By Fanta Conde
When I was first told that I would interviewing Associate Chaplain Shaun Whitehead about her journey to St. Lawrence and her faith, I was a little intimidated. I had never interviewed anyone on such an in-depth and personal level. When I sat down with Shaun Whitehead, I wanted our conversation to be as authentic as possible, and it was. We met at 10:30 pm and talked until midnight in Richardson. At first, we giggled and laughed about the weather in Canton and our favorite YouTubers, and then I started with a few introductory questions.
What does it take to be a reverend?
“It depends upon the tradition. I would suggest that one of the first things needed is a ‘yes’ to the journey, saying yes to the touch of God in your life, responding to the tug on your spirit. But like any vocation, a person usually prepares him or herself. Not all, but many ministers or spiritual leaders go to seminary or divinity school for theological and ministerial training.”
Where do you draw your spirituality from and what inspires you?
“We draw our spirituality from many different places: nature, hiking, sports, yoga, meditation, etc. I draw my spirituality from worship, preaching, and believe it or not – owls! My spirituality also comes from the questions that rise up in me. I make room for questions. I also draw inspiration from students who have the courage to face the hard questions in their lives. But without a doubt, music inspires me and deepens my spirituality. I credit my mother and father for my love for music and for my inability to live without it. Growing up in the black Baptist tradition, black sacred music surrounded me. I have a deep love for traditional spirituals, songs in the lined-hymn tradition, songs of the Civil Rights Movement and gospel music. But while I was growing up, at any given time in our house, you could hear Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Peter Frampton, Sam Cooke, Led Zeppelin, the Jackson 5, O’Jays, Chi-Lites, Glady’s Knight and the Pips, James Cleveland, Billie Holiday, Mitch Miller, Earth Wind and Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, Otis Redding, Walter Hawkins, Andrae Crouch and Ella Fitzgerald! Music, especially community singing is a central part of my life and ministry. I believe that music is a gift and a great unifier. Somehow, it naturally gathers people. We can gather around music in ways that we do not gather around other expressions. Amen?”
How did you come to St. Lawrence and what are your primary duties?
Dr. Margaret Kent Bass and Rev. Kathleen Buckley had a vision for a progressive Christian service, now the Gospel Service, on campus. My position as Associate Chaplain grew out of this vision. As a second career person raised on the southside of Chicago, I had just received my Master of Divinity degree in June of 2003. I was discerning next steps when this wonderful opportunity unfolded to be a spiritual leader. I started in September of 2003 and I was given a one-year appointment. And here I am, 12 years later! I am very grateful.
The Rev. Kathleen Buckley is the University Chaplain and she and I both share responsibility for the spiritual care and nurture of the campus community. However, my primary task is pastor/worship leader of the weekly Gospel Service on campus. And I co-direct the Community Gospel Choir. The Gospel Service is an open and affirming Christian community, representing a diversity of cultures, experiences, traditions and belief. Cultural and religious pluralism are concrete realities in our worship community. I focus on the inclusivity of the gospel. Ultimately, I try with all my being to help persons see themselves as true children of God. Music is a key welcoming tool of the Gospel Service. Gospel music anchors our worship service. Obviously, the Gospel Service is not an African American or black church service, however, we use the African American congregational singing model as our primary musical tool. Most of these songs have repetitive structures and simple melodies that allow for unknown songs to be known in seconds and minutes. This singing model is structured for optimal participation.
I did not know that I would be able to share teh gift of gospel music in so many ways here. This is a true blessing in my life.
How do you keep faith during dismal times?
Remembrance helps me keep faith during dismal times. I try to hold on and trust God by remembering that I’ve been here in this deeply painful place before and I survived! Remembering that I made it through tough times before, gives me hope. Another way I keep faith is through community. Sometimes it is hard to stand on your own and you’ve just got to lean on others. And I pray. Sometimes I pray through music. Sometimes I’ll just jot down the lyrics to a hymn or gospel song and tape it on the wall and sing it, hum it and meditate on it.
For example, there’s an old gospel song that simply says…
‘Everything will be alright.
Everything will be alright.
After the storm clouds have passed over.
Everything will be alright.’
Or this one…
‘I don’t feel noways tired.
I’ve come too far from where I started from.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy.
But I don’t believe God brought me this far to leave me.’
Or this one…
Oh Lord, remember me.’
Ok. I’ll stop there”
With these basic questions out of the way, and our comfort level growing with one another, I asked Shaun one question that sparked a long conversation. The question was, “Tell me who Shaun Whitehead is?” This question allowed me into Shaun Whitehead’s world, and left me in awe.
She was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago as an only child, and literally grew up in the church. Church was such a big part of her life, and still is today. The notion of community became a settlement to her. The folks around her in this church setting were inspirational because these people were both educated and non-educated. The people in her church taught her strength, spirituality, and stability. As a HBCU girl, coming from Clark Atlanta University, she earned her degree and pursued a career in radio. She did radio for 14 years and was successful at it, but still felt incomplete.
Something happened at age 30 that determined who Shaun Whitehead would be for the rest of her life. She hit rock bottom. March 1996 was Shaun’s third attempt at suicide in less than a year, and she was hospitalized. After many years of experiencing debilitating “lows” she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Shaun says that this diagnosis saved her life. She had a mental illness. As I looked at this beautiful woman with pecan skin, rosy lips, and an exquisite smile, I still had a hard time believing everything I was hearing. It made me shift in my seat, and hit me like a strong currant. What I was hearing was not unheard of. It was just very seldom to hear this from an established black woman. It was different. She said that this was a problem the church could not help her with because praying could only do so much. During this time in her life, Whitehead lost zeal in many things in her life and even wondered if God had given up on her. One would not expect this from a person who grew up in church, to say that for once let us pray was not the answer; it’s unconventional but true.
Shaun said that when she finally went to get the appropriate help for her condition, her parents did not know exactly what was going on with her, but they were on-board. During this chaotic time in her life, she says that she was a spiritual mute but turmoil and mayhem strengthened her spirituality. After receiving clinical help, she finally responded to the call on her life that she had felt many years before. During this time, she also started giving testimonies in church about her life. She confronted the stigma of mental illness and told her story in full detail to anyone who would listen. She had the power to advise others on their lives, and everything was starting to look clear in her future.
She began her journey by studying theology and she admitted that she had questions and was still unsure about her call, but she did it anyway. She pursued a three-year Master of Divinity (M.Div.) seminary program in 2003. It took her five years to complete the M.Div., because she was still working full-time on her radio career. She completed one year of residency or field education, and just last year, she completed her Doctor of Ministry.
Through my sit-down, I learned so much about my own life that never came up before. Whitehead had me pondering gender, race, age, religion, and which are hard topics to reflect upon. I think that is what makes her an incredible person and Chaplain. She has the ability to mirror goodness and selflessness back to you.
Whether you are religious or nonreligious, we can all take Shaun Whitehead as an example of altruism. No matter your upbringing, when there is trouble in paradise, it should be addressed and put to rest.