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A Place At The Table With Joslyn Henderson

Editor’s note: Each year, we honor the best and brightest in the Baylor Family at our Hall of Fame Ceremony. It’s truly my favorite event. I like it better than Homecoming, better than Christmas on Fifth; I even like it better than the day I see each new issue hot off the press. There’s something about Hall of Fame that feels different. We’re there celebrating specific people, specific legacies. There’s something meaningful about being a part of that night.

 

Selfishly, as a young alumnus myself, my favorite award of the night is the Young Alumni Award. To me, it’s not so much of an award about a young person who has done great things, but an award investing, highlighting, and conferring faith in a young person who is doing great things and has greater work yet to be done. I love spending time with each Young Alumnus. This year, I was so pleased to celebrate with the Baylor Family our own Joslyn Henderson (MM ’21, MDiv ’21).

 

I first met Joslyn eight years ago on a momentous evening of musical ceremony during the Pruit Symposium, a conference on Black sacred music hosted by Baylor Libraries. During the evening’s events, a prominent academic and musician, Dr. Jimmy Abbington, asked this fresh Truett Seminary student to sing with him on stage.

 

Joslyn blew everyone away.

 

I think that’s how most people would describe their first encounter with her. She is not one to hide in the background. Joslyn is a voice worth hearing, worth listening to, worth trusting. Ask anyone who knows her, and they will surely agree.

 

Sitting down to do this interview with Joslyn was one of the most energizing and electrifying things I have done in a while. I’m so glad you will get to read her story here, but, oh, how I so wish you could hear her voice, her talent, her spirit.

 

I hope you enjoy my conversation with 2022 Young Alumna of the Year, Joslyn Henderson.

 

###

 

Jonathon Platt:

What does it mean to you be the Young Alumna of the Year?

 

Joslyn Henderson:

When you called me the first time back in November to tell me about it, it was unbelievable to me. Just literally I was like, “Huh? Me? Are you sure?”

 

It was unbelievable on one hand, but also incredibly gratifying to know that my time spent at Baylor was not in vain and that there are folks who saw the things I was doing and were grateful for them and had my back the entire time. And it was an incredibly humbling, unbelievable, gratifying moment.

 

To me it means that my work, my voice, my presence on that campus was not in vain.

 

Your voice definitely was not in vain.

 

The first time that we met was at Pruit Symposium in 2014. How I remember you being introduced to this Baylor world is when Dr. Jimmy Abbington pulled you out of the crowd onto the stage to sing and we were all just so blown away. You had come from Spelman and had only been at Baylor for a little while. What do you remember about that time? What do you remember about the beginning period of your life in the Baylor family?

 

Well, the beginning of my life as a Baylor student in the Baylor family started a couple months prior to my even applying or accepting the offer to come.

 

When I was in Georgia in 2013, I talked to Dr. Abbington about wanting to study church music, being really captured by his presence as a church musician, as a director, as a compiler, as an editor, all so many things. I told him, “I want to do what you do.” And he said, “Oh! If you want to study church music, you need to go to Baylor University.” So I went to work with him in Houston for a little over a year and then started the application process to Baylor maybe in March of 2014. I was able to come out and visit the school of music and the seminary in April of that year, and then happened to start during the semester they were planning and putting on the Pruit Symposium on Black sacred music.

 

It just awakened this musician in me. It just really made me excited to learn and to know about and to experience Black sacred music in a place like Baylor University.

 

So yeah, my introduction to being a part of the Baylor family was absolutely 100 percent through Dr. Abbington. It was because of his presence on Baylor’s campus that I became a Baylor student and eventually graduated with those degrees from Baylor.

 

You’d been at Spelman, a historically Black women’s liberal arts college. Baylor is not that. It has a different culture, history, and a different student demographic. What was that transition like?

 

In an academic setting as an adult, it was very, very, very different. I really had to lean into the “you are here for a reason,” lean into being chosen or called to seminary and to the school of music and let that be the thing that grounded me. Because, man, I would sit in classes and feel stupid a lot. And I later came to know that was imposter syndrome, but while I was in it, I was like, “Man, I feel everybody knows so much more than I do.” And it wasn’t necessarily that, we just all have different experiences.

 

Some people come with a wealth of knowledge about theology or music or church music. And some of us are coming to sit at the seat and to learn. And a lot of my experience at Baylor was sitting at the seat and learning, plus my experience and upbringing.

 

What did you do to combat that imposter syndrome?

 

To be honest, it still creeps its way in, and then I have to shoot that down to the pit of hell where it came from. But you know what, it’s thanks to mentors like Dr. Abbington and Dr. Emmett Price who’s now the Dean of Africana Studies at Berkeley College in Boston. Those people who continue to pour into me and continue to remind me of the calling on my life, of my gift, of the things I’ve done. Because you’ve got to have some people in your life who are going to be like, “No, no, no, no, no, you got this. You’re good. You’re smart. You deserve this. You’re worthy.” And I thank God for a village that keeps me from floating away.

