Learn What You Need to Thrive

Rev. Khayla Johnson

Name: Rev. Khayla G Johnson
Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
Ethnic Identity: African American
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA)
Ministry Role: Resident Minister
Ministry Context: First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor; Ann Arbor, MI
Seminary Attended: Columbia Theological Seminary

Dear younger me,

Welcome to whatever this will be and at some point, it will be described as seminary. When I decided to apply to seminary it was just by chance. I had already been accepted in a Masters program, I didn’t have to move and it was going to cost a lot less money. A wise man told me “just look into it and make your own decision.” To this day I still don’t know why I listened but I eventually found out God had a purpose because I didn’t have a plan. 

By now you are getting settled in at your seminary of choice, confused by the new cultural space you have walked into and trying to understand why everyone is so happy. And trust me you will never figure out that last part. Welcome to seminary. Many people probably described to you that it will be life changing, the best decision of your life or will be the pathway to your great future. For some it may be just that, for others many of you will just limp along until you are finished and the rest are somewhere in between. 

I don’t want you to feel discouraged but I want you to understand that others will try to dictate your path and recreate their experiences through you.  Your process is your path. Your learning leads to your understanding. Your voice guides your future. The hard truth is that many seminaries have not provided spaces for people of color so you have to create your own. In my first year of seminary, I found myself alone in my room looking for a way out. I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me, didn’t think link me and wanted to silence my lived experience because it didn’t match their cultural expectation. This moment would happen at various time throughout my seminary career and left me feeling defeated.  

Here is what I learned about myself, I had three keys to the survival of seminary and beyond.

First, finding my community. I was among the rare breed of African American Presbyterians at my seminary, so finding folks with similar lived experiences was difficult. But I knew that I needed an intentional black community to thrive. That community found me before I was even looking for them because black women are caregivers. I was in a place were older women sat me down, shared their stories and encouraged me to see beyond the struggle that would come. There will be many spaces for you to create the community you need but pay attention to which ones are vital to your survival. 

Second, learning to raise my voice. I have always been outspoken about what I want in life, but I have always struggled with being confident when I speak. In seminary you will hear many people tell you to use your voice, but they won’t tell you it should be loud enough for all to hear. Raising my voice allowed me to lead differently and with this voice came the responsibility to understand why I say what I say. I needed to understand what I stood for, who I was standing with, when it needs to be said and why it was important to be heard. Once you have learned how to raise your voice, help others build their confidence to do the same and respect their process to get there. 

Third, I learned that I needed joy. Anyone who knows me, knows that I laugh all the time. It is a deep part of the joy that fills my life and it heals me better than anything else. Life can easily become busy, too serious, stressful and a struggle. So it is up to us to find ways to enjoy these moments because you won’t get them back once they are gone. My life verse is Proverbs 17:22 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Walking through life with a crushed spirit isn’t good, so I hope you will find your joy and hold on to it. 

Seminary will come with many experiences and I encourage you to step into them while offering grace to yourself. You can only be yourself and God called you. God made you who you are for a reason. God didn’t make you and then decide to change you halfway through life, so don’t allow people to change you. Allow yourself to fail so you can learn through it and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. 

With love, 

Reverend Khayla G. Johnson 

Resources Recommended:
  1. Getting connected to larger communities of color and even to those beyond your geographical location. Having these communities create intentional support systems that will be beneficial long term.
  2. Find a spiritual practice that you are deeply connected to whether its intentional music time, prayer, or devotional space. For me I am deeply connected to my prayer time that allows me to have conversations with God and myself.

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