The Faith of Our Fathers: Reclaiming the (North African) Church Fathers

The Faith of Our Fathers: Reclaiming the (North African) Church Fathers

Growing up in a black Baptist community, I didn’t hear much (if at all) about the Church Fathers. However, during seminary I realized that their influence was felt implicitly in the confessions we affirmed, hymns that we sang, the sermons preached, and the doctrines taught during Sunday school or new members’ class. Despite our general ignorance of their lives, the Church Fathers’ influence impacted our faith. These bishops, priests, deacons, and pious lay members of the ancient Christian Church contributed intellectually and pastorally to the development of both the East and Western Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant).  They debated with both Christians and non-Christians over the meaning of Christianity’s central doctrines including the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the identity of the Church among others.

Many African-Americans, Christian and non-Christian, do not realize that some of the most influential of these theologians and pastors originated from northern Africa. Perhaps confusion about their origins begins within the Christian tradition itself. Despite being of North African descent, Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril spoke and wrote in Greek while Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine wrote in Latin.  Hence, both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches refer to them as the Greek and Latin Fathers. Moreover, in the history of medieval Catholicism, European painters depicted some of these Fathers as white European men.  Many of these paintings like Botticelli’s painting of Augustine are featured in Western museums and their replicas in textbooks of church history and theology.  Despite these shortcomings, African-American Christians must know that the theological and philosophical contributions that these Fathers bequeathed on the formation of Christian doctrine continue to impact our faith and lives.

Tertullian (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) was born in Carthage, Tunisia. The son of a Roman centurion, Tertullian was the first prolific writer of Latin Christian literature, producing extensive works on a range of theological topics. Although not ordained into the priesthood, Tertullian contributed much to the Western Christian tradition. Tertullian was an apologist, defending the Christian faith against both pagans and heretics. Tertullian staunchly distrusted the use of pagan philosophy in understanding Christian faith. His famous rhetorical question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” captured Tertullian’s conviction that Christian faith is understood through the teachings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone.   However, Tertullian made some use of philosophical categories, especially in his teachings on Jesus Christ and the triune God.  During his debate with modalists, those who affirm that God exists as a single monad that manifests itself in three “modes” or operations without having eternal distinction between them, Tertullian coined the term trinitas to describe the Godhead and adapted other Latin terms to explain that God eternally exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae).  Although later in life Tertullian defected to the heretical Montanist movement, his works left an indelible impression on future Church Fathers, including the brilliant theologian and biblical commentator Origen (c. 185 – c. 254).

Origen (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Origen was the first theologian to expound Christian doctrine in a systematic way.  Raised in a Christian home, Origen was educated by his father, Leonidas, who was martyred in the year 202 CE.  A student of the Scriptures, Origen became a prominent Christian teacher in Alexandria and was a rigorous ascetic. He castrated himself and lived a frugal lifestyle. Moreover, Origen contributed to the Alexandrian school of allegorical interpretation of the Bible by writing extensive biblical commentaries.  Origen also contributed to the development of the Trinitarian doctrine teaching that the Son and the Spirit were distinguished from the Father and yet existed eternally with the first person. He claimed that the Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father, the “source” or arche of the other two divine persons. Consequently, controversy arose through this claim that the Son and Spirit were subordinated to the Father, and the orthodox Christian Church later rejected it. Despite his major contributions to theology and biblical interpretation, Origen espoused views, such as the ultimate restoration of all things (Satan included!) and the pre-existence of the human soul that resulted in him being denounced as a heretic.

Athanasius of Alexandria (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 – 373), an archdeacon and secretary to the bishop Alexander (d. 328) rose to acclaim by rigorously defending the full divinity of Jesus Christ and his co-equality with God the Father. Described as a very dark-skinned man of short stature, a hooked nose, and a reddish beard, Athanasius was known for his unrelenting convictions, especially his conviction that the eternal Son of God became human, famously penned in his most influential work On the Incarnation. Later Athanasius defended his position against the teachings of Arius. An Alexandrian priest, Arius (d. 336) taught that the Son, though divine, was a creature, thus sparking the so-called Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century. Arius coined the slogan which spread rapidly throughout Alexandria: “There was a time when [the Son] was not.” To counteract the spread of Arius’ doctrine, Athanasius argued that if Christ was not fully divine, he would have been unable to redeem humankind. Athanasius appropriated Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation and argued that the Son eternally exists and is equal with the Father while maintaining the Son’s distinction. The debate between Arius and Athanasius became so large that Emperor Constantine I convened a church council at his palatial estate at the Anatolian city of Nicaea in 325 CE.  The first of seven ecumenical councils, the bishops ruled in favor of Athanasius’ position and rejected Arius’ teaching. The council affirmed that the Son was homoousias – “of the same substance” – with God the Father.  This reinforced the orthodox position that only God could save humankind. The controversy continued on in the churches for several centuries; Athanasius endured five exiles by four different Roman emperors over a period of seventeen years. Eventually Athanasius returned to Alexandria where he died and was buried.

