Editor’s note: Read part two of this interview.
Ekemini Uwan is a public theologian and co-host of the popular “Truth’s Table” podcast. She received her Master of Divinity in 2016 from Westminster Theological Seminary. Uwan’s writings have been featured in several influential publications, including The Huffington Post Black Voices, Christianity Today, and The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and her insights have been quoted by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker.
This is part one of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Uwan, conducted by phone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us briefly about your background and how you became a Christian. Is your current church affiliation the same as when you first became a Christian?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. My parents are originally from Nigeria. They immigrated here in the early ’70s, so they were among the first wave of African immigrants. I am the oldest of three girls. My parents grew up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod—that’s the church they grew up with in their village before they came here to America, and they remained in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Naturally, that’s the church I grew up in as well. However, I did not come to a saving faith until my senior year at California State University, Northridge. I got saved in a Black nondenominational church, which was completely different from the church I grew up in. In 2004, I got converted and felt like I really heard the gospel for the first time because the church I grew up in was more moralistic. By God’s grace, I’ve been walking with the Lord for 14 years, and I’m not tired yet. Currently, I attend a Black Baptist church, even though I’m actually Presbyterian and theologically align that way, but due to the racism and sexism within those denominations I don’t think I could ever join one of them at this point. But, that could change. Anything is possible.
[bs-quote quote=”I’ve always had a strong aversion to racism ever since I was a young girl, and I think the reason why is because of my Nigerian heritage. I know where I come from, Nung Ukana Ibesikpo, I know who I am, and who my ancestors are. That’s one of the reasons why I think racism is absolutely ridiculous and wicked.” style=”style-13″ align=”center” author_name=”Ekemini Uwan”][/bs-quote]
How did your Nigerian heritage come into play in your upbringing? How does it impact the way you see yourself, the work that you do, and in other ways?
I’ve always had a strong aversion to racism ever since I was a young girl, and I think the reason why is because of my Nigerian heritage. I know where I come from, Nung Ukana Ibesikpo, I know who I am, and who my ancestors are. That’s one of the reasons why I think racism is absolutely ridiculous and wicked. Dehumanization is something that I cannot abide because I know that we—Black people on the continent and in the diaspora—are image-bearers made in the image of God. We are beautiful people that come with a rich heritage, a deep love for God and of neighbor, so that’s something that I always had a huge issue with. I also understood our connection with chattel slavery and the fact that we had family members who were stolen due to slavery. So, I’ve always had that connection, and my parents made sure we understood that connection. In fact, they always called African Americans our “cousins” because, quite literally, that’s actually true. We have relatives we just don’t know about because there’s no way to connect in a legitimate and definitive way. This intimate knowledge of my heritage is what animates and informs my work.
Does your identity as a child of immigrants connect you to others who are first generation children of immigrants?
Yes and no. Yes because I’m first-gen too, but I think people have a really, really hard time wrapping their minds around someone being Black and an immigrant. Oftentimes, Black people are left out of the conversation about immigration, and I think even by non-Black immigrants. So, I think that’s a bit of a frustration. So, yes, I do feel a connection, but I think that in the way that the immigration conversation or narrative is told here, we get left behind, if you will, from that conversation. That’s why the work of BAJI [Black Alliance for Just Immigration] and what Opal Tometi does for immigration justice on behalf of Black immigrants is so important because it broadens the narrative—not to minimize the things happening to Hispanic, Latinx communities or Asian brothers and sisters, but we’re often left out of that narrative. So, in some ways, yes I feel connected, but in other ways, no because of my blackness. It seems like my blackness is a barrier to connection on the part of non-Black immigrants. People seem to have a hard time grasping that an individual can be Black and an immigrant.
What did you hope and dream to be as a child, and how similar or different is that from what you do today?
