Courtesy of the Yale Divinity School
Rev. Frederick J. Streets DIV ’75 has taken on numerous roles over the course of his career, from serving as the first Black, Baptist chaplain of the University, to being a Fulbright scholar, to now leading the oldest formally recognized African American Congregational Church in the world.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Streets became interested in ministry during his early teenage years. He attended college at the small American Baptist-affiliated Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas before receiving a masters in divinity from the Yale Divinity School. He supplemented his Yale degree with a masters and a doctorate from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York.
“I’ve always had both feet, one foot planted in the academy, the other in the community through the work of the parish minister,” Streets said. “Part of my research and writing and publications have been around the relationship between religion and social welfare.”
According to Streets, there are three areas in which ministry and social work collide: assisting families, couples and individuals; looking at larger social issues and their connection to welfare; and education about self-awareness and self-care.
During his educational career at Yale, Streets interned with the Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ, the oldest formally recognized African American Congregational Church in the world, under civil rights activist Rev. Edwin R. Edmonds.
“Dr. Emmons was a wonderful supervisor and exemplar,” Streets said. “He was extremely committed to social change. His preaching was prophetic in nature, challenging systems and institutions. So I was nurtured under that kind of spirit that he had. And so I’m honored to be able to carry it on in the ways in which it is a part of my own personality.”
During his time as an intern, Streets was encouraged by Edmonds and John C. Daniels, New Haven’s first Black Mayor, to become politically involved. He ran for and subsequently served on the Board of Alders for what was previously Ward 14, which consisted of the Divinity School down to Dixwell Avenue and Prospect Street.
Streets would later return to the University to become its first Black Chaplain from 1992 to 2007. As chaplain, he worked towards promoting a “multifaith understanding,” helping to recognize the diversity of religions at the University.
“It just happened to happen this way, but we’d identified and created a prayer space for the Muslim community at the time,” Streets said. “One week later is when 9/11 happened. So the fact that we acknowledged and tried to support the student community as well as faculty and staff who were Muslims, dedicating this special space, it became a place where members of that community gathered during a very difficult time in world history, and particularly, American history.”
Streets left the position after 15 years at the request of the University’s president but said he loved his work and was sad to leave. He enjoyed his role and connected the wider New Haven community to Yale in his time there.
After his chaplaincy, Streets became a Fulbright scholar, working at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. While there, he taught in both the social work and divinity departments. His research focused on the pastoral ways of responding to and helping HIV and AIDS afflicted people. He also spent time at the University of Freestate in Bloemfontein, South Africa, advising the institution on its transition to a multi-ethnic university after the end of apartheid.
While in South Africa, he had the opportunity to work with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was known for his anti-apartheid and human rights activism.
“The way in which [Tutu] embodied the notion of forgiveness and forgiving as a process will be one of his enduring legacies, and I saw that in the flesh, in his actions, in the way he engage people, when I was able to be with him in South Africa,” Streets said.
After his Fulbright scholarship, Streets began teaching full-time as the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor in Pastoral Counseling at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. Then, he returned to New Haven and Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ as senior pastor and took up the position of an associate adjunct professor of pastoral theology at Yale.
Dixwell Church, where he currently works, was established in 1820. Streets noted that its first pastor was Simeon Joslin, who was white and played a major role in freeing the Amistad captives, who were the subject of the 1997 film “Amistad.” He also emphasized the church’s role in community action, saying that the parish helped build affordable housing and develop urban areas. Streets hopes to continue that legacy as senior pastor.
“I see myself involved in the ministry to all people, and my context is at Dixwell Church because of the imbalanced ways by which people of color have been oppressed,” Streets said. “But the systems that oppress people of color oppress all people.”
Currently the church is involved in providing aid via food, clothes, COVID-19 testing kits and vaccination to its members.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for Streets and his congregation. They have adjusted to virtual service but have seen illness and death. Yet throughout the pandemic, Streets and the church still persevered in their community roles.
“We send out information to people,” Streets said. “What’s going, on what’s happening, and encourage them to attend a Board of Education meeting, City Council meeting, that kind of thing. And when we’re able to be physically in the church, we would host activities, again, with social distancing protocols in place for people to come into, to hear the presentation and have Q&A. So we’re still doing that, within the limitations that we have.”
Streets finds the physical space of the church as “spiritual,” but notes that the church has never been about the building but instead about the people.
The current Dixwell Church building is the third building of the congregation since its founding.