Augustine of Hippo (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Arguably the most influential of the North African Church Fathers is Augustine of Hippo (c. 354 – c. 430) who single-handedly shaped the entire Western Christian tradition throughout the Middle Ages. A preeminent philosopher, bishop, and theologian, Augustine was born in Thagaste, an ancient city which is now Souk Ahras, Algeria. Augustine grew up in a household of a devout Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan noble father, Patricius, who later converted to Christianity.  Augustine penned his journey of his life and his conversion to Christianity in the book Confessions, which is, arguably, the first biography written in Western literature. In this book, Augustine, in the form of prayer, describes his childhood and his education in Latin literature and philosophy, his self-described unruly personality, and his insatiable passion for women during his teenage years. As a young man, Augustine lived with a young woman who became his lover, and they had a son named Adeodatus.  Despite being raised a Christian, albeit not baptized, Augustine joined a gnostic group called the Manicheans. After nine years, Augustine left the Manicheans and moved to Milan to teach rhetoric. It was there that he discovered Neo-Platonism and then the teaching of bishop Ambrose of Milan. In 387 CE Augustine converted to Christianity.  In 391 CE Augustine was ordained to the priesthood and a year later became bishop of Hippo, now Annaba, Algeria. Augustine served as bishop until he died on August 28th in the year 430 CE shortly after the Vandals sieged Hippo.

Among Augustine’s other influential works include On Christian Doctrine, Enchiridion, and On the Trinity, a book which took Augustine twenty years to complete. Augustine’s fight with the Donatists over the meaning of the Church and his quarrel with the priest Pelagius over the doctrine of original sin and grace shaped the entire Western Christian tradition.  Augustine’s other major work, The City of God, shaped the Western political philosophy. Furthermore, Augustine’s understanding of human nature has influenced, not without controversy, Western Christian teachings on human sexual relationships.

African-American Christians should understand the history of the Church Fathers for the purpose of understanding how Africans played a pivotal role in shaping Christian tradition long before the tragic event of the Atlantic slave trade. To be clear, the North African Church Fathers were not “black” in the modern sense. Indeed, these men were indigenous people of the African continent.  Because of their own indebtedness to Greek and Latin philosophy, we do not have to agree with everything that the Church Fathers taught.   However, we can celebrate their witness as fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith and as spiritual ancestors who “earnestly contended for the faith that was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Now, when I open the red “New” National Baptist Hymnal during worship, or when I study the Baptist confessions of faith for ordination, I sing and study with a new understanding and appreciation for what these men struggled to articulate. I also sing with amazement knowing that Africans significantly played a part in cultivating the entire Christian intellectual tradition.  Despite my adolescent ignorance, I now reclaim these African Church Fathers as spiritual and intellectual ancestors who taught me not only to reverence the mystery of God through word, thought, and deed, but also to celebrate the African heritage of Christianity through the witness of a few faithful men of color.

For further reading, see: 

Drobner, H. R., and S. S. Schatzmann, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.

Oden, T. C., How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Placher, W. C. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.

Plantinga, R. J., T. R. Thompson, and M. D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian TheologyNew York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jason Oliver Evans is a licensed Baptist minister. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a Master of Divinity at Duke University and a Master of Theology from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His research interests cross the intersection of theology, ethics, and critical cultural studies. Evans is especially interested in the meaning of the Christian life and its relationship with sexuality, race, and gender in Afro-Christianity. He plans to pursue doctoral studies. Follow Evans’ blog, I Am a Son of God. Follow him also on Twitter at @joliverevans and Facebook

Big, Bold, & Beautiful: An Interview with Kierra Sheard-Kelly

Big, Bold, & Beautiful: An Interview with Kierra Sheard-Kelly

UrbanFaith Editor, Allen Reynolds, sat down with Gospel artist, entrepreneur, and new author Kierra Sheard-Kelly to talk about her new book Big, Bold, & Beautiful: Owning the Woman God Made You to BeThe book shares Kierra’s experience, wisdom, prayers, and insights in conversation with her faith as she has journeyed from being a young woman to adulthood. Her book is available everywhere books are sold and can be found here. The full video interview is above and excerpts are printed below which have been edited for clarity.

 

Allen

Good morning, everyone. Again, this is another awesome opportunity for UrbanFaith. We are excited to have with us today an absolute gem in Christian life, gospel music, and just our space. It’s an honor to have Mrs. Kierra Sheard-Kelly with us. We’ll be able to talk to her about her new book called Big, Bold, and Beautiful: Owning the Woman God Made You to Be. It’s an exciting opportunity for us.

So I know that you just have so many things that you’re doing. I mean, what a year for you. To be an artist, an actress, and you have gotten married–you just have so much going on in your life. What made you decide to take these thoughts and share them in a book, as opposed to sharing your message some other way?

Kierra

Yeah, well, first, thank you, Allen, for that warm introduction and the warm welcome. Why did I want to put it in a book? Actually, I’ll say this: it was unintentional. The book was unintentional. This was really a God thing. For me, I was only journaling as a form of therapy, just my way of life. That was my way of seeking the Lord: diving into Scripture, studying Scripture, and learning the depths of what I was reading. And it came out this way.

I find myself just kind of getting answers when I write down things. Sometimes you have a whole bunch of things going through your mind. And so I’ve just trained myself to not miss those moments. Because we believe the God we serve is a Spirit. So sometimes He’ll communicate from within. So that’s literally what I did. And I said, I want to share this with the world. HarperCollins Zondervan gave me the opportunity. And it was an opportunity that was in an email account that I hadn’t been checking. And something told me to check this email–it had to be the Lord. And so now they’ve given me this opportunity to share my story and my therapeutic process that just so happens to have some answers. All along, God had been writing a book through me, and I didn’t know it. So that’s really how it came about. And then I was just able to show [my life from] being single to dating to becoming a wife. We will see if there’s another book that I got to share with y’all.

