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Rev. Dr. John H. Vaughn Urges PSR’s Graduates to Emerge Unafraid and Love Unconditionally

This text is an adapted version of the address Rev. Dr. John H. Vaughn gave at PSR’s 157th Commencement on May 19, 2024. The full ceremony can be viewed on PSR’s YouTube channel

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I bring you greetings on behalf of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and our Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock. I want to thank President David Vasquez-Levy and Dean Susan Abraham for issuing the invitation for me to speak today. 

Let us pray: Not my words but your words. May we be open to the ways that your Spirit can speak to us and move us through that which is spoken and unspoken. May your unconditional love be our north star in all that we are and do. By the many names by which you are known by those gathered this day and in the name of Jesus, whom I call Savior and Friend, Amen. 

Pacific School of Religion prepares a diverse cadre of spiritually rooted leaders with vision, resilience, and skill to create a world where all can thrive 

In the Hebrew Bible book of Numbers, we see that the people of Israel have made it to the Promised Land. Moses then deputizes a group to check things out. We then pick up excerpts from the report back in Chapter 13: “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey… Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then, the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against these people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants (notice the hyperbole and fear creeping in) and all the people that we saw in it are of great size….we seemed like grasshoppers.” 

Since being ordained in October 1985, one of my observations from the ministry is that we as leaders and congregation members constantly get in our own way of success or, as a former boss would call it, “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory.”  The theme for graduation today is “Emerging Unafraid: Living Out the Courage of our Compassion.” I want to home in on the phrase “Emerging Unafraid.” Our challenge is that fear is one of our lifelong companions.   

Whenever an angel appears in the Bible, what are the first words out of their mouth? “Do not be afraid.” Fear is built into us as a mechanism to keep us safe, but when it gets saturated or is not balanced with emotions such as love, curiosity, and compassion, our lives are out of balance. We need look no further than the Biblical story of the Exodus. The dynamic of a land being promised to a formerly enslaved people when it is already occupied by other people is something that we need to interrogate, but that is not for this speech.  

What I want to focus on is the dynamic of standing on the verge of your 40-year goal. When things get hard or when it seems like they hit a roadblock, that comfortable garment of fear comes out.  

“Moses, did you bring us here up against the Red Sea so that we can die here?” 

 “Moses, have you brought us here in the wilderness to starve? At least when we were slaves, we had something to eat.”  

“Moses, what are we to drink out here? Have you brought us out here to perish.”  

Fear also seems to bring with it the onset of amnesia. They forget that at every one of those moments, God delivered, God provided, God made a way when there seemed not to be a way. So now, they are finally at the Promised Land – at their goal – 40 years in the making, and yet here comes the familiar garment of fear: “Yes, the land is indeed a place of ‘milk and honey,’ but the people there are giants! They will devour us!” Standing on the verge of your goal, you are finally there and then saying, “No thanks.”  

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  

There are too many times in the ministry that we as leaders and congregations are our own worst enemy. We allow fear to win. A few reflections. 

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.  

As that great theologian Mike Tyson put it, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth.” You can have the best plan and wonderful charts, be schooled in organizational development theory, preach inspiring sermons, and serve as a charismatic and engaging teacher. But if you do not have a good understanding of the culture, all of those things go nowhere, and you may even make things worse.  

I remember when I accepted the position of Executive Pastor at Ebenezer and had my first conversation with the chair of the Deacon Board. Among his first words to me were, “Get to know us; learn the culture.” In my first week on-site, one of the lay leaders pulled me aside in the parking lot, and among her first sentences was, “Please love us.”  

I often think that pastors and/or congregations don’t take the time to watch, listen and love. When you were charged by Church Leaders to get members focused on tithing, did you understand why there was such a visceral backlash to ending bake sales? It’s just a bake sale where they earn $100. Maybe it wasn’t about raising money but the fellowship the leaders had together in the process. Maybe their real ministry is food, and they love being able to offer it. Sometimes, we don’t do our homework and as a result culture eats strategy for breakfast. 

Relationships are everything.  

When I was in college, I thought the worst thing that someone could end up doing was to be a salesperson – building relationships with people one did not know and trying to get them to use or purchase a particular product. Then, as I became engaged in ministry, particularly community organizing, fundraising and coalition building, it dawned on me that I was building relationships with people I didn’t know and trying to get them to use a particular product. In these cases the product was preventing a local bank branch from closing, funding capacity building for an organization, or engaging a new church member in the ministry. This was the act of building relationships.  

Then as I became more seasoned, I began to understand the importance of moving from transactional to transformative relationships. Transactional relationships are: how can you help me get what I want. Transformational relationships are about seeing and knowing each other as human beings. It is transformational relationships that cause us to show up for each other because I know you. Good community organizing, which at its core is good relationship building, seeks to know and see each other.  

One of my favorite quotes from fellow Atlanta clergy colleague is, “In ministry, we have to learn that the customer is always right…even when they are wrong.” Transactional relationships will die on the hill of being right. Transformational relationships are curious about what someone else is saying, who they are, and what is happening for them.  

