched by Black Presbyterians?

perzavia-john-lewisOur denomination is enriched deeply by the historic contributions of Black Presbyterians. In particular, even before I became a member of a Presbyterian church or attended a Presbyterian seminary, I developed an interest in the social and civil contributions of Black Presbyterians in the development of our nation, particularly in the southern United States. In particular, given the rich history of the Presbyterian Church in developing schools in the South after the Civil War, many African American educators were first educated in Presbyterian related mission schools. Mrs. Lucy Craft Laney and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune were students in Presbyterian mission schools and developed schools and colleges for the education of Black youth. Black Presbyterians have made and continue make contributions in the life our church at all levels and in numerous roles throughout the church. In addition, many Black Presbyterians have joined their brothers and sisters in Christ throughout our denomination in serving alongside others active in movements for social justice both within our church and the larger society throughout our nation’s history. In particular, the contributions of Presbyterians during the Civil Rights movement campaigns of the 1960’s and 1970’s have challenged our church to explore the relationship between our faith and movements for peace and justice both within and outside of our denomination that continue to this day.

Is there anything else you’d like to share.

My journey into candidacy within the PC(USA) has inspired a deep appreciation for and exploration of the historic development of the Presbyterian Church and African American religious history. Also, in many ways, regardless of where my call into pastoral and congregational ministry will lead, I will always be interested in our how the history of the our Church informs our current praxis for ministry both at the national level and at the level of the local congregation. Further, within my current context as Temporary Supply Pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church, I am interested in exploring how the rich congregational history of Calvary can be used as an equipping tool for transformative ministry. As I journey alongside of and with this faith community, together we are discerning and living into a new reality of ministry shaped by the historic context and missional ministry endeavors of Calvary’s past. In a similar vein, as historically and predominantly Black congregations continue to discern what it means to be both Black and Presbyterian in today’s context, I am interested, both as a historian and a practical theologian, in journey alongside of historic African American congregations discerning transformation and congregational redevelopment. In the meantime, I value learning from my continuing ministry experience serving in a historically, Black, Reformed, southern and rural congregation.

I’m so very excited about my call to serve God through ministry endeavors within the PC(USA). I remain humbled by the support I received throughout my formation for ministry and look forward to living into new narratives of ministry and service that bear witness to the transforming love of Christ.

When Healers Need Healing, Too: Activism and the Critical Need to Employ Self-Care

Today we have a guest post from Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Charnessa K. Pleasant. Charnessa will be sharing a series on the importance of self-care in the work of activism. Her insights are important and timely, and I’m thankful for her healing work here.


Charnessa K. Pleasant, LCSW, MLS
Charnessa K. Pleasant, LCSW, MLS

I bowl on Wednesday nights. Every week for one night, I attempt to turn off my therapist mind and I bowl. I slap high fives with fellow bowlers when they strike and offer chants of encouragement when they are having an “off night”. And for three hours a week, I cheer and am cheered on. I am relaxed, I may even drink the occasional beer (or three) and I give myself permission to intentionally “check out”. I need those moments. No, seriously! I really need those moments. Those moments are not a luxury. Rather, those moments actually work to preserve and save my life. See, what you may not know is that when I intentionally “check out”, I am choosing to mentally walk away from the high demands of working in community mental health. I work with client’s who live with severe and persistent mental illnesses (SPMI); I serve people living with Schizophrenia. I have a budding private practice as well. A good portion of my day is invested in holding space as people attempt to work through difficult spots in their lives. Suffice it to say that my work can become exhausting. I need to bowl. I want the beer!

When word broke last Tuesday of MarShawn McCarrel’s suicide in Ohio, something in my spirit sank. A more accurate description is numbness; I was overcome with feelings of numbness. This isn’t because I knew him in a profound way; I didn’t know him at all. I knew of his work as an activist within the Black Lives Matter Movement; I knew that he was 23 years old and I knew that he was too damn young to be dead. I poured over numerous articles reporting his death, needing to learn more about the young man who is gone well before his time. I silently saluted as I read of his last act before he passed away: “Let the record show that I pissed on the state house before I left” (the location of where he chose to die is not lost on me). I cried when I read of one his last post which stated “The demons won today, I’m sorry”. His demons won today. His demons won today. I haven’t been able to stop uttering those last words”. I quietly whisper to his traveling spirit, “Which ones?” Was it the “demons” of struggle, triggers, burnout, unhealed wounds, falsely imposed super hero status, the constant giving of oneself; you know, those “demons” that are experienced by many who are engaged in the work of healing and activism. Or are they the ones that come visit with you when you’re not “on”; the ones who push you pass logical reasoning because parts of you feel that you haven’t done enough (those “demons exists in the flesh as well, but that’s for another time). The legions are many.