 

Allen

Wow, for you to be able to take what God was downloading over time and turn it into the book is phenomenal. So you just brought up that journey that you took from dating to singleness to being a married person. And of course, there are a whole lot of young women thinking and wrestling with that, so what would you say helped you prepare to become a married person? Now, on the other side of that journey, which of those lessons was really key?

Kierra

That’s such a great question. It was learning to just be me, learning how to live with just myself. When you’re able to live with yourself, then that means that you’re compatible. But when you have a problem with yourself all of the time, and it’s always something to do or something to fix, you can’t be still. That is what I had to learn about myself. And [if that’s you], you’re gonna make it hard for anybody to live with you. It was also the conversations with my mother and my grandmother. I spoke about them in the first chapter.

I think, just taking trips on my own, not waiting on anyone–of course, being safe–but not waiting on a man or putting all of it on a man if he’s there or not. And that’s not me being a man basher or anything like that. But it is me just saying that I had to learn to become secure with myself and with the Lord.

God will mold you into this proverbial woman so you’re able to build your home, you’re able to be a companion, you’re able to know when to stop talking. Like this morning, I wanted to respond a few times with something to say to my husband, but I just let him have the last say. I’ve learned to submit or to hold your tongue. It doesn’t make you weak–it actually makes you very strong. It’s almost like strength behind the veil.

So those are some things that I had to learn while I was in my single space. But also, establishing the things that God has called me to do is the long, long answer, and I could go on and on about the preparation that got me to this point. But I can say in a nutshell, it was me just being and trusting God in that process. And then I developed into this woman who could be a wife.

But enjoy. I enjoyed my days, and I had a good time. You know what I’m saying? I even played the game. My Nana told me “Baby, you can date.” Even my dad said, “Don’t put down makeup.” That’s one thing. And I said it in the book. Don’t make a boyfriend a husband if it’s temporary. Don’t try and make a lifetime thing out of that if he’s not in agreement with you. And that was a mistake that I was making, which caused a lot of heartache and heartbreak. So those are some things that I did to prepare.

 

Allen

Well, the presence of [mentors] in our lives makes such a difference. And that’s such a theme that you came back to in your book, talking about how to choose the people around you wisely. And I just kept hearing boundaries. What is one of those key ways that you can distinguish or discern how to draw that boundary?

Kierra

I had to learn that at a young age, because I couldn’t do what a lot of my friends wanted to do. And I’m sure a lot of us can relate to this–especially as believers–when we’re growing from high school to college, college to grad school, or just college and out. There are some sifting seasons that we go through naturally in every season. And I like to acknowledge the fall season because the leaves have to fall for the new to come. But after fall, there’s a cold season. So I’d like to highlight the fact that it’s not always the summer of everyone’s life. I mean, I know there’s Cali and I know that there is Florida, but you have earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes there. So there are some challenges that we have to go through.

But to answer your question directly, I think the way is to acknowledge that boundaries is a part of our reality, both naturally and spiritually. And when you see those signs, don’t ignore the red flags. I’ve had a tendency to ignore the red flags because I wanted to be a loyalist, but there’s a way to be loyal and to learn to compartmentalize relationships. And that’s what I’ve had to learn to do. Because if I can’t exist with people, then I won’t know how to exist in heaven, because I’m not the only one who’s going to heaven.

So that’s how I see it: how can I love people, but re-adjust and say: okay, you know what? This relationship has depth to it, but that relationship is one where we can go to lunch and just laugh, but we don’t need to go no deeper than that. And if there is a moment, I go by God’s leading when He’s authorizing me to go a little deeper.

So  I think designing is just having that on, and not ignoring what you feel. There was a chapter that I was going to write in the book, and it was called “The Vibes You Feel,” but we took it out. I don’t know if that’s a book that the Lord is having me to wait on. But we call them vibes. Now in the church, they call them a spirit. And in the street, they call it something else. So I think it really is, when you feel something, understand that it’s the Holy Spirit helping you to navigate through life. He’ll be a GPS for you. And if that is a roadblock, then acknowledge that. I hope that answers your question.

 

Allen

Absolutely. I think that answered a lot of things, and it brought up another good question for me. I know you’re getting your master’s degree in clinical psychology, which is just amazing that you’re doing that kind of work. What are some of the ways, and why is it important for us to maintain good mental health? Whether we’re successful or whether we’re at our low points–a lot of people think it’s only in low times that we need to be concerned. But really, you’ve made it a holistic thing in this book. So why is it important to you to maintain good mental health?

Kierra

It’s so important because first the Bible mentions it. Whenever the Word mentions something, I’m like, “Alright God.” I take it [because] it’s almost like He’s speaking to me. And there’s a Scripture that we often highlight the latter part of the clause, where it says the prayers of the righteous availeth much, but before that, it says, confess your faults one to another, that you may receive healing. Then it says, the prayers of the righteous availeth much.

When I broke down that Scripture, it was letting me know that confession is a form of therapy. You’re confessing your issues, you’re confessing your challenges, the things that may lodge in your mind–confess those things. And then it says, as you confess them, you’ll receive healing. So sometimes talking about these things and really dealing with them with a valid person, if I can say it that way, because it says the prayers of the righteous. So I like to use that as identifying a therapist, because the Bible also authorizes physicians–people who have studied the science. So, seek professional help. But maybe you’re seeking professional help from someone who has a faith-based background.  They will tell you that you need to pray about this, or that’s a spirit you’re struggling with versus a mental disorder you’re struggling with. But I think it’s so important, because the Bible also talks about the emotions that have an effect on our body like jealousy.

So the Lord lets us know that these emotions that have to do with our mental housing can eventually wear and tear on our bodies. And it can overflow into our lives with how we treat people. When we’re tired, some of us get antsy, and we get snappy. We’ll say things with our tongue, because the Bible talks about how the tongue can be like a fire that just hits a tree and it sets a forest on fire. I think it all goes back to mental health.

And then I think, if the Lord speaks to us, and He’s an invisible being, and if your mind is always clouded, and you’re not there mentally, then your judgment and your discernment can be clouded. So that’s why mental health is everything to me, because the enemy will use that against us. And [the enemy] can just weigh us down and keep throwing stuff at us to where we’ll become more anxious. The Bible talks about being anxious for nothing. So if the Word is speaking about it, then I think it’s something that we should pay attention to. And that’s why it drives me. I also have family members who have wrestled or struggled with mental health. So that’s [another reason] why I’m an advocate of mental health. I could go on and on and on.

Allen

Yeah, and I love how you connect your faith in the Scriptures to that, because so many people don’t get to hear that we read the Bible, and we may not see it, or we may not hear it spoken about enough. But it’s living in you, and you talked about that so much in this book. And so one of the things that I really like about the book is that in each chapter, you had those Scriptures and those prayers. Why did you decide to do that?

Kierra

In the dedication, I said something like, I hope that this book blesses other people [like] the book Nana gave me did for me. And that book was Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, which she gave me when I was 18 or 19. I read it at least two or three times, and it just changed my life. It transformed my way of hearing, listening, living. And [because of it] when I went to Bible study, I was more attentive to what my father was teaching. So me seeing what that book did for me [inspired me]. And it has Scriptures in there. I don’t remember if it has prayers in there, but I was happy to dive in deeper into God’s word and really elevate in my relationship with the Lord.

So that’s why I wanted to put those in here. Because we think that, as you mentioned, we think there’s a disconnect when it comes to the faith way of living [versus the practical way of living]. And it ties in together, So that’s why I wanted to give Scriptures, because sometimes we don’t know where to start. We don’t know how to tie these Scriptures to our everyday life. And I wanted to give basically a dose of what my father, Bishop J. Drew Sheard, gives me in a week–and I wanted to give a dose of what I got from Pastor Rick Warren. And then I wanted to give a dose of the home girl approach that I get from my mother, my Nana, and my home girls. So that’s why I wanted to give that, because I felt like it was more digestible.

 

Allen

Yeah. And I think that one of the impacts that it has, as I was reading through, is that it helped us to ground ourselves–not only in who God is–but to see your groundedness. You’re not just up somewhere in a tower sitting there reading your Bible, but you’re living this thing–you’re living out God’s word. And so I want to know, what’s one of the most important memories that you have as you navigated? What are your favorite memories that you have from this book, or that you shared? Something that you had to overcome, or something that really struck you?

Kierra

I think one of the challenges that I had to navigate–and I spoke about it, I don’t remember what chapter it was – was being young in the recording industry. They only wanted to take pictures from the waist up. And I was like, you know, I want to show who I am. There’s no such thing as me being a big girl and still being fly. And I was younger, but I was also bigger. I think even talking about the experiences with former relationships, where the first thing that they could do was call me a “fat B” or just go like ham with names and words.

The Lord just assured me and had me to see if that’s all you have on me–my  look– then I have a reason to celebrate myself. You have nothing to say about my character. And we forget to celebrate those beautiful parts of ourselves, because the world is so locked in and zoned in on what you look like externally. But how do you look internally?

I think that even goes back to the mental health piece. There’s a peace that I have about myself now that no man can move or shake. And that’s not just speaking to men, but that’s man as in humanity in general. I used to be ready to go off, and now I’m just ready to move differently. Like, my father taught me something. He said, Kierra, if people can get you to step outside of yourself, and to step out of what you really want to give in that moment, then they have control of you. And I was like, oh, then that means I don’t have control of myself. So those are some things that I had to get over. Whether people say you are beautiful or not, how will you live your life?

And then me learning to speak up for myself. Like, when they would say, oh, you’re going to just get pictures from the waist up, I had to eventually say, No. I want a full body shot. This is who I am. And it was a challenge. But out of that challenge came peace, security and audacity. And I think that that is so important for us to have, especially because the enemy will use any and everything against you. And if you’re operating with a spirit of timidity, he’ll walk all over you. You’ll just be somewhere stuck in the dark and that’s it. But I made it up in my mind, like, no, yeah, I’m not gonna do that to me, period. That’s it. So that’s the challenge that I had to get over.

 

Allen

Absolutely. And you know, we’re talking so much to young people and young women, especially, [as well as] young men. I as a man was just impacted. I have three daughters, and I’m just thinking about the lessons that they can learn from this book and from your work. And I want to know, what is a message, what’s a takeaway that you would want to pass down for those younger generations and even the young girls?

