MDiv Alum Damien Howard: Chicago Church Planter, Youth Mentor, Entrepreneur, and Gospel-Proclaimer

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We caught up with Damien at a Starbucks on the south side of Chicago. Damien was a Kern scholar in the MDiv program and is still involved with the Kern Family Foundation. He talked to us about the dynamics of being a minority student–in more ways than one–at TEDS, about the mentoring organization he’s founded that works in the south and west sides of Chicago, and about learning the hard way from D. A. Carson how to think biblically about the relationship between the gospel and its entailments.

Introduce yourself. Where are you from, and how did you come to Trinity?

I’m originally from the south side of Chicago. My mom didn’t want me to have to take two buses through rival gang territory for high school, so she moved me to a suburb west of the city and I went to high school there. After that I went to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana to study special education, taught for two years at Urbana High School, and then felt a call to know the word of God better and be able to apply it in my life better. I didn’t want another bachelor’s, but as I looked at different master’s programs I decided I wanted to pursue an MDiv, so I just went for it.

What I didn’t know—especially going to an institution like Trinity—was what seminary was all about. I went just wanting to know how to apply Scripture to my life better, but it was about so much more. It was, in many ways, a culture shock and intellectual shock. But I quickly adjusted.

As far as theological institutions go, all I knew about before was Moody. My mom would listen to Moody on the radio and I didn’t really like it. But I met with a guy named Charlie Dates who went to U of I as well, graduated about a year before me, and I knew that he was pursuing theological studies. [Editor’s note: Charlie Dates is an MDiv alum and current PhD (Theological Studies) student who is senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago.] He introduced me both to Trinity and to the Kern Family Foundation. After further research, it was a no-brainer to go to an institution that’s so solid theologically and have the possibility of receiving tuition assistance.

What year did you start and finish?

I started in 2007 and finished in 2010. I front-loaded everything super heavy—crazy summers, suicide Greek coming in—knowing that the third year I would be going back to work. So in the third year I actually came back to the city and started teaching at an all-boys charter school as the case manager in the special education department.

After that, I went to a school here in Bronzeville and was the case manager there. As the case manager I was the liaison between the child and the teachers in the special education department to ensure that the child is getting the services that he or she is supposed to get. Now, I’m transitioning out of Phillips, and I have two startups that I’m working on. I’m a church planter, and I’m planting a church on the west side of Chicago starting with Bible studies on Wednesdays right now. We’re hoping to have our first Sunday preview service in a couple of months. In addition to that, I have a mentoring organization called SQuad Regardless, and I have an agreement with a high school here in the south side and an elementary school on the west side to oversee 150 kids. I’m really trying to grow both of those right now; I’m working with my executive board to solidify our framework and make it something replicable.

Tell me about the church you’re planting. What’s your vision for it?

The name of it is Thrive Covenant Church. We’re in a very unique neighborhood—we’re at 1 North Ogden, at the corner of Ogden and Madison. Anybody familiar with the area knows that there are a lot of changes happening there. It’s right on the cusp of two very different neighborhoods, and the difference is really socioeconomic status more than anything else. East of where I am is the West Loop, and west of where I am is an area they’re calling Near West. Really, my heart is to be a church for this community: since we’re here, our church represents the community. Right now we don’t represent this community, especially its ethnic diversity. So that remains my heart, but I’m saying to God, I’ll be content with who you send. He planted me in this community that’s very diverse and vibrant in many ways, so I would love if strategically and spiritually He can help our church represent this beautiful tapestry.

My work with a church plant in Rogers Park has made me wonder whether socioeconomic diversity might be even more difficult to foster than racial diversity. Is bridging this gap something that still stumps you, or do you have something strategic in place to address this in your church plant?

The short answer is, yes, it’s definitely still stumping me. This is the type of thing that keeps a church planter and pastor awake at night tossing and turning, wishing I could go to sleep, saying, God, you gave me this vision, please help me.

From a long-term perspective, relationships are key. I met with a pastor named Kent Munsey, from City Church Chicago, two days ago. He really impressed upon me something I’m big on but that had a sense of freshness coming from him, because he’s doing this. First, we need to look at why we want this type of diversity represented in our church. Socioeconomic, racial, whatever: why do you want to be diverse? And just really check our motives and intentions. That’s why I try to be clear and say: This is the community God brought me to, and if we’re going to serve the community I think it needs to represent its fullness.

Secondly, what does your friendship base look like? If you don’t have any people in your life who represent this vast spectrum of socioeconomic reality—if you don’t even have them in your own network—what’s your motive for wanting them in your church? As you build those relationships, through service initiatives or your own personal network, this other stuff will fall into place. Specifically, when you talk about socioeconomic diversity, a lot of that comes through service initiatives, the cultural ethos of the church, ministry, and outreach.

Let’s switch gears a bit. Tell me about the mentoring network, which you’ve named SQuad Regardless.

In 2010-2012 I was the youth pastor under Cory Brooks, who’s famously known as the Rooftop Pastor here in Chicago. When he started his initiative called Project Hood, as the youth pastor there was a sense of urgency in me, and I said to myself , “What type of programming do you have in place, since your church is getting national attention, and people are coming to you all to see what you’re really doing to circumvent violence in Chicago and develop kids?” So I just felt a major impetus to have something that’s structured and strategic to meet kids’ needs. That was the catalyst that thrust me towards saying, I want a mentoring organization; what is the framework / curriculum that undergirds what that could be?

I wanted something a bit more research-based, which led me to an organization called CASEL, based in UIC, and they’ve done all sorts of meta-analyses looking at hundreds of programs across the nation that do social and emotional learning and education work. They said, look, it’s great to focus on drug prevention, violence prevention, pregnancy prevention, whatever the case may be, but they came up with these five core competencies that, if addressed, will help address those other things that are consequences of deficits in those areas.

What are those competencies?

Relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-awareness, social awareness, and self-management.

I started small. Initially I thought, I want five hundred friends, so I was on Facebook sending out these blasts, and people weren’t responding as my optimism expected them to. Eventually, through a strategic vetting process asking people to make a one-year commitment for my case study to help me develop this data and do my research, I had about five people that first year. Going into the second year we had about ten, and a major partnership with the UIC grad school helped us go from five to ten.

Last school year I started leading workshops for a group of twenty boys who are all referred to me from their counselor, principal, administration, whoever it may be. These are kids who have so much promise but they need some intentional development that can help them be more focused and have a better approach to life. So I met with them over the course of a year and there were improvements in grades and behavioral infractions just from meeting with them over the lunch hour.

This summer, I’ve hit reset on everything. I’ve got a couple of years of data, I’ve figured out pros and cons of my methodology, and I’m hoping to ratchet everything up to the next level of excellence. So I have an agreement with a high school in Bronzeville to take on one hundred students over the school year, and an agreement with an elementary school on the west side to take on fifty sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. They’ll be mentored in two ways. To the extent that I can get mentors on board, there will be one-to-one partnerships to build these social and emotional competencies through positive and sustained adult interaction. There also will be mentor workshops that will have (1) education and (2) activities, so students can work through, speak through, theatrically act through what these competencies look like in real life.

This mentoring network isn’t explicitly “Christian,” which helps you be able to more effectively network with public schools. You recognize Jesus’ lordship over everything; how do you navigate the tension of doing things that are, for you, ministry, but in a predominantly non-Christian context?

That’s a great question. Let me start by saying that some of my best mentors were atheists. I had two stellar mentors and they were flat-out atheists, not even agnostic.

Tell me about them.

I’ll speak to one young lady who will remain unnamed right now. There are things called “fidelity reports” that I ask to be done on a biweekly basis. These are for mentors; even if you’re not meeting with your teen, fill this out, and it helps me know how I can best support you and your teen. She was very faithful with these reports. I was able to gauge her level of faithfulness and fidelity to the structure; she was always on top of stuff and supportive; she had a huge heart for the program. The program isn’t explicitly Christian, and it was interesting to see the dynamic of some who were outwardly opposed to Christianity turned out to be some of my best mentors.

I don’t see a contradiction in my involvement here at all. Actually, it was an experience with D. A. Carson that was, at the time, very hurtful, but it was transformative and helpfully formative in the long term. When I was on campus I was instrumental in starting a group called Faith Alive with Daniel Hartman—one of my best friends. Going to seminary, I had a lot of naiveté; one time I went to Dr. Carson’s office and said, “Dr. Carson, I want you to come speak to our group and talk to us about how social justice is part and parcel of the gospel.” So he said, I just want to make sure that I’m clear on what you want me to speak on, and I repeated it and he said, Ok, I see.

So when he came out to speak—there were about 200 people there—my perception of what he said was that he bashed us, that he was saying we were heretical; these were my feelings as I sat and listened to something that seemed very contrary to what I’d expected. It was the language of “part and parcel,” as though what we do is part of the Gospel, which is something that God does fully on our behalf. If anything, acts of social justice are entailments of our reception of the Gospel.

