FAITH FORCES FOOTSTEPS AND FORGES FOOTPRINTS
There are those whose lives are planned for them from the cradle to the grave. Their footsteps are charted along the paths by those who have outlined their destiny. There are some who are fortunate enough to have a designated course for their lives and at each juncture the pieces all seem to come together at the appropriate moment. Their footsteps appear in total synch with their life’s goals. Then there are a few who, unfortunately, did not have anyone to guide their footsteps along the paths for success. I accept the fact that circumstances and conditions beyond our control present themselves and our responses to those conditions often describe who we become and ultimately what we do with our lives.
The faithful footsteps, which marched me from selfishness to sharing, followed an extremely diverse path. When I briefly reflect on growing up in a Christian home, I cannot remember volunteering to serve others. My personal growth and development journey started when I left for college in Nashville, Tennessee. I had never been to the south before and the year was 1960.
I entered Tennessee State University as a stop over to improve my basketball skills and enhance my chances of being drafted by the NBA. Little did I know that from 1960 to 1964 that I would meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights legends who would immerse my life in the civil, human, social, economic, educational, and political rights movements. From 1960 until 1964, my unimaginable life was steeped in the civil rights for all Americans while earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor who was the assistant director to Mr. Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, came to Tennessee State to see me. President Kennedy had started a new exchange program called the U.S. Peace Corps. I laughed at the very thought of anyone sacrificing their life, time, and energy abroad to help others when there was so much to do in America. I listened to Dr. Proctor’s Peace Corps recruitment spill and ‘reluctantly’ joined in June 1964. I was sent to Nigeria as a volunteer working with rural youth programs. My volunteerism, in Nigeria, was to work with the Ministry of Agriculture by introducing protein into the diet of the children and establishing Young Farmers Clubs. The clubs were also created to deter young boys and girls from abandoning their rural village life in search of the “good life” in the city. The more I spoke with village leaders, parents, community activists, clergy, and children the direction of my personal life was being drastically altered. My perspectives on volunteering, serving and sharing had chosen a different path, and my footsteps sought a new direction.
Like Dr. King, my footsteps cadenced to a different beat. I began to not only examine an unjust legal system; an unfair social order; an unequal racial structure, and an unbalanced economic system, I began to realize that without God’s intervening hands the ability to change and sustain that change would be, at best, marginal. In my remote village of Nbawsi Nzulu, I actually started talking with, listening to, and following God’s urgings. These were awesome, spirit-filled moments, which have guided my life’s decisions and accomplishments to this day.
The Peace Corps experience placed me in a new and strange environment where I had to adjust and adapt to an entirely different way of accepting life. I realized that, although I had been marching for civil and human rights for African-Americans in America, I felt then that I was not compelled to expand that cause to all of God’s creatures. Living in Nigeria, I literally became a vessel, a tool, an instrument for spiritual awakening, which focused on the spiritual growth for all of God’s people. I was different now because my work seemed to be a mandate (i.e. a calling) from God.
Upon leaving Nigeria, I was prepared to allow my Peace Corps experience to simply be a memory of the past and a stepping-stone for my future. I moved to Switzerland for a year and played on a Swiss national basketball team. Returning to the U.S., I enrolled at Northern Illinois University and earned a Master’s Degree in Community Mental Health. I remained there as the founder of the Black Studies Program and an administrator. Later I moved to Washington, DC and worked for the Department of Education, but resigned to earn a Doctorate Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts. Returning to Washington, DC, I became intensely involved in assisting to develop educational and cultural programs for historically Black college and universities. It was then that I began to witness the moral decline of the values in the African-American community. I felt a new calling on my life to make a difference in the lives of young people. I am convinced that my years with the Peace Corps provided a convicting force in my life, which literally governed my decision to follow God.
I enrolled in the Howard School of Divinity, not to be a preacher, but to seek further clarification as to what God desired me to do. Even with a doctorate degree in psychology, my footsteps were still undirected and I consistently stumbled and wondered why I should or how I could make the world better. These feelings and thoughts were birthed in Africa. I finished Howard School of Divinity and once again a guiding force, from the past, changed my footsteps, intervened and told me to go to Atlanta,Georgia. There I became an associate minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The man who was that guiding force was Reverend Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor who later encouraged me to assume the position of Dean at Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University. In 1987, I was called to pastor Providence Missionary Baptist Church where Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was a member. How ironic, pasturing the man who was Dr. King’s inspirational leader.
My faith in God was restored while serving in Africa, with the Peace Corps, and my footsteps were and are being ordered because of that consecrated and ordained period in my life. The last 24 years have allowed my footprints to be placed on numerous life enhancing and changing community initiatives. Those footprints, of faith, now lead me to teaching others the significance and importance of volunteering. Giving of yourself, your time, and your finances without expecting anything in return have been the fundamental principles for all those who have become servant leaders and made the world a better place in which to live.
As an African American growing up in a time when segregation, in America, was the law, I am thankful and grateful that the U.S. Peace Corps opened up avenues of opportunities, which were the paths upon which thousands of African Americans could walk. My horizon for what is possible, my understanding of a broader world with complex issues, and my ability to be accountable are positive by products of my Peace Corps experience. It has been a spiritual journey inspired by God who continues to “guide my feet while I run this race so I won’t have to run this race in vain.”
It is quite interesting and revealing that I started out to change the circumstances and conditions of an African people in America, and my faith was reaffirmed in Africa. “Faith Forced My Footsteps”, and has “Forged My Footprints” onto the continuing paths for freedom, justice, mercy, salvation, and hope for others. These are the compelling reasons that I cannot separate FAITH – SERVICE – LEADERSHIP!
Written by Dr. Gerald L. Durley
Servant / Leader Pastor
Providence Missionary Baptist Church