Kierra

Man, it is to stand up for yourself, but remain a student [of] who you can trust  and know that the village is not just for the child, the villages for you, too. So don’t get so grown for your own good to the point where you can’t listen to anyone. In the Bible it says that there is safety in the multitude of counselors. I think I flipped it, but you get what I’m saying. And I think it is so important that we bask in that part. The Lord speaks through people, and the enemy uses people also. So I would tell them to not be too grown for their own good, because even the Word says that in order to enter into the kingdom, you have to take on the disposition in the heart of a child. [A child’s heart is] innocent, but if I know it all, “can’t nobody tell you nothing.” They can’t even tell you the truth about yourself, because you’re just always on the defense. So that’s what I would tell a young woman.

And I would tell her, “You’re beautiful, and a relationship does not validate that.” A relationship does not give you your identity. You go with your identity to that relationship, and you empower it. You make it into what you want it to be. But I would also encourage young women [by saying] that whoever you connect with is almost a preview of your life. You know, your conversations are almost a preview of your life. So don’t waste so much time. But listen. There are some things that I wish I had listened to that my parents told me as I look [back on] it now. And it’s like golly, I could have saved so much time and so much money. So those are some things that I would tell young women.

 

Allen

Wow. So, this is your opportunity. Is there anything else you want to leave with our audience, Christian young adults all over the country and across the world? Is there any last thought that you want to share from this book or your work? We want to hear from you.

Kierra

Yeah, I would like to say, as young believers, we kind of feel like outcasts. But remember that we’re living for life after this one. And I know, it can be hard. I know it can be a challenge, especially if we’re single. And [if] we’re, you know, dating and if he’s fine, if she’s beautiful, I’m sure we can get [tempted], I understand. But I want to encourage you that there’s more to life than just that moment. And remember, our goal is to make the Lord smile. So do what you need to do to uphold your standard, to say no. Not just in those sensual moments, but even saying no for your sanity. Like, I’m not even gonna deal with this. I can’t deal with it. You can’t afford to deal with it.

So I’ll stop there. But really download what heaven is saying to do with your life, because tomorrow isn’t promised. And I think when we get that understanding that the carnal man doesn’t understand what the spiritual man understands. I think there’s more to life than bliss, if you understand what I’m saying. So hopefully, that is something.

Finding Faith and Community on Virtual Campuses: An Interview with Shaylen Hardy

Finding Faith and Community on Virtual Campuses: An Interview with Shaylen Hardy

Last year the pandemic disrupted the world as we know it–leaving most college students grappling with how to live in a world without access to community, coupled with the pressure of continuing their education. 

For Black students, the exposure of racism locally, nationally, and globally made the Great Disruption even more difficult. The nation witnessed the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes while being forced to quarantine. White supremacy and racist rhetoric were often unveiled from the mouths of people who identified as Christian, which left many students wrestling with their faith on multiple fronts without the normal practices and people to help encourage them. 

But in the midst of the turmoil and testing, leaders of campus ministries sought to support  Black students. I had the opportunity to interview Shaylen Hardy, the President of Intervarsity’s Black Campus Ministries, about her experiences and insight leading one of the largest networks of Black campus ministries through the pandemic. Some highlights of our conversation are below, and the full interview can be viewed above and on UrbanFaith.com!

The interview has been edited for clarity.

 

Allen:

I’ll open up our first question, Shaylen. From your perspective, what are some of the challenges that you have seen Black students face in the last year as they’ve lived through this pandemic and the social unrest in our country? 

 

Shaylen:

Yeah, I mean, I think you named some of the major things that they’re facing. I think another thing with Generation Z is mental health issues. We already knew coming into this year, or pre-pandemic, that Generation Z experiences significantly higher amounts of mental health issues. So as you think about it, some of the racial reckoning that we’re seeing in the nation, plus the weight of the pandemic, are actually just compounding the mental health issues that those students were experiencing already. So some of the ways in which they may have negotiated or worked through their mental health challenges, like being with friends, or engaging in activities that are life giving to them, were taken away instantly. So, the challenges of coping with mental health complications are something that we’re seeing. 

And also their academic coursework. I mean, many of us remember getting up in the morning, going to class, and just the weight of that. But there’s a different [pressure] when you have to be virtual and on Zoom calls all day long.  They are expected to retain everything that they’re hearing without the personal interaction with their teachers and other students, and just the fatigue. Many of us working via Zoom for this last year were also experiencing fatigue, but we’re not being tested week in and week out on what we heard during those calls.

 

Allen:  

That makes a lot of sense. A follow-up question that I have is, how are the students able to gather together in life giving ways with organizations like Intervarsity, or with one another? How, in the midst of being virtual, are they finding community?

 

Shaylen:

Yeah, I think part of it is being somewhat creative. And so we recognize that one of our only ways of interacting is virtually. And we know that we’re inviting them to come back into a virtual space after they’ve spent most of their day on it. But we think through developing community in a couple of different ways. 

Yes, we still do our Bible study, and yes, we still have prayer meetings and things like that. But we host virtual game nights where we invite students to come play Spades or stUno, and we have virtual movie nights where we play a movie and students can chat about what they’re experiencing. So we think that community is still very, very vital to their mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. We just have to be creative in how we use virtual mechanisms to help build that community so that when we are able to go back to the new normal, they can pick up where they left off with one another

 

Allen:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think that hybrid is kind of the future of the world at this point, right? Like, things are not going back to the way that they were. You just mentioned how people are using these hybrid mediums in order to engage in order to strengthen themselves and their faith. What are some of the ways that you’ve seen students really be able to feed their faith or keep themselves encouraged?

