‘Ambassador for justice’: An interview with Herron Gaston

Herron Gaston ’14 M.Div., ’15 S.T.M. is the recently promoted Associate Director of Admissions at Yale Divinity School and a key contributor to the School’s success in attracting several of the most diverse classes the Divinity School has ever had. In addition, Gaston is Senior Pastor at Summerfield United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, Conn., where he founded a widely acclaimed youth empowerment program. As if those were not enough, he has recently completed a doctorate at Andover Newton Theological School.

YDS sat down with Gaston to learn more about him and his work.

Where did you grow up and attend college, and how did you find your way to YDS?

I grew up in a small town called Haines City, Florida, which is about 20 miles southwest of Orlando. After high school, I matriculated at Florida A&M University through the Honors Program and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science/prelaw with a concentration in Spanish language—all in two years, making me the youngest political science graduate at just 20 years old. After graduating with my bachelor’s, I continued my studies at Florida A&M and pursued a master’s in public administration and political science  and graduated a year later.

While doing my master’s, I worked in the Florida Capitol for several influential policymakers and legislators as a legislative assistant. I was recruited to work as an assistant for a high-powered lobbyist; I helped champion the cause of education (addressing the school-to-prison pipeline) and criminal justice reform. This led to my working for the Florida Department of Corrections as a legislative analyst focused on ex-prisoners’ reentry into society. Subsequently, in 2008 I worked closely with U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Florida Governor Charlie Crist in supporting legislation that would allow formally incarcerated persons the right to vote. It was during this period that I was recruited to serve as the director of canvassing in Tallahassee for the Obama campaign, helping register record numbers of young voters.

It was this work that led me to discover my calling for prison ministry. For the first time in a long time, I flirted with the idea of pursuing a theological education. I recall one of my clients who had just been released from prison saying to me: “Have you ever thought about being a preacher or a lawyer?” I remember responding facetiously— yes to the latter, but I am not sure about being a preacher. There are already too many preachers in my family. I need to do something that is going to make me some money! But this question continued to consume much of my thinking, which led me to research theological schools that, at the time, seemed outside of the realm of possibility. I wanted to say to God, See, I at least gave you a try. So, I applied to places that I thought that I would not get into. Lo and behold, I got admitted into YDS.

When you’re on the road talking to prospective students, what do you tell them about Yale Divinity School? 

I often describe YDS as a salad bowl. Each student has something unique to contribute. It is a place that does not tell you what to believe. Rather, it provides you with the tools and resources that you need to make responsible, intelligible, and constructive arguments to support whatever sociopolitical or theological position you arrive at.

Not only does YDS offer a rigorous theological education, but this community cares very deeply about one’s personal and professional growth.  I have had the luxury of studying at or being in close proximity to other educational institutions, and I can tell you the student experience at those schools pales to the YDS experience. YDS is literally a home away from home. At YDS, folks have genuine concern for one’s flourishing, whether that is academic, social, or personal. YDS is a tight-knit community and honors and values all as one human family. YDS is a place that strives to be radically inclusive and diverse, and is consistently working to be a place that trains and equips leaders to be interculturally competent. Our faculty are top-rate and our students have some of the brightest minds in theological education.

I tell students that if they are interested in being challenged academically, stretched theologically, opened to new perspectives, ideologies, and worldviews, and deepened in their commitment to service, then YDS is a place that they should definitely consider.

What are the keys to the success you and the School have had in attracting students of color to YDS?

During my time in YDS admissions, we have admitted unprecedented numbers of students from underrepresented groups. In my estimation, several factors have contributed to this success. First, the School has a genuine interest in recruiting and attracting students of color. This is evident in the Dean’s strategic vision and execution around diversifying not only the student body, but also the faculty and staff. Second, under the leadership of Dean Hopie Randall, our Admissions office has been strategic in our ability to locate high-achieving students from hard-to-reach populations, and in cultivating relationships with organizations and institutions that Yale Divinity School historically has not been in contact with. Third, I bring extensive expertise to our office, particularly around minority recruitment. Having graduated from a historically black college and minority-serving institution, I know how to relate to students from this context; I can speak their language and anticipate the questions and, sometimes, trepidation they might have about studying at Yale. I am always sure to be transparent about the challenges, but I also point out the incredible richness and vast diversity of this place.

The youth empowerment program you started at your church has won acclaim from the cities of Bridgeport and New Haven, not to mention the state Assembly and the Connecticut Governor. Tell us about the program and the impact it has on the lives of the youth who participate.

Youth with a Purpose was founded in 2015 by myself and my colleague Rodrick Spence. We wanted to connect with students from hard-to-reach populations and make a real, tangible difference in their lives by helping them prepare for college. Not only does YWAP help to prepare students for college or a vocation, but we also help them secure internships and employment opportunities and build their resumes. We assist them with writing cover letters, teach them culinary skills, expose them to colleges and universities across the country, and provide them with a peer mentor from their local community. Since 2015, we have mentored hundreds of youth in Connecticut and have helped to place more than 100 young people in colleges and universities across the country. We have received national recognition for this program, and I have been invited to speak before Congress on how to use my program as a model for other college-preparation programs.

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Video:  The Youth with a Purpose program at Summerfield United Methodist Church

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Among your many recent accolades, you were recently inducted into the Jonathan Edwards Society of Andover Newton. How did that come about and what does it signify?

The Jonathan Edwards Honors Society is the only honors society at Andover Newton Theological School. Inductees are recommended and voted on by the faculty. Students inducted into this prestigious society must demonstrate exceptional promise for leadership, exemplify high scholastic standards, epitomize and exude high moral character, and show an abiding commitment to serving humanity.

We’ve heard that your friends at Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity used to call you “Governor.” Is this suggestive of certain plans you might have??

When I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha nearly nine years ago, I was given the name “Governor.” This is probably because I was, at the time, a fellow in the Governor’s Office. Since then, folks have continued to insinuate that I may have a future in politics. What are my plans? All I can say is that I love people, I enjoy helping others, I am not shy about standing up for what is right, and I am a tireless ambassador for justice. I continue to believe that public service is the highest calling one can accept–an honor as well as a great responsibility.

I see myself as someone who is called to make trouble–good trouble–and be the kind of person every community needs who stirs the waters. I do not have any immediate and specific plans regarding a political career, but I will leave all possibilities on the table. For now, at least in this season of my career, I remain committed to the work that I have been called to here at Yale and at my church.

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Related story:  Leading in faith - YDS people in church leadership

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May 31, 2018