An autobiography of reconciliation
Homecoming: A “White” Man’s Journey through Harlem to Jerusalem. Curtiss Paul De-Young. Minneapolis: Jezi Press. 2009. Softbound. $15.00. 146 pages. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Curtiss DeYoung is a professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, where, among other duties, he teaches “reconciliation studies.” A passion for social justice and reconciliation has dominated his career as a pastor and professor from the start.
Writing in Homecoming, an autobiography at the age of 50, DeYoung says that behind that passion has been a simple truth: “I have come to believe that my journey has really been about rediscovering the essence of what it means to be human — created in the image of God.”
People who make that discovery — who have a “homecoming with their humanity,” as DeYoung phrases it — experience a liberation from whatever categories society may have created for them. And they are ready to claim for themselves and all other people the sense of divine worth that comes with being a child of God. That leaves little room for negative stereotypes based on race, gender, class, or any other sort of grouping.
An empathy with those suffering from racial prejudice and poverty in big urban areas didn’t seem a natural fit for DeYoung, who was raised the son of a Church of God pastor in a Michigan suburb and attended a private church college in Anderson, Indiana. But what he saw on a group trip to New York City and its slums while a college junior affected him powerfully. “For the first time in my life, I closely observed poverty and social injustice. … Seeing the effects of poverty firsthand, I knew that I must find a way to respond to what I had witnessed and experienced in New York City,” DeYoung writes.
A year after graduation, he got a job working at a shelter for runaway youths operated by the Catholic Church in Times Square. His time there, and at a largely African-American congregation in Harlem that he stumbled into by mistake while looking for a Church of God congregation, had a lasting effect. The black pastor at the church welcomed him warmly, became a mentor to him and invited him to preach frequently at Sunday services. “I rediscovered my humanity in Harlem because a congregation and a pastor embraced me fully as their son and brother and minister,” De-Young writes.
During an internship at another largely black congregation, the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., he met and married a black woman and was encouraged to enroll at the Howard University Divinity School for theological training. His ties to the African-American community became so strong that when he lists the five most important mentors in his life, all are African-American males, including several professors at Howard. And, he says, he became a “white Malcolm X” in his rage against white Christians and the effect of their racism on African-Americans.
From DC to the Mini-Apple
DeYoung’s first call to a parish following ordination did not turn out successfully. His efforts to revive a dying Church of God congregation in Minneapolis eventually ran aground on tensions between the founding Scandinavians and Germans and the new members he recruited — African-Americans, immigrants, and working-class and poor whites.
The biblical Hebrews were a multicultural, multiracial people with a lineage rooted in both Asia and Africa.
His next position, as administrator of the Twin Cities Urban Resourcing Network (TURN), an organization founded by a group of church leaders in the Twin Cities who sought to empower a new generation of leaders to heal the brokenness in the community, also ended in disappointment. Staff members struggled with race, gender, and class tensions, according to DeYoung. He admits that part of the fault in the failure of these enterprises lies with his personality and leadership style. He becomes weary when he focuses on the administration of an organization that works for reconciliation rather than direct involvement in the ministry of reconciliation, he says.
While admitting that he “was unable to transform and heal the internal dysfunction that eventually led to collapse” at both the church and TURN, DeYoung says those episodes raise the question of whether organizations can really be healthy. Still, he says, “I cannot let go of the notion that people working inside of institutions committed to reconciliation and social change should also be experiencing that reality in their organizational lives together.”
Becoming a global believer
DeYoung’s perspective on issues took on a global dimension when he made a number of trips overseas beginning with his attendance at the 1999 Salzburg (Austria) Seminar. The topic of the seminar was “Race and Ethnicity: Social Change through Public Awareness,” and DeYoung attended as a McKnight Foundation Fellow. “This event opened my life to a whole new adventure,” he says of the seminar. “I came face to face with a wide range of cultural expressions and religious diversity. The human family became bigger, as did my understanding of God.”
He says he “discovered that God is much bigger than most of us believe or experience.” The list of places where he has “experienced God” now includes a Jewish ritual and an Islamic mosque.
DeYoung tells of three trips he made to South Africa, in 2000 and 2002 to speak at a conference of youth leaders and in 2003 for a speaking tour. At the conferences he says he detailed “what has been rediscovered and documented by many biblical scholars of color” — that “the biblical Hebrews were a multicultural, multiracial people with a lineage rooted in both Asia and Africa and an identity shaped by their faith rather than their race.”
He says he also told his audiences that contrary to the dominant images of a “white” Jesus, many scholars, including himself, now speak of Jesus as an Afro-Asiatic Jew. This new knowledge proved empowering and liberating to his audiences, DeYoung says, adding that “Declaring that Jesus was an Afro-Asiatic Jew is a call to reconciliation and unity.”
DeYoung recounts visits to Jerusalem in 2006 and 2007 and expresses strong criticism of actions by the government of Israel. “My many visits to South Africa equipped me with a lens that saw apartheid-like conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
He did, however, find people on the Israeli side willing to work for reconciliation and peace. And he said he feels empowered to “embrace the work of peace, social justice, and reconciliation in multi-religious and interfaith settings.”
Tags: Bethel University, Church of God, Curtiss DeYoung, Homecoming, Homecoming: A “White” Man's Journey through Harlem to Jerusalem, Howard University Divinity School, liberation, reconciliation studies, social justice, TURN, Twin Cities Urban Resourcing Network