 

Shaylen:

I think part of it is we do small groups on different campuses and across the country, and we have had a national virtual conference for students to engage. I think one of the things that we’re learning about Generation Z is that because they have so much content available to them, just showing them a video  isn’t enough. They’re like, help me figure out what I’m supposed to do with what I just heard. And so we’ve actually been able to have a couple breakout sessions [that are]  conversations about what’s happening in the world and what Jesus has to say about justice. And students are like, “Yeah, that was great.” And then we have to follow up by sharing the next two steps to take if you want to figure out how to be more active and engage in what’s happening in the world. So I think part of it is yes, content. But if you think about it, this generation has more access to more content than anyone has ever had. So what we’re seeing is this generation is like, “Yeah, give me content. And when you give it to me, make sure it looks good, but also help me figure out what you want me to do with what I just heard.”

 

Allen:

Wow, that’s huge. The application part makes a big difference for them. Now, the other thing that has been impacting us is not just a pandemic, but also this racial unrest. And I’m really curious, how have you been hearing Black students talk about this deal with this with their faith? How is the racial unrest been impacting them in particular in these times? 

 

Shaylen:

I think in some ways, it’s connected to some of the mental health issues.  Like, it is hard for me to show up because of all of the trauma that I’m experiencing, and so that is compounded with that mental health tension, and then I have to show up and engage academically. But also, I have to be social and be competent in my interaction with my classmates. So it’s like they’re having to pull it all together to be okay, when they don’t feel okay. So that’s definitely a tension that they’re experiencing. 

I will say that we’ve tried to have conversations to help students think through what Jesus has to say about what is happening right now. And I think that a lot of people who would challenge the Christian faith or the Christian perspective will point to broader White evangelicalism of: “That is why Jesus cannot be trusted.” And so some of our students are trying to wrestle with, if this is the fruit [meaning racism], and they say they love Jesus,, can this be compatible with me following Jesus? 

Part of what we’ve had to do is actually expose some of the lies of White evangelicalism. And yes, you can fully follow Jesus as a Black person, as a nAfrican American, as an African [person]. All of those things are compatible with Jesus. But in some ways, I think in order to make that case, we’ve had to k pull back the curtain and say things like, “These are the lies that have been intertwined with American Christianity, and this is why Jesus is trustworthy.” On the one hand, [we] also speak to what Jesus has to say about the Black experience. And I think that there have been moments when [for Black students and myself] I see what’s happening in the world and I live as a Black [person] experiencing it [and], I’m like, “Lord, when will you show up?”

 

Allen:

That makes a lot of sense. What are some of the other ways that you’re coming alongside these students or ministering to them with Intervarsity? Or even the wider campuses? I know that you guys do work, not just with students, but with folks who are supporting students on campuses. So what have you all been doing in the midst of all this to support campuses?

 

Shaylen:

I think I’m connected to some of our spaces. So we’ve had a psychologist come in and talk about racial trauma, sharing her insights. And then we had breakout rooms where students were able to discuss what they were experiencing. And then from that point, we have prayer ministry rooms. So we’re getting into spaces where students can actually share their story and not just about what they have been experiencing, but also connect to prayer ministry. 

And similarly, at our virtual student conference we had over 300 students and about 10 faculty join us. So we had a conversation and then invited people into prayer ministry rooms. One of the things that was really surprising to me is that I felt like we recruited really well for our prayer ministry rooms, but we were continually having to call in reinforcements because the need and the hunger for prayer was so strong. In a virtual space, we had a Zoom room with music playing [where people could wait for a minister to be available].  There was one point, when I was recruiting people in there who jumped on 20 minutes after we started because they needed people. And there were students just waiting quietly in the prayer room until somebody was available. I think that that was such a stark picture of how we categorize youth often, like they aren’t interested in spiritual things or they don’t love Jesus. [But] they are hungry for what Jesus wants to give them. These students sat through an hour and a half or two hours of programming. And they are sitting in a Zoom call, listening to worship music because they want somebody to pray with them. 

I think just giving those opportunities for people to have encounters with the Lord [is important]. One of the things that we’re learning about Generation Z is that they want access to experts. I think millennials want to be the experts. Generation Z is like, “Just connect me with somebody who knows what they’re doing.” I don’t know that we anticipated this or actually know how it would work virtually. But offering that prayer ministry space has been super significant for students. 

And then I think the second piece that I mentioned earlier, is just opportunities for helping them figure out how to actually do it– how to apply the message to their lives.

 

Allen

So that provides a really great segue for another question I have, especially for a lot of the folks in our audience. We’re touching people who are Christians and especially churches all over the place. And it sounds like there’s a space for the church and an opportunity to reach some of these students. What kind of roles do you think the church can offer to these students as they’re dealing with things on campus and going through this this time?

 

Shaylen

I think one of the things that as I’ve been working on and trying to identify is, how do we actually care for Black college students, and what are the support structures that exist on college campuses? For HBCUs, there’s much more of a community of people already there who can pour into you and to develop you. For students who end up at predominantly White institutions, that looks quite different. 

[On HBCU campuses] there are often support structures and Black professionals who can help pour into you in the same way you were used to in high school. It sticks out to me that Generation Z wants to be developed. They want people who know what they’re doing to guide them.But on PWI campuses, it is very hard to have access to that. And that’s compounded. Most PWIs are surrounded by churches. White churches have money, so they surround the campus. But in most campus contexts, Black churches are about 10 to 15 minutes away from most campuses. And then basically, you’re saying for a Black college student to be connected to community, or to be connected to an older people who could pour into them, pray for them, and care for them, they have to find a way to get there. 

