Reverend Matthew Wesley Williams is the 11th President of the Interdenominational Theological Center, a historically Black ecumenical graduate theological school in Atlanta, GA. Rev. Williams, an expert in the field of theological education, has built national programs and partnerships to advance opportunities for institutional change, faculty development, doctoral education, leadership formation, young adult vocational discernment, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.
Reverend Williams was the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for the Forum for TheologicalExploration (known as FTE), a national leadership incubator. During the 15 years Rev. Williams was with FTE, he designed and led initiatives that built the capacity of academic institutions and faith-rooted organizations to inspire, form, and equip emerging leaders.
This is the first of a two part Sound of the Genuine with Rev. Williams.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Matthew Wesley Williams
Patrick: All right President Matthew Wesley Williams. I am so glad that you joined us on the sound of the genuine. We go back. I have never grown so much under someone's leadership. So that way when people listen, yes, we do know each other really well, and you are not getting the full story of anything. So it's good to see you, man.
Matthew: Oh man, good to see you too, brother. You are always a breath of fresh air. Good to be back at the virtual table with you - we spent a lot of time at table. Always good to be a conversation with your brother.
Patrick: Same. And you know I know a lot of your stories, actually I know probably too many of your stories and so I'm going to let you tell your own story. You know, as a president now, but that's not where you've always been. I imagine you didn't wake up in life when you were a five-year-old and write into your kindergarten dreams, when I grow up I want to be president of ITC. So take me back to the beginning. Tell me about your community, your people, what were some of your hopes and dreams when you were little – little Matthew.
Matthew: Little Matthew. Well you're right, being a president was not on my career path. It was a vocational surprise. I have to track my dreams back to my people's dreams. Little Matthew is a child of the great migration. Little Matthew is a child of that branch of the African diaspora we call the south side of Chicago. Little Matthew is a product of a confluence of Cherokee, Black Mississippi, Black Alabama, the hills of Tennessee, and Ireland, finding its way to the south side of Chicago. And just like the dreams of our kin folk and ancestors who made their way to Chicago, were trying to find spaces for black sovereignty, freedom, self-determination that would enable them to benefit from the work of their hands, stabilize their children, and prepare a future for their people that enabled them to flourish and live out what it is they dreamed. So I came up in a milieu on the south side of Chicago in which…south side is a very, very peculiar place within Black America in that it is a contiguous block of black body politic stretching from close to downtown to, as we call it - the wild hundreds - straight out the south that, while it was kind of an epicenter of segregation in the country, it was also ground zero for black politics in this country. And black politics in Chicago being very tied to the black church. My parents would be considered, kind of 1.5 generation migrants from the south, which was a different world in many ways, Chicago was upsouth…my parents, through education and activism, were trying to forge a future to live out the dreams of their parents. So my parents met while my mother was in nursing school, my father was in college, they met as student organizers with Operation Breadbasket. And if you don't know, Operation Breadbasket was the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that, following Dr. King's experimental trip to Chicago in 1967, established this project that was about essentially jobs and economic justice. And 1968-1969, by the time my parents met, Jesse Jackson was leading that effort in Chicago. So my parents were with Jesse in downstate Illinois on a hunger campaign. And Operation Breadbasket, again, being a project of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was this project that embodied the seamless integration between faith, spirituality, injustice, equity, and black liberation, black freedom. And so my dreams have always been the dreams of my people. My dreams have always been freedom dreams. When I think back - by the time I was born it was called Operation PUSH - People United to Serve Humanity, every Saturday morning we would be in Operation PUSH listening to politicians and activists and organizers talk about what's happening in the community - happened to be located in a former Jewish synagogue that Operation PUSH bought and it is a landmark space on Drexel Avenue on the south side of Chicago. But then on Sunday morning, also being in church, and at the time we were in churches that were blackity, black, black, black, but you would never know what's happening in the world based on what was happening in the church. I grew up as a kind of Neo black evangelical. So we had this kind of dualism happening; this activism on Saturday, this evangelicalism on Sunday, and never did the two meet. Until my father, I would say as my father discovered folks like Tom Skinner who wrote Black and Free. And at the time they were wrestling with these questions around can one be black and Christian? Think how preposterous that doggone question is! Can you be? Well, damn I am! But the assumption was to be Christian meant to be white, right? And you had to, you had to disavow your culture, your racial heritage - that just colonial idea of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus is to cut off one's heritage and become new - new meaning become white. That was an early kind of part of my upbringing as well, but all still connected to this activism that was a deep part of the milieu and my family.
