Our New Day Begun: Reflections

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When I started the “Our New Day Begun” series, I never imagined it would take off the way it has. I’m absolutely amazed at how well these stories have been received, though I probably shouldn’t be because they’re stories that aren’t often heard. To give a little background, the series was born out of a joke from one of its participants that, since there were about “five of us” in the whole denomination, we should all be in touch. Of course, that number is understated, but in a denomination that is around 92% white with a median age of around 62, there are a relative few of us. I started to wonder about others who were like me — comparatively young, Black, and still fairly green in their careers — and what their experiences have been. I’ve learned a number of things:

1. We’re all so different. Of course, no grouping of people will ever be monolithic. We all know this. But I was enriched by the variety of our experiences and backgrounds. We have “cradle Presbyterians” who had been raised and heavily-steeped in the tradition, and others who (like me) came to from other denominations and found a home in Presbyterian polity and the Reformed tradition. We have those who are from the Black church tradition (across denominations) and others who are not. We have some who minister in Black churches, some who minister in mostly White or multiracial/multicultural churches, and others who don’t minister in a church at all. Some of us went to Presbyterian seminaries, and others of us did not.

2. We’re different, but some common threads persist. Even though we profoundly appreciate the tradition, we often find it difficult to see ourselves in it. We want very much for more people of color to be at the table, but we want to avoid tokenism. We see the often subtle ways in which whiteness is preferred in our denomination, ways that the majority perhaps cannot.  We’re concerned that the denomination might be too inwardly-focused (and, ostensibly, too Whiteness-focused) and needs to expand its perspective and its outreach. But rather than pull up stakes, we see opportunities to make the denomination more reflective of the Kingdom of God (or at least the United States of America) and deeply want to see those changes through.

3. The PC(USA) should really listen to us. There have been some nuggets of brilliance in this series, and all from a perspective that seems obvious to many of us. I have my favorites:

I also think PCUSA Seminaries really need to examine the white supremacy in their curriculum. Theologians and scholars of color cannot continue to be marginalized in the classrooms and thinking.

Zeena Regis

The denomination statistically is not diverse and the cost of some events are prohibitive to those that are not solidly middle class and, if those who are socio-economic minorities or racial-ethnic minorities attend conferences that don’t know how to handle the diversity of the body of Christ in an authentic way that tackles the hard work of justice and reconciliation, then the likelihood of return is pretty low.

Whitney Fauntleroy

There have been times when I worried that it always seems to be the same voices at many tables and have joked with some that they seem to be thee “young Hispanic male”, “young Korean female”, “young LGBTQ ruling elder” always called to be a voice at the table. We could probably do better finding more voices and different voices.

Jerrod Lowry

The primary father of our shared faith tradition, John Calvin, was a refugee. The tradition was born from faithful Christians escaping persecution. Where is the witness of that spirit in the denominational tradition today?

Kerri Allen

While it may be argued that there is strength in numbers, it is also true that there is immeasurable fortitude that resides in the margins. That is not to justify marginality, but to acknowledge its value, simply because we who inhabit the margins are valuable—to God, to the world, to the 91.8%, and to ourselves. Or, at least we ought to be.

Nancy Benson-Nicol

I’ve been attending [Howard University School of Divinity] for three years and I haven’t seen any PC(USA) tables set up to provide information about us.  We are not going were minorities are to ensure that we can at least hold on to the African American PC(USA) congregations that are fighting to survive.

Terrence Benn

The denomination seems to have trouble grappling with the idea that it is no longer (or was it ever?) a household name. PCUSA who? PCUSA what? PCUSA why?  I wish I had a nickel for every-time I explained to someone about the PC(USA).

Lakesha Bradshaw

Our denomination can best honor the perspective of its racial/ethnic minorities by bringing to a halt all of the lofty TALK about race in America and a taking the appropriate ACTION to dismantle it in America. The church is microcosm of the country: segregated, isolated and generally afraid to engage the “other” among them.

Wylie Hughes

I also believe the denomination is finding itself in the squeezing place of being called to do more with less. This is a common experience of many African-American household again speaking from my own experience… There are beautiful gifts of having to work with what you have. There is the cultivation capacities to prioritize, to improvise, and to have faith in the providence of God that come out this.

Shavon Starling-Louis

“[Speaking of Princeton Theological Seminary’s recruitment efforts] Another way to increase intercultural competence is by diversifying the recruitment plan and reallocating the distribution of resources so more minority applicants can have Princeton as an option for theological study.”

Brian McCollum

By no means is this an exhaustive sampling of the wisdom and passion shared by those who were featured. These sisters and brothers had much insight to share.

4. It can’t end here. It became clear to me early on in the series that it simply could not end after February was over. What I would love to do is continue collecting and sharing these stories throughout the year, perhaps not at the frequency we saw this month, but regularly and faithfully. There were many who expressed interest in sharing that I simply could not get to, but they, too, need to be heard. And so I look forward to continuing these efforts in the foreseeable future. It won’t end here!

I definitely sense God is doing a new thing, and I sincerely hope you’ve been blessed and ignited by this series. There is more to come, and for now I will leave you with the portion of James Weldon Johnson’s poem and hymn that inspired the name of this series:

…facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

Our New Day Begun: Brian McCollum

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In today’s “Our New Day Begun” feature, we meet Brian McCollum. Brian is a Candidate who is certified ready to be examined for ordination, pending a call (hallelujah!). He is not only a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, but he is currently its Director of Recruitment. He’s a gifted preacher, a talented stepper, and incredibly warm person. And on a personal note, if anyone’s ordination is overdue, it’s his! Meet him and be blessed!