Evil wants to seduce us into believing that it is winning.  

As we are inundated with information that is available 24 hours a day, we constantly get messages through various media that those who are committed to the common good, caring for those at the margins of society, and radical inclusion are always losing ground. At the same time, I see and experience lives being changed. Communities providing space and a sense of belonging for those from different countries and to those for whom gender is fluid; I have witnessed meaningful relationships built across race, ethnicity, class, geography, and sexual orientation; I have seen communities embrace living wages and affordable and accessible health care; I have watched companies employ those who are formerly incarcerated and communities build a range of affordable housing.  

Evil does not want us to see this, and when we do, it seeks to minimize its impact and influence on us. As a colleague once said to me, evil may not be winning, but it does have a good publicist. Conflict sells. Evil wants us to buy into the death march of religion. I do believe that we are in a season of religious transformation. Though some institutions may indeed be dying, I believe that spirituality and faith are alive, well, and thriving. When social movements have more inclusive theologies of belonging than many of our congregations, God is finding new ways for unconditional love to be practiced. 

If we are to emerge unafraid, we must get out of our own way. If we allow the garment of fear to creep in and we don’t pay attention to culture, relationships, and the great things that are happening in our midst, it undermines our ability to be forces for peace, justice, and community transformation inside and outside of our walls.  

The Pacific School of Religion prepares a diverse cadre of spiritually rooted leaders with vision, resilience, and skill to create a world where all can thrive.  

So, my fellow spiritually rooted leaders, with vision, resilience, and skill to create a world where all can thrive, what do we do? We need to remember the basics. 

Be who we are – people of faith and moral courage.  

When I arrived at Auburn Seminary in 2010, our media team was launching a research project on creating messaging that would move conflicted Christians on the issue of LGBTQ equality. At the end of the day, the core learning was that faith leaders had to stop talking like researchers and scientists and talk like faith leaders. There is a wealth of wisdom in our faith traditions that speaks to equality, such as the unconditional love of God. What we saw in exit polling after many of the public referendums passed in support of various LGBTQ rights, one of the things that had a major influence was that people started to hear faith leaders speak from their faith traditions in support of LGBTQ equality. Be who God has called us to be: leaders of faith and moral courage. 

Unconditional love is our north star.  

This is much easier said than done. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.” What does it mean to love people who want to do us harm? How do we see the divine in everyone? God calls us to bring a spirit of curiosity and compassion versus demonization and marginalization. The increase in the default to militarization in response to campus protest, building police training centers in different states and killing unarmed Black people is our growing ease to not do the challenging work of seeing the divine in others but to quickly allow the garment of fear to lead us. Fellow people of faith and moral courage, we must preach, teach, organize, and live our lives in ways that show a different way. We need to do better. As Cornell West puts it, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” 

We can’t do ministry by ourselves.  

If we trust God, then we need to trust God’s people. One of the lessons I learned as I became more seasoned in ministry is that we really do need each other. In my first year at Ebenezer, I had to coordinate our staff to support major funerals for John Lewis and Rashard Brooks at the height of COVID. From the receptionist managing hate calls to pastoral care with traumatized families; managing the Secret Service for three Presidents to being a hospitable presence – all of the pieces no matter how big or small, are needed to pull off such gatherings. They are reminders that we as individuals, congregations, and organizations – cannot do the work that is before us alone. 

 The alternative title for today’s reflection could be “All the things that I did not learn in seminary … but were prepared by seminary to tackle head-on.”   

Pacific School of Religion prepares a diverse cadre of spiritually rooted leaders with vision, resilience, and skill to create a world where all can thrive.  

Do not be afraid, for I am with you, says God. I challenge us to emerge unafraid. Live and love out of the courage of our compassion …and unconditional love. Most of all, I challenge us to get out of our own way and to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  

Amen. 

Rev. Dr. John H. Vaughn (MDiv ‘85) is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, currently serving as the Executive Pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He works closely with the Church’s Senior Pastor and U.S. Senator, Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, in managing the overall vision, ministries, and operations of this iconic, international congregation. Known as America’s Freedom Church and the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Ebenezer remains at the forefront of the fight for social justice and community transformation.  

Previously, Rev. Vaughn served for almost ten years as the Executive Vice President at Auburn Theological Seminary. He has also served as the Program Director for the Twenty-First Century Foundation based in Harlem, New York, a national foundation that advanced strategic giving for Black community change, and as Executive Director of the Peace Development Fund, which provides funding, training, and assistance for grassroots peace and justice community organizing.  

From 1996 to 2000, Rev. Vaughn served as the Minister for Education and Social Justice at the historic Riverside Church in New York City, where fellow PSR alumnx Adrienne Thorne (MDiv ‘08) is currently Senior Minister. His responsibilities included overseeing the Church’s ministries with children, youth, young adults, adult education, social justice, social services and small grants. He has also served

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