That Time “Dylann Storm Roof” Got a Shout-Out at an MLK Event…

Picture Credit: montreat.org
Picture Credit: montreat.org

I write this from my room at Montreat Conference Center, energized by what has been a challenging, convicting, affirming, and motivating “teach-in.” Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda commemorates the 50th anniversary of the civil rights giant’s visit and address to a packed Anderson Auditorium fifty years ago (the videos of the speech are on YouTube in four parts). I heard from heroes this week:  Leonard Pitts, Jr., Bishop Yvette Flunder, Charles Blow, Rev. William Barber, and Rep. John Lewis. Sunday, we will hear the word of the Lord as delivered through Bishop Vashti McKenzie, which this former AME eagerly awaits.

But the beauty of this weekend hasn’t been without its curiosities. Many of my colleagues were taken aback at the police presence at Montreat this weekend, which, apparently, is not the norm for conferences here (I was a Montreat virgin up until now, so I had no point of reference). But the most inane of them happened during Saturday afternoon’s worship service.

We remembered the Charleston Nine and were invited to call their names as their photos appeared on the screens. One by one, we spoke of them, “Cynthia Hurd. Say her name. Susie Jackson. Say her name.” We said each of their names, a litany that proved emotional in ways that surprised many of us. I struggled through tears to say their names, as did others. The memory of the massacre is hardly far removed.

As the final name was spoken and the screen dimmed, I heard a loud voice boom out over my left shoulder:

“Dylann Storm Roof! Say his name!”

He was mid-sentence when I turned to my left to see who had said it. I saw him standing in the pews: Ed Loring.

I didn’t know what to make of it at first. Was this part of the remembrance? When it finally registered what he’d said, I immediately noticed the groans in the crowd and the look of disgust on my colleague and friend’s face. Yes, that just happened. Dylann Storm Roof, for whatever insane reason, got a shout-out during the remembrance of the people he targeted and killed because of the color of their skin at an event dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Social media being what it is, the reaction was swift and broadcast to the world.

“This is why the work ain’t done,” a friend wrote.

My first interaction with Ed Loring was — interesting. I found him to be quirky, animated, and passionate. Obnoxious with his outbursts,  yes, but I’d hardly call that a crime. This, however — this odd, puzzling, and even inflammatory outburst (from a person with a storied history of social justice work, at that) left me aghast. I had to hug a colleague from Charleston who came up to me after worship and expressed how upsetting it was for her. Some of the people in that auditorium were connected to the Charleston Nine and Emmanuel AME Church personally. An AME Bishop who attended Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s funeral sat in the front row during this very worship service. Montreat’s checkered history with regard to race wasn’t too far from the consciousness of many of us in those pews. WTF was Ed Loring thinking?

I don’t know what he was thinking. I don’t know what point he was trying to make. Frankly, I don’t even care. It’s disturbing that someone who has been on the so-called “front lines” of racial justice could be that daft in such an emotionally charged moment. What’s worse, he had people — white people — coming to his defense on social media.

“He wasn’t praising Roof. He spends his life fighting for these issues. He didn’t mean it like that.”

Yes, I should hope he wasn’t praising Roof, especially since there is nothing to praise. Especially since he has dedicated much of his life to the cause of social justice. That doesn’t mean what he said wasn’t insensitive and/or bat**** crazy. He might have been trying to make a point, but he failed at it spectacularly. Admit that. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t get a pass for doing dumb stuff just because  you’ve proven yourself to be “down.” You don’t get to do further violence –intentional or not — to already-hurting people in their presence just because you claim to love them and fight for them. That amounts to nothing more than resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.

“I was right there and I didn’t hear that at all.”

Let me say that I, too, was right there, mere feet away, and I heard exactly what he said. The White friend and colleague sitting next to me heard exactly what he said. The singers on stage heard exactly what he said. My friends from Charleston in the back of the auditorium heard exactly what he said. How did you not hear it? Furthermore, why are we wrong because you didn’t witness it?