So going to your question about what dreams my people had, my family had for me, what dreams I had for myself, when people asked me, what did you want to be when you grow up? I don't remember having a clear answer to that as a kid. One answer I gave as a kid which was - I asked my mother who was a nurse at the time, what do you call somebody who helps babies come into the world? She said an obstetrician/gynecologist. I said I want to do that. Right. I wanna, I want to help babies arrive. I didn't know all of what that meant, but I that's what I wanted to do beause I wanted to be a part of that process. But that's the only thing I remember saying, like, what I wanted to be when I grow up. But what I always was rapt by were the stories of movement, the stories of freedom, and I was always also rapt by, as a kid, watching people transform - the magic of folks making a decision to be different. And walking down the aisle with tears in their eyes and you could see a marked difference between who they were and now who they are because of the decision they made, as we would say, to follow Christ. What I recognize now, looking back on those black evangelical spaces is that those were communities that loved on people and loved on people in a way that embodiment of what it meant to follow in the way of Jesus actually gave folk a space to be and become in ways that they could not find in the world. Right. So, yeah, I grew up at that intersection. You know what, Pat, that's a story I've told time and time again, but there's another dimension to the story of little Matt that cannot be overstated. And I don't think I've talked about this a lot, at least not publicly. I grew up in a community that might be described as Wakanda. I wouldn't say we were well off as kids by any stretch, but my parents like found favor and lucked up on some stuff that put me and my brother and my sister as Sam Proctor would say, above the scratch line. When I was born, we lived in an apartment on what we called the low end - 33rd and Cottage Grove on the south side of Chicago. And that apartment building in this area called Lake Meadows looked over onto this small little enclave called Groveland Park, which is where my father's house now is. My dad told me that when I was about one years old, they were looking at this house, a brownstone in Groveland Park that was like dilapidated, but he's like, man, I want that house. And this was a small community of mostly kind of middle-class black folk. My dad actually now he was teaching, my mom was a nurse but again, they weren't working class folk. My dad went to look at the house and one of the neighbors actually was the banker who was involved in the listing of the house. My dad, he did a walk through the house with this neighbor and the neighbor either dropped, or maybe as a test had left a significant amount of money somewhere, some cash in the house. And my dad found that as he was doing a walk through, caught back up with him and gave him the money. Said I think you think you dropped this. And it turns out my dad was not one of the highest bidders for this house and my dad's father actually advised my father, do not take this money pit. It was a disaster.
My father said that the banker, Mr. Lewis, who lived down the street, told him you weren't the highest bid on this house. In fact, you may have been the lowest, but we want neighbors like you. We want your character in this neighborhood. On that strength we got that house. I recognize now how rare that community was.
Maybe not rare, but how special that community was. We had the block where everybody, everybody had kids. So we would be out playing in a very safe environment, but I could also spend a lot of time with elders. So the Lewis’, the Blockers, Dr. Williams, the Cartwrights and I would literally go, as a six year old, and sit in these huge living rooms of our neighbors. They would allow me to come in, give me candy and just sit and talk with me, almost like a peer, but just give me space to be with them. I remember riding my bike around the corner, where there's this cantankerous, grumpy old dude named Dr. Williams. He was the get off my lawn guy. We would be playing ball in the lot across the street from him, you know, we broke his window a couple of times playing baseball. And he’d just cuss us out all the time. But every now and then I would ride around there on my bike and Dr. Williams would be out there doing what now I now know is Tai Chi, but mind you, this is like the early eighties.