I do not purport to know the answer to the aforementioned question I asked of Marshawn but what I am aware of is that our activism, if not carefully monitored, has a way of completely absorbing all facets of our existence. Our love and compassion for justice viciously contorts in ways that overrides our basic need to take care of ourselves; our need to step back and breath; our need to remember that preservation of self matters above all. Before we know it, we see that we helped others secure their air masks before we’ve secured our own. I think about Marshawn and wonder if, in his pursuit of justice, did he forget to secure his mask? Did the demands of activism not create space enough for him to? Did it not give him permission to? Was he guilted and/or shamed at any point for wanting to take a step back? Was there something ailing him before he took a platform to advocate? I have so many questions. I want to talk to him on those stairs…sigh.

Self-care is a critical component of this work. I am bias to the position that it is THE most important part of any form of activism. And I would also argue that it is the most underutilized tool in our fight for justice and equality. Many of us may not know how to employ self-care. Self care is not just about doing the things we enjoy. It goes a bit deeper than that. Effective self-care is a practice in mindfulness. It is a practice of witnessing ourselves as we enjoy the things that brings us relaxation, happiness. Equally, it is also a practice of witnessing emotions and feelings that are uncomfortable and hard to confront. It requires being fully present in the moment with yourself in total abandonment of anything else. It is in the here and now that we begin to hear what we stand in need of.

In the coming weeks, it is my hope to present the healers, activists and all who stand in need of self-care ways in which we can activate and insert this critical tool into the foundation of the work we do every day. I want to give myself space to present something meaningful and challenging. I want to ask questions that requires exploration of our healing/activist work. In the meantime, I’m cuprous as to how you all have created self-care in the foundation of your work in a way that sustains not only the activism being brought forth, but also for the change agents that are critical to moving justice forward.


Charnessa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina where she currently serves as a therapist in community mental health. Her private practice, The Healing Collaborative, PLLC, focuses on address the needs of women’s emotional health and wellness.   She received her B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and earned Masters in both Women and Gender Studies and Social Work from Eastern Michigan University. She currently resides in North Carolina with her husband where she enjoys discovering micro-breweries, catching up with her DVR and perusing the aisles at her local bookstore. Find her on Periscope at @thehealingcollab, on IG at @thehealingcollaborativepllc or email her at wishnwellness@gmail.com if you want to learn more about her approach to the world of mental health and wellness.

Our New Day Begun – Rev. Joseph L. Morrow

Joe Morrow

We are blessed to hear from the Reverend Joseph L. Morrow in today’s Our New Day Begun. Joe is a specialized minister in the Presbytery of Chicago, serves on the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, and is one-half of a clergy couple. His vision, intelligence, and wealth of experience are remarkable, and I can’t overstate how blessed you’ll be once you read what he has to share! 

Are you a cradle Presbyterian?

No, I spent most of my childhood outside of Church period. Growing up I wanted to read philosophy and watch football on Sundays rather than be bothered with organized religion. It wasn’t until college that I found my way to a Presbyterian Church. However, as I grew older I became inspired by Presbyterians who adorned my family tree. I found an especially compelling figure in my great grandfather who was a bi-vocational pastor (back before they had a name for it) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He used the wealth he built in business to finance homes for those in need regardless of race and economic circumstance in the segregated South and financially support Civil Rights protesters. Figures like him, both historical and contemporary led me to reconsider the Church and ask what theologies made such witness possible.

You have a fascinating professional background. When did you start to discern a call to ministry? What led to that?

Like many, I was initially very resistant of a call to ordained ministry. My first love has always been diplomacy and cross-cultural engagement. An interfaith friendship with a Jewish roommate, led me to Shabbat dinners through which I began to better understand the roots of Christian rituals like the Eucharist. It turned out that looking at Christian faith through a Jewish lens helped me recover hidden value in following Jesus. Ironic? Yes. I left Georgetown an international politics major, but underneath felt an increasing pull toward religious community and faith-based organizations, where I believe the kind of deep rooted, holistic social change I wanted to be part of could be found. So I pursued seminary and spent time working in cross-cultural ministry and global mission in Niger.  Yet I felt significant doubts, plagued by thoughts that “traditional” ministry wouldn’t be for me. I left seminary to work in the global technology industry for 3 years, gaining a different kind of professional experience. Many co-workers as well as my wife, encouraged me to give theological education another try. Knowing my comfort level in liberal progressive theology, I intentionally sought to study in an evangelical seminary/university whose strength was in missiology and spiritual formation. While there, I worked in campus ministry and then congregational youth ministry, both of which I like to think prepared me for my current call.