 

And that village is strong. Even beyond professors. Students, too. One of my closest friends I met at Pruit, Reverend Doctor Tara Briscoe, who’s a minister and itinerant elder in the AME church. Just so many fantastic relationships, folks that I just love and who love me and constantly pour into me. And I’m grateful for Baylor University for all the resources that are the people in my life.

 

When you were at Baylor, how did you participate in the community? What did you do for the school? What positions did you hold? And why would you put yourself in a position where people would know who you are and notice you?

 

So, I was the ministry associate for worship and chapel, which essentially meant that on the Mondays and Wednesdays, where 3,000-plus students are coming into Waco Hall to go to chapel, they would see me, they would hear me, they would experience my voice leading them in worship. I’d be there, along with my bosses and my boss’s boss and everyone else. But I was the student worship leader present there at chapel. So I was constantly seen.

 

One of the things I said when I came to Baylor was that I want my presence here… I want it to be known that I was here. As a graduate student, you could go to school, put your head down, leave out the back door, get your degree, and it’s done. But I didn’t want that to be my experience. My experience at Spelman was not that. I was present at Baylor, I sang all the time, people saw me all the time. I just was the chapel singer for one year, and that’s how the position and how it was and still how it is. But yeah, my presence at Baylor, I said I didn’t just want to be a grad student that came, got what they needed to get, and then left. I wanted my presence to be felt. I wanted Baylor to be better because I was a student there.

 

You’re now in full-time ministry. Why is it important for you to keep doing this work?

 

It is important for me to keep going because someone might be radically changed, moved, affected by my presence, by my words, by my songs, by any of the things that I’m doing in pursuit of Thy kingdom come and Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

 

In pursuit of that, someone’s life may be changed, someone’s heart may be changed, someone’s mind may be changed.

 

I remember early on at Baylor, encountering a young man who was a very staunch in his beliefs. And it was my performance during one of the Pruit Symposia that flipped a switch in his mind. He told me, “I’ve been thinking of this the wrong way. I’m ashamed.”

 

I remember reading his message, and I am incredibly grateful for being in the space, for being the voice, for being the catalyst for what essentially is spirit work and God’s work. It wasn’t necessarily anything that I had done. Perhaps I was the medium, but it was God working on this person’s heart.

 

Let’s talk about music in your life.

 

Yes!

 

When did you get involved with singing or any form of musical worship?

 

Man, it feels like I’ve been singing since I was born. So my father was a pastor, my mom sings professionally. I mean, it feels like I don’t know a time where I wasn’t singing in worship. My mom says from the moment I learned to talk, I was singing. It’s been a lifelong thing, me and singing.

 

What role did music play in your childhood? In your childhood and in your family?

 

Yeah. So mom used to direct the choir at church. My father preached, but he would also tune up, as we would say in the Black church, or hoop. So there was a…

 

Can you explain what that means?

 

Oh, yes. So, it’s near the end of the sermon, it’s called the celebration in some circles, but it’s when the voice changes to be sing-songy.

 

Dr. Price talks about it a little bit, the relationship between song and sermon. It’s a beautiful relationship. It’s natural to me. Right? Music has been a part of my life since I was born. I grew up hearing gospel music played in my home constantly. There’s an album: Carlton Pearson’s Live At Azusa One that was in 1995. I know that CD front and back. I remember my mom playing the tape out so bad that I remember on the track “Take It By Force” with Carlson Pearson featuring Karen Clark Sheard, I remember the point in the tape where it starts skipping. That is how well I remember that music from childhood.

 

I grew up on traditional gospel music but so much more. We knew the traditional gospel from church, but we listened to what might have been called contemporary gospel music at home. I grew up listening to some of everything.

 

My favorite artist then and now is John P. Kee. We were talking about prayer in the service, it was a service of lament, and I was asked to sing the spiritual “It’s Me, It’s Me, Oh Lord.” And I sang John P. Kee’s version of it.

 

What are two or three songs that you would just always love to sing with an audience?

 

Oh, man. Okay. The first one that comes to mind is a modern hymn. The chorus goes:

 

And God will delight when we are creators
Of justice and joy, compassion and peace

The name of the song is “For Everyone Born.” So the first verse is “For everyone born, a seat at the table, for everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe place for living, for everyone, born a star overhead.” And then the chorus, “God will delight when we are creators of justice.” Not just doers, but creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace. Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy. The final verse says, or the way that I’ve structured it to be the final verse, but the final verse is, “For everyone born, a seat at the table, for everyone born …” Oh, man, I’m singing it out of order so I need to look up the words to help me. I love it so much, though.

 

I’m looking at the lyrics, there is an optional final verse: “For gay and for straight, a place at the table, a covenant shared, a welcome space, a rainbow of race and gender and color, for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace.”

 

Yes. So the second-to-final verse of the song, in the way I would sing it, is: “For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear and simply to be, to work, to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born, the right to be free.”

