In January 2012, I stepped off the plane, walked through the terminal, out to the curbside waiting area for the hotel shuttle. Kentucky’s winter wind blew harder than I had ever experienced at the time. I can still remember how the snowflakes fell like soft petals of a flower in the pouring rain. Layers upon layers of clothing kept my skin warm while I stood there pondering over what would happen to me when I reached my destination.
The skin I hid underneath cloth layers soaked up every bit of warmth it could, but somehow the chill of my heart kept me cold. I was headed to the National Festival of Young Preachers as a twenty-eight-year-old ordained Black American progressive Pentecostal woman and preacher of the darkest hue. I was headed to the National Festival of Young Preachers as a first-year MDiv student of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. I was headed to the National Festival of Young Preachers as the eighth child of a well-respected spirit-filled African American progressive Pentecostal woman and preacher. Layers upon layers of a weighted legacy spent my mind in circles. My spirit just wanted me to be me.
The shuttle finally came, and I don’t even remember sitting down. I was all in my head, trying to figure out if I could withstand the weight of my layers and still preach the gospel. No one on the shuttle, no one at the hotel, no preacher at the festival could know that there were more layers to me. Deep dark layers that made me wrestle with the notion of the perpetuation of rape culture in the church. Deep dark layers that made it easy for me to refuse to enter an edifice for seven years to the date of the shuttle ride. Deep dark layers that stretched my mind, broke my spirit, and changed the pace of my spiritual heart.
When I stepped off the shuttle, I walked into the festival as a talented preacher with wounds. Could anybody help me? Could anybody see me? Would anybody care? Would they be like I knew most people to be in my life at that time; weighters with no regard of how much more I could bear.?
I picked up my packet at the registration table. Thumbing through the itinerary for the week, my eyes focused in on the words preaching circle. There was one scheduled for every night. What was a preaching circle? The introverted me wanted to know why it was scheduled. Would I have to attend? How long would it be? What would the circle require of me? How could I attend a preaching circle every night when I wasn’t even sure if I still wanted to be a preacher.
In spite of my questions, in spite of my reservations, I went . . . and I realized that I was one point of many points bound together by the shared experiences of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Each person in my preaching circle was essential to the formation of sacred space. Each person was seen. Each person was heard. Each person was given the opportunity to care for and be cared for as they prepped to deliver a sermon to other preachers and to the world. In that circle, I lightened my load. In that circle, I let go of many weights. In that circle, I began to hope, and I made the decision to recommit to my call to preach the Gospel.
With that said, Young Preachers of the world, I charge you to create space in your schedule to register and come to the 2018 National Festival of Young Preachers. It’s a space created for you. The sessions, the circles, the classes were created to cater to you and help you continue to commit to your call. I hope to greet you there.
The Rev. Jessica James Alston, MDiv. Is an ordained clergy-member of the Pentecostal tradition. Jessica has been involved in the National Festival of Young Preachers since her induction into the Academy of Preachers in 2012. She has served as a preaching circle facilitator for multiple years. She currently serves as a Gospel Catalyst.