In mid-June, the Youngstown church where Tejai Beulah grew up invited her to speak from the pulpit at a special online service honoring graduates. As she prepared for the service, it struck her that her 18-year-old self might be surprised to take the moment in.
“I left there 19 years ago, and I wanted to be a lawyer,” Beulah said. “I’ve always felt a sense of call to ministry, but I never necessarily wanted to be a pastor, or even a preacher.” Over the intervening years – including her time at MTSO as a student, staff member and instructor – she has built a ministry on the foundation of her passion for history. What’s more, she has discovered in recent years that she enjoys preaching after all.
In December 2019, MTSO President Jay Rundell announced Beulah’s appointment as assistant professor of history, ethics, and Black church and African diaspora studies, effective July 1 of this year. She has served as MTSO’s coordinator of partnerships and the Black Church and African Diaspora Specialization since 2017 and has taught as an adjunct professor since 2015.
“Tejai has been part of this community through varied roles, from student to staff member to elected faculty member,” said MTSO President Jay Rundell. “Her character and intellectual curiosity have been consistent throughout.”
Beulah studied English, history, and gender and diversity studies at Xavier University before earning a master’s degree in African and African American studies from Ohio State University. Shortly after finishing her Ohio State degree, she lost her grandmother, Ellen Young, a largely self-taught Baptist preacher. Going through the papers her grandmother left behind, Beulah said, “We learned that Grandma was very smart. She always talked about not doing very well in high school, but I mean, sis could exegete a scripture passage.”
“At the time, I was working at a debt-collection agency, and it was horrible. And I just decided, ‘You know what? My grandmother never had the opportunity to go to seminary. And so I’m going to go to seminary just to see what happens.’ And what happened was that I rediscovered my profound love for history.”
Classes taught by MTSO Professor of Church History Diane Lobody and former instructor Patrick Clayborn energized Beulah and helped her envision a vocational path forward: “Diane Lobody was very helpful at tapping into a hidden dream of mine to do the work of a historian but also figure out how to do it in a way that allowed me to not only teach but to be, for lack of a better word, pastoral. I knew after she and I had done some work together that I want to go on to do the Ph.D. in American religious history.”
Beulah earned her doctoral degree with distinction from Drew Theological School in 2018. Her dissertation was “Soul Salvation, Social Liberation: Race and Evangelical Christianity in the Black Power Era, 1968-1979.” Several years ago, while completing her comprehensive exams, Beulah approached MTSO and offered to teach classes within the Black Church and African Diaspora Studies specialization of the M.Div. degree program. Her adjunct work evolved into a staff position coordinating that specialization and the school’s institutional partnerships. Through one of those partnerships, she taught a well-received course, “Race, Religion and Nation: From Black Power to Black Lives Matter,” at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Over the spring and summer of this year, as deaths of AfricanAmericans at the hands of police led to fresh demands for an end to systemic racism, Beulah observed some responses with a certain bemusement. “I’m chuckling right now,” she said. “I mean, keep Aunt Jemima on the syrup. That’s not going to change policy. That’s not going to change laws. It’s not going to change hearts and minds about race.”
“We need to be able to expand learning experiences around social movements so that we can better equip people with information that will help them to see what worked, what didn’t work and how we pull that work into what we’re doing now,” she said. Toward that end, she invited MTSO students and others to join her in a “Radical Readers” virtual book club. One recent selection was Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans by Harriet Washington, which Beulah chose to “help readers think about our obligations to the poor, children, prisoners and other vulnerable communities as conversations around COVID-19 and vaccinations begin to happen.”
In addition to her work at MTSO, Beulah was invited to join others in founding the Freedom Church of the Poor, a new initiative of Union Theological Seminary’s Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. She said the group’s original plan was to read the Bible in person with individuals in poor communities and talk with them about interpreting scripture “in light of what’s happening in their lives.” When that ran headlong into the coronavirus pandemic, the project moved to weekly Facebook videos, with services beginning in April.
On the fourth Sunday of each month, Beulah has been preaching at the virtual gathering, sharing space with leaders such as Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “It is really interesting to be preaching regularly, which is not something that I anticipated for myself,” she said. “I find that I appreciate this work more than I thought that I would.”
COVID-19 has forced Beulah to adapt within her day job, too, of course. Like all of MTSO’s faculty and students, she saw her work shift online abruptly in mid-March.
“I think the most important thing about what has happened with the pandemic is that it has forced me to be OK with overpreparation, because you miss the organic stuff that happens in class,” she said. “Trying the keep that community atmosphere is the most challenging part.”
Beulah wants to be sure, whether in person or online, that she continues to both teach students and help them, as she was helped, to discern a sense of vocational direction.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, I need you to center down and really think about why you are here. Are you in the ministry that you really want to be in? Are you doing the work that you really want to do?’ So it gives me an opportunity to not only just do the work of a historian or do the work of a scholar, but it’s also an extension of ministry, I think.”