Tell us about your current call.

I work in specialized ministry for the Chicago based non-profit Interfaith Youth Core. We are a national organization working to advance interfaith cooperation through higher education. As inter-generational communities committed to intellectual development and social betterment, we believe colleges and universities are uniquely situated to model a positive response to religious diversity. In my role I work mostly with religious affiliated campuses, helping them through strategic planning, training and convening, to bridge their distinctive religious identity and the need to prepare students to be part of religiously diverse workplaces and communities. It is pastoral in that I am often a chaplain to chaplains, but it is also missiological – in that my work helps both Christians and Christian institutions work out what it means to live our redemptive message in culturally and religiously diverse environments. This work is also deeply personal. Given how interfaith relationships in college influenced my own sense of call, I feel blessed to help create those transformative possibilities for others.  

You do some necessary (and difficult) work on the PMA board. How has the experience been for you?

Serving on the board has been a worthy challenge, an education and a blessing. I’ve been enriched and encouraged by the friendships I have built with people serving across the denomination.  I’ve been impressed by the breadth and depth of our mission and ministry as a denomination at the national and international level. I’ve also shared in the frustration over shrinking budgets and taxed resources felt by the staff, board and our worshiping communities. The challenges we have recently experienced at PMA have really begun to bring us together as a board and clarify our unique mission in this kairos time. We are steering through some uncertain times, both trying to anticipate God’s future word, while stewarding the resources and word already given. I also believe in our actions as a board we can model new ways of being the Church in an environment requiring adaptive leadership. 

What do you most appreciate about our tradition? What do you think needs to change?

I appreciate that Presbyterians are public, participatory and at times prophetic in their way of being Church. I’m thankful we have strived for a third way between rejecting secular institutions and uncritically baptizing them. The Reformed tradition’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty, grace and human sin, make such a balanced approach possible. Likewise, our participatory polity, modeled in the priesthood of all believers, has the power to deepen the discipleship and public witness of many Christ followers rather than giving power and privilege to a few.  I also appreciate the times when Presbyterians have lived into the Prophetic spirit, which is not just in speaking truth to power, but also as Jeremiah and Daniel did, ministering to those who would be regarded as marginal or written off as beyond redeeming. I’ve found Presbyterian witness, especially internationally, doing just that in inspiring ways. Of course all the things I mention we could be doing more, and more conscientiously. 

The course of my ministerial journey has also convinced me we need to enlarge our vision and dreams as a denomination. It’s occurred to me that an appropriate way to begin is to broaden our prayer life. Broadened prayer also broadens our curiosity, deliberations, budgets and actions.  Increasingly, I’m taking every public issue I’m in prayer for, be it violence against people of color, lack of economic opportunity and Earth care, and expanding my prayers beyond policy to include the people and places impacted by those issues. I’m discovering complexities; that the lines between victims, perpetrators, and bystanders are often blurred. I’m also seeing places where I can be more of an instrument of prayer. I also believe Presbyterians can enlarge our sense of vocation. Teaching Elders too often share a disproportionate amount of the burden of spiritual leadership and discipleship. Ruling Elders, Deacons and all who participate in our communities have the potential if we let them to see their service as expansive and not limited to what occurs on Sundays or in the institutional Church. They are ambassadors of Christ who can make a difference within their family, friend, workplaces and communities. We need to empower and equip them as if this is true. Lastly, I’d like to see more collaboration between networks and communities of color in PC(USA). I’ve experienced the fruit of such interaction personally (my wife is a Korean American Presbyterian) as well as ministerially through seminary and General Assembly service, but there is such a richness of experience and wisdom we could be drawing on more for the sake of our whole denomination. I wish I knew more of my Asian, Latino/a, and Native American counterparts. 

How would you say our denomination is enriched by Black Presbyterians?