You didn’t receive that message very well at the time.

No, I didn’t. I thought it was very disrespectful; all of this is processing even as he’s speaking: I went to his office, why didn’t he tell me at the time that my language was bad? But it was very necessary for the group, it was a jolt we needed to tell us, hey, you’re doing great work, but make sure your language is absolutely accurate as it pertains to the gospel and why you’re doing this stuff. Not to say it was necessary for everybody but it was necessary for me. It was a shock at the time, but definitely helpful.

That’s a mistake that Damien Howard would never again make in his life. My heart and intentions were good at the time, but that was obviously a clarification I needed. Now, being empowered with that clarification as I go into ministry, being able to name that a lot better, and being enlivened and empowered by the grace exhibited by God in Christ on my behalf, I want that to enliven me to do my best to reflect his character. That’s what I do through my mentorship and my organization, and what I strive to do in all areas of my life. Even though I can’t go into some of these places and be explicitly Christian in my proclamation, I can still be explicitly Christian through my life. Doing this, what I’ve found is—it’s all about branding and marketing, how people perceive you. People who have their interest peaked about Damien Howard the man, through my mentoring organization, they then find out who I am, about my church and my Bible study; it gives me an access point to introduce them to the Person behind everything Damien is.

That tension helps me to be a better preacher, to talk about the worlds I live in and the different dynamics, since at times you can’t be as overt as you’d want to in your proclamation of Christ. It helps me to be a better me and a better pastor.

I’ve been doing this work for about three years, and I have two organizations right now that are still in their infancy. I use the language of branding, and the way I think about it is, as I continue to do this work and people know my name, that’s going to continue to support my ministry and my church. And then in turn my ministry can inform and impact my mentorship; this is a partnership.

What are some other things you took away from your time at TEDS that have concretely helped you in what you’re doing right now?

I want to give you a better answer, but let me start with this. Going from Argo Community High School, then U of I Champaign-Urbana and then TEDS, it forced me to get outside the context of 100% minority, all-black areas. I grew up in the Baptist tradition where we went to church 3-4 times a week, that’s where I found my first mentorship and where all my social relationships were. So going to Argo helped and stretched me; I felt that God was thrusting me into some of these diverse areas to help me be able to understand more than just my context, to not be stuck in a silo but to be more of what I call sometimes a chameleon, someone who can blend in in many different environments.

With Trinity being such a rich institution theologically, I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time, but it helped me to have deep conversations, to take that depth and clothe it in who I am, and then be able to present that to different populations on the socio-economic spectrum and different ethnicities. So the idea of being a chameleon, someone who can have conversations with people in different walks of life—Trinity really helped that for me.

Here’s another one—there was a professor at Trinity by the name of Robert Yarbrough. Lumberjack, right? Real tough guy. I saw his profile online and when I found out I had to take him for Greek I thought, this guy’s scary, I don’t know if I really want to take his class. But it turned out that Professor Yarbrough was the reason I stayed at Trinity. We don’t keep in touch nowadays as much as I would like, but he continues to be an inspiration to me.

I don’t know why him, out of all people, but I found myself signing up for one of his office hours one day, and I just went in and laid it all out, told him how rough things were for me. This was either my first or second semester at Trinity. I shared with him that I came into this context and just really felt that Damien is very different. I made a statement in one my classes: “I get my theology from holy hip-hop, by listening to LeCrae and these guys!” And it was embarrassing. You’d see people’s faces like, What is this dude saying? That’s just one example of the level of discomfort that I’d have oftentimes at Trinity, just based on me being me and giving my perspective on certain things. For instance: I can remember in my Ethics class, a gentleman who later grew to be a friend of mine on campus was vehemently opposed to statements I made about how racism still exists, and it seemed like he was attacking me just for having my opinions.

So I thought, I know I’m on full scholarship, but I’ve got to get out of this place, it’s too white, these people don’t understand me, theologically it seems like I’m not matching up. But Robert Yarbrough affirmed me as an individual who could do well and who adds value to the institution. He said things like, “Damien, we grow because you’re here; this institution is better because you’re here.” At the time I thought he was just saying those things to make me feel good, but it was helpful. As we continued to develop a relationship I was in another of his classes, and there was a big paradigm shift for me. One day he said to me: “You’re a scholar,” which I interpreted as: Your perspective is necessary; your approach to life not only adds value to the institution but is important in its own right. That was so helpful and a game-changer for me to be able to think, maybe I am supposed to be here, maybe Damien does have something to add to this conversation and I don’t have to feel ostracized. Through conversation with him I started to see myself more as a contributor versus someone who doesn’t fit in. I began resting more in who I am and in my ability to articulate who I was. And of course, all of the classes stretched me and developed me.