Who the hell is doing tai chi? So Dr. Williams is back there doing these moves and he's just like a classic kind of old dude with knee braces, short shorts and a tank top and a headband, looked like the classic old dude. And one-on-one, he would sit down with me and ask me questions like, what do you think the world should look like in 20 years? And I'm like 10 years old. I was kind of a strange kid. As my elder aunties and uncles would say, you weren’t normal. So I would talk to him about the stuff I was imagining and he would say yes, yes!
And yo, I was fascinated and I felt honored that this dude was taking me seriously! Another I know was formative opportunity was I knew both sets of my great grandparents on both sides. My father's grandfather, we called him Daddy Buddy, and Daddy Buddy, born in 1895, easily the sweetest person I've ever met in my life. But I remember as a kid, eight years old having sit-down conversations with Daddy Buddy. And he called everybody “hun” short for honey, and he would sit back and reflect on, he was a tobacco farmer and just reflect on life and how good God is, and kind of teach ethics about love and how you treat people and those kinds of things. And I remember one time we were sitting in his small frame house next to his wood-burning stove in the front room of his house and my uncle walked by. We were in Tennessee, Theta, Tennessee - Maury County, my uncle walks by, I had to be about eight or nine years old.
And he says to my Uncle, “Richard, whose boy is this?” He said Daddy Buddy, that's Reggie's boy, talking about my father. He said, “this boy talks like an adult!” Not disrespectfully, but I was carrying on a conversation with him right at that age. And I remember that so vividly because that was so affirming. I had elders around me who affirmed me. And I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I did know that I was a little different, and they let me be different.
Patrick: As I hear these stories, as someone who had freedom dreams, who's thinking about movement, who has all these elders, I mean, you've been saying different, but I'm going to say, you've been intentional. Even as a young person, I'm hearing this little Matt likes to think, likes to sit and read, likes to be intentional about having deep conversation. I mean not unlike the Matt I know so I'm also curious as you start thinking about what comes next, how are these conversations transitioning from - you have such wonderful elders who are taking you serious, taking your questions serious, you're taking yourself serious -what does discernment look like as you started thinking, okay, I'm going to do my own thing now whether that's off to school or life? What did that discernment look like cause it sounds like you have a community that's ready to see your transformation?
Matthew: Well, you know, I think a big part of coming into who you are and that awareness is trying on other people's clothes. I have a big brother who was the big man on campus. You know, everybody loves and loved Reggie. As a shorty, he was my idol. He was a two-sport athlete in high school. You know, coming up on the southside of Chicago, you're playing basketball. You might play baseball too, you might play football too, but basketball is the culture, which is another part of how I was raised and grew up - where I met elders, where I learned ethics was on the basketball court. But going back to my brother, I wanted to be just like him. Meanwhile, I also wanted to be just like my father, who I was blessed to watch, in terms of his disciplines, his practices. Very, very dutiful. And trying to imitate them helped me find myself. Here's what I mean. With my father every day I would watch him get up, five or six o'clock in the morning. He had a room in the house where he had his books, sometimes he would have like a space to exercise in there, but he would get up in the morning, do some kind of prayer/meditation, workout, and that was his discipline. What we called devotion at the time. I mimicked what I saw. So I remember as a 12 year old, I started doing what I saw him do, and I would go and retrieve either the Bible or another book from his study and I would go into my room.