Growing up, my family was poor. We grew up in low-income housing and we moved a lot because my mom became a single mother due to my dad’s disability. As a result, I was a “latchkey kid,” so I helped raise my sisters and co-parented at a very young age. I went to college so I could earn enough money to help my mom, my sisters, and help my family because we didn’t have a lot of money. But my life plan did not turn out the way I expected. I did my stint in corporate America post-college for about eight years or so. And I was in pharmaceutical sales for about two years or so and then I lost my job suddenly the day before my birthday in 2011. It was pretty traumatic because they got rid of my whole sales team, and at this point I was saved, and said, “Okay, God… What are you doing?” That was really traumatic for me to lose my job out of the blue, and I was just praying about what my next step was and it seemed that the Lord was calling me to ministry. That seemed odd to me because I was an active leader at my church who was discipling women by leading a year-long discipleship group teaching women theology, so I was very much involved as a leader in my church, but I just kept hearing “ministry” when I would pray. So, I concluded that if God wanted me to go into ministry, I needed to go to seminary, and so that’s what I did. That decision set me on the trajectory that I’m on now. Now, I do speaking, writing, consulting, and co-hosting “Truth’s Table” podcast. My life looks nothing like I had imagined it would be, but God is good and gracious to me.
— Truth’s Table (@TruthsTable) September 3, 2018
Were there distinct events or people who really made it clear for you that you wanted to pursue seminary?
At my previous church, seminary was sort of looked down upon. It was a bit of an enigma. Like, “What is that?” “What’s the purpose of that?” You know? There was that undercurrent. But there were friends that fully supported me, even though they were a little confused. But I was confused, too! But what can you do? When the Lord calls you to something, you obey by God’s grace and you go. Let goods and kindred go. I’d say that my mom was definitely confused. She was like, “Okay, but how’re you going to feed yourself?” And at the time, I was like, “I don’t know…” My mentor, Stefnie Evans, definitely supported me, and she’s been walking with me ever since I got saved. She’s been mentoring me since 2004. All my friends and family did support me even when they were confused. So I’m grateful for that.
You received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Why did you choose that particular seminary over others?
Honestly, I didn’t know anything about it before I went. I just felt like the Lord was calling me to ministry, and every time I prayed, I kept getting this impression about ministry. Well, if that’s the case, then I’ve got to go to seminary. And I figured that I’m at a nondenominational church so I should go to a nondenominational seminary. It was really that simple. So, I went to the ATS [Association of Theological Schools] website and searched under the nondenominational category and Westminster happened to be there. So, I looked at all the different schools and I landed on Westminster after I did my due diligence. I looked at Westminster’s website and I was like, Oh, this seems academically rigorous and Oh, they have a campus in Escondido. At this point, I was living in L.A., and I didn’t know if the Lord was calling me to Philly, so I drove down to Escondido for their “Open House” visit day so that I could look at the campus and sit in on classes. It was less of a commitment to drive down there instead of a $500 roundtrip ticket to Philly, and I wasn’t working then so I was trying to save money. When I arrived on campus, I got to sit in on a systematic theology class, which is my favorite subject, and it was an excellent lecture and I was like, This school seems really rigorous. And at that time, I was beginning to “reform” anyways and I was starting to discover what Reformed theology was through Christian hip-hop.
But, I just got this sense from the Lord that this is the school, but this is not the campus. And I’m like, What? I have to go all the way to Philly to go to an open house there? So, I was like, “Lord I don’t have a job anymore. I have money in my bank account but you know I don’t know when I’m going to get another job.” But, what I sensed was more like, “Yup, you have to go to Philly.” When I decided to go, it turned out that I got a free round-trip ticket, so I didn’t even have to worry about paying to go, and the school paid for my hotel! So, it was like the Lord was saying, “Get going!” So, I went and visited the campus and I had a peace about it. I think I went and checked out the campus in November 2011. I applied and found out that I got in early Spring 2012. I moved to Philadelphia in May 2012 and started Summer Hebrew in June. It happened just like that. So, I didn’t really know much about Westminster and I certainly had no idea that it was a reputable institution. I was truly just walking by faith, because I had no idea where I was going or what I was getting myself into.