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Tell us about your spiritual background. Have you always been in the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
I have always been involved in the life of the church, specifically the Presbyterian Church USA. I am a native of Forestville, MD (right outside of Washington, DC) and I grew up attending Sargent Memorial Presbyterian Church. As a teenager, church was more of a social gathering than a spiritual experience. Sargent was blessed to have a very involved and active youth group. In the late 80’s / early 90’s there seemed to be a sense of loyalty toward denomination so membership retention and growth was never a problem. After high school my personal journey with God began when I started attending Morehouse College. I became a business major because I wanted to make a lot of money after graduation. I started to hear the call to ministry as a student but did not pursue it because I thought God had the wrong number… So I ran from my call. However, I only felt fulfilled when I was doing ministry.

After graduating from Morehouse, I became a Pharmaceutical representative with GlaxoSmithKline in Washington, DC. In 2002, I left Glaxo and joined a non-profit company called Step Afrika! Life started to take a turn when I joined this company. I felt a deeper sense of calling to the ministry and finally answered the call at Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton changed my life! My whole scope of theology, counseling and worship had expanded to places I never imagined. My faith was no longer a concept that I just talked about but it was a practical reality with real life applications.

Who/what influenced you to seek ordination?
I was blessed to have many mentors during the process of discerning my call. Some are Presbyterian and some are not. They have helped me navigate this awesome call and find my pastoral voice. They are Rev. Juan Guthrie, Rev. James Allen, Rev. Victor Aloyo, Rev. Cleo LaRue, Rev. Joseph Daniels and Rev. Clinton Miller. I thank God for them but I had to save the best for last… my parents Mr. and Mrs. Clarence and Gloria McCollum. They were the first theologians I ever knew.

Tell us about your experiences at Princeton Theological Seminary. What was it like for you?
Princeton Theological Seminary is leading the charge in creating the next generation of leaders in the church, academy and world. I am not just saying that because I work in admissions. I have truly enjoyed my experience at Princeton. It is not a perfect place but we serve a perfect God. I like that Princeton is a place where we can discuss issues that are going on in the community…(women in ministry, homosexuality, social injustice…) Princeton is not afraid to have hard conversations.

brian-gradI was challenged academically at Princeton and was also embraced by the entire community (students, faculty and administration) to help create a more inclusive space. I served as the president of the Association of Black Seminarians for two years and I sat on an advisory counsel for the president in reference to diversity issues. I was very involved in the life of the campus. I created a step ministry at Princeton call “North Wind” step ministry. I traveled to Ghana and Liberia to do ministry in an international context. I created wonderful friendship with my peers and faculty members. The faculty members are probably one of the best parts of Princeton… They care about the students engaging in critical thought in every area as future pastors and professors. I love this place!

You recently returned to PTS for work. What are you doing now?
I currently serve as the Director of Recruitment for the seminary. I work with the Dean of Student Life and the Director of Admissions and the Admissions Committee to plan, budget and execute an admissions and recruitment strategy that will meet the seminary’s enrollment goals. I also interview applicants and help them discern and navigate their call.

One of the greatest aspects of my job is having the ability to travel and meet new people who want to learn more about God. There is no higher honor than to serve Christ! It is evidence that the future of the church is not lost. I have the pleasure to helping them prepare for their call. It is awesome!

How do you hope to help PTS increase its intercultural competence? How can we do that as a denomination?
At Princeton diversity is not the end goal but having a community that is reflective of God’s kingdom is the ultimate goal. I would like to help Princeton reflect God’s kingdom by being a voice for the minority and underrepresented populations in the admissions process. Another way to increase intercultural competence is by diversifying the recruitment plan and reallocating the distribution of resources so more minority applicants can have Princeton as an option for theological study. Furthermore I want to also help reconnect of minority alumni with the current seminary community. We all become better when everyone’s voice is heard!

As a denomination, we have to do two things better… First we need to do a better job in passing the torch to the next generation. PCUSA could do a better job of preparing the younger members to handle the business of the church. Not just in the role of the pastor but just being in the habit of grooming church leaders in our young people. (Christian educators, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, Elders, etc…) We need to start helping individuals identify their gifts and place them in positions where they will thrive.

The second part of this answer is finding a balance between tradition and innovation. Tradition is great and has helped us get where we are today. However, in order to reach the Post-Modern Generation we must balance that tradition with innovation. My grandmother always said, “You gotta catch a fish before you can clean it!” We have to catch the youth and if we don’t catch them we will lose them. Since God is always being and becoming, we need to always be reforming to stay relevant to the world around us.

However, being in admissions, I have hope that God is up to something. There are some amazing individuals who are preparing themselves to serve God in a mighty way.

Because it’s enormously cool, tell us about Step Afrika! and your time with that company.
Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company dedicated to fraternity and sorority stepping. I joined the company in 2002 and had the opportunity to travel to over 30 countries with the group. I have performed for thousands of young people, actors, models presidents, Kings and Queens. I have been in movies, music videos and commercials. I have been featured in many documentaries, articles and YouTube videos in reference to stepping.

It was in Step Afrika! that I embraced my call to ministry while on a trip to South Africa. It was also in Step Afrika! that I realized my true love in life which is the intersection of religion and education. Both of these aspects have shaped me into the person that I am today. With that being said my ultimate goal in life is to change the world via leading a Historical Black College or University (HBCU) as a president.

