Music, movies, laughter: How one minister seeks to make God accessible

Courtesy of the Rev. Nicole Duncan-Smith
The Rev. Nicole Duncan-Smith (left) hugs Ms. Harriet Corprew, a leader in the Peridot collective in the St. Paul Community Baptist Church's Jewel Ministry, after her ordination.

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Ministering to those on the margins of the church – or society – is not as complicated as we sometimes make it seem. While statistics rage, proclaiming that youth and people of color are making a mass exodus from the church, I believe Americans are engaging God in beautiful and radical ways.

I see evidence of that faith in the acceptance of music with religious themes on secular radio. I hear it in the prayers before street ballgames and the deep theological conversations in barbershops.

Why We Wrote This

Statistics show a decline in church membership in the Black community. But this minister sees plenty of faith – if you know how to recognize it.

Who can really relate to a Creator who lives in the distant sky? 

Instead, I look to culture for a sort of love language for communicating about God that doesn’t hover over people but exists inside them. Be it sports, music, movies, comic books, or just the ministry of laughter, I seek to make God accessible, like a friend.

Those same touch points were important to Jesus. 

A homeless, brown, Palestinian Jew, who occasionally drank with people he should not even have sat with, according to the religious mores of the day, Jesus believed in loving God and following the golden rule – not judging folks.

People – young people, especially – know us by our love.

The young woman walked into the church and stood in the vestibule outside the sanctuary. She looked nervous and out of place. One of the ushers came up to me and tapped me, saying, “Minister Nicole, can you talk to this young lady?” She, all of 21 or 22, was shaking and could not look me in the eye. She was scared, and though she didn’t say it immediately, she thought she didn’t belong.

We sat together and began to talk. I took her hand, smiled, and brushed her bangs back. We prayed, and then she said it: “I have a pimp and he is looking for me.”

My chest caved in, but not because she was a sex worker. I was struck because she could have been my child. Within the hour, we were able to feed her, connect her with a counselor, and offer her a place to spend the night. I asked her to sit right there while I arranged a ride for her.

Why We Wrote This

Statistics show a decline in church membership in the Black community. But this minister sees plenty of faith – if you know how to recognize it.

But when I came back, she was gone.  

As a new member of the ministerial staff, I thought I had failed – that she didn’t trust me or I’d missed something. Then the same usher who’d tapped me earlier came up to me. “She told me to tell you ‘thank you,’ but her ‘daddy’ was waiting for her,” the usher said.

“Daddy” is the street term for a pimp. Somehow, he had found her and come for her.

I never saw her again, but I was glad I’d at least gotten to share with her that Jesus sees and loves her, and that there is nothing she has ever done that is too low down for God to lift her up.

Ministering to those on the margins of the church – or society – is not as complicated as we sometimes make it seem. While statistics rage, proclaiming that youth and people of color are making a mass exodus from the church, I believe Americans are engaging God in beautiful and radical ways.

Seeing faith all around us

According to the Pew Research Center, the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated – atheists, agnostics, and those describing their religion as “nothing in particular” – have increased from 17% to 26% of adults in the United States since 2009. There’s a similar trend among Black Americans, 21% of whom are religiously unaffiliated. Of those, the majority are younger: Twenty-eight percent are Gen Zers, and 33% are millennials. Only 11% are boomers.

But identifying with a religion is different from having faith. Pew found that among religiously unaffiliated Black Americans, 9 out of 10 believe in God or a higher power.

Courtesy of the Rev. Nicole Duncan-Smith
The Rev. Nicole Duncan-Smith spends time with the children of St. Paul Community Baptist Church at the church's family day in the park.

I see evidence of that faith in the acceptance of music with religious themes on secular radio. I find it hearing kids on the street rap lyrics by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper that lift up the Lord. I spot it in the iced-out Jesus jewelry that looks gaudy to some, but those wearing it believe the image of Christ on their chest protects them. I hear it in the prayers before street ballgames and the deep theological conversations in barbershops.

Many people want to walk in conversation intellectually, creatively, and culturally with the Judeo-Christian idea of God, but are their novel approaches appreciated by the church?

Unfortunately not. For far too many clergy and congregations, theology is (a) rooted in hierarchy, (b) constructed on silos of shame, and (c) more invested in the institutions of church than in the liberating principles of “the Way.”

Being connected to an organized assembly of believers has glorious benefits. But those three theological threads are often so woven into the fabric of a congregation that people have no idea those dynamics are at play – or that they’re unattractive to those outside the church and may even be pushing them toward a life of sin.

An Afri-centric ministry

Before the isolation of the pandemic, I served in person at St. Paul Community Baptist Church (SPCBC), a thriving, multigenerational, African American congregation in the New York borough of Brooklyn. (Just last month, we finally began worshipping in person again.) Our members range from full-time workers to those habitually unemployed. We have Ph.D.s, MBAs, and people once known by a prison ID number. We have feisty seniors and a thriving youth culture.

Over the past 10 years, four of our church’s young adults have appeared (separately) on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, our all-Black boys’ Rites of Passage program has had a 100% high-school-graduation and college-admissions rate, and we are always looking for new ways to make meaningful connections with our millennial and Gen Z populations.

One way we’ve done this for nearly 30 years is by sharing God’s presence and Jesus’ redeeming touch through the Afri-centric lens of our MAAFA ministry. Maafa, a Swahili word, means great devastation, disaster, or tragedy. Popularized by Marimba Ani in her book “Let the Circle Be Unbroken,” maafa is used to describe Africans’ enslavement and the middle passage journey that transported them to the Americas for the sole purpose of exploiting them.

Each September, we pause for a week to recognize our ancestors who sacrificed their lives in one of humanity’s most inhumane acts. We also marvel at how God has sustained us through many generations since then.  

Making church “beautiful”

Sharing about Jesus shouldn’t be boring – especially if you are presenting the Most High as indwelling, like the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. Who can really relate to a Creator who lives in the distant sky? 

Instead, I look to culture for a sort of love language for communicating about God that doesn’t hover over people but exists inside them. Be it sports, music, movies, comic books, or just the ministry of laughter, I seek to make God accessible, like a friend. 

Those same touch points were important to Jesus. 

homeless, brown, Palestinian Jew, who occasionally ate and drank with people he should not even have sat with, according to the religious mores of the day, Jesus believed in loving God and following the golden rule – not judging folks and manipulating them into spiritual submission with fire-and-brimstone promises of hell.

That is not to say that the condemnation of sin and its consequences should not be a part of the ministerial conversation. 

But people – young people, especially – know us by our love. At SPCBC, we try simply to love them. We welcome them and are willing to plant the seed with love.

After that young woman left with her “daddy” years ago, the usher reassured me, “Young preacher, you saved her life by sharing your Christ with her. Even if you couldn’t save her today, she knows she can come back. You made church beautiful.” 

I hope I planted a seed with love.

The Rev. Nicole Duncan-Smith is a journalist, hip-hop enthusiast, wife, mom, preacher, and all-around cool kid.

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“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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