Justice and Renewal: An Interview with Jermaine Pearson
By Kathy Luo '19
Born and raised in Chicago, Jermaine Pearson graduated from Columbia College Chicago in 2010 as a Public Relations major originally intending to enter the entertainment industry. However, after working with incarcerated youth through a non-profit organization, as well as working as a guidance counselor, Jermaine realized he was called to ministry as a campus pastor. Jermaine graduated from seminary at Emory University in 2016, started working as the campus pastor at Loyola University that December, and began his position at Brown as the Associate University Chaplain for the Protestant community in September of 2017.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
For starters, did you always feel like your faith would be a big part of your job?
No. Faith has always been a part of who I am, but if you’re talking about faith being integrated into my job, I didn’t think about that probably until I moved to LA, ten years ago. Oftentimes we look at spirituality as separate from other areas of life—it’s rare to see ourselves actually working and exercising in the area where faith and spirituality is tethered to your profession and career. I didn't start seeing that until after I had the year of service at the non-profit, where I knew I couldn’t go back to just doing anything.
Working with students now, do you see similarities between struggles students have now and your experiences? Especially with Christian students, it seems like a lot of us are still struggling to understand how to integrate purpose and faith into our careers and the school sphere.
I do. A lot of the things I do are career planning and soul-searching, especially with juniors and seniors. You all come here, very smart, and could major in anything that you want. But maybe on the path you chose, something just doesn’t feel right—and it doesn’t feel right because God is not equipping you to do that, or God is developing other gifts inside that would lead to a more fulfilling life.
There are three types of careers, the three Ps: [the first is] careers that are practical, stuff you do because you gotta make money. There are careers of passion: what would you do if money wasn’t a factor? But there are also careers of purpose: what is it that God is calling you to do? I think many of us only operate out of one, maybe two of those angles. But if you get a chance to have a job that is practical, that you’re passionate about, and that is purposeful, then you really got it. And it doesn't always happen in your first 5 years post-undergrad. I’m here at Brown, at 35, and I’m finally at a point where I feel like I’m hitting all those buckets.
I feel like that leads into the thought, then, of what the purpose overall is for a student at this time in their lives. A lot of students are very interested in this concept of justice—but how do you tie those things into the mission of student while they’re still on campus?
Okay, your first role is to get this degree. I think we all get so caught up in other things that we tend to neglect the fact that you came here for a reason. Because Brown has a lot to offer, and you can actually get lost here. You can end up doing everything else except the work you got to do—so number one, get your degree.
Number two, find ways to infuse justice into your passions. If you know you’re passionate about music, join an organization or club that focuses on social justice music or raising awareness about certain issues. Social justice is extremely important, and you all are the game-changers for the world—not necessarily for the future, but for now. You don’t have to wait until you graduate to at least start making change.
You all [at Brown] are lightspeeds ahead of where I was when I was in college. Like, the kind of conversations that I listen to you all have, whether in regards to social justice or spirituality and Christianity and faith, we were not having these discussions when I was 19 or 20 years old. I think it’ll help propel the work that you all will do in the future.
What should the term justice mean to us, especially in a biblical sense?
I’m going to say not equality, but equity. I think my Christianity should be a platform to advocate for what’s equitable for all people. There’s this picture [online] I saw of a fence—imagine a fence being the same height, and you have three people. They all have footstools of the same size, but one person is six feet, and one person is four feet tall, another is five feet tall… So the footstool is equality, but equity is when everyone can see over the fence. When people have the same opportunities or resources like everyone else to get ahead, to do things and not be pigeon-holed or discriminated against because of socio-economic status, their religion, their race. That’s what I call equity.
What do you think that would look like in the long-term? Especially for Christians who feel like they want to do something, what could be a good starting point?
I got this from one of my professors—he said in order to change the world, start with the people who are closest around you. He took a measuring tape and he said, start with the people who are within six feet of you. If you can start standing up and having a voice when you see certain things happen, when you see micro-aggressions, when you see discrimination, when you see inequalities, when you see small forms of oppression, that is a huge start.
Do you feel like you’ve encountered difficulties doing that? What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced?
Backlash. Being ostracized. Have I experienced difficulties? Yes, I have. But to me, my moral compass supersedes that. I’ll tell you, [one time] I was in the gym, and I was listening to two teenagers boasting about how many “women they’d had.” In something that he said, I could see one of them was going down the path of toxic masculinity… he had a made a statement like, “I lost my virginity when I was seven years old.” I had to say, “Listen, if you lost your virginity when you were seven years old, you may not see this, but you were probably sexually assaulted. While you’re bragging about this, I suggest that you really seek some counseling for it.”
