Merging Pulpit & Public Service: Herron Gaston, M.Div '14

Herron Gaston, M.Div ’14 & STM ’15, is a key member of the Admissions Team who maintains a strong academic record and involves himself in numerous public service and philanthropic efforts, focusing particularly on the plight of the United States prison population.

Mr. Gaston brings an enormous amount to Yale, and we are very proud of the incredible work he does.  His efforts and commitment to social causes are emblematic of the service YDS students and alumni contribute to the church and world.

You can learn more about Herron in the article below, written by Jared Gilbert M.Div ’12, and taken from last month’s Notes from the Quad.  Thanks Herron!

 

Merging Pulpit and Public Service: Herron Gaston ’14 M.Div

By Jared Gilbert ’12 M.Div

 

“Public service is the highest calling one can accept,” says Herron Gaston ‘14 M.Div. “Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy.”

Politics, political organizing, and public advocacy has always been part of Gaston’s call, but he also felt drawn to the pulpit. It was a visit to YDS as a prospective student four years ago when we began to understand how the two callings could merge.

Gaston began his journey serving in several political and public affairs roles. As a graduate student he work for a lobbying firm. After completing his Master of Public Administration and Master of Political Science degrees at Florida A&M University, he entered the Florida Gubernatorial Fellow Program, working as a legislative analyst.

Those positions propelled him into a role at the Florida highway and motor vehicles department helping secure IDs for underserved individuals. And then, he was hired by the Department of Corrections, and began visiting prisons and meeting prisoners.

Although he grew up in church, working in the prison system is where Gaston says his spiritual walk began. His advocacy on behalf of prisoners led him to begin engage more deeply with his faith, and a mentor began to encourage him to consider pastoral ministry.

“This job is gravely wrong for you,” the mentor said one day. “One day you will be in the pulpit.”

Months later, Gaston was standing in front of Yale Divinity School staring at the chapel at the top of the hill. “I knew that Yale was rigorous academically, but when I saw how important daily chapel was in the community I made my decision to attend.”

Gaston’s path to YDS seemed destined, but crisis came quickly. Shortly after arriving at YDS, he faced accusations that landed him in a New Haven jail, and extradition to Florida. The accusations were found to be false, and the incident was scrubbed from his legal record.

In jail—on the other side of the bars—Gaston discovered the power of prayer. He says he prayed “as Paul and Silas” to get through the experience. The men sharing his space were a source of support. He remembers when Associate Dean for Student Affairs Dale Peterson said, “God takes the strongest soldiers through the toughest battles.”

A year later, Gaston returned to campus and found people he could trust as community of support that allowed him to recover and heal from the experience. He quickly took on leadership positions on the diversity committee, student counsel, and Yale Black Seminarians.

Shortly after returning, YDS began community discussions on issues of race. When Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, was invited to speak, Gaston began to see his crisis experience and his vocational interests merge. Along with other students he began to focus his activism on incarceