Politics, political organizing and public advocacy has always been part of my call, but I also felt drawn to the pulpit. It was a visit to Yale Divinity School as a prospective student four years ago when I began to understand how the two callings could merge.
I began my journey serving in several political and public affairs roles. As a graduate student I worked for a lobbying firm. After completing my Master of Public Administration and Master of Political Science degrees at Florida A&M University, I entered the Florida Gubernatorial Fellow Program, working as a legislative analyst.
Those positions propelled me into a role at the Florida highway and motor vehicles department helping secure IDs for underserved individuals. And then, I was hired by the Department of Corrections, and began visiting prisons and meeting prisoners.
Although I grew up in church, working in the prison system is where my spiritual walk really began. I was appointed by the then Deputy Secretary of Corrections, Richard Davidson, to the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys. My advocacy on behalf of prisoners and those most vulnerable to going into prison, led me to begin engaging more deeply with my faith, and a mentor began to encourage me to consider pastoral ministry.
He said to me, "You possess great gifts for ministry; perhaps, you should pursue a theological education."
A few months later I was standing in front of Yale Divinity School staring at the chapel at the top of the hill. I knew that Yale was rigorous academically, but when I saw how important daily chapel was in the community I made my decision to attend.
My path to Yale seemed destined, but crisis came quickly. Shortly after arriving at Yale, I faced accusations that landed me in a New Haven jail, and extradition to Florida. The accusations were found to be false, and the incident was scrubbed from my legal record. However, this incident has created a myriad of challenges for me. Though the incident was horrible and painful for me, I have channeled all my energy to fight for justice, and to continue down the path that God has called me.
In jail -- on the other side of the bars -- I discovered the power of prayer. I prayed "as Paul and Silas" to get through the experience. The men sharing my space were a source of support. I acutely remember when Associate Dean for Student Affairs Dale Peterson said, "God takes the strongest soldiers through the toughest battles." In other words, this situation was my cross to bear -- so that my testimony might witness to someone else going through a difficult time. I truly believe that experience is the best teacher, and our experiences, regardless of how painful, strengthens us and equips us for the road ahead. Suffering is a natural part of the human condition.
A year later, I returned to campus and found people I could trust as community of support that allowed me to recover and heal from the experience. I quickly took on leadership positions on the diversity committee, student counsel, Yale Black Seminarians, and Seminarians for a Democratic Society.
Shortly after returning, Yale Divinity School began community discussions on issues of race. The entire community was shocked at the way in which the entire case was handled from start to finish. Another classmate and I started working tirelessly to bring Michelle Alexander to campus, author of The New Jim Crow. As a result of our efforts, Dr. Alexander was invited to speak. It was at this juncture that I began to see my crisis experience and my vocational interests merge. Along with other students I began to focus my activism on incarceration issues. I have since begun work to establish a non-profit in my hometown to address local incarceration issues.
I am concerned with policy issues, in particular a culture of unjust policies that work to create a rap sheet for men of color. These issues include but are not limited to policies such as "stop-and-frisk." My role in changing these systems of injustice will likely be a political one. I am eyeing a future in public office.
For me, public service-as-ministry merges well with pulpit ministry. I continue to look to the social justice legacy of African-American Protestant traditions as a place to further develop my prophetic voice. But, I believe, preachers must take the pulpit to secular space, indicting governments to treat citizens justly. Every chance we get, we should be bearing witness to the prophets of old and speaking truth to power, because truly the Kingdom of God is at hand.