Is there anything else you’d like to share or offer as food for thought?
I have changed from a life of running from my call to a life of running to my call. There is hope for the future of the church and that hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus name! On Christ the solid rock I stand, ALL other ground is sinking sand!

Shalom

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis

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Today we are blessed to hear from the Reverend Shavon Starling-Louis in the “Our New Day Begun” series. Shavon is a 32-year-old Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Southern New England and is originally from St. Petersburg, Florida. She’s a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and serves as the Co-Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Shavon is brilliant, insightful, and has been instrumental in the success of this series behind the scenes. Meet her and be blessed!

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Are you a “cradle Presbyterian,” or did you come to the tradition later in life?
Nope, I am not a cradle presby! I was born into a Missionary Baptist Church family; however in middle school there was passing of the beloved pastor of that congregation. My disabled grandmother who raised me started receiving pastoral care from a cousin’s Presbyterian pastor. When my grandmother became strong enough we began attending and soon after became members.

shavon2What do you most appreciate about this tradition?
I love that Presbyterians at our best are reformed and always reforming. We recognize that we live in the now and not yet reality of Christ’s Holy Kingdom; therefore we along with all of creation are works in progress. God is not done with any of us. I love that we lean into the grace of God for our hope and our identity, and I love that at our best, though our words and deeds we are people who engage reconciling ministry and justice-oriented mission.

What about it do you think needs to be changed or addressed?
I think we have a long way to go in helping our members know the power of telling their faith stories. We struggle in general with the ability to share how and where we have seen the Holy Spirit moving in our lives and in the lives of those in our midst. This makes for stifled and stunted spiritualties.

I also think we have a ways to go in moving beyond the tokenism of underrepresented communities and particularly within leadership. I sense a true desire for the gifts of diverse people, but when it is done outside of authentic relationship it feels like paint by number or committee by numbers and undermines very thing that it was aiming to achieve.

What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?
After working in the church in clerical positions both in the congregational and presbytery levels, God revealed that my gifts, my hopes, and my passions would be able to flourish in ministry. As simple as it sounds, I love Jesus Christ fiercely and I really love people.

And so I really, really love to facilitate relationship between Christ and those seeking grow in relationship with Christ. And for the most part this means I am called to create sacred space in the common places so that we can sense the where God is calling us to pay attention and act.

shavon-familyDescribe your current call. What is your role?
I am currently called to serve in 3 capacities.

I am a co-Pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Rhode Island. (Only God could move a Florida girl to Rhode Island.) I am a full-time pastor leading in areas worship, spiritual formation and nurture, administration and vision, as well as shared responsibilities in pastoral care and mission. It’s great to be in a teamed ministry that represents the multicultural values of our congregation. (Shout out to Chris Foster!) This way I can focus my time on the areas of ministry that give me the greatest joy.

I also serve the PCUSA on the National Committee of The Self-Development of People. This is an amazing ministry out of the Presbyterian Mission Agency that supports both financially and relationally organizations working with those in communities of poverty for self-advocacy.

Lastly, I serve on the Executive Team of The NEXT Church Movement. It is an organization of clergy and laity committed to the PCUSA and who are excited to discern and share innovative ways of being church. We have Annual National Gatherings and local one to promote real support relationship for church leaders called to see around corners in uncertain times.

What is the racial/ethnic composition of the church you serve?
Providence Presbyterian Church is active church with a global perspective with immigrants from West Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Europe, and Asia as well as Americans with diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

I am reminded of Pentecost every worship.

How do you think our denomination can best benefit/be enriched by the leadership of young African-Americans?
I think that young African-Americans leaders in the PCUSA (and many others) by in-large were raised by the poetic and improvisational nature of hip-hop and R&B. I know that is the case for me. And while I would be uber excited to see breakdancing at my next presbytery meeting, I think the real gift we bring is the essence of hip-hop. It’s an essence that looks at the joyous and the grimy and speaks the truth it sees. Poets like J. Cole and Common, offer insights on what it means to stand for justice and truth in a time when doing is needed but not the most popular thing to do. Learning from Hip-hops natural ability to testify to our experience could be a blessing and enrichment to the denomination. It absolutely influences my preaching and my pastoral care.

I also believe the denomination is finding itself in the squeezing place of being called to do more with less. This is a common experience of many African-American household again speaking from my own experience. (And while, yes there are complex systemic injustice issues that often time cause this situation.) There are beautiful gifts of having to work with what you have. There is the cultivation capacities to prioritize, to improvise, and to have faith in the providence of God that come out this.

As a minority in our denomination, do you find you often encounter microaggressions? If so, what has been your approach to them when they happen?
Yep… One of my pet peeves that is really a miccoaggression is the prevasiviseness of the Presbyterian self-naming as the Frozen Chosen because we don’t move in worship and we don’t say Amen.

Well as an African American clergywoman in the Presbyterian Church who claps, moves, sways, dances, and says Amen when the Holy Spirit moves men to, I noticed that the moniker of Frozen Chosen left me, my culture, and my embodiment out and somehow meant that I wasn’t acting like a “True Presbyterian” by someone else’s definition.

So in my former presbytery when such a comment was made by an older, white retired pastor, I said from the floor “I am not frozen, and I am Presbyterian, and I say Amen.” There was an awkward silence, but there was head shaking who got what I was saying. The gentleman just looked puzzled.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Lakesha Bradshaw

lakeshaThe person I’m introducing in today’s edition of “Our New Day Begun” is a dear friend and one of my favorite people. The Reverend Lakesha Bradshaw and I were classmates at Howard University School of Divinity and came to the Presbyterian Church (USA) at about the same time and with the support of many of the same people. She is a minister member of National Capital Presbytery and is the Associate Pastor for Christian Education at Silver Spring Presbyterian Church, where she served as a DCE before ordination. I’m honored to present her to you!