Black Presbyterians bring an experience to ministry which is very needed in a pluralistic context: double (and triple) consciousness thinking. We have lived in multiple cultural, socioeconomic and theological worlds for many generations. In an increasingly pluralistic social context it is important that our perspective inform and shape the Church’s ministry nationally and globally. I also appreciate the Black Presbyterian heritage of upliftment, not just for the individual, but for our families and communities as well. For us, the Church has never just been a place to exchange spiritual goods and services, but an embodied experience of moving toward liberation as God has stretched us as a people to understand that term. I’m indebted to the writing and leadership of Reformed figures like Allan Boesak, Gayraud Wilmore and Katie Cannon for reminding me of this, as well as many other Black Presbyterians I have come to know and be shepherded by personally.

There is an emerging generation of Black Presbyterians whose families hail from West and East Africa, who will add new dimensions to our cultural identity and its influence on the PC(USA) and US society. I’ve had the privilege of pastoring a group of these thoughtful and gifted youth at Edgewater Presbyterian, the small multicultural congregation in Chicago where my wife and I are pastoral associates. I feel the particular burden to ensure that their social advancement does not come at the cost of their complex cultural identities or the unique perspective they can offer the Church.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Presbyterians have done alot of handwringing about the cultural diversity of our denomination not reflecting the growing presence of people of color in our broader society. I would say that concern is healthy, but misplaced if it is first and foremost about numbers. To put such a goal at the center of our witness puts it in danger of becoming just another form of status seeking in a newly forming multicultural society. Rather than seek status through numbers, let us first seek God’s reign, justice and righteousness through ministry and learning with people of color. Witnessing with sincerity, integrity and persistence in the power of Holy Spirit yields more fruit than we can imagine.

Our New Day Begun – Rev. Aqueelah Ligonde

aqueelah-ligondeToday on Our New Day Begun, I present to you the Reverend Aqueelah Ligonde, minister member of the the Presbytery of New York City. I first met her this past summer at Montreat. We were both participants in the Racial Ethnic Executive Leadership institute, a vehicle of the Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA). REELI identifies and encourages people of color in our denomination who show potential for executive leadership in the denomination. Aqueelah is an incredibly passionate and gifted minister, and I’m eager to share all that she is doing for and in the church!

From pastoring to serving in other capacities, you’re a busy woman! Tell us about your current call and your other service to the church and community.

It is a great season for me! I feel like I am living right where God wants me to live…in my sweet spot. Currently, I am the Site Coordinator for the NYC Young Adult Volunteer program. It is the inaugural year for the NYC site and I am thrilled to be able to kick us off. I am also serving the PCUSA in another ministry, Racial Ethnic Young Women. As Field Staff for REYW I get the awesome opportunity to support, nurture, connect, and serve alongside young woman from around our denomination.

In March of 2015, I became a Staff Consultant with an incredible organization called Ministry Architects (MA). MA helps churches to build sustainable, healthy ministries through consulting, coaching, providing resources, and overall support. MA specializes in children, youth, young adult, and small church consulting and coaching.
This year even more doors are opening up! I am currently being trained to be a trainer for Youth Specialities and Gen On Ministries. Both are wonderful ministries to youth and children that seek to support and train youth leaders across the nation.
Tell us about your religious background/upbringing and how you came to discern a call to ministry.
11220839_892102180846743_7492556996109350971_nI grew up in a Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. I like to joke and say that I was a member even before I was born because my grandmother, mother, and aunts had been members there since the church was founded.
I’ve always loved church, even when I was younger. I loved the music. I love the love. Church always felt like home to me.
I was baptized when I was 10 years old. It was one of the happiest days of my life because I got to brag about being “dunked” in “cold water” and how that meant I was “saved” and how much God loved me. I remember getting on the bus the Monday after my baptism and going on and on about how “new” I was and how, now I was a part of God’s family. Needless to say, the kids on the bus were more interested in the dunking part than the salvation part.
I began singing in the church choir after my baptism and I’ve never really stopped singing since then. One of my life’s greatest joys has been to worship God in song and dance. Really any form of expression in worship brings me joy. I was able to flex my artistic muscles at my home church in Ohio. But, it wasn’t until my teenage years, that I really began to get involved in church. When I was 12 years old, our church called a new pastor and my life changed.
This young pastor came into our small Baptist congregation and opened our eyes to what it meant to be a church in the community, not just a church of  the community. Rev. Daryl Ward and his wife Rev. Vanessa Ward, brought an energy I had never experienced before in church. It was contagious! They helped us to reach outside the four walls of the church and be engaged and fully immersed in community. This shaped my idea of church and God in a great way. For me, church became about God’s movement and presence in the world…everywhere…all the time! I wasn’t just about Sunday mornings. Or Bible Study. Or when I was dressed up. But, church happen on the street. At my school. With my non-Christian friends. And, when I served with my family. Worshipping God, community action, empowerment of people, how I engaged my family and community all meant the same thing to me. It was all church. It was all God. It was Jesus alive in my life.

So, my call to ministry was really an expression of what had been grown in me by God and the people around me. I don’t think I thought about being called as something that would happen to me. I think I just felt that my call was something that had always been in me. And, at the time when I needed to figure out which direction my life would go, the calling inside of me rose up. I have amazing people in my life who helped me to listen for God’s voice and not be afraid to move on it.

New York is a brand new YAV site. How has the experience been so far?

So far, the experience has been wonderful! There are four really amazing young adults serving here in the city and  they are really setting the bar high for the years to come. It has been so refreshing to watch them take the city on. It has also been an interesting experience to watch them change in such a short amount of time. I am watching their confidence grow, their faith expand, and their view of the world around them begin to shift.

Here at the NYC site, we are open only to second year YAV’s, which means they served somewhere else last year. So, they came into this second year with some experience under their belts. But, even though they know the program, this is a different place, a new year, and unfamiliar territory. All of that comes with a different set of challenges and opportunities to engage God in a fresh way.
We are growing and learning together. We are experiencing all the “firsts” together. Most importantly, we are learning that there are lessons to be learned in everything if we are open to God and each other.

What do you most appreciate about our tradition? What do you think needs to change?

What I love most is the fact that there are a lot of people, pieces, and places that make up PCUSA, but it still seems to feel like you can be connected to someone, something, and somewhere. I love that there are always resources and opportunities to be accessed. I love that the church seems to finally be recognizing the gift of this generation.

One thing that I have learned through the YAV program and REYW, and even in my work with Ministry Architects, is that we have the privilege of living in an age where the world is literally at our finger tips. And the people who know this the best are our children, youth, and young adults. They understand the world in ways some older folks will never understand. They have an insight that is so necessary in the growth of the church that if we don’t embrace them and pay attention we will miss out on a move of God. I am sure of that!
I love that our tradition is “always reforming”…always looking ahead…always willing to listen. But, I pray we learn to stop long enough to actually hear the voices of this generation. I pray we continue to open our doors and hearts to them so that what we see ahead is not just our own reflection, but the reflection of God’s grace passed down from generation to generation.

How would you say our denomination is enriched by Black Presbyterians?

First let me say that my own personal life has been enriched by Black Presbyterians in the past 11 years that I have been a member of this denomination. My experience here in NYC, with Black Presbyterians has been one of great support, guidance, and empowerment.

The Black Presbyterians, in NYC, embraced me as if I had always been a part of this church. As I was going through the ordination process, they were like my own personal cheering squad. They encouraged this baptist raised, mid west grown, fresh to the city, young woman to not be afraid to lead in this denomination.
As a whole, I believe that the voices, hands, and hearts of Black Presbyterians have helped to shape conversations and propel movements for the denomination. I think the contributions and dedication of Black Presbyterians has given life to this Church and will continue to give life as we explore new ways to engage and embrace each other across the board.

Our New Day Begun – Carlton D. Johnson

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In today’s edition of Our New Day Begun, we hear from Carlton D. Johnson. Carlton is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary — an historically black Presbyterian seminary — and currently serves as its Adminsitrative Officer. He’s a Candidate under care in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, an active member of First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, and is studying for his ThM with a concentration in homiletics at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. With all he has on his plate, I’m honored he took the time to participate in this series! Carlton is a dedicated servant and definitely someone you’ll want to get to know. I’m thankful for his witness and his friendship.

You’ve spent some time in other Christian traditions before coming to the PC(USA). Tell us about your experiences.

FB_IMG_1454457192537I was raised in an inner city African American Baptist church. By age 5, I was a choir member. Music is seen as integral and common to the African American church experience; yet, it was more so at our church; the pastor’s daughters were members of the famous Hawkins Singers groups of the 70s-90s. By age 16, I was a choir director and touring with Edwin Hawkins on trumpet.  At age 20, I took my first “job” as a minister of music.  My relationship with Christ was built foremost through the music of the church. The lyrics of the hymns and gospel music were my creeds and confessions; they were the foundations of my faith. I observed that many of these songs formed the foundation of sermons both in selected “text” and in the closing celebration. Hence, my introduction to my current course of study (homiletics) was far less about painting the picture of the text and creating a world in which listeners might pursue the will of God…and more about identifying the appropriate moment to invoke musicality in my preaching voice (and in key).  I was also introduced to church governance and finance at an early age. I was the church financial secretary at 24 and treasurer at 26. Notwithstanding these roles, I was also a trustee.

