May 15, 2015 marks my 33rd birthday. Birthdays are always times for reflection and gratitude. This year I look backward with praise for my history and look forward with expectation to my destiny. Below are two segments of my spiritual biography prepared as part of my admissions requirements for Wesley Biblical Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry. As you read the words I hope you will get to know a little more about my faith, family, and formation. I pray it blesses you.
My parents divorced when I was six and their separation left an emotional void that God filled later on in young adulthood. But by His grace, the Lord hovered over my life, like He did over the primordial universe, long before then and gave it shape and substance. Though tragic, the divorce did not keep my parents from contributing to my formation. In retrospect, I know God was working all things together for my good (Ro. 8:28).
My mother reared me to be strong in spite of the divorce or other vicissitudes. At about age one she dedicated me back to God, and from the divorce on she read Psalm 91 over me, always reminding me that our trials are great and that our God is greater. She taught me to aspire to the greatness not allowed to her, a brown-skinned woman born poor in Jim Crow Mississippi. The spiritual covering of Psalm 91 would confirm for me God’s constant, providential presence even in those adolescent years when skepticism was more attractive than blind faith.
My dad taught me thrift, the need for a solid education, and not to hate white people, no matter how much some of them did to us to keep us down. From the second grade on my best friend was a white boy from a poor family, and I believe my dad’s cosmopolitan respect led to our brotherhood. Both my parents instilled old school values of delayed gratification, knowing that hard work, resilience, and social justice could make our lot much better. They never let me feel hopeless because we grew up black and in relative poverty.
And though they weren’t consistent churchgoers, my parents’ traditional nurture and discipline conditioned me to love God and neighbor beyond society’s bigotries. I wasn’t a fan of church growing up, and I often faked illness on Sunday mornings hoping to excuse myself from the chore of going when we did. God had a sense of humor.
In July 2000 I received the call into the Gospel ministry. This life-altering experience occurred two months after I graduated from high school and as I was preparing to leave home for undergraduate studies at the University of Mississippi. This call, as dramatic as it was daunting, came to a very sheltered eighteen-year-old anticipating personal freedom away from the all-seeing eye of his mother. Ministry was the farthest thing from my mind—and from my parents’ hopes. When I reluctantly shared the news with them they responded with cynicism and disappointment. Mother wanted me to pursue a lucrative career so I would be able to take care of her in her old age; dad, a civil rights attorney, surely desired for me to become a lawyer like him and one day take over his practice. And neither of them were fond of preachers; the ones they knew were disliked for either their lack of education or for their love of filthy lucre.
My parents’ disbelief and disappointment, and my own concerns for freedom, caused me to question my calling for a few months. But God reassured me through the prophetic words of men and women of God, and most powerfully through the Scriptures. There it was confirmed that I was sanctified unto the Gospel and consecrated to prophetic witness before I was formed in my mother’s womb. The Lord knew me, had shaped me, and destined my purpose (Jer. 1:4-10; Gal. 1:15). I could do nothing else. Under the spiritual mentorship of Bishop Arnold Stanton, pastor/founder of New Life Cathedral of Worship in Hazlehurst, Mississippi I initiated a life of devoted witness to the Gospel. I am grateful that I did.
As I matriculated through the University of Mississippi, the Lord allowed me to co-found three college ministries. The first one was with a group of charismatic and Pentecostal students and together we hosted weekly bible studies, offered prayer and deliverance, and promoted Gospel music ministry. It was there that I first exercised my ministry gifts consistently. I also founded a short-lived Sunday worship service for students unable to travel off campus for church. Lastly, I helped develop a midweek bible study populated primarily with track and field athletes and new converts to Christ. Off campus I was an associate minister to youth and young adults at Clear Creek Missionary Baptist Church and Mt. Hope Baptist Church, respectively. My weeknights and Sunday mornings were filled with prayer, praise, and preaching. As a Philosophy major and as an agnostic in my teens before coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, I was sympathetic to questions raised by college colleagues and professors, an understanding that followed me into the next stages of my journey.
I graduated in 2004 and thereafter briefly served as religious affairs coordinator with Free the Slaves, a Washington, DC-based abolitionist nonprofit. I united my passion for social justice and ministry, recalling both my admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and my introduction to Liberation Theology through the university’s library. Again I encountered skepticism from those I worked with. Articulating my evangelical faith and how it fueled my passion for justice made little sense to activists who saw the institutional church as possibly the greatest purveyor of oppression. I understood their consternation and knew many churches had to repent and be renewed so that they could more graciously witness to the love and holiness of our Triune God.
Questions from my youth and from those skeptics I met, loved, and worked with stirred my theological imagination. Problems of race and faith, of nominal Christianity, and of powerless preaching haunted me. I wanted both the learning and the burning, the demonstration of the Spirit and the explication of sound doctrine, in order to bear witness to a Gospel that transforms in a culture increasingly dismissive of it. God led me to Duke Divinity School in 2006 where many of those questions were answered and many more formed. In that same year, while on a spiritual retreat, the Lord said that I was to return to Mississippi following my graduation because He had a great work for me to do. I resisted, much as I did with His call into the ministry, but the commission was unshakable. Lessons learned in the classroom, as an intern with Duke Divinity’s Goodson Chapel, Wake Chapel Church, and Wake Medical Hospital, were foundational for the labor I would later commit my head, hands, and heart to in Jackson. Duke taught me how to think about contemporary issues with the grammar of the Orthodox faith; my internships helped me do this pastorally, in and for the Church. Affirmed in my evangelical-Baptist faith, Pentecostal experience, and introduced to Eastern Orthodoxy, I embraced a generous orthodoxy that I yearned to share with my native land. I came back to Mississippi seized by God’s mission, and many obstacles could not deter me from fulfilling that mission to God’s glory.
I had several opportunities to serve around the country after graduating from Duke. But in obedience to God’s directive I returned to Jackson in 2009. God opened a door for me to work for Mission Mississippi. Among other opportunities, I was able to meet with black and white pastors from around the state as we sought to build an interdenominational racial reconciliation movement. Licensed into Gospel ministry at New Life Cathedral of Worship of Hazlehurst, and ordained in 2009 Cornerstone Church of Durham, North Carolina, my devotion to the global Church, in all its diverse manifestations, was evidenced through my short tenure there. Meeting Christians of different races, ages, and denominations reinforced my discernment that what God called me to was bigger than the boxes we construct. Mines was and is a ministry of convergence, where different streams of the global Church meet in transformative love and serve as a glimpse into the new creation of God.
In 2010 I was called to serve as youngest pastor of Mt Helm Baptist Church, Jackson’s oldest historically African-American congregation. During this time Mt Helm regained its status as a flagship church, became more engaged in evangelism and advocacy, and modeled adaptive paradigms that made the nearly two century old church more relevant and visible. In 2014 Helm Place, an 88-house community development, broke ground. Denominationally, regularly teach in the State Congress of Christian Education of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention, and in June 2014 I was appointed President of the Mississippi Baptist Seminary and Bible College, a part-time ministerial enterprise.
In September 2013 I became the Rector of the historic Oakland Memorial Chapel and Director of Student Religious Life at Alcorn State University. There I facilitate weekly worship services, oversee campus ministries, and teach Introduction to Ethics. I also host of The CJ Rhodes Show on WRBJ 97.7 FM and am the author of Thy Kingdom Come: Reflections on Pastoral and Prophetic Ministry. In 2013 I was one of fifty persons selected to participate in the Inaugural Institute of Black Theology and Leadership at Princeton Theological Seminary, where we engaged in theological and leadership concerns for and within black congregations and communities. A family man, I am married to Allison, and together we are committed to glorifying God and raising our twin sons, Carroll III and Cornelius Josiah.