Why is his outburst not being categorically rebuked? Why are you trying to gloss over it? Actually, these are rhetorical questions. I already know why, because something along these lines happens too often to people of color when they give their testimonies and point out injustices and insensitivity.

This conference has been life-giving to me in that it has been so honest, at times brutally so. The lament, the confession, the acknowledgment of our country and our church’s need to repent of and dismantle racism — they’ve all been necessary and overdue for us to say. So many of us are on fire after hearing Bishop Flunder call us to repentance and lives of discomfort for the sake of justice, or hearing Rev. Barber urge us to get up and organize in our own contexts. We have confessed corporately our complicity in these systems of injustice. But clearly that was an abstract confession for some people, because the same ones who’d confess with their mouths would turn around and continue to perpetuate bigotry by defending this behavior and redacting the testimony of the folks who witnessed it.

We certainly don’t have to make Ed Loring the ogre of the world, but he’s not even the most problematic one in all of this. It’s the ones who are caping for him, who are quick to issue a salvo of excuses and condescendingly let the rest of us know we’re wrong about him, who are most disturbing. If you can’t even sit with this outburst and name it as wrong, then how much more are you able to sit with your own well-meaning-but-idiotic faux-pas? What does this weekend of confession and turning away from the evils of the past even mean to you?

The work surely ain’t done. Surely, it ain’t.

“Your Faith Has Made You Well”: #BreeNewsome and Bleeding Out

breenewsome-reuters

Some weeks the sermon thesis and text come fairly easily and early in the week. Sometimes they take a bit longer. Sometimes you think you’ll preach on one thing, then something happens (like the massacre of 9 people in a church) that makes you crumple up what you had and start anew. Then there are some sermons that literally do not come until Saturday, mere hours before you have to preach it. Yesterday’s was such a sermon.

My soul was waiting for Bree Newsome, though I didn’t know it.

If you didn’t catch wind of the news, Bree is now famous for using a harness to scale the 30-foot pole from which a confederate flag flies over the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. As she scaled the pole, touched the flag’s hem, and snatched it from its connectors, she could be heard echoing David’s words to Goliath, saying to those below waiting to apprehend her, “You come against me with hatred, oppression and violence, but I come against you in the name of the Lord!”

Like many preachers, I use a lectionary — the Revised Common Lectionary, to be exact. I once balked at the idea of being beholden to a set of readings every week, but I later found using a lectionary to be a powerful discipline. Also, I’ve seen week in and week out God’s providence in that the scheduled readings always seem to have some temporal truth to speak to power. The thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B was no exception, and darned if the unnamed woman with a hemorrhage didn’t give us what we needed to unpack Sister Newsome’s prophetic protest.

Her reaching for that piece of cloth, for me, invoked the image of not just the physical gesture of the woman in this week’s pericope, but her longing as well. Like that woman, black folks are bleeding out. Our blood is being spilled in churches and on the streets by police bullets. Our communities are hemorrhaging as men, women, and youths are funneled into prisons that make money off of them. We feel that bleeding. Bree felt that bleeding and thought if she just reached out with a small gesture, God would meet her and her community at its place of need. And I imagine that she, like the woman with the hemorrhage, was surprised by the power drawn out by such a seemingly small gesture.

In Mark 5:34, Jesus reassured this woman, who was now panicking because did something she socially had no business doing — she was “out of order” — that her “faith” made her well. The Greek word for “faith” in this text is πίστις (pistis), which can also be translated as “faithfulness.” We’re not just talking about a passive belief that one privately holds unbeknownst to anyone else, but an active movement toward what one believes to be so. “Pistis” in the sense of “faithfulness” means that your money is where your mouth is. It means you’ll do something, you’ll work for something you believe in, and you’ll do it consistently, tirelessly — faithfully. What we saw in the civil rights movement of the middle of last century was pistis. What we saw in Bree’s tiring climb up that pole is pistis. It’s belief alongside action and dogged determination. May we all embody that same relentless pistis in the work that is still before us.

Black churches are being burned left and right after the massacre in Charleston. Shamefully wide disparities in wealth between Blacks and White persist. Black women are three times more likely and Black men are six times more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts. We will undoubtedly hear of yet another unarmed Black body perishing with impunity for her or his killer too soon from now. But somehow in Bree’s reaching, in her pistis, we felt in our body that we were healed — if only for a moment.

The Subversion of Forgiveness

Holding Hands
Holding Hands

“You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

That’s what Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said to her mother’s killer at his bond hearing. One-by-one, family members of the people Dylann Roof ruthlessly killed during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church addressed him. And one-by-one, they expressed forgiveness.

The radical forgiveness modeled by these bereaved souls has had a number of people singing their praises. They’ve been admired for their Christ-likeness. Many have found their posture aspirational .

“I don’t think I could have done that.”

“They’re better Christians than I am.”

“That’s that ‘next level’ Christianity!”

They’ve been held up as shining examples of what it means to forgive as Christ commanded.

Then there’s the unintentional consequence of such radical forgiveness: guilt. The guilt of a rape victim who, even years later, still can’t bring herself to forgive her attacker. The guilt of a grown man who can’t seem to forgive his abusive mother. The guilt of being unable to shake off those feelings of anguish, anger and resentment toward people who hurt you — even if they’ve apologized for it.

Let me provide whatever pastoral care I can to those who are struggling with that guilt right now: it’s alright. You’re alright. Really, you are. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Forgiveness is a process, and not a linear process at that. Some crappy days will often follow some good ones. One day you’ll feel incredibly light and unaffected, and the next day you’ll wrestle with your own rage and have to talk yourself out of strangling someone (hopefully you’ll be successful in that). Such is the case for all us, even those of us who read our Bibles every day, pray constantly, and never once miss a Sunday at church. Your capacity to forgive is not related to your godliness. Even those of us who understand the importance of forgiveness will be challenged by its arduous process, including the friends and family members of Roof’s victims.

They have courageously committed themselves to forgiving Roof. But they, too, will have rough days ahead. They are not exempt from the process or its emotional roller coaster. Praying and having their community around them will definitely shore them up in these coming days, but it won’t lift the process off their shoulders. The process of forgiveness is God-created, and we’re no more rooted in our faith by skipping it. So I hesitate to look at these loving individuals as exceptions to the rule or excused from the effects of trauma. There seems to be something else going on here.

This, to me, does not look like a failure on their part to honor the necessary process of forgiveness. This does not appear to be a compulsion to embody a religious doctrine. This is likely an act of subversion toward the person who killed their loved ones and, ostensibly, the system that created him. Their actions are in the same spirit that has for centuries emboldened Black folks to find morsels of joy and magnify them in the faces of their oppressors.  This is not just an act of radical forgiveness, but of radical resistance. This is them heaping their hot coals — a holy practice akin to flipping the bird to the system.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think these folks care anything about being our examples. I think they care more that they’re not like Roof. They know that they will be forever changed, but they refuse to be changed into him. If that’s the case, then I understand and honor that. But what I don’t want is for anyone else to feel compelled to take that on for themselves, especially if they aren’t ready.

Black folks have had to assume this very posture for generations. It is quite understandable if you’re tired of it. I’m tired of it. I want to exist in a world where pastors preach process from the pulpit. I want to hear that God calls us to forgiveness, but that it’s also okay if it’s taking us a while to get there. We can arrive at forgiveness rather quickly, but we shouldn’t be expected to — especially not at times like these when existing wounds are opened anew.

For a good perspective on the process of forgiveness and how to faithfully model it, I commend to your reading How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, by Dr. Janis A. Spring. Free yourselves, family; we and ours have experienced enough bondage already. Shalom.

“Allies,” the Time For Your Silence Has Expired

A vintage photo of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, from their website.
A vintage photo of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, from their website.

As we reel from the horrific news out of Charleston, SC, in which nine people were killed and others wounded after a gunman opened fire during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church, the details we’re gathering in the aftermath all suggest that this was a hate crime. According to eye-witnesses, the shooter was lobbing accusations and generalizations about Black people and declared that what he was about to do (i.e. kill innocent worshipers) was necessary.