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lakesha4When did you come to the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
I came to the PC(USA) in 2005, as a part-time Youth Director. At that time, I was completing my second year of seminary and looking to supplement the additional expenses. A mentor told me about a Presbyterian congregation in DC that was searching for a part-time Youth Director.  I interviewed and was offered the position, and as they say, “the rest is history”.

Ministry is a second career for you. What did you do before?
Prior to professional ministry, I directed youth and young adult service programs for large organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, and Howard University. My experience programming after-school, summer camp, and countless youth leadership and development programs encouraged a purposeful transition into youth and young adult ministry.

Tell me about your time at Howard University School of Divinity. How did it influence you?
My time at Howard University School of Divinity is something I will always cherish. I began seminary with one goal, to learn as much as I could. I innately knew there was more to Christianity than the dogma, hypocrisy, and sexism I experienced in my formative years.  The God of my understanding has always been expansive, inclusive, and unable to fit into societal boxes. At HUSD, I was given the academic freedom to challenge and study how the widespread misuse of religious ideas and constructs may result in oppression and spiritual abuse, particularly of women and children.

lakesa2Talk about Silver Spring Presbyterian Church and what makes it remarkable. What is your role there?
Silver Spring Presbyterian Church has been recently noted as “one of the fastest growing” congregations in the PCUSA. Considering the steady decline in congregational membership across the country, some may think that is remarkable. However, I believe what makes Silver Spring remarkable is the ability of its members to adapt and transition in the midst of change.

In its sixty plus years, the congregation has not only survived but thrived despite such challenges as clergy misconduct, shifting neighborhood demographics, devastating termite infestation, consistent shifting of the culture and or ethnicity of its members. Through it all, the members of Silver Spring  Presbyterian Church focused on being a Spirit-lifting place, active in social justice and partnering with the surrounding community in service.
In my role as Associate Pastor for Christian Education, it is my great joy to ensure that Silver Spring also focus considerable energy on including its children, youth, and young adults in all aspects of congregational life. The youth serve as worship leaders and are effective in community outreach.

lakesha3What do you like about this denomination? What would you like to improve about it?
I like the connectionalism of the PCUSA, I like that no matter where I am in the country, I can visit a PCUSA congregation and find elements of the worship service that are familiar. I would like for the church to improve its branding and promotion. The denomination seems to have trouble grappling with the idea that it is no longer (or was it ever?) a household name. PCUSA who? PCUSA what? PCUSA why?  I wish I had a nickel for every-time I explained to someone about the PC(USA).

How can we encourage more young African-Americans to seek leadership roles in our churches?
I think we encourage more African American leaders by seeking them where they are–in African-American communities and institutions like Howard University School of Divinity.  We must make an intentional effort to go where they are and invite them to partner in the life of God’s church.

Our New Day Begun: Terrence Benn

 

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Today in “Our New Day Begun,” I want to introduce you to my friend, Terrence Benn. Terrence is a 34-year-old Inquirer in the Baltimore Presbytery and a student at Howard University School of Divinity. He and I connected about a year and a half ago when he found an old blog post I wrote about passing my ordination exams and being certified call-ready. Since we’re both Black, Presbyterian, and products of HUSD, we needed to be in touch! His experiences and perspective are similar to mine and to those of many young Black Presbyterians I come across. Let’s hear from him and wish him well in the ordination process!

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Tell us about your religious background.
I received Christ and was baptized missionary Baptist at First Baptist Church West Munden at the age of 10.  I was an active member of the church until I graduated high school, and joined the military.  It was not until I got out of the military and moved to Atlanta, Ga that I began to search for more.  The big question that I had was, how was I missionary Baptist, and no one was engaged in any mission work home or abroad.  I just did not understand. While in Atlanta, I attended all types if worship services and enjoy them all.  I moved to Baltimore and returned to a local Baptist church and continued worship in the space that was familiar to me.  It was familiar until I decided to acknowledge and pursue, what I believe God was calling me to do.

When did you come to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and who/what influenced that decision?
Me finding the Presbyterian Church (USA) was not intentional at all.  I wasn’t raised Presbyterian nor did I know a lot about it’s traditions.  What I did know was that I was in need of a mentor who had time to invest in me.  I was not looking to be a groupie nor was I looking to be subservient to anyone.  So, I did one of those Facebook surveys that asked a series of questions, and then offer a list of denominations that fit the answers that I gave.   I think Presbyterian (USA) was second.

I Googled “black PC (USA) congregations in Baltimore” and saw a list of churches.  I emailed Rev. Dr. J Thomas, who was the Pastor of Madison Ave, and told him that I was interested in learning more about the denomination. He invited me to attend a worship service, which I enjoyed.  Rev Thomas took the time to impart his experiences as a Baptist who joined the PC (USA) church.  He also met with me monthly to monitor my progress with school, and discerning my call.  I felt as if both the church and the pastor had time to invest in me. I also felt that God led me there!  After spending time learning the culture of the church, I joined, six months later; I was under care of the session – working to discern my call!