Sometimes I would actually sit in his study and just look at the wall of books. And many times I would just sit there and look at the titles and the authors and occasionally something would call out to me and I would pick it up and start reading. I began to get comfortable with solitude. In retrospect, I think I'm wired as a contemplative, to use a term. I've always also had very easy access to the spirit world. And so beyond just contemplative and reflective thinking, I've always found my way in and out of, what we might call multiple dimensions of energy and existence. And so those spaces of solitude became spaces for me to get comfortable with my own company, with silence, and with this veil that integrates spirit and material. So I found that in my father's study and over time, that began to show up in this deeper, deeper hunger to understand the stuff beneath what we see. As a 12-year-old, 13-year-old, why, why, why frustrated the hell out of my parents, but why, why, why was my incessant question. That practice over the course of a few years is what began to generate my sense of what we would call a call to ministry, which in my community was a call to preach - not just ministry, but it was understood as a call to preach. Meanwhile, I got this older brother who’s a big man on campus, two sport athlete, all the ladies love him, he's popular, running for homecoming king, all of those kinds of things. This was also a very important moment where I was in a school, it was an epicenter of the black middle-class on the southside of Chicago, a magnet school that was deemed one of the best in the city. But it was the worst experience I had in school coming up because it was a space in which, I guess, [a] slice of the black middle class that had these aspirations not necessarily to freedom but to status, had created a culture among children that was extremely competitive, that was driven by kind of status seeking and status starvation, where you had kids who were tracked in five different levels in each grade. You know, the kids in the top class were the most well off, the kids in the bottom class were the ones who came from projects across the street. And those tracks really never got transgressed. They were not very porous at all. It's amazing how the life outcomes you can see, as a result of that, unfolded. But I was in that environment with hand-me-down clothes, you know, I'm wearing my cousin's clothes, and kids were vicious. Everything that made me strange and made me affirmed as a shorty, you know, I was excoriated and criticized and everyday was in verbal sparring in this school. And so, didn't think much of myself and thought I had to be like somebody else, and for me that somebody else was my big brother. He kind of embodied everything that I wanted to be, including the two sport athlete. And so when I started eighth grade, a shoe-in to be on the high school basketball team, I was one of the up and comers in the city that year, and I got to my freshman year of high school and I quit. I ended up quitting football and I ended up essentially quitting basketball to the point where the coach kinda was like, nah, you ain't serious. What I didn't know at the time was, I didn't put my effort there because it was like wearing Saul's armor. So that was a period in which I was beginning to find myself by trying on other folks clothes, literally in some cases. But I come to this moment when I was 15 where, you know, I'm starting to have these kinds of visions and dreams that are conjoining. Oh, I should also say when I was 13 my family joined Trinity United church of Christ and every Sunday, even when we were going to other churches, we would wake up listening to Jeremiah Wright on the radio. He was extremely well known as one of the best preachers in the country, right there on the southside, but we hadn't joined Trinity. My mother joined first and then the rest of our family joined in September of 90. I was about 13 years old. That was where we experienced this integration of all of these different threads that had been woven throughout our families kind of life and interest, and incredible preaching to boot. The combination of me being in this kind of space where I was trying to find myself, being in this contemplative space, trying on other people's clothes, and developing this contemplative mystic life, what began to emerge were these dreams and visions of service.
I was hearing, literally hearing, preaching in my head as a kid when I was dreaming and beginning to see myself engaged in the community. We'd always done service work and I'd cut my political teeth canvassing for Harold Washington in the 1983 campaign, first black mayor of Chicago. So we were always engaged politically, but I began to see myself not just coming along, but doing it myself. And I remember going to my mother and asking her, I said, I'm having all these interesting types of dreams and visions. And what do you call that? She said with a smirk on her face, go ask your pastor. And so I remember having a conversation with him right before Thanksgiving, 1991, and I described to him everything that I was experiencing and he said, Matt, I think you may be called to ministry. I remember in that conversation, light bulb went off and I felt like this energy literally in my body, like this is it. And again the call to ministry, in my context, means you called to preach. And one of the first things they did man, was put me up to preach, April 26th, 1992, first sermon: lions bears and giants, where David says, God has delivered me from lions and bears, he'll deliver me from the hands of this Philistine - was about a 10 minute sermon. It was awful.
As I reflect on that, what was profound about that experience was what happened after the sermon. It was standing room only, probably about a thousand people in the sanctuary, so preaching my first sermon, 15 years old in front of this packed sanctuary. The order of service, you know, you go down the middle aisle to the entry door right down the middle so that you can give the Benediction and that's where the receiving line happens. So I was trying to follow suit. I was gathering my stuff off the pulpit I was about to walk out and Rev puts his hand on my shoulder, says Matt hold on. I was like, did I do something wrong? And I was kind of confused, like what's going on?
