About 20 alumni and undergraduate members of the Black Church at Yale arrived at the Afro-American Cultural Center Saturday morning to kick off a two-day celebration of their church’s 40th anniversary. Current members sported T-shirts that read “Love God, Love People, and Serve the Nations,” the BCAY motto, which encapsulates the church’s dedication to fostering both faith and a far-reaching community.
“For the past 40 years, BCAY has been helping generations of Yalies to leave this institution with a firm understanding of what God is,” Funmi Showole Amubieya ’08 said during the opening panel on faith and careers held Saturday.
At the event, Showole sat alongside her husband Olawale Amubieya ’08, whom she met at BCAY as an undergraduate, and both discussed how BCAY taught them to preserve their faith as they prepared for careers in law and medicine. While the weekend’s events ranged from a video presentation explaining the growth of BCAY over the past four decades to a “praise night” at which alumni and students gathered in worship, those in attendance discussed how to integrate faith into their daily — and often secular — lives.
The church’s student board and pastor planned the anniversary celebration as a bridge between BCAY’s history and future, hoping to recognize both the changes and continuities of the organization’s influence. Current head pastor Dexter Upshaw ’06 said BCAY has long helped its members to be in constant dialogue with God and provided a forum for discussion with one another. That goal remains central to the church’s activities today, he said, even as the organization both grows more diverse and expands the role it plays in its members’ lives.
At the weekend’s concluding service on Sunday morning, BCAY founder Reverend Samuel Slie noted a change in the church over the past 40 years: While it has always had an element of diversity, BCAY now is more diverse than it ever was.
The Black Church at Yale held its first service on Feb. 4, 1973, after Slie and Allen Smith DRA ’73 recognized Yale’s need for an interdenominational church where people of all races and ethnicities could have the chance to develop their individual relationship with God within a larger community.
Today, BCAY minister Leon Powell ’08 said that the church is far from an exclusively black group, and current members include African-Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics, as well as Christians of all denominations. On Sunday, around 100 were in attendance — a group representing the growing ethnic and racial diversity within BCAY.
“One of the most notable changes in BCAY over the years is the continual increase in membership diversity,” Powell said.
Carmen Thunem ’13, who identifies as Canadian in nationality and Taiwanese, Norwegian and French Canadian in ethnicity, said this growth in diversity has occurred alongside an increase in membership over the past couple of years. While more than 40 people now attend regular weekly services, only four students and three organizers attended BCAY’s first service in 1973.
Akwei Maclean ’15, an international student from Ghana and BCAY member, said that sustaining diversity within BCAY is “crucial” to the church’s religion.
“Christianity is all about unity, a sentiment which BCAY reflects perfectly,” Maclean said. “Our religion teaches us that everybody should be able to worship; that no believer should be isolated based on race, ethnicity, origin or gender.”
Thunem, who leads BCAY’s student board, added that BCAY’s emphasis on transcending differences in order to foster togetherness in worship has helped BCAY form a unique niche in Yale’s campus culture — one that extends beyond issues of race and religion.
BCAY member Madeleine Witt ’15, who said she is Caucasian, added that the fact that BCAY is a black church did not influence her decision to join.
“Ethnicity is really not a factor, beyond the ‘B’ in BCAY,” Witt, a staff illustrator for the News, said. “I mean, it is rooted in a black tradition — which is obviously a racial thing — but BCAY is not at all about race anymore.”
BCAY Pastor Upshaw’s leadership as a crucial component of the church’s continued growth.
Upshaw, who began as BCAY’s head pastor in the fall of 2010, said that the current team of BCAY leaders is not only trying to think of the organization’s immediate needs, but also conceive a vision of how it wants BCAY to function five or 10 years from now.
“Each BCAY pastor tends to leave his own mark on this organization, and I am trying to do the same,” Upshaw said.
In his term so far, Upshaw said he has tried to pioneer new traditions such as leadership trainings and increased church visibility, as well as to preserve old ones such providing a place for religious dialogue.
Thunem said Upshaw is the first pastor to actively provide BCAY members with informal leadership experience through conferences, seminars and training sessions. She added that those experiences may help explain why more aspiring student leaders are drawn to the organization.
Along with his role as a pastor of BCAY, Upshaw works also as an entrepreneur and motivational speaker. BCAY minister Powell said that Upshaw’s experience in these roles has helped him to turn BCAY into a “brand” recognized both on and off campus, which has helped foster a stronger sense of community within the church.
“Upshaw is using his experience in marketing and communications to spread the word about BCAY in a very systematic and modern way,” Powell said, adding that manufacturing BCAY shirts and providing the alumni with BCAY gift bags were both Upshaw’s ideas.
Metty Markwei ’15 said she appreciates the pastor’s emphasis on outreach with modern networking techniques such as broadcasting weekly services and providing online forums for discussion.
But the church has not realized all of its ideas for development. David Carty ’14, one of the church’s financial coordinators, said BCAY — which is financially independent from Yale — still lacks the funds to realize all of the plans generated among its community, such as rewarding student staff with education stipends.
At Saturday morning’s panel, Tiffany Stewart DRA ’07 and Christopher Williams ’08, a couple that also met at BCAY, both emphasized the importance of continuing the open discussion of religion at Yale.
“As an actress and dancer, my relationship with God hasn’t always been smooth,” Stewart said, adding that having a diverse church group and devoted pastor with whom to share her stories helped her maintain her faith as a student. “There are so many stories people feel the need to tell. BCAY allows Yalies to have these stories heard by a diverse body of listeners.”
The two-day event ended with a celebratory brunch for students and alumni on Sunday afternoon.