And Black people remain numb.

I wish I could help non-Black folks understand what it’s like to be inundated with stories and experiences like this. It scars the psyche. You go from anger and indignation to depression and dejection and back and forth and back again until you’re inevitably numb. When news of Kalief Browder’s suicide broke, many of my White friends expressed their anger about it and the system that facilitated it. I told them they could be angry all they wanted. As for me, I’m exhausted.

I remember when the news out of Ferguson, MO first came to us. I heard White friends and colleagues encourage each other to sit in a posture of listening. I honor that listening. I honor the desire to be in solidarity through understanding. I honor that they wanted to avoid any semblance of saviorism.

White allies, I thank you for your thoughtfulness in this regard. Now allow me to be your stopwatch; Time’s up.

A colleague of mine summed it up perfectly on Facebook today:

wpid-2015-06-18-09.36.27.png.png

At this point, I’m not interested in your listening. I think the danger in this listening posture is, while it seems like the mindful and conscientious thing to do, it can also be far too convenient. It’s a great way of doing nothing. For the sake of finding the right action, you take no action instead. We have had the benefit of years — centuries, literally — of thought, narrative, scholarship, literature, film, fiction, non-fiction, and discussion to help us all understand these issues. We’re the most connected and information-overloaded that human beings have ever been. We can transmit entire books to our hand-held devices. Class has been in session. The school bell as now rung.

Many of you have been on it for some time now, working in solidarity with people of color. You have been in the trenches from the beginning (or your beginning). I don’t discount you, but I also caution you to not be self-congratulatory. You’ve left some folks behind, folks who call themselves “allies.”

I have a love-hate relationship with that word, ally. I find too often it’s a self-appellation, and one that is often unearned. We should apply the same rule to it as we do to nicknames. You can’t give yourself a nickname; other people give it to you. To give it to yourself comes off as pretentious. It’s the same with self-proclaimed “allies.” I know you mean well, but what about your life demonstrates that you walk in solidarity with others who experience life differently from you because of their skin color, legal status, or sexual orientation? Please don’t call yourself my ally if your uncle’s racist jokes go unchecked in your presence. Please don’t call yourself my ally if you say something insensitive, I call you on it, and all you can do is brush it off and say, “Girl, but you know I love my Black people!” Don’t do it.

I love my colleague Laura Cheifetz’ vineyard laborer analogy on Ecclesio today. Whether you got in the game early or late, it’s important to simply get in the game at all. But, if I may use an idiom that we often say in reference to the product of the vine, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Some of us are long overdue for our break, while others have yet to clock in.

Your shift is upon you. Kindly report to work.

A Maundy Thursday Prayer for the Privileged

Praying Hands bible

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

–Jesus

Author of Love,

Help us to exemplify the unconditional, indiscriminate, and sacrificial love you commanded us to show.

Where we refuse to see our complicity in the marginalization of others, forgive, cleanse, and redirect us.

Where we are defensive in the face of a sister or brother’s pain, forgive, cleanse, and redirect us.

Where we use your name to justify discrimination and make our laws sanction our prejudices, forgive, cleanse, and redirect us.

As you saw your divinity to be a thing not to be exploited, help us to think the same of our privilege. Help us to understand what it means to descend from our proverbial “high horses” and our places of laud and favor in order to be fully present in places of abject oppression — even and especially when we don’t want to do it.

Help us to empty ourselves of ourselves. Let us not seek our own justification, but help us to trust in your justification of us so that we may examine where we need to do better by each other without fear. May we not cling to a hegemony that favors us in our whiteness/straightness/richness/maleness/educatedness/cisgenderness/Judeo-Christianness more than we cling to each other. May we not show allegiance to the empire over the Kingdom.

Yes, we who are well-intentioned. Yes, we who are peaceful in the places where peace is easy to find. Yes, we who have never uttered a derogatory slur — but often failed to defend the recipients of them. Yes, we who benefit from systems and structures that by design disadvantage our neighbors. Yes, we who avoid strife and walk away from difficult conversations because we can. Help us to understand that we are no greater than you, and bless us in that understanding.

