The Soul Story of The Reverend, Dr. Andrew Anyabwile Stephens
by Tasneem Tewagbola
To some he is his mother’s child.
Notice how he touches his top lip with his forefingers when he gets deep.
Deep in writing. Deep in analysis. Deep in thought.
Raised on sonnets and Shakespeare, he is a scholar’s son.
Just as quick in the classroom as he is on his feet, he is the first-born of Ethel Ree Morgan Stephens, for sure.
Others watch his spine-straight, high-shoulder gait and see Andrew Sr., his father.
He is “Drew,” the son of a second-generation brick mason and baseball player for the Negro Leagues.
He carries the agility of an athlete and the ambition of men who use their bodies, and brains, for speed and sustenance.
Oh yes, he is his father’s child, for sure.
And, yet, he is more; dimensions drape him like Jacob’s colorful coat.
He is minister and musician.
Father and brother.
Artist and organizer.
Servant and son.
No matter what he is – scholar or athlete, band man or bricklayer – he is meant to shine.
Some folks are raised to toe lines; he is raised to erase them.
He is from Short Six, a section of Columbus, Ga., where six, white one-level wood frame homes sit in a row. Each has a front room, kitchen, back room and outhouse.
His parents, three cousins, two aunts and uncles turn those three rooms into a home large enough for 10.
Even as a youngster, he is the one who swerves when others stride straight.
Fiercely self-directed he believes in the weight, and wisdom, of his own ideas.
Ideas like playing the saxophone – just like Coltrane – because it is more complicated than the piano, has more keys than a trumpet and because, it’s, well, cool.
Or ideas like running cross country – just like Kip Keino – even as racists pelt him with oranges and insults.
And ideas like leading a demonstration at his high school to protest the absence of black cheerleaders
And leading a lay-in during college to protest the silence surrounding the rape of young black women in the Atlanta University Center.
No matter what he is – a boy with the height and facial hair of a man – he is meant to shine.
Some folks are raised to walk lines; he is raised to rebuild them.
So he pushes buttons and envelopes.
He believes in social responsibility and social justice.
He admires Dr. King and big-time dreams
He earns a reputation and a college degree.
And, soon after, he hits the road with a fresh identity
He is horn player, music man, song-maker
He reaches L.A. and New York
He plays with Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Donald Byrd
He imagines hitting it big with his band but Life alters the route
and changes his tune
And he flows with it, stores his horn, heads back South,
Success and comfort lead him to the corporate zone.
While working for Delta Airlines, and living comfortably as a “social” Christian, – the good Lord begins the conversation that still hums in his ears and tingles his fingertips.
One day, he asks God to guide him to a church of trust and truth.
First, he is led to The Book.
He flips it open and finds direction.
“You will know them,” he reads, “from the fruit that they bear.”
Within weeks, he finds ripe fruit.
He has a place to worship, New Life Presbyterian Church; a leader to follow, Pastor Lonnie J. Oliver and truth to behold: Christianity is an African religion.
He tackles a task that makes his book-loving mama proud: He reads, and studies, the entire Bible in less than a year. For the man who never liked to read, this is a miracle.
He reads at dawn and dusk, at home and work, in his car, in the bathroom and the laundry room. He finds himself transformed, inspired, lifted.
A vision comes: He stands in a yard of writhing snakes. He tries to shoot them but they don’t die. He tosses a hot, burning log on them and they scatter.
He calls Miss Ethel Ree, his mama, for counsel.
Snakes, she tells him, represent sin. You can’t shoot sin. You can’t kill it and be done with it. The Word of God is the hot, burning log. You’ve got to keep that log hot, she explains. It’s powerful enough to scatter sin.
“So long as you keep it hot,” she tells him, “sin can’t get in.”
For the son, enraptured by the ways of the Divine, this, too, is a miracle.
While still working full time at Delta Airlines, he accepts a scholarship to Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. And he remembers his mother’s dream for him – to be a great thinker.
He excels, imagines himself writing theological books and teaching – but not preaching.
He prays to be lead to a place to serve, to be a leader and a blessing.
I’ll go anywhere, he says, as long as it’s not Nashville.
The Presbytery calls. He is needed in Tennessee.
A low-served, high-poverty community needs spiritual leadership.
He prays, heeds The Rule and leaves Atlanta for the Music City.
The Village is born.
In a gymnasium. In a community of single parents and drug pushers and drug users and children – so many children – seeking salvation from something and someone.
And here comes Rev., in a gym-turned-chapel, teaching poor folks of the richness of Christ.
Jesus, he says, is black, just like you.
He is The One bringing gifts of peace and love and safety no matter the zip code.
Jesus ain’t scared. And neither is Rev.
He brings drums to praise God. He speaks of Africa and ancestry and liberation and libation
He talks of Harriet and Haiti, of Obama and Otis Redding
Greatness, he tells the Village, lurks in your cells.
And many believe him. They sidestep the street pharmacies and sweet wine.
They lay their weapons down and sit up in The Village before a leader who is a man of God but still a man, someone who is brother, confidante, father, uncle, hero, friend.
He earns a Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary.
He is a theologian, imagines becoming a professor – but he has the heart of a preacher.
God soothes his discomfort with The Five-Word Rule: Do. What. I. Say. Do.
First, he prays.
God guides him to The Word; sermons emerge.
Shyness is cast aside.
He continues as a teacher-preacher, a meditating-mobilizer, a shepherd-sojourner.
Spirit speaks; the good Reverend Dr. follows.
With a glossy bald head and silver cross, he is audaciously himself.
He is Andrew Jr. & Anyabwile, his ancestral name meaning “God has freed me from my chains.”
He calls his inner compass, his “GodSelf.”
He makes his home on the margins, beside old-school and new
He speaks of hip-hop and soul, of Kanye and Christ
He can make souls shout and the Scripture sing.
“What are you waiting for?,” he asks The Village. “What would your life be like if you really, really believed…in the Messiah? In Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice? In this church?
In your own gifts and talents?”
Sunday-sharp in African robes or clerical collars or European suits, he jumps into the audience and asks for honesty.
“Who would you be?,” he says, “if you really, really had faith that God is in control?”
Truth talk trails his walk from pew to pew: A miracle, he says, brought me to the ministry.
He shares the five-word Rule: Do. What. God. Says. Do.
Even when its uncomfortable.
Even when its terrifying.
Even when it hurts.
Even when God drops a bomb and tells you it is, again, time to change.
Time to change your address, your zip code, your congregation and your church.
He does what he sees many people do: He questions.
Leave The Village? After 15 years? Leave Tennessee? Go where? Why? How?
Divine direction speaks strong. Still. God shall not be moved.
“It is time to come home.”
Home to the elders. Home to a place where you will engage the young and honor the old.
Home to the city of your past and your future.
Home to raise the flag of social justice, community-building and Afrikan unity.
Home to a fresh purpose steading by a seasoned spirit.
Come, says The Lord.
Come to Radcliffe Presbyterian
and stay awhile.
And so, he does what he teaches others to do: He leans into faith and leaps
He lands with tear-streaked cheeks and a two-way gaze – the sorrow of leaving in one glance and the thrill of possibilities in another.
Joy and peace find him in his new home, back in the red clay of Georgia
He shifts his focus forward and invests hope in the unseen—called now to lead an intergenerational congregation to transform a city.
Amazing, isn’t it? he ponders. The rule never fails.
Miracles emerge when you really, really believe, he says – with his arms spread wide like wings – that God can do anything.