Share with us about First Afrikan Presbyterian Church. What drew you to it? What would you like us to know about this unique congregation?

Carlton and his wife, Cara.
Carlton and his wife, Cara.

Though leadership in music ministry led me to other congregations, I only strayed away from the Baptist church once, as a choir director for a Pentecostal congregation. In my first year of seminary, I sought to learn what it actually “meant” to be Baptist. I also researched and learned of other denominations (and faith practices). I had only recently returned to regular church attendance after a 2 year hiatus; I had witnessed one-too-many events of the church abandoning people when they needed them most…and one-too-many cases of communities taking a back seat to the greed of a pastor.  As I entered seminary, I needed to marry my awareness and newly acquired understanding of what it meant to be Black and Christian to my church membership and regular practice of my faith.  I met Rev Dr Mark Lomax and first attended the First Afrikan Church in the winter of that year (2009). Through Rev. Dr. Lomax’s teaching and that of the ministries of the First Afrikan Church, immediately, I was propelled to a deeper understanding of the Gospel as the redemptive purpose of God, designed to liberate the oppressed and set the captive free. Between seminary and weekly bible study, I was able to see how the bible had been (and still is) used as a tool of oppression.

With the Kijana boys rites of passage program at FAPC
With the Kijana boys rites of passage program at FAPC

Our mission statement is “The First Afrikan Church is an Africentric Christian Ministry that empowers women, men youth and children to move from membership to leadership in the church, community and the world.” First Afrikan allowed me a space and functioning ministries to affirm liberation as the will of God and to commit to the removal of forms of oppression and injustice in the community and world around me. Consistent with the reformation ideals of the Presbyterian Church (USA), FAC deploys its leaders to participate in community justice activities. I also found a home in the music ministry of FAC and in youth ministry and mentorship.

You are the Administrative Officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. What does that entail?

The easiest way to answer that question is to share the a few major bullets from my job description (pasted below).  However, the short answer is that I bring function and fruition to the brilliant ideas of our president, faculty and staff.

  • Ensure project planning and management that maximizes JCSTS resource allocation and minimizes resource overlaps
  • Gather and analyze financial, administrative, and other resource data related to scheduled projects
  • Oversee resource scheduling, coordinating meeting logistics, purchasing and processing of payments and reimbursements as related to scheduled projects
  • Manage project and departmental budgets, including funds that support research, training, and administration
  • Participate in management activities, including maintenance of standard operating procedures (SOPs), participation in internal work groups, and performance management
  • Support JCSTS communication efforts, as needed, including quarterly newsletters, writing content for institution website, making editorial decisions, and posting content to feature items of strategic importance to the institution and its constituents
  • Draft and update content for the JCSTS website, social media accounts and outreach collateral
  • Develop and maintain the JCSTS personnel policy manual
  • Participate in implementation of the human resources policies, procedures and practices including the development of job descriptions for all staff.
  • Maintains regular contact with the JCSTS Board of Trustees and Committees.
  • Ensures that the JCSTS Board of Trustees and Committees is informed and engaged.

Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary has experienced a great deal of transition recently. Tell us about that and the Seminary’s hopes for its future.

In 2014, amid dramatic shifts in the leadership needs of the Church, JCSTS disaffiliated from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. The ITC had been its home since 1969.  JCSTS has since focused on delivering theological education that is more affordable, increasingly relevant for a changing world, contextual, and global in perspective. It is our mission to provide innovative theological education to advance communities of faith, justice, and compassion.

UNC_0562If the above sounds familiar, it is primarily from our website, goals, values, and mission statement, all of which I have been instrumental in developing.

With a seven member staff, we have grown tremendously in the eighteen months since our departure. In November 2015, we launched our first Sacred Formations webinar event; our second will launch in February 2016.  Our certificate program will launch in the Fall of 2016.  We are working diligently as we look forward to what God is doing through us.  We truly believe that we are “…called to CREATE what’s next”

What do you most appreciate about our tradition? Where do you think we could stand to change/improve?

FB_IMG_1454457073809I most appreciate the PCUSA’s interest in matters of social justice, both locally and around the world.  I most appreciate this because I believe it to be consistent with the primary interest of the God of the Oppressed and Jesus the Christ who was very clear of his call “to bring good news to the poor. [For God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”