 

Absolutely, 100 percent, if I’m in a place where I’m leading worship and I’ve got an opportunity to get everyone singing, we’re going to sing “For Everyone Born.” Not only because it’s a beautiful song, like audibly, like sonically, it just sounds great, but these are messages that need to be affirmed. That everyone should have a place at the table. So that’s one that I would sing with an audience.

 

Another one I enjoy singing with a group of people is “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” And the lyrics go: “Because without a doubt, we’ll know that we’ve been revived when we shall leave this place.” Oh, just a beautiful song by Doris Akers, and I talked a little bit about my fascination with my academic pursuit around black sacred music, but certainly bringing up or amplifying a hymn by a black woman, biracial composer is meaningful to me.

 

So “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” “For Everyone Born,” and “I Love the Lord” simply because I enjoy singing it and it was originally recorded by Whitney Houston, written by Richard Smallwood, and was on a soundtrack that grossed so much simply because of this one particular song. I love it.

 

 

These are the songs you picked ­– I’m going to throw in “Take It By Force,” too, just because you mentioned it earlier:

 

  1. “Take It By Force”
  2. “For Everyone Born”
  3. “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”
  4. “I Love the Lord”

 

When somebody sees you, experiences you perform these, and knows that you picked them, knows that you were the one that picked them, what does this collection tell them about you as a person?

 

It speaks to my relationship with God in that “I Love the Lord” certainly was derived from Him that preceded its existence, but one that spoke then, spoke in the ’90s when the soundtrack for Whitney Houston’s “The Preacher’s Wife” came out, and still speaks today. “I Love the Lord” speaks to my relationship with God. That’s a message that they could come to learn from that music. “For Everyone Born” speaks to my bent toward social justice, certainly with that final verse, which is always included by the way. It speaks to my affinity for and my affirmation of queer folks, queerness, my affirmation of justice being seen in the world and that being the work of God’s people. The liturgy is justice in the world, for everyone born. A central message in that song for me is that it’s not for just every child of God or for every born believer. It’s for everyone born, right?

 

It’s not simply that your fellowship in the church makes you worthy of these things. Every person born should have clean water and bread, should have a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing. For everyone, born a star overhead. God will delight when we create those circumstances, better those circumstances for people.

 

Child. I got caught up.

 

“Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” I think we lack theology in our churches around spirit, so I think “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” goes directly to what we experience when we’re all together on one accord that certainly God is moving, but this is spirit work as well: “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.” Yeah.

 

If you could have a billboard anywhere in the world and it could say anything that you wanted, what would it say?

 

Oh, 100 percent — 1,000 percent — it would say, “Black Lives Matter.” More than that it would say, “All Black Lives Matter.”

 

“All” is for marginalized people. So all speaks to the LGBTQ folks, all speaks to disabled folks, all speaks to those who are thrown out of their house, all speaks to people who are struggling with addiction. All Black Lives Matter, all oppressed, marginalized, put out Black people matter, Black folks. Black lives matter. Yeah. That’s the billboard. That’s the work.

 

Do you like to read during your off time?

 

Oh yeah.

 

What are you reading right now? What are you reading that you’re really excited about? It doesn’t have to be anything prophetic. It can be as profane as you want it to be.

 

A book that is on my shelf that I’m reading is The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I started to read it and haven’t picked back up to finish, but it also got a little wild there in the center.

 

And then the book that is my “self-help” book is The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I bought it when I was in seminary. It talks about the inward disciplines and the outward disciplines.

 

Let’s say you’re coming back to Waco next week and you cannot choose a chain. Where are you going to go eat?

 

I’m going to Sergio’s Burrito Truck. I have been chasing a variation of Sergio’s burrito ever since I left Waco in December 2020. I go for the breakfast burrito every time. I don’t care if it’s three o’clock in the afternoon. I’m getting the breakfast burrito with eggs, potatoes, and bacon. Controversial pork. Uh oh. Grilled veggies, Pico do Gallo, cilantro. Mushrooms, too! And with extra red salsa.

 

One last question. What are you wholly, truly, and grateful for right now?

 

Hmm. That’s a good one. Stability.

 

Stability. I love that. Do you want to explain or just leave it at that?

 

I’m going to go a little, not deeper, but I’ll explain it a little bit more. I spent years in school and even before then I was finding my way and that’s not to say that I found my way now necessarily, but I’ve got a good idea of the way, right? So yeah. Stability: being able to come home to this place of my own. Make it look how I want it to look and feel like how I want it to feel.

 

I remember being a student at Baylor, living in apartments and being like, “Nah, I’m not going to decorate. I know this is only temporary” and really letting that be the thing that kept me from being in spaces that felt like home. But now I have no problem putting stuff on the walls, drilling putting holes in walls. It’s a whole paradigm shift being stable and knowing that the bills will be paid. It’s just a blessing.

 

Stability. I’m grateful for stability.

 

I love that answer and I love that it’s your answer. Thanks for spending time with me today and sharing with the Baylor Family.

If you’d like to nominate a candidate for the next Young Alumni of the Year, presented each year at Baylor Line Foundation’s Hall of Fame Ceremony, visit baylorlinefoundation.com/nominate.

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