And so he motions to the usher to say, come here. And she comes down the middle aisle with a black garment in her hand, over her forearm and brings it down. It's his cape. Now Trinity UCC it's Baptist. Like that's the, kind of lineage of it. and Jeremiah Wright is Baptist preacher very much so. And he took the cape from the usher and he put the cape on my shoulders. I'll never forget it, man.
It was like the community went up in praise and it was a hallelujah moment. And I remember how that thing felt. It felt like a weight had just been put on my shoulders and it also was very comforting and warm. Talk about putting on somebody’s clothes. In retrospect, I often say from that moment I've been wrestling with the tension between what was placed on me versus what was in me. Again, in a process of really finding myself by trying on the models of a ministry and manhood that I saw around me.
Patrick: As I hear this, this feels like not just trying on people's clothes or what the leadership that you want to have, but this is the tension between the public and the private space. This is a very public moment for you and having a very private internal, dealing with the weight of this. I'm thinking about your dad's study and the place to have the freedom to dream and to go between - you used dimension - to deal with the veil that that is between the material and the spiritual, and what's been placed on you and what's in you.
How do you take all this in as a youth and then think, ok I'm going to journey into adulthood now? I mean, you just described something and most people don't get to till much later in stages in life. Like you've just been accelerated into adulthood in a really fast way. How do you take this in and who's there to kind of guide you in that next step?
Matthew: Pat, man, that is such an important question when you talk about my journey. You use the language being kind of thrust into adulthood, and thrust into adulthood in a way that, in retrospect, was premature and did some harm to tell you the truth. Imagine being a 15-year-old and entering into this public role that really emerged out of private reckoning. In that context, in that congregation being called to ministry and being put up in that way was incredibly affirming. I enjoyed, of course, that affirmation and as an adolescent, having the eyes of that whole community on you, it was very unnerving at times. And again, like Trinity is everywhere in Chicago, so I would be places, and as a 15-year-old folks would say, Hey, and I'm like, who are you? I became keenly aware that there were people who knew who I was and I had no idea who they were. That was so scary, strange, and weird for somebody who is really wired as an introvert and a contemplative. It was very, very disorienting and…and attractive. Right? Because as a 15-year-old, man like that kind of affirmation is like fuel. And you're trying on your power, trying to figure out what can I really do here and who am I? And the privilege to try on leadership at 15 was amazing. It was a gift of a lifetime man. All of that at once. I'll tell you what I did with that. Having been socialized in a leadership environment, in black freedom struggle and the black church, in which particularly black male charismatic leadership, which often is proxy for spokesmanship, right - be it preaching or some other kind of public speaking, the privilege that comes with that, the adoration that comes with that, can very easily enlarge the ego and in my case lead you to become more focused on the performative element of ministry and leadership than on the sources out of which the work is intended to emerge. And so I think what happened over time was that the contemplative life that I was nourished by became a contemplative life that I use to nourish others and forgot about myself. I think I fell into a pattern that is actually pretty common of being the waiter who never eats. It happened over time, didn't happen all at once. I think it accelerated actually when I got to college. Mind you I've never been in school, with the exception of high school and not worked in ministry, service, some kind of role. So while I was in college, I was an associate kind of student pastor at two churches actually. Two very different churches than I grew up in both with, again, powerful brilliant pastors. But I was beginning to recognize this pattern of the pastors that I was working with, who were brilliant activists, community engaged and privately empty, and did not have, or could not sustain an inner life that fed their outer life.
And in fact, began to feed their inner life by their outer life. That's like a diet of sugar. It feels good in the moment, but it provides no nutrition. In fact, it begins to decay one's health. So that's what began to happen, continuing to try on clothes, but also continuing to feed on sugar and utilizing my inner life practices and my spiritual practices really for the sake of the performative element. And when I say performative, I don't mean just for show I mean what I have to do for others. Learning the art of preaching and public rhetoric and all of these kinds of things, all of the outward facing stuff, became the stuff that I used to nourish me again, which was spiritual sugar. That led to multiple bouts of burnout.