 

I’ll ask you a question I have often gotten: Why did you choose Howard University School of Divinity?
Choosing Howard University School of Divinity was easy!  Many people don’t know that Howard University was created to educate teachers and preacher!  So the question I would ask is, why not Howard University School of Divinity? As an African American, I think that it is important to understand how hegemony impacts how we are taught.  If I am going to preach the gospel, I wanted to understand how this gospel that my grandmother loved so, was used to harm her mother’s mother! At HUSD, History of the Black Church and Introduction to Christianity are required courses, unlike other institutions, which only require that students take Introduction to Christianity. It shouldn’t be a choice to study how slavery affected people that you want to preach and teach.

 

If I wanted to be an Afrocentric socially conscious preacher, I knew that I had to spend some time on the East Campus!  And I will tell you that I am damn glad that I did.  For HUSD has shown me that Jesus was always on the margins, and if I want my ministry to be successful, I too have to be there!

 

What do you hope to do in ministry once you’ve completed the ordination process?When I first started the process, I wanted to be a military chaplain.  I thought that since I served in the Marine Corps and am currently in law enforcement, I would be more effective.  That may not be the case anymore.  I was exposed to parish ministry while completing my field education requirements and I love it. I think being there for your parishioners while they are experiencing their ups and downs is how we can truly see the gospel come to life.

 

I believe that there is a need for Pastors who have time and a heart for their members.  I think parish ministry is about meeting people where they are and showing your parishioners that they are only as strong as the community that comprise their church.

 

How do you think your perspective can enrich the denomination?
I look at the church and I see great potential!  I see people with rich history and traditions that are comfortable in their space.  I bring years of community involvement and ideas that will get the community that comprise the church engaged.  I bring the lens of an African American that is not looking for money to be thrown at problems, but real ecclesiastical thought and involvement to address our community concerns.  I bring Hope to a community that thinks the church has given up on them!

 

What can we do to encourage and empower other young people of color to assume positions of leadership in the PC(USA)?
I’ve been attending HUSD for three years and I haven’t seen any PC (USA) tables setup to provide information about us.  We are not going were minorities are to ensure that we can at least hold on to the African American PC (USA) congregations that are fighting to survive.  We have to have the same type of mentors that I had when I stumbled upon PC (USA) 3 years ago.  We also have to go into the community and share what makes up different then other denominations.   We have an ordination track that provides mentorship throughout the process, and a style of government that encourages community.

Our New Day Begun: Elder Zeena Regis

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I’d like to introduce you to Zeena Regis in today’s edition of “Our New Day Begun.” Zeena is a 34-year-old Ruling Elder and a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary. She calls Anchorage, Alaska her hometown and she works as a hospice chaplain. Zeena’s perspective is, I think, critically important and I’m thankful to her for sharing with us today.

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Have you always been in the Presbyterian church? 
For most of my childhood and early adulthood, the only real denomination marker I claimed was Protestant. Growing up in a military family on an Air Force base, we attended the chapel services. The services were basically divded into Catholic and Protestant. It was a vibrant and diverse faith community. We had presiding chaplains who were Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian and more. I think those formative interdenominational/ ecumenical experiences have always made it difficult for me to claim one denomination.

Tell us about your current role.
I serve at Harbor Grace Hospice as the Inpatient Unit and Pediatric Staff Chaplain. In my work, I provide spiritual and emotional care to terminally ill patients and their families.

What attracted you to hospice chaplaincy? What is most challenging about it?
There is so much that I love about my work. I am honored that people grant me access to their lives in such a sacred time. There is so much that is mysterious, profound, and frightening about death and I’m always surprised and humbled that folks allow me to hold their hand, laugh with them, wipe their tears, read scripture with them,  watch Maury Povich with them, and whatever else at this disruptive time.

The most challenging thing is seeing how injustice in terms of healthcare is placed in the stark terms of life and death. I have a largely African -American patient population. So many of my patients meet their death not solely due to illness, but also because of having access to healthcare, not having an advocate in healthcare, or not being listened to by medical professionals. I sit with them knowing that things could have been different if they belonged to a different race or social class.
Who/what encouraged or inspired you to enter ordered ministry?
I serve as a Ruling Elder in my congregation, but not a Teaching Elder. I can’t fully articulate why I never completed the PCUSA ordination process. I joined the PCUSA because I started attending Oakhurst Presbyterian Church. I was attracted to the congregation because of their focus on social justice and racial reconciliation. Oakhurst was my only real exposure to the PCUSA and I truly though that their views were representative of the larger PCUSA.

And while I appreciate my education from Columbia Theological Seminary, it also exposed me to the larger PCUSA and that exposure was not altogether positive for me.
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What can we do to encourage more young people of color to seek ordination/leadership in our denomination?
In seminary, I felt that many of my colleagues (especially white, lifelong Presbyterian colleagues) spoke the jargon of PCUSA. I didn’t know that language, so I often felt alienated from those conversations and that experience. It kinda felt like a social club that I wasn’t a part of. And I felt that most of my colleagues didn’t really care if I was part of it or not. It certainly wasn’t malicious or intentional. But that’s the thing: Inclusion really requires intentionality. And I think I just never felt like my inclusion was especially important.
And I think to encourage more young people of color there has to be a real movement to de-“jargonize” and really truly open up the church. And people always tried to sell me on the polity aspect of the church and that just wasn’t enough for me.
I sometimes consider completing the ordination process now, but I feel that my theology has shifted so much from my work in chaplaincy that having an official vocational affiliation with the church just wouldn’t fit for me. Being a part of the lay leadership in my congregation fits where I am right now.

