Rev Ronald A Nathan – writer, pastor, public theologian, international conference speaker and former Director of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA) – has recently returned to the United Kingdom after living abroad for 13 years. Keep The Faith caught up with him recently.
Keep The Faith (KTF): Rev Nathan, you migrated to the Caribbean over a decade ago, what were you doing there?
Rev Nathan (RN): First, let me say that I am eternally grateful to God for allowing me to serve in the Christian ministry for 39 years. The last ten years helped me to focus my attention on the youths of the Caribbean. In 2003, I took up the responsibility as the guidance counsellor for a boys’ college. There I was able to begin to grapple with many of the challenges faced by Black youths in the Caribbean.
About five years later, I expanded that ministry into working with young people across the country, who had fallen through the social net and needed a second chance. At the same time, I held an administrative post with my church, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, as a Presiding Elder in the nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Further to that, I involved myself in the work of the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean.
KTF: Why have you decided to return to the UK?
RN: When one is called to Christian ministry, there has to be a readiness to serve God anywhere. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has a connectional structure, which allows for the transfer of ministers from one jurisdiction to another. On 25th September 2016, I was installed as the fifth minister of this, the mother church, of our denomination in the United Kingdom. It is my sincere belief that God has called me to this position in my church for such a time as this.
KTF: You were known as a leading voice calling for change in the Black Church between the 1980s and 2000s. What is your current assessment of the Black Church in the UK?
RN: That question requires much more consideration and time, but let me share three observations I have made. First, there is a greater spread of Black Christians across the Christian denominations. I recently came across a statistic that says 25% of all Christians in the United Kingdom are from the Black and Minority Ethnic communities.
Second, there has been a significant Africanisation of the Black community in the United Kingdom. In other words, the percentage of persons from the African continent or their descendants has increased, while there has been a significant decline in the percentage of people from the Caribbean or their descendants. Third, there is significant growth in persons of dual parentage in the Black community. All three of these would therefore impact on how the Black Church sees itself, and how they engage in being ‘salt’ and ‘light’ to the Black community and to the wider British community.
KTF: If I can push you a little further, how would you as a pastor relate to these changes?
RN: I have found the Old Testament record of the children of Issachar helpful as a model for societal engagement. There is a need to understand what is happening in society, and to have a clear strategy, as recorded about the children of Issachar. They understood the times and knew what Israel should do, and they had unity among themselves. Whatever the demographic changes, it behoves the Church to understand that.
KTF: The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is not well known in the United Kingdom. Can you share briefly about its beginnings?
RN: Enslaved Africans and free Blacks, who were members of the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church, New York, faced with discrimination and racism, started the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1796. Their association with the Underground Railroad got them the nickname ‘the Freedom Church’. In 1970, under the leadership of Rev Vincent Fagan and Rev Horace Gordon, the Ransom Pentecostal Church of God joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. We presently have nine congregations in the London Midlands conference.
KTF: What are your priorities now that you have returned in the UK?
RN: I have three ministry priority areas: first, to give prophetic leadership to the congregation I pastor. The AME Zion Church was the church of Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, John Coltrane, Coretta Scott King, Roberta Flack, and many others who have established a legacy of Christian activism, such as fighting for civil rights, gender rights, human rights and peace. I am therefore committed to serving God and sustaining that legacy. I am called to preach the whole counsel of God, which has spiritual, social, economic, psychological and political factors.
Second, working in collaboration with other churches to develop ecumenical links, and to make practical, social interventions in the Greater London area. An example of this is my active participation on the board of the Synergy Partnership (an ecumenical forum against gun and knife crime in London).
Third, building Pan-African institutions that increase the capacity of Africa and the African Diaspora. I have spent a large portion of my life on the African continent, and have been involved in boosting its resources and defences to all types and forms of institutional sin. An example of this is my work as one of the coordinators for the Trans-Atlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race.
KTF: You have indicated that there are political factors within your ministry priorities. What advice or direction are you giving to the
AME Zion Church in respect of the Brexit deliberations?
RN: All indications are that, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, people at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder will find themselves more at risk. The constituency that our church membership is drawn from are heavily represented in that group.
There are five areas we need to concentrate on:
1. Give greater emphasis to the education of our youth
2. Create institutions of social and economic uplift
3. Support civil rights and empowerment programmes for persons at risk
4. Engage in a proactive programme of outreach
5. Work collaboratively with other churches at all levels