And so I think that my question would be, are there ways that Black church communities can be intentional about supporting Black students on college campuses? Now that’s a little bit complicated due to COVID because we just don’t know how accessible campuses will be, right? But as they open [there are opportunities]. 

My church has been thinking through things like, how do we care more for Black college students? And so I [gave them suggestions’ and  we actually started partnering with a student organization. We attended their meeting every so often and brought a whole bunch of food–wings, pizza.e would let them do their meeting, then do an icebreaker and ask if anyone needed prayer. 

And then we ended up having a college day later in the semester, and we had never had so many college students at our church. I want to say that over 100 college students came over to the event. And part of it was because they saw us being active on campus–they saw us caring about them. We didn’t do a full church service. That’s something we could consider down the road. But basically, we were saying, “We just want to know what you’re going through.” We want to support you. 

Churches might think that they have to have a robust strategy for recruiting for building a whole separate ministry, but I don’t think that they need to do all that. Are there two or three students that somebody in your congregation has trust with? If the answer is yes, ask them, or, for Generation Z, tell them how you want to support them. Say, “Hey, I know that I have meetings on campus. Would it be okay, if our church sponsors dinner for you at one meeting per month? We would just love to meet them and see if there’s a way for us to pray for them.” And then figure out ways that you can invite them to partner with you for something that you’re doing in the community or invite them to church. We don’t have to have a whole robust strategy. It can really start off with relationships.

 

Allen

Wow, I love that relationship piece. And just allowing us to again build relationships as churches with students and be able to support them where they are. So my last question is, with all of that’s going on, are there other people who may be around campuses who  can continue to make an impact with Gen Z?

 

Shaylen

Yeah, so we have a ministry in a university that’s targeted towards Black graduate students and Black faculty. It is called Black Scholars and Professionals, and they recently had a prayer call with Black faculty across the country. I want to say there were 45 faculty who jumped on [the call]. art of that was for encouragement and to tell testimonies of where they’re at and to pray together. 

As we think about faculty, they are carrying tremendous weight. There is the leadership that they already have on campus, but often for Black faculty, they have the unwritten roles of caring for Black students and speaking for diversity issues. And so they are carrying tremendous weights. One of the things that we try to do is to see how we can care for this spiritual life and help a faculty. As we think about wanting to see transformation on campus, students are there for four to five years, but faculty actually have significant influence on both students [and campuses]. If we can care for the spiritual life of faculty, they have access into [students’] lives in ways that we don’t. 

We’re trying to think through what faculty need so we can be present to their needs, but also for prayer and fellowship. On the student side of things, we have a point person on most campuses  who can provide discipleship and engagement. But also, we’ve been trying to kind of brainstorm how to do this work, even if we don’t have a staff available. 

The reality is, for the amount of Black students who are on college campuses across the U.S., we don’t now, nor will we ever,  have enough campus staff to reach all of them. How can we actually empower students to reach other students? How can we empower volunteers to reach other students? We are trying to be creative [about] how to partner churches, alumni, people in the community and students  to do the work of reaching other people on campus.

 

Allen

Absolutely. I thank you for naming just the needs of the faculty because they don’t get thought about a lot. Is there anything else you wanted to just say?

 

Shaylen

So, I would say that being in college is a really, really important time. You’re figuring out who you are, what you believe, and also what you’re going to be about. A lot of the decisions that you make in college shape who you are for the next 40 to 50 years. One of the difficult parts about college is that those decisions are made when you’re the most distant you’ve ever been from your spiritual community and [broader] community. So I want to encourage college students to look for people who can support them on the journey, because it’s significant– these are important decisions. Ask your parents and pastors who they know in the school or college town. If they don’t know anyone, reach out to different networks to try to figure out who in your community will support you. 

I think about my local church community when I moved into the town. They were so extremely helpful people wanting to pour into me–people wanting to know what I was  passionate about. Generation Z, doesn’t like the idea of taking the risk and going to somebody’s church or a place you don’t know. Having to socially interact with them in person might seem very, very risky. But I think thatB the benefit will far outweigh the risk.  That’s where you can have intergenerational fellowship. I think you will get much more than you are giving, and it will be worth much more than you risk. Ask your spiritual community where you are, if there’s any connections to where you’re going, and then seek those out. And if they aren’t a good  fit for you, I promise there’s someone in the community who can help you develop into who the Lord is calling you to be.

Allen  

Well, thank you so much for this interview, Shaylen. It has been fantastic. It’s awesome work that the Intervarsity Black Campus Ministries is doing all around the country. You guys are impacting so many students, faculty, and grad students. It’s wonderful to be with you again. And I hope that people are able to take something from this. I know that I’ve learned a lot about what’s going on on campuses, especially in the pandemic with racial unrest.  God bless you in this work.