How, in your opinion, can the PC(USA) benefit from the perspectives of Black Presbyterians?
The PCUSA has to take seriously how much the church is changing and embracing the voices and leadership of people of color has to be a major part of it. I also think PCUSA Seminaries really need to examine the white supremacy in their curriculum. Theologians and scholars of color cannot continue to be marginalized in the classrooms and thinking.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Whitney Fauntleroy

Rev. Whitney Fauntleroy

I’m proud to present the Reverend Whitney Fauntleroy in today’s edition of “Our New Day Begun.” Rev. Fauntleroy is a 30-year-old Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina, and she calls Raleigh, NC her hometown. She’s the pastor of Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary where she received a Master of Divinity and a Master of Art in Youth and Young Adult Ministry. As you can imagine, she has a lot of insight on the future of the Church, and I’m honored to have her share with us today.

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You’ve recently stepped into a new call. Congratulations! Tell us about what you’re doing and how it’s going so far.
I just began my first call in October of 2014. I spend most of my time trying to listen and observe the congregation, the community, and how we might minister to the neighborhood. I’ve tried a few new ministries and programs and tried to get to know the flock I’ve been called to lead. My initial thoughts is how ill-prepared I feel for the magnitude of the call to pastor and yet the blessing in that confusion and authority.

You’ve spent most of your life in the PC(USA). What about this denomination do you most value? What do you think needs to change?
I value the connectionalism of the denomination. I have made friends from people outside of my local church since I was in middle school and still because of the PCUSA’s emphasis on the connected church have had the opportunity to see Presbyterians from different chapters in my life all over the country. In terms of possibilities for growth and change, I think we a need a larger prophetic voice in our communities against inequality and injustices. I know that individual pastors and churches speak up against corporate greed or corrupt legislation but as a denomination we often stride the fence. It is beautiful to witness multiple churches and communities gather to speak truth to power. I always am in awe of the Episcopalians whenever I go to protest or assemblies, they seem like a unified body.

You’ve said you started discerning a call to ministry while attending Montreat Youth Conferences. What was it about those conferences that sparked the fire for you?
The leadership at the Montreat Youth Conferences seemed to speak to the reality of teenagers in a way that made me want to discover more about my faith, and to translate Jesus and the love of God to others. I think the youth conference served as a portal for me to take the faith of my family and claim it as my own and see it as something worth sharing.

How well would you say our predominantly Black Presbyterian churches are represented at gatherings like the Montreat Youth Conference and Youth Triennium?
When I was a youth there was not a lot of diversity. I always attended with primarily Anglo churches. Sometimes the desperate need for diversity made it easier to sort of romanticize the people of color who did attend. Looking back on those conferences there was always a thin line between acceptance of diversity and tokenism and a bit of fear about how minority groups would experience the events. I think in some regards the PCUSA youth events have gotten better at diversity but, the reality is you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. The denomination statistically is not diverse and the cost of some events are prohibitive to those that are not solidly middle class and, if those who are socio-economic minorities or racial-ethnic minorities attend conferences that don’t know how to handle the diversity of the body of Christ in an authentic way that tackles the hard work of justice and reconciliation, then the likelihood of return is pretty low. I comment the PCUSA youth ministry office for earnest attempts.

whitney-fauntleroy2Given your background and experience, you have a lot to teach the church about youth and young adult ministry. On what do you think we should be focusing our energy and attention if we want the church to be relevant to younger brothers and sisters?
I think we need to be open to new and different ways of doing church. The younger generations are not as in to being boxed in and ownership. We are overwhelmingly a group who adapts to innovation and change easily and a transient group. The church has to move into unexpected places: yes bars and coffee shops but also into deep conversations about the world that we have shied away from in the past. Most of what a church offers can be absorbed in other places. We have to offer something that makes it worth the sacrifice of young people. I think looking toward community minded ministry rather than membership is one way we can grow and adapt.

What do you think the PC(USA) needs to understand about Black Presbyterians and Black Presbyterian churches?
I think just the importance of context and common narrative and the patience to listen. Diversity must be the salad bowl and not the melting pot to really reflect the kingdom.

 

 

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Wylie V. Hughes

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I have been greatly encouraged, inspired, and challenged by the candor and thoughtfulness of the leaders who have been featured in the “Our New Day Begun” series. Today the Reverend Wylie V. Hughes joins those voices. Rev. Hughes is a 37-year-old Teaching Elder who hails from Atlanta, GA. He has a passion for the Black American religious tradition, but his offerings today are relevant to the whole Church, particularly his thoughts on community. Lend him your ears.

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What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?
I grew up in the church and literally ran from the call until a few years ago. I have always held a desire to help people and to see them become whole.

Describe your previous call. 
I previously held a solo Pastor position in a small church in Greenville SC. The demographics were predominantly African American with the average age of 70. With a membership of about 30 congregants, we had about 7-10 active members and 15-20 worshipers on a good Sunday.

I no longer serve that congregation and am now looking for other ways that I can serve God’s people.

Tell us about your studies in metaphysics and spirituality. How have they informed your ministry?
My studies in metaphysics and spirituality have had a tremendous affect on my ministry. It has been a source of strength and stability, as well as a vehicle for exploring new ways to do ministry.

My spirituality is deeply rooted in the acknowledgment and honoring of my ancestors upon whose shoulders I stand. When I discovered my ancestors, I  discovered myself. They add dimension, destiny and purpose to my life as an African man in America and as a Pastor.

Metaphysics (in a very limited nutshell) is the study of the nature and origin of Being. It is, in my understanding and practice, closely related to spirituality in that it empowers one to explore the unlimited potential and possibilities of the “formless void” and how to manifest that in “formed matter.”

What has been the most rewarding thing about being in leadership? What has been most challenging?
The most rewarding thing about being in leadership for me is finally manifesting my destiny as a helper/healer/shepherd for God’s people. It is first and foremost my calling and now it also my vocation.

The most challenging thing about leadership for me is the growing/learning process itself. It can be tough transitioning from being a seminarian into being a pastor; at least it was for me. There are things that seminary can’t teach, you just have to learn on the fly or “fake it ‘till you make it”. And in the meantime, you have hold fast to your vision, be reminded constantly of God’s call on your life and stay rooted in the Spirit.

How can we encourage more young African-Americans to seek leadership roles in our churches?
Mentorship! Mentorship! Mentorship! The older generation of church leaders should take a more involved role in the grooming of the leadership of the next generation if we are to continue the legacy of our ancestors who shed their blood and sweat that we may have a better life.

Also, we have to be more diligent in our community building efforts. The church used to be a community institution that served the community’s needs, thereby establishing a desire from the community to support that institution. So there was always a young pastor or deacon coming up in the ranks to carry the torch of community service. But now it’s backwards. Community support is but a line item towards the bottom of an agenda primarily concerned with sustaining the institution itself apart from the community. It’s very difficult to build leadership among young people with this approach.

How can our denomination best honor the perspective of its racial/ethnic minorities?
Our denomination can best honor the perspective of its racial/ethnic minorities by bringing to a halt all of the lofty TALK about race in America and a taking the appropriate ACTION to dismantle it in America. The church is microcosm of the country: segregated, isolated and generally afraid to engage the “other” among them.

We have made some very powerful overtures in the face of discrimination, but I would like to see more action, less talk. I would like the PC(USA) to demonstrate its so-called dedication to diversity. If we want more African American churches then why isn’t there an initiative to train more African American church leaders?

In our quest to be more politically correct, the voice of the marginalized African American has been lost in a new paradigm of multi-ethnic/multiculturalism. In my opinion, this paradigm makes it easier to ignore the historic relationship between the African in America and the Christian church and at the same time hobbles the African American Christian in the struggle for justice.

Is there anything else you’d like to share or offer as food for thought?
I feel the need to reiterate the dire importance of reclaiming the African community in America during this Black History Month. As we chronicle the achievements of our ancestors and champion their legacy let us remember that they had strong support from the community. The success of the Civil Rights Movement lies completely on the support of a unified African American community and support of its leadership. If we hope to have as much and even greater success today, it must be rooted in a unified community.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Nancy Benson-Nicol

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I am thankful that we get to meet the Reverend Nancy Benson-Nicol in today’s edition of  “Our New Day Begun.” Nancy is a Teaching  Elder and currently serves as the Associate for Theological Education Funds Development with the Theological Education Fund (read below for a more in-depth look at her work with that). She has a wealth of experience and insight to share with us, and the joy and pride she takes in her work is evident in this interview. Read more about her and you might find that her joy is contagious!

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Your ministerial career has been pretty varied in its settings. Can you tell us about your background and the richness of your experience?

Benson-Nicol-2008-Aegean-Sea.jpgI am a “cradle” Presbyterian from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a teaching elder in 2001. “Fun fact”: I have been “Black history” as a “first” in nearly all of my ministry contexts and at least half of my educational ones (but I suspect that this is the case for many Black Presbyterians, given the demographics…). Prior to ordained ministry, I served the national church as an elected member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, of which I served as vice chair at the tender age of 23. If you’re trying to calculate my age at this point, I’ll spare you the work—I’m 39 (that makes me, like, 21 in “Presbyterian years” though, doesn’t it…?)

My professional ministry experience falls essentially into three categories: congregational ministry, college chaplaincy, and administrative leadership. My first four-and-a-half years in pastoral ministry were in church settings—first, as one of the initial cohort of young ministers at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan in its two-year Lilly Parish Ministry Residency Program, then as associate pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. After nearly three years in Fayetteville, I accepted the call to serve as university chaplain of University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas (a PC (U.S.A.)-related baccalaureate institution), where I was in ministry for nearly seven years before embarking on a path of ministry in administrative leadership in 2013 at the Presbyterian Benson-Nicol 2006 Ozarks FamCenter in Louisville—first, in Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries as associate for gender and racial justice, then in Theology, Worship, and Education as associate for theological education funds development. Education is one of my passions, and central to my vocation. It is definitely a common theme throughout my calls.

Tell us about your current call and what you hope to accomplish in it.
Per action of the 221st General Assembly in Detroit last year, my current ministry with the Theological Education Fund (TEF) has shifted in context from the Presbyterian Mission Agency to the Presbyterian Foundation (effective 1/1/15). Now, I am the associate director for theological education funds development with the Foundation. My hope is that, in partnership with the more than 135 individuals across the country who comprise the Seminary Support Network (for which I am responsible to resource and supervise), I bear witness among churches, mid councils, and others to the importance of supporting the ministry and mission of our Presbyterian seminaries. Why? Because theological education matters; because those entrusted with caring for the church ought to be equipped to be critical thinkers, compassionate leaders, prophetic preachers, and prayerful seekers in service of the gospel; because God’s realm deserves our best efforts at preparing faithful leaders, and our theological institutions embody those efforts.