In Love’s name we pray,

Amen.

Dear NEXT Church…

next-church

I’m reflecting on my time at this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago. I feel odd calling it a “conference” (because NEXT Church is much more than that), but the National Gathering is, for me, one of the few conferences that makes me not want to miss a single second of any offering, any workshop, or any worship service. It’s a welcomed jolt of creativity, innovation, and inspiration during a time in the liturgical year when we church workers often feel like we’re hamsters spinning on our wheels; running frantically to nowhere.

This year’s National Gathering had no short supply of epic moments. With over 600 in attendance, it was the largest to-date — and I wonder whether we’ll soon outgrow being able to host it in a local church! We were all together hearing from Diana Butler Bass when word came of the ratification of amendment 14-F to our constitution, effectively allowing for the marriage of same-gender couples. The reaction to that was just, well, take a look:

That awesome moment when #NEXTChurch2015 gets word that 14-F has been ratified. Love wins! #pcusa

A video posted by Tawnya Denise Anderson (@thesoulstepford) on

But right out of the gate and at the very beginning of the conference, I was surprised and impressed by NEXT Church’s acknowledgment of our denomination’s lack of diversity and failure to have and/or sustain the difficult conversations about race. Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman presented a thought piece and answered some thoughtful questions on what we have done, have failed to do, and can do going forward in the work of reconciliation (or conciliation) and inclusion. Disappointingly, a workshop for the same day that planned to further these conversations didn’t receive much interest during conference registration, but a lunch-time conversation and a revival of the workshop ensured the work would continue. I was happy to see that, and though I’d signed up for a different workshop, I still participated in the lunch-time conversation. Bruce Reyes-Chow‘s Wednesday IGNITE presentation was insightful, inspiring, but woefully short (I totally wanted more!). And one could look out at the crowds and see this was probably the most diverse lot that has ever attended the National Gathering.

NEXT Church, you’ve encouraged me in the knowledge that these things aren’t flying under the radar. They aren’t just important to a few of us. They are of significance to the whole Body. And now I hope to encourage you to continue the work.

This year’s gathering was in Chicago, a city that is painfully segregated along racial and socio-economic lines. Next year’s gathering will be in Atlanta, which is a city with a strong African-American population and a strong income disparity — again, along racial lines. It is a city instrumental in the history of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Please acknowledge this in crafting next year’s message. I grow so weary of hearing our denomination talk about decline as if we are victims. The truth is, when compared to the demographics of the whole country, the PC(USA) is both whiter and richer than the nation of its setting. We’re not struggling as much as we think we are. Where we struggle is in adapting our model for ministry and accepting that ordered ministry and church/mid-council spending and operations will have to make changes. If anything is threatened, it’s our privilege, but for those of us who never had it, that’s not exactly cause for panic.

NEXT Church always leaves me hopeful and encouraged by the way in which the Spirit is moving in our church. I celebrate that more and more we are making room for those who have historically been excluded from the Table. And as much as my heart swelled to hear 14-F had been ratified, I was also sadly aware that ratification of the Belhar Confession still has not happened.

A confession that calls to the carpet hegemony and racist systems that have pervaded the Church — yes, even the Presbyterian Church (USA) — is still sputtering along. At this point, we have had enough presbyteries vote that it could have been ratified already, but yet it sputters.

I would hope that NEXT Church would play an integral role in helping our denomination come to terms with its own past and present prejudice. You’ve started the work, NEXT Church. Now continue it. Be clumsy, but continue it. Make mistakes, but continue it. We cannot be the “next church” authentically without this piece.

As always, you’ve refueled my fire for ministry and given me hope for the future. Thank you, and keep up the important work.

Sincerely,
Rev. T. Denise Anderson

Our New Day Begun: Reflections

our-new-day-begun

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

brian

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!

***************************************************************

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

shavon

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!

***************************************************************

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!

***************************************************************

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.