And immediately he said, “Oh no, I didn’t, I’m just joking.” But I could see he was on this path of toxic masculinity, and I had to say something. I was the lone person of the men in the locker room. They were all laughing, thinking it was funny, but I said no, it’s not funny. I could’ve gotten into a fight, I could’ve gotten cussed out, but I just wanted him to be aware of the ramifications of what he was saying—and if he wasn't, let’s talk about it.
It’s certain things you know? We [all] know when something is definitely going wrong, and something just kicks in. But what about those times when something may not be wrong, but something just doesn’t feel right? The nuanced moments, the murky areas, where you’re like, should I really step up and say something? That’s what justice is—speaking up when no one is really looking, when there may not be blatant acts of discrimination, but when something just doesn’t feel right.
We’ve talked a lot about the idea of justice, so maybe we can go onto the theme of renewal now. How do you see a link between those two things, and how can those things come together in the university?
Much of the work that I do, it’s tiring—but in the process, I am renewed. Especially when [I’m] operating in [my] passions and [I’m] operating in [my] purpose, and it’s practical. I’m advocating on behalf of the marginalized, for the individuals who have been left on the outskirts. I’m advocating for things that people wouldn’t normally advocate for. Yes, it’s tiring. However, when you see things being moved, it’s refreshing—it’s like, oh, God, it’s happening.
For me, justice and renewal go hand-in-hand. If you do the justice work and you see the outcomes of the justice, you’re going to be renewed. There’s this feeling of refreshment that comes when you see the labor, when you’ve been toiling at this all day in the vineyard, and then you see the benefits, when people start to reap the benefits. Because we all know that the work we do is not for us, it’s for others.
How would you encourage those, then, who are maybe still waiting on reaping the fruit? Or they’ve planted the seed, but they’re tired, or it seems like the justice is not coming?
Keep the faith. As cliché as that sounds, keep the faith, and continue doing the work that you’ve been called to do. One thing that I’ve learned from working in nonprofits is that oftentimes, we look for validation and affirmation. But don’t expect to get applause from the people you’re supporting… if you go into the work looking for applause and affirmation, you won’t get it, and you’ll be highly disappointed. Because the calling is greater.
However, I do think it goes back to the whole seeds being planted. You may not see the benefits right then and there, but the work that you’re doing matters. It definitely matters. You just have to keep the faith. And trust and believe that God sees you—because God does see you. And I guarantee you, there are long-lasting positive ramifications of the work that you’re doing.
Do you have a hope for what Brown can do while you’re here, or things ministries can do to see some results in our time here?
Before I answer that question, I want to talk about something. Oftentimes, we talk about what isn’t. But I want to talk about what is. Having worked in several types of institutions, I have to tell you all that Brown University is beyond blessed. I know we have our share of issues, but the way Brown supports its students with its resources, and the resources that you all have, is amazing. The fact that you all are here, and there are multiple Protestant ministries available—that’s huge.
So my goal for the Protestant students is that we can work together to do some great work. We have the Veritas Forum, which is good, but I think there are some areas where we can come together and not just host a speaker, but come together and do service for the Brown, Providence community, and let them see Christians from all backgrounds, conservative or liberal, regardless of your race, come together and do something that’s going to highlight Christianity in a positive way.
If you want to talk about justice, ministry is justice. It is. Rewarding and tiring, and you may not see the fruits of your labor in the moment. I get that we have our reward in heaven. But honestly, sometimes we want to see it now! So I’m blessed to work with you all. I’m blessed to be your Protestant Chaplain. Because as much as people say I had an impact on them, you all don’t know how much of an impact you’ve had on me. You all keep me on my toes. And this has been the best working experience that I’ve had in my adult career.
Any closing thoughts?
Run your race. Don’t get caught up in running someone else’s race… If you’re running a race and God has you on this path, just know that you’re meant to be on that path, and don’t compare yourself to others. If God has instilled in you seeds relating to activism or social justice, or if not, if it’s just being an engineer, then focus on that. Run your race and don’t worry about what the next person is doing.
Speaking to an English major—I’ll tell you, I was an English major as well. And I would get jealous of all of my friends in these high-power internships, right, and I’m like, “I’m still working at the Gap over summer breaks.” But I learned not to get caught up in someone else’s race, because eventually, my English degree led to an internship at the Chicago Tribune, which led to open doors for other areas. So just continue to run your own race, whatever that race is. Because I think there’s victory on the other side when we run our own race and do what God has called us to do.