For those who don’t know about it, tell us about Dispatches to God’s Household.
Also known as the “baby” I gestated for three years… (that’s how long it takes to produce these studies, by the way)…Dispatches is the 2012-2013 Horizons Bible Study for Presbyterian Women.  Horizons is the official imprint of Presbyterian Women, and publishes an annual bible study curriculum in addition to a bimonthly magazine. Dispatches covers the General Epistles in the Christian Scriptures—1 Peter-Jude, specifically—with a focus on the nature of Christian community as explored in terms of family and household metaphors—themes common among these ancient texts, and relevant today in our contemporary understandings and descriptions of Christian community. Circles of Presbyterian Women across the country (and even around the world) engage these studies each year, and I consider it an enormous privilege to have been selected to write it. What is more, the gift of traveling in support of it during the summer and fall of 2012 and meeting so many incredible, inspiring women and men who are the church—the family of faith—God’s household today—continues to fill me with gratitude.

Benson-Nicol 2014 PMAWhat would you say are the opportunities of being Black in the PC (USA)? What would you say are its challenges?
The way I see it, the opportunity is also the challenge of being part of a denomination that is, to date, 91.8% White. While it may be argued that there is strength in numbers, it is also true that there is immeasurable fortitude that resides in the margins. That is not to justify marginality, but to acknowledge its value, simply because we who inhabit the margins are valuable—to God, to the world, to the 91.8%, and to ourselves. Or, at least we ought to be.

For whatever strides the PC (USA) has made, what can our denomination do to further amplify the voices of its racial/ethnic minorities?
Take them (us) seriously, regard them (us) as valid, and honor them (us) legitimately as integral parts of the authentic witness of the historic, present, and future church. It’s about more than voices, though—it’s about honoring bodies, minds, hearts, hands, and spirits. Our whole selves. As my mother used to say as I was growing up about heeding her instructions, “it’s that easy, and it’s that hard.” When we (the church as a whole) dismantle what progress has been made, we obstruct the gospel—pure and simple. So literally, for God’s sake, church, let’s just get on with getting it right, already!

Is there anything else you’d like to share or offer as food for thought?
Oh sure, but we’ve probably exceeded the “recommended daily allowance” of Nancy J. Benson-Nicol at this juncture, so I’ll just say, “stay tuned, and keep the faith.” Thanks so much for creating a space for me, and us, to share.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Jerrod B. Lowry

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Today in the “Our New Day Begun” series, I’m pleased to feature the Reverend Jerrod B. Lowry, a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Utah. Jerrod is a 35-year-old pastor who hails from Augusta, GA. Before coming to his current church, Jerrod was the pastor of Saint Paul Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, NC and the Associate for Specialized Ministries for the Presbytery of  New Hope. He is a family man who truly has the heart of a pastor, and I’m glad we get to hear from him. Enjoy!

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Describe your current call.
I serve as the pastor for Community of Grace Presbyterian Church (USA) in Sandy, UT – a suburb of Salt Lake City. We are a mid-sized congregation of roughly 210. Our members cover a wide spectrum. We are children, youth, young adults, established professionals, and retired seniors. We are conservative, moderate, and liberal politically and theologically. We are predominately white but have enough representation to be considered diverse in the PC(USA). I’ve found that most were not raised Presbyterian and many joined because we are the closest non-Mormon worshiping community to their residence.

JBL profile 4What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?
Since middle school I’ve felt what I would often describe as “a tugging toward something”. It was the support and encouragement of my family and many great saints in the church, who would tell me “have you considered the ministry” or flat out said “you’re going to be a preacher”, that I now feel paved a clear path for me.

What has been the most rewarding thing about being in leadership? What has been most challenging?
What’s been the most challenging aspect of leadership has been dealing with the built in paradigm that as the pastor I have to be the leader. I’ve found it most rewarding when members of the congregation and the officers of the church feel encouraged to lead various ministries and aspects of church life. I can not begin to describe the beauty of seeing someone who swore “they could never do…”, do just that, and realize doing it fed them in a way they never imagined possible. As a pastor I feel called to encourage people to realize their own calling.

You’ve said that you often find yourself “sitting at tables as the lone racial ethnic representative.” Would you say this is part and parcel of being a minority in our denomination?
Finding yourself as a clear representative for some larger community is certainly an aspect of being a minority in our denomination. However I am grateful for the attention and intention to placing voices around the tables within our denomination. There have been times when I worried that it always seems to be the same voices at many tables and have joked with some that they seem to be thee “young Hispanic male”, “young Korean female”, “young LGBTQ ruling elder” always called to be a voice at the table. We could probably do better finding more voices and different voices. I adamantly believe there need to be greater diversity among the seats of power in our denomination. Having diverse voices around the table for consultation is good but lacking diversity among agency heads is problematic.

JBL profile 3Any tips on how to speak truth to power in these situations while remaining pastoral?
Anytime you speak truth I believe you are being pastoral. A pastor must be both priest and prophet, blessing and challenging. We can be truthful without being belligerent.

How can we encourage more young African-Americans to seek leadership roles in our churches?
I am convinced there are many who would consider leadership rolls if they were only asked and encouraged.

What should our denomination pay more attention to re: its racial/ethnic minorities?
I think churches as a whole (this denomination and others) need to reconsider what church looks like, sounds like, feels like. We still assume the ideal thriving church is one with 200+ monochromatic pledging members, serving on committees, and attending a tall steeple on main street. In the same manner the model pastor  and leadership for this ideal thriving church is white, heterosexual, married, male. Celebrating alternatives would go a long way opening doors and minds. In the same manner young African American church leaders need to know their voices and gifts could be beneficial serving all congregations and not just those that are predominately African American.