There was this interesting thing happening though, between high school and college. My senior year in high school was kind of a zenith for me in terms of leadership at an early age. I was occasionally preaching at Trinity. I was a chaplain of the choir. I was president of concert choir. I was the local school council representative and you know, won awards and all this kind of stuff. Meanwhile, you know again, living and operating on the southside of Chicago, which at the time very much like a war zone and living with the daily trauma, man and chronic stress of living in an environment, as I told my parents, where I was afraid if these streets don't get me, the police will. Had witnessed, you know, examples of how that had happened around me. Even though I'm trying to do the right thing: I'm in church, I'm in service, I'm in leadership, I'm doing all of this stuff. I'm getting my grades. But I knew growing up where I grew up, it was just an awareness, you got one foot on a banana peel and the other one either in the grave or in jail, not for doing something wrong, but for having something planted on you, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for giving the wrong homeboy a ride somewhere and he's got something on him, you never know!
I remember as a 17-year-old, man, feeling like this, just utter anxiety from all of the stuff that I was into, but all of the clear and present danger that was just a part of daily life. I applied to two schools for college, one was Morehouse and the other was Florida A&M university. I got into both. Morehouse was extremely expensive and Atlanta was the murder capital of that year. I said, I'm not jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. And so I went to what, at the time, I called Mayberry - Tallahassee, Florida. And I went there to try to slow down. I did end up going to church and getting involved in ministry and leadership, but like the pace slowed tremendously. Being in that environment helped me begin to tap back in…begin to tap back in.
That was a season where I began to see and to recognize with these other mentors that I had, the pitfalls of this mode of leadership that was spiritually rooted, faith rooted, justice oriented, community engaged, leadership that tended to be celebrated publicly, but again, privately not just empty, but privately, a mess. Because those fundamentals of the inner life were not very well tended to and the fundamentals of even our relationships were not well tended to. I was burned out on leadership and didn't know it. And being mentored by burnout leaders. And experienced that probably another three times between the age of 18 and 30, trying to make sense of, this can't be what I'm called to? There's gotta be a different way to do this.
It was extremely disorienting to go into what you felt called to do, only really knowing one way to do it, and then recognizing that that way to do it is killing you. Here's the piece that for me was pivotal. I am at Florida A&M, in ministry and leadership alongside, being a double major in psychology and philosophy and religion. And in this Afro-centric psychology program, really beginning to deconstruct these Eurocentric ways in which language and the understanding of the human person and community and all of these ideas, all of that's being deconstructed. Meanwhile, I'm also in philosophy and religion with Dr. Ronald Lyebird who's disabusing me of all my Sunday school notions - these kinds of falsehoods that I had rested my faith on, some of which had to do with the ways in which I viewed the Bible and the kind of things I took for granted theologically that I came to recognize these were just ideas that somebody came up with at some point.
And all of those kinds of things will begin to fall apart and with them, my sense of my orientation to the world! And so then my junior year of college, my mother calls me in February and says son, I have cancer. I talked about my father being in his study and those practices and disciplines, but my mother was wired like me. My mother, she was the mystic in the house. She was the contemplative in the house. When they say still waters run deep, that was my mom. I remember, as a shorty man, there would be just, you know, bad thunderstorm taking place. And it's crackling thunder and lightning and the rain's coming down and I'm a kid I'm running around the house trying to find my mother, can't find her. And then I opened the front door to look outside, she's on the front porch and her rocking chair, sitting under her afghan enjoying the storm - rocking back and forth. That's my mama. My mama was the one who, when I woke up in the middle of the night, she'd be sitting in the kitchen by herself, when we were all asleep, and then we would go into just conversations about anything under the sun. That's my mother. So my mother who was my contemplative companion, and who I would say above and beyond anyone, affirmed not just my gifts and what folks saw me, she affirmed who I was. In the midst of that period where I was trying on other clothes and trying to figure out who I was again, trying to wrestle with this kind of public eye on me as a 15-year-old. I remember having a question as to whether I should go to a party and I'm 15, 16 years old. And my mother says, why shouldn't you go? I said, mommy, I'm a minister. She says, that's not all you are, baby. Right? My mother, my mother was the one who, when I was going to that school that I told you about that was hell for me because of that status starved way in which everybody was really just trying to compete and cannibalize each other, on those times where she would take me to school or drop me off at the bus stop, before I would get out the car, she said, Matt, you remember, you my prince. And what she was doing, man, was trying to shore up my sense of myself that had nothing to do with my performance, had nothing to do with what I had on, but had everything to do with who I was. And her thing was, I want you to see yourself, like I see you, and to see yourself not as a cog in the wheel of some… even some cause, let alone some company or some other endeavor. You're valuable because of who you are not because of what you do. That was my mother and my mama called me in February of that year, 1997 and said, Matt, I have cancer. If my world hadn't fallen apart before that's when it really started to fall apart. And I was still very much wrapped in this theological cage that depended on these very concrete if/then's. That if I do the right thing, if I stay on the straight and narrow, if I do what the Bible says, if I follow the rules, all of those kinds of things, God will reward me.
The reward and punishment God who has rules that we ought to follow and as a result, good things happen to good people, God is good all the time. All of these kinds of kind of cliched ways in which we practice religion, all of that shit came crashing down. And I had to wrestle with the problem of evil and suffering personally in a way I had not done. And the clichés were just insufficient. My mother told me that in February, she died December 21st, 1997. My world fell apart and I spent the rest of my twenties reckoning with the shards of that broken cosmology. And that's what I actually carried into seminary was that grief and those unanswered questions, those doubts, those fears, that nothing in the kind of stock answers that the church had to offer, nothing answered those questions. Meanwhile, I’m still performing, still in ministry, pouring from an empty cup. And again, burnt out over the course of the next decade, up into my thirties. Until I came to a point and recognized that I’m both wired and called differently.
Patrick: I hear this narrative of where you're cultivating the inner life, how you fill that up and these are active, ongoing questions for you. And I also hear the story about your mom, that that's where the inner life, that cup was filled up, where it was affirmed, where it was seen, where the distance between her soul to yours was navigated on that thin veil between the spiritual and the material plane.
So when you start thinking, going through your twenties and trying to think of how do I reconcile this very public form of leadership, all this stuff that's been put on me and where I'm searching for how to cultivate this inner life and the soul, the love that filled that is no longer there, that maybe it wasn't taken inventory of when you were in 15 and 16, but it can in retrospect, where do you turn to find insights around this? Where do you go to figure out what's going on? And what do you do?
Matthew: The second stanza of the hymn Amazing Grace says, “through many dangers toils and snares, I have already come.” In retrospect, I guess I'm still unpacking the how. I'm not sure I've found the answer but I think my path began to find me. In retrospect, I can say that my ancestors were active in providing breadcrumbs, helped me to begin to realign who I am with what I do. Took a while. So to answer your question, I turned inward.
