Willie Dwayne Francois III was a first-year student at Harvard Divinity School when he hooked up with the contingent of his alma mater—Morehouse College—and preached at the inaugural Festival of Young Preachers. Hence, his designation as AoP ’10.

That was January of 2010. His sermon was published in that first collection of sermons, A Beautiful Thing, edit by Lee Huckleberry and available later that same year through Chalice Press.

I thought about all of this when his picture came across my Facebook page last week. It was celebrating his promotion to Associate Professor of Liberation Theology and Director of the Master of Professional Studies Program for New York Theological Seminary. It made me proud to know him, and I send my congratulations.

But his is but one of many notices this spring about the young men and women who came through the Academy of Preachers during my tenure as president of that wonderful organization.

For instance: Megan Byers AoP ’14 announced her engagement. I have been keeping up with her since her call to the ministerial team at The Harvest Methodist Church in Houston.

Mary Alice Birdwhistell AoP’10 sent me an invitation to her wedding in early June. I plan to be in attendance in the sanctuary of the church of which she is the pastor, Highland Baptist in Louisville.

Richard Hughes AoP’17 posted about having lunch with Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton, who, in 2010, was a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a plenary preacher at that very first festival. For the last few years, Joseph Howard, AoP’12 has served as official social media spokesman for the Academy of Preachers. This week, he posted this group message:

“Congratulations to my AoP teammates who recently graduated from their respective institutions.” He then mentions those receiving Doctor of Ministry degrees: James Wesley Dennis, III AoP’11 from Candler School of Theology in Georgia; Jeremy Shoulta AoP’10, from Garner-Webb University in North Carolina; Leroy F. Davenport AoP’14 from United Theological Seminary in Ohio; and Milton J. Keys AoP’16 from Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana.

Then came those receiving Doctor of Philosophy degrees: Elijah Zehyoue, AoP’15, from Howard University in DC, and Rashad R. Moore AoP’12, from Columbia University in New York.

I do not have space to list all those graduating with college degress and seminary degrees—too many to name. Plus those receiving calls, promotions, invitations, and awards and others announcing weddings, births, and relocatons.

I have written a book manuscript about my decade launching and leading the Academy of Preachers; it will be titled The Great Amen. The index of that book will list all 777 persons who preached at least once at a National Festival of Young Preachers.

But now, we wonder: whatever happened to the Academy of Preachers?

The truth is, three things conspired to pull the AoP into its current dormant state. First, the original board of directors (of which I was a member) voted to bequeath the AoP to an established institution.  Three (including one multi-member partnership) vied for the prize, and in 2019, we voted to give it to the College of Theology and Chirstian Ministry at Belmont University in Nashville. Only Morehouse College in Atlanta sent more young preachers to AoP events than Belmont during that first decade of festivals. Moving to new leadership, new quarters, and new visions is a tramautic episode in the life of any organization.

Second, funding from the Lilly Endowment ran its course. In my yet-to-be published book, I paraphrase Endowment offiials as saying, accurately, in 2008: “It will take 10-12 years to get this organization up and running. We will fund this launch.” This they did, and generously; but my efforts and the efforts of others failed to develop alternate streams of funding.

Third, the pandemic hit, just as Belmont was taking control; and everything—including retreats, conferences, and festivals—took a hit. Nobody was doing anything. Belmont actually attempted several vitual festivals, but they failed to capture the imagination of young preachers around the country.

Now, silence, and sadness.

But the investment of a decade has not gone without rewards. Young AoP preachers are serving churches and ministries all around the country, from California (Joshua Daniels AoP’11 in Los Angeles) to Pennsylvania (Marco Tinor AoP 13 in Pittsburgh), from Florida (Aline Silva AoP’16 in Miam) to Illinois (Reginald Sharpe AoP’10 in Chicago).

A wide swath across the central sections of our country is puncuated with young ministers who first connected through some AoP event: Tyler Tankersley AoP’11 at Ardmore Baptist Chruch in Winston Salem, NC; Lucas Rice AoP’10, at St. Michaels Orthodox Church in Louisville, KY; Thomas Gricoski AoP’10 at St. Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, IN; Winterbourne Harrison Jones AoP’10 at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, IN; Susannah Griffith AoP’11 at Anabaptist Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, IN; Joshua Pennington AoP’10 at Christpont Pentecostal Church in Galena KS; and David Black AoP’14 at First Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

Further west, we find Erica Lea-Simka AoP’15 as pastor at Albuquerque Mennonite Church in NM; Julia McCorvey as grants manager at Children’s Campaign in Colorado; John Jay Alvaro AoP’10 as pastor of First Baptist Church of Pasadena in California; Jenny Elliot AoP’13 as pastor of Friendly Street Church of God in Oregon; and Rachel Langford AoP’12 as pastor of Emmaus Lutheran Church also in Oregon.

There are more than one thousand young ministers serving congregations and organizatinos all across the United States, young people who were identified, inspired, networked, and supported through the activities of the Academy of Preachers.

Ministers like Willie Dwayne Francois III Aop’10, senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville NJ.

He published a book this year, Silencing White Noise. I read it, reviewed it, and interviewed him in The Meetinghouse earlier this year. In that conversation, he talked about his work at Sing Sing Prison in New York. That so fascinated me that he promised to return to The Meetinghouse to talk solely about that. I hope to schedule that soon.

I don’t know if and when the Academy of Preachers might reemerge as a powerful presence among young people seeking discernment and direction. But even if it doesn’t, what it has accomplised in my life and in the lives of hundreds of people is worthy of a mighty “Thank you, Jesus”!


Published On: May 24th, 2023 / Categories: Commentary /

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