Tag Archives: Our New Day Begun

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.

Our New Day Begun: Terrence Benn

 

terrence-benn

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!

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

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

zeena-regis1

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.

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

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.
zeena-regis2
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. Wylie V. Hughes

me1 - Copy

 

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.

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

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

Benson-Nicol 2009 PW

 

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!

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

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

JBL profile 1

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!

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

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.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Kerri Allen

31121_392195924634_5785729_n

I’m happy to kick off the “Our New Day Begun” series by featuring the Reverend Kerri Allen. Kerri is a PC(USA) Teaching Elder and a native of Saint Paul, Minnesota. She has served in parish ministry previously and is now in a Ph.D. program at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago (see below for more details on what she’s studying). Kerri has brought the fire in this interview, and I cannot wait for you to get to know her. Enjoy and learn!

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

296578_10150353219159635_78363395_nHow long have you been Presbyterian?
About 15 years. I accidentally found my way into a Presbyterian church, and I have been Presbyterian ever since. Growing up in Minnesota with a black mother and white father, our family was not welcomed in any Christian churches, and so we grew up in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. This is where we found a church community. We were Christian in other spheres of life. My siblings and I were baptized by a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and raised in Catholic school. I joke that being Presbyterian was somewhere in the “middle” of these various religious traditions.

What do you most appreciate about this tradition?
Being Presbyterian encompasses two traditions for me: the Reformed theological tradition and Presbyterian polity. I find myself embracing Reformed theology because of the rich theological diversity that exists within the history of the global Reformed Church. For me, the Reformed tradition has overarching themes that thread it together, but within the details there are have historically been many thoughts.

Presbyterian polity, at its best, is about mutual accountability. After a first career in politics, primarily serving as a political appointee in legislative bodies, I’ve found being Presbyterian to be the right “fit” for me.

What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?
I was called. I spent years ignoring the call and even “debating” God about the absurdity of being a clergywoman (particularly at the time having a career in secular politics). God tried the small still voice, gentle approach, and eventually She just hit me upside with a 2×4, and I went to seminary. While at Louisville Seminary I was able to see the providential path of my life-long desire and pursuit to live in a more just world within the context of the Reformed Tradition.

When I went to seminary, I was still discerning (or so I told myself) about ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Seminary was an amazing and difficult time for me. The first week of seminary, my nephew was murdered, and less than a year later, my mother died after extended illness. I remained in seminary during these darkest days of my life because I was upheld and affirmed by my community. My discernment came through the experience of understanding the power of call as a path that we do not walk on our own, but one that is done in the midst of the witness of the saints. At each difficult step, when I received affirmation of my gifts and skills for pastoral ministry, I knew I was on the right path.

Tell us about your Ph.D. work. What are you studying?
Born, in part, from that painful personal experience of losing my mother after she was diagnosed and treated for cancer that she did not have, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The focus of my project is on the health disparities of black women in our quality of care.

I came to Garrett to work with Reformed (United Church of Christ) Theologian, Dr. Stephen Ray. I am a Christian theologian who embraces the nuance of the Reformed tradition, and it was important to me to work with someone who is Black and Reformed.

As my work unfolds, I see how this particular issue I am studying is part and parcel of racism within a larger structural framework. It is rooted in how black women and our bodies are viewed within the context of whiteness. I could talk all day about these implications, but suffice it to say that my study is about structural racism and violence and the history that upholds and sustains these systems. Our religious tradition (Reformed and Presbyterian) has a history of being complicit in this sinful narrative.

What is the racial/ethnic composition of the churches you’ve served?
I have served two white churches. I was ordained to a call as a Lilly Resident at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Following my residency, as I began my Ph.D. studies I served at a church with maybe a handful of people of color. After preaching a sermon about the injustice of the Zimmerman verdict, a few people in the congregation were up in arms about my sermon. In response, a Ruling Elder told me to my face that she hated the black race. The leadership of the church blamed my sermon. In the words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” I left that congregation and in addition to my Ph.D. studies; I serve as a hospital chaplain.

kerri-allenWhat do you think the PC(USA) needs to understand about Black Presbyterians and Black Presbyterian churches?
I don’t think the denomination can understand anything without confessing the sin of racism. The Presbyterian tradition in the United States has a long history of active participation in the oppression and marginalization of black bodies, as well as ongoing complicity in structural racism. The societal events of the last year and the recent missteps of the PCUSA Special Offerings Campaign underscores the need for theological reflection and conversation before we can even begin to address these practical questions. It will be very telling to see what happens with the Belhar Confession in our presbyteries in the coming months. I believe that adoption of Belhar is a matter of status confessionis (confession and public protest of the strongest kind is necessary).

I am not from the Black Church Tradition so I am always cautious about commenting on the Black Church, but I will say that there needs to be some reconciliation within the denomination about the role that reunification played in diminishing the Black Presbyterian Church.

How can we encourage more young African-Americans to seek leadership roles in our churches?
Similar to the answer above, I would love to see more young black people involved in the church, but it needs to move beyond “tokenism.” People have to prepare to hear, see, and experience things that are different. AND understand the validity of this diversity within the context of the PCUSA as one body in the Reformed Church. Our youth should be invited to participate in roles at all levels of governance within the denomination and we should be actively working on addressing the other issues that I discussed so that young people are welcomed in the church.

Is there anything else you’d like to share or offer as food for thought?
One of the things that us clergy/church types love to talk/blog/social media about is the “dying church.” Everyone seems to have some opinion on why the church is dying and for every opinion on that, there are three thoughts on how to “fix” it. Does anyone ever stop and think that maybe we are killing the church? Maybe we deserve to die?

The PCUSA remains a congregation that is over 90% white and in reality or perception maintaining multiple levels of privilege. This is not a reflection of the United States. So why is the “church reformed always being reformed” grasping so hard to a reality that no longer exists?

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?

More importantly, if we are not being the Church of Jesus Christ in the complex and uncomfortable ways that come with discipleship, why should we (denomination) survive?

Our New Day Begun: Profiles of Young Black Leaders in the PC(USA)

our-new-day-begun

I am so excited! Since this is Black History Month, I’m going to be introducing you to a number of amazing people who have a few things in common: they’re young, they’re Black, and they’re leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

These are the people who are currently making both Black history and Church history, which is why I’ve named this feature “Our New Day Begun,” borrowing from a line in James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (a.k.a. the “Negro National Anthem”). Everyone you will meet in this feature is either a teaching elder (pastor, chaplain, etc.), ruling elder (congregational leader), candidate or inquirer (in the ordination process), or otherwise in leadership in their respective congregations and presbyteries. They come from all over the country, minister in a variety of settings, and have some important and thoughtful offerings for our denomination and the whole Church.

I do hope you’ll stay tuned, ready to listen and be inspired.  Happy Black History Month!

UPDATE (2/5/15): In the interest of convenience, below are links to each profile as it is posted, so you don’t miss a thing: