I ain’t in the clan, but I brought my hood with me – Kanye West
It’s beautiful to change; it’s beautiful to grow into my name – Taelor Gray
Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine – Book of Common Prayer Benediction (paraphrase of Eph 3:20–21)
There were times when I thought that I would not make it from one end of the PhD process to the other. The work was too hard. I was far from home, and everything about Scotland was alien to me. There were no black people and very few clergy in the New Testament program. But there I was a former pastor lost in a sea of folks who seemed to be professional academics. I felt every bit the outsider. It didn’t help that my work got sent to the drawing board so many times that I thought that I might as well transform myself into a stick man and climb into the board. “This is fine work, but I think it can be better consider revising the following… (rinse and repeat for 3 ½ years).” Even when you are utterly wrong, the British are unfailingly polite.
So how did I survive? I prayed very hard. I fasted a lot. I had the unwavering support of my wife and my children. But that is a story I will tell another time. Today, as I get ready for my defense tomorrow, my mind drifts towards a particular vision that has returned to me consistently.
It started like this. When things got particularly difficult, I would go running, blast my Christian hip hop in my head phones, and pray. The music was important because it was only time that I felt as if I was back home in my culture. It was good to hear black voices speaking about Jesus and the struggles of being us in the language and speech patterns that formed me. I would also preach the gospel to myself. I would recount God’s faithfulness in circumstances much direr than this. I thought to myself: People have shot at me; I can give a paper. I am from J.O. Johnson High and where I am from, surviving there means something. It breeds something in us not easily shaken. Two miles would turn into three or four or five. Usually by the end, I had found enough hope to tie myself to the desk for another day. At some point, on one of these runs, a vision came into my head fully formed. I trust that it is from God. I am back at my elementary school, and all the kids from the streets and neighborhoods of northwest Huntsville are there. In my mind, they are all sitting crossed legged. I come and sit with them. We know each other. It is comfortable. I say to them that I come from the same neighbor you come from (or in my Outkast voice, “I’ve been going through the same thing that you have”). I was told the same lies about what I could and could not be. I know that it is hard, but do not believe them. Do not let anyone tell place limits on your aspirations. If God is for us who can be against us? This degree is not mine. It is ours. It is the counter evidence. It is God’s answer to our doubters, a testimony. This imagined speech varied throughout the years, I would work on it during the run, adding a sentence, removing the ones that did not work. But it always ends the same. I take the diploma and tear it off piece by piece and give it to the children. It is theirs. I came to St Andrews, and I brought all of northwest Huntsville with me. When I succeed, we succeed.
I have written about this before. But one of the most striking and formative events in my young life was the first time someone hurled that paradigmatic racial slur (let the reader understand) at me in elementary school. I was attempting to call my mom, but I must have dialed the same wrong number one too many times. The voice of white male on the other end of the line dripped with such casual hatred that it simply undid me. It was society’s first attempt at naming me something other than what I am. Many (black and white) would follow in his wake. My response to this naming was education. It was one form of my rebellion. That rebellion sent me on the journey that brought me here.
Soon I will receive another title as the fruit of years of work. They will call me doctor. I thought that I would be filled with joy at the prospect. In many ways, I am excited. I have worked very hard, and my family has endured a lot to allow me to do this. But the closer that day comes the more I realize that that name too is temporary. What matters is the name that God gave me. The name that endures. That is the title that shouts hallelujahs at those who would do me harm. My true joy comes from name that I did not earn for myself, but comes as a gift. God has called me son:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Gal 4:4–7).
I am here for Black achievement. I really am. Black doctors matter. But I have concluded that we have nothing to prove to anyone because there is no corporate grade for black people, no test that we must pass to prove our humanity, no mountain top to climb. We simply need to believe that what God says about us is true and become what he made us to be. We’re here.