My mother passed in December 97, I graduated from Florida A&M in December ’98, went back home and spent a few months on staff at the church, and then in fall of 99, enrolled at the Interdenominational Theological Center - ITC. I went to a historically black undergraduate institution, I knew I would be going to a historically black seminary, precisely because I was called to ministry in an environment where every first Sunday we would, as a part of the communion confession, confess, There is no task more sacred than the liberation of black people. God has called us to this task. And I found my call within that call, right? And so I sure as hell was not going to Duke Divinity School where I had a full ride, where nowhere in their heritage nor their curriculum is black liberation. I was not going to a predominantly white seminary that did not have at its core, the concerns, the heritages, the theologies, the perspectives, the God knowledges of black folk. I wasn't doing it. And so that alignment, as well as some nudging from a pastor and from others brought me to ITC. Actually, my first visit to ITC was during what they called this conference on ministry. I had met Randall Bailey when I was about 17 years old at a National Council of Churches meeting that I had gone to, because some mentors kind of made a way for me to go there. And he and I had struck up a friendship when I was 17 - again, another elder who kind of took me seriously early. And so I come to ITC and have an opportunity when I was there visiting and, you know, have dinner with him and his family who now is like my family. As I was wresting with my mother’s passing, his hospitality gave me space to ask questions that I couldn’t ask in church and to ask questions about the church and about ministry that I didn’t have space anywhere else to ask. And so I came to seminary burned out and grieving. I remember in that conference on ministry, there was a kind of orientation given by Reverend Calvin Morris, who also traces some of his career path back to Operation Breadbasket, but he was at ITC at the time. And I remember him talking about the process of black theological education being one in which you wrestle with the cross and wrestle with the fact that the cross is not a space for security or safety, it’s a place of danger. It’s a place of the unknown. And it’s a place that requires you to reckon with the uncertainty of living in empire in a black body. The opening up of permission to wrestle with uncertainty where I was socialized into a leadership tradition that required certainty of you was something I could not pass up. I was trained to have the answers and I’m living in a moment where I know none of these answers are sufficient to meet the human condition. They don’t work, they don’t fit. And when it comes to the deeper issues that our people are facing, including these personal issues of suffering and evil that I’m facing right now, they don’t work. And so I said, I'm coming to ITC.
And when I got to ITC again, I was already burned out. In fact, I came to ITC saying, proclaiming, I'm not going to church. I had already served in three churches by the time I arrived at ITC. I'm not going to church. This church stuff is crazy. It's burned me out. I know I'm called to ministry, but I got to figure out a different way to do this. Like this is the worst. As you know, those kinds of like declarations are declarations of disaffection, disappointment, of dashed hopes, not so much, I'm done, it's like, I really have a deep desire to see something different. Turns out in my first semester of school, I ended up joining the church and working at First African Presbyterian Church under Mark Lomax, where I began to find an expression of church that invited questions, was an Afrocentric Christian ministry, but a very different expression of what Afrocentric Christian ministry looked like than what I'd grown up in at Trinity, which was also African centered. But ultimately began to find spaces to ask the kinds of questions that helped me, not yet to reconstruct my world, but to begin to name the shards of the shattered cosmology that had broken apart: to begin to identify the constitutive elements of this pretentious theology of this performative form of leadership that had very noble intentions and trajectory, but whose approach and methods and ways of being often undermine the very mission that we were proclaiming, that we were setting out in a justice focused way, to meet. It took about a decade to begin to not just name what had been broken but to begin to find resources, to heal, to reintegrate, and to really return to that veil, and to rebuild from the inside out and understand who I am and how I'm wired to work in the world. It took a minute and I wouldn't take anything for that journey. But I would say that the path began to find me in the way that again, elders, but also ancestors. Two of my patron ancestors, I literally say they came to get me in seminary, were Howard Washington Thurman, who also gave me permission to own and construct a theology that was not just blackenized evangelicalism, and also to begin to build a theology out of religious experience and sacred encounter as opposed to imposing a theological perspective on our experiences - Thurman gave me that. And then there was Ella Baker who helped me see that the work of justice and organizing and leadership had a lot more expansive options in terms of ways of being in leadership than just the big Negro-hero on a megaphone of microphone who can make public pronouncements about a vision. She did the leadership formation with young people, organizing and building leaders as opposed to trying to be the out-front leader, when she was very capable of being the out-front person, but focused her time on building leadership in others, who was an organizer par excellence, who kept asking the big questions, not the tactical questions, but the strategic questions about the world that we want to inhabit. And what now are the implications of that world for how we be in relationship with one another and how we begin to design our relatedness to one another. To actually bring that world into existence, not just to talk about it from a microphone. She showed me a different way. They were two of those who begin to find me and begin to help me see, oh, there's a broader landscape here. This ain't just a fork in the road. It's a crossroads is what it was. That grace found me.