First African Presbyterian Church Recommits to Baptismal Vows by Growing Youth Leadership
What is the call of the church within communities beset by pervasive violence, high rates of incarceration, and complexities related to identity formation that strain the hopes and dreams of young people? In response to this question, the faithful of First African Presbyterian Church discerned a call and partnered with Fatherhood Institute to launch the Black Male Leadership Initiative (BMLI) in 2013. Located within the predominantly black communities of West Philadelphia, BMLI enrolls up to 10 boys between the ages of 10 and 18 from around the city and combines Bible study, life skills workshops, field trips to historic sites, peer and adult mentoring, and exploration of African heritage and history into their year-long program. As Ruling Elder Lois Hayman-El remarked, “When children are baptized, the congregation says that they agree to nurture and give admonition to the child that is being brought into the family of faith. [BMLI] is just another way to nurture and give admonition to them so the congregation can be corporate godparents…if we nurtured our young people well enough, they will see each other in their humanness and not denigrate anybody who is the other.”
A central element of BMLI, a 2015 Covenant Fund grant recipient, is a curriculum that weaves Biblical values with African-centered imagery and social principles. Boys enrolled in the program explore New and Old Testament stories, Adinkra symbols, which originate from Ghana and West Africa, and the seven-principles of Kawaida, more commonly recognized in the seven days of Kwanzaa, ultimately challenged to reverse the impact of neighborhood narratives and leaders rooted in violence, despair, oppression, and insignificance. The Adinkra symbols of wisdom, peace, and unity along with Kawaida emphasis on ethics and shared humanity remind boys throughout Philadelphia that their history and heritage are worthy of celebration and transcend the all-too-familiar experiences of fear, discrimination, and projected social limitations. James Dickerson, President of the Fatherhood Institute and Chief of BMLI, affirmed, “If you know your history then you understand the theory, the methods and procedures, you have a sense of all the knowledge and skills that you need to move forward. We don’t have to be stuck in the notion that Black people came from slaves.” Rather, as people of faith, we are called to remember our real history and frame it in such a way that breathes new life and possibility- especially for our young people.
Aware that much of what is taught in school systems about African-American history begins with slavery, BMLI offers youth in their community the opportunity to deconstruct the perceived beginning and elevate the unique contributions of African heritage and thought. Along the way, BMLI empowers young boys to make good decisions and dream about alternative futures other than what they have witnessed in their neighborhoods, which frequently result in the incarceration of friends and family members. The boys who enroll, alongside BMLI mentors from the congregation and community, discover faith, reject senseless opposition, trust adults interested in their personal well-being, navigate socio-political systems pertinent to African-American life, value education, pursue college, embrace leadership opportunities unique to their gift and talents, and serve as mentors to the next generation being raised up behind them. James Dickerson added, “The idea is to teach the older boys to turn around and teach the younger boys. In other words, peer training and to replace the leaders in the community now. We want to have positive influence….We want them to know that it’s o.k. to do the right thing.”
As BMLI has responded to the various obstacles facing young black males in West Philadelphia and surrounding neighborhoods, their holistic ministry of solidarity and enrichment has reinforced to young people that doing the right thing is deeply rooted in their cultural identity and ancestral stories. Elder Lois Hayman-El added, “By being present and being effective role models and bringing them into the church to experience a level of safety as well as to learn how to cope in other ways other than the bad choices they make- this is kind of education over incarceration.”
This kind of education, rooted in both Biblical history and ancestral symbols has empowered boys in their community to embrace opportunity and possibility over the all-too-familiar narratives of ineptitude and inability. The faithful of First African and the leadership of BMLI are nurturing the next generation with stories and traditions that leverage life and faith, praying each young person might in turn “rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God” (Psalm 78:6-7).
This is indeed the call of the church. This is the mission and ministry of God.
Click here to listen to the interview with Lois Hayman-El, Alexander El, and James Dickerson.