What advice would you have for people who don’t feel that they fit into a perceived dominant culture at Trinity?

Find community. I had several close friends who met together to talk about the things we were feeling. One of the Enemy’s schemes is to make us feel that we’re alone. When I started talking through these things with a community, even with friends who had been around for a while but still felt some of these things, it was really helpful. In addition to that, find community with people who are outside your context and outside your race but care about you. That was huge. The earlier we can connect people to some of these communities, some of the classroom tensions they might feel can be helped.

For professors and leaders: just be more inviting of diverse perspectives. Like I mentioned with that ethics course, it felt—from the professor and the student—that my perspective was dumb, that I shouldn’t have been sharing it. I don’t ever think anybody should feel like that in a classroom setting. I was a student that Trinity felt should be on campus, so we should have engaging dialogue. Not to say that we can’t debate, but it has to be a loving debate. A lot of this is already happening, through Faith Alive and now through Mosaic Ministries.

Tell me about your family.

My wife and I have been married going on seven years…this month. Oh man. The 22nd. Wow. [laughter]

You’re welcome for reminding you. [laughter]

Shari and I met at the University of Illinois. We were both resident coordinators for a program called Upward Bound, which is for kids who are from the Champaign-Urbana area who don’t have much exposure to schools like U of I even though they live right there. We got married shortly after I graduated from seminary, and we have a toddler named Gabrielle—going on three years.

So she’s making her way out of the terrible twos?

Well, I don’t feel like she is. [laughter] She’s deeply entrenched in them.

My wife worked at Walgreens corporate headquarters as a paralegal when we were in Deerfield, and now she’s working on a renovation contract for McDonald’s as a paralegal.

What are some hobbies & influences you have—good books, movies, anything else you do in your free time?

The Kern Family Foundation has what they call a post-graduate initiative designed to address the question of what we’re doing to support pastors as they grow into their ministry. Their focus is on faith, work, and economics, and the more I learn about it the more I buy into what they’re saying. One book they had us read was called Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton. One thing Lupton said that was very helpful for me was the phrase “toxic charity.” In order for you to implement services, ministry, whatever it is, to promote long-term economic stability, especially for those who are used to being dependent on government funding, you have to actually detoxify that perspective. Working with the kids I’ve worked with, a lot of times they have a perspective on life that’s actually toxic. This is informed by their family, their parents, a historical narrative, cultural/generational realities, etc. I’m not even talking about presenting Christ, I’m just talking about detoxifying all of the mess that has been erected in their minds. That naming was very helpful for me; not that I’m going to tell a kid I’m going to detoxify them, but that the work we’re doing—youth development to impact the epidemic of violence—this is a toxic reality.

Not that everybody fits this mold, but the population of kids I work with tends to have a very toxic mindset. You’ve got to start by building relationships with them and working through the stuff that’s already been planted in their minds.

Where I am in life is: scared, anticipatory, hopeful, optimistic—balancing all of that. As I mentioned, I’m working with two startups. All of that lands me in a place of having to be utterly dependent on God and his provision. Damien can’t do this alone. It’s tough work for a human; if it was based off my own skillset, my own charisma, my own swag—I can’t do this stuff. But I remain highly anticipatory and highly optimistic, and balancing that with this fear, too. I know I have a God who told me to do this work, and I just believe through faith that he’s going to bring the people and the provision and the economic resources that I need. Like, right now the church plant has a shoddy music system; he’s going to take care of that stuff. Outside all the books I’ve read, the most important thing is just an utter dependence upon the providence and sovereignty of God, because when I lose sight of that, fear turns into anxiety and stress, and honestly it would debilitate me to the point where I’m not really doing anything at all.

But I gotta always put my mind back on God and on Christ. The more I do that, the more encouragement I get, the more he leads me to people like you who encourage me to think back on God and Christ and his Word and how that empowers me to do the ministry he’s thrust me into. And as I do that, I’m able to rest, and I find fulfillment in the work.

Want to learn more? Find out about the Master of Divinity, discover more about Mosaic Ministries, or learn about the Kern scholarship in the MDiv program.

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