Shaylen 

Thank you. And lastly, I’ll just say, we are on social media if people kind of want to see some of the things that we’re doing. It’s under Black Campus Ministries on Instagram, and we’re on Facebook. If you want more information, you can check out our website at BCM.intervarsity.org 

A Chance In The World-Interview with Steve Pemberton

A Chance In The World-Interview with Steve Pemberton

This month is National Foster Care Awareness Month, an opportunity for people across the nation to learn about and speak about the challenges and opportunities of the foster care system in the United States. In honor of this month we are glad to share this interview with Steve Pemberton. Steve Pemberton is a man with an incredible story of resilience, determination and vision. After spending years as an executive, philanthropist, and speaker he decided to tell his story in his new USA Today Best Selling Memoir: A Chance In The World. Our UrbanFaith Contributing Writer Maina Mwaura had the opportunity to sit down with Steve and discuss the book and how his faith was at the center of his incredible journey from Foster Care to Fortune 500 companies and philanthropy.

https://www.stevepemberton.io/

 

Fighting school segregation didn’t take place just in the South

Fighting school segregation didn’t take place just in the South

School boycott picketers march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Board of Education in 1964.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Whether it’s black-and-white photos of Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine or Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of New Orleans schoolgirl Ruby Bridges, images of school desegregation often make it seem as though it was an issue for Black children primarily in the South.

It is true that Bridges, the Little Rock Nine and other brave students in Southern states, including North Carolina and Tennessee, changed the face of American education when they tested the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated the desegregation of public education. But the struggle to desegregate America’s schools in the 1950s and ‘60s did not take place solely in the South. Black students and their parents also boldly challenged segregated schooling in the North.

A group of African American students read books together in a small room.
The Little Rock Nine form a study group together after being prevented from entering Central High School in 1957.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Mae Mallory, a Harlem activist and mother, serves as an example. Her name may not be the first one that comes to mind when it comes to 1950s school desegregation battles. Yet Mallory made history – and changed the face of public education – when she filed the first post-Brown suit against the New York City Board of Education in 1957.

Prompted by her children

Mallory got involved in education activism after her children – Patricia and Keefer Jr. – told her about the deplorable conditions of their segregated school, P.S. 10 in Harlem. Mallory joined the Parents Committee for a Better Education and became a vocal advocate of Black children’s right to a safe learning environment.

The turning point came when she indicted the racist school system in her January 1957 testimony before the New York School Board’s Commission on Integration. Mallory embarrassed the board by remarking that P.S. 10 was “just as ‘Jim Crow’” as the Hazel Street School she had attended in Macon, Georgia, in the 1930s. Her testimony was an integral part of the parental complaints that forced the board to construct a new building and hire new teachers.

A larger battle

Encouraged by this victory, Mallory began a fight to end the New York City Board of Education’s segregation practices. Existing zoning maps required her daughter, Patricia, to attend a junior high school in Harlem. Mallory argued that this school was inferior to others in the area and would not adequately prepare her daughter for high school. Instead, she enrolled Patricia in a school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The board blocked Patricia’s enrollment. Mallory took action. With the help of a young Black lawyer, Paul Zuber, she sued, claiming existing zoning policies relegated her daughter – and other Black children – to segregated, inferior schools. Filed three years after Brown, Mallory’s suit forced the Board of Education to face the fact that segregation was a persistent problem in New York City public schools. Eight other mothers joined Mallory’s fight. The press dubbed them the “Harlem 9.”

Making headlines

Once filed, Mallory’s suit became front-page news in The New York Times. A year later, however, the case stalled. In an effort to spur the suit along, the Harlem 9 instituted a boycott of three Harlem junior high schools. Zuber knew that the mothers would face charges of violating compulsory school attendance laws. This, in turn, would force a judge to rule on their suit.

In December 1958, Judge Justine Polier sided with the Harlem 9, declaring: “These parents have the constitutionally guaranteed right to elect no education for their children rather than to subject them to discriminatory, inferior education.” The Harlem 9 gained the first legal victory proving that de facto segregation existed in Northern schools. The decision galvanized local Black parents, causing hundreds to request transfers for their children to better schools.

A compromise

The parties reached a settlement in February 1959. The Harlem 9’s children would not enroll in the schools for which they were zoned. Nor would they be able to engage in “open choice” – the parents’ request to send their children to a school of their choosing.

Instead, they would attend a Harlem junior high school that offered more resources, including college prep courses, although it was still largely segregated. The Harlem 9 would be allowed to continue with their ultimately unsuccessful civil suit against the board. The mothers had also filed a million-dollar lawsuit seeking damages for the psychological and emotional toll their children endured in segregated schools. This was a compromise on all fronts. However, Mallory and the other mothers gained a substantial victory in forcing the court and the Board of Education to confront the segregation that existed in New York City public schools. Their boycott also became a unifying strategy for subsequent struggles, most notably for the 1964 New York City school boycott. During this boycott, hundreds of thousands of parents, students and activists engaged in a daylong protest of segregation and inequality in public city schools.

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The Harlem 9’s fight serves as an important reminder that school desegregation protests were popular and successful in the North as well as in the South. It also provides insight into the prominent role Black women had in these struggles and the diverse range of strategies they deployed – from championing “open choice” to school boycotts – to help their children have access to equal education.

Even more importantly, perhaps, their fight demonstrates the importance of appreciating the different ways in which Black women compelled schools to make good on the Brown decision – a fight that, nearly 70 years later, is still being fought. The Supreme Court’s mandate in the Brown decision that public schools desegregate with “all deliberate speed” is unfinished. Nationwide, Black children remain in schools that are segregated, underfunded and overcrowded – much as they were when Mallory began her fight.The Conversation

Ashley Farmer, Assistant Professor of History & African and African Diaspora Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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