Juneteenth and the Meaning of Freedom: A Reflection by PSR Professor Dr. Leonard McMahon

Alumnx Feature: Reverend Dr. John H. Vaughn

“I feel like the right person in the right place at the right time.”  

Rev. Dr. John H. Vaughn (MDiv ‘85) currently serves as the Executive Pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA alongside Senior Pastor and U.S. Senator, Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock. Ebenezer Baptist is probably best known as the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was co-pastor until his assassination in 1968.   

“While Ebenezer may have an international profile,” Vaughn said, “it still functions as a church where day-to-day ministry happens, and parishioners need spiritual assistance.” As Executive Pastor, Vaughn oversees all of Ebenezer Baptist’s ministries including worship, outreach, social justice, and pastoral care for its 6,000 members.   

This impactful role in his community wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Reflecting on his early days at PSR, Vaughn said, “I actually didn’t think I had a calling. Everybody else saw it, but I was just going to get a graduate degree. Thankfully some great professors prepared me for the intensity and complexity of ministry.” It was Archie Smith, Jr., the first tenured track African American faculty at PSR who convinced Vaughn to come to PSR, and Robert McAfee Brown, Christian theologian and advocate for social justice who taught Vaughn to frame his life and work by integrating real-world situations into his intellect and faith.   

In fact, it was the coursework that brought Vaughn outside of the classroom and into the community that solidified his calling. “My educational experience came alive for me through fieldwork,” he remembered. “That’s where theology, ministry, and coursework began to make sense—and invigorate my zeal for learning.”   

“For me, everything is built on everything else. So, there’s no Ebenezer Baptist Church for me without everything that has come before. And in many ways, PSR set it in motion.”   

Growing up, Vaughn’s mother, Dr. Ogretta McNeil, the first African American woman on the faculty at Holy Cross, and stepfather created a home where people came to feel safe. “It was a home that had a diverse amount of people across race, across class, and it was always a place where people felt welcome,” Vaughn said. 

Vaughn was also influenced by early experiences at the First Baptist Church of Worcester, MA where his church community provided his first leadership opportunities at a young age. ”It was a place where I really began to grow my own journey as a young person of faith,” Vaughn said. 

But it was at PSR that he came to understand his call to ministry. “It was during the mentor review process,” Vaughn said, “where they said I have a call to ministry but that it was going to look a little different. It would have the streams of working across race, working across faith, and working in more urban ministry settings.” Those words have played themselves out throughout his life and ministry.    

In addition to his MDiv from PSR, Vaughn received his undergraduate degree from Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA, and a DMin from Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ.   

An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, Vaughn’s first call to ministry was as the Minister for Education and Social Justice at Riverside Church in NYC where he served alongside Senior Minister William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the longtime civil rights and antiwar campaigner. Today the position of Senior Minister at Riverside Church is held by another PSR Alumnx, Adriene Thorne.   

In the ‘80s, Vaughn worked as Program Director at the nonprofit East Harlem Interfaith for six years. “It was during the height of the AIDS epidemic and the crack epidemic,” he recalls, “so it was an educational time for me to be there. As an executive director in my early 20s, I learned a lot about organizing various faith communities around the intersection of faith and justice.”   

Vaughn then spent four years as the Director of Community Development at the Community Training and Assistance Center in Boston, MA. It was there he received a call to return to Riverside Church as the Minister of Education and Social Justice under Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, the first African American Senior Pastor of one of the largest interdenominational congregations in the U.S. 

After a decade spent in philanthropy followed by another as Executive Vice President at Auburn Theological Seminary, Vaughn took his current position at Ebenezer Baptist where he’s been since just before the beginning of the pandemic.  

Growing up in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Reverend Dr. John H. Vaughn knew he wanted to be a part of the American story. His formative years at PSR fed that desire and honed his calling. Today, Vaughn walks out that calling at Ebenezer Baptist, where he serves his community and helps to fulfill PSR’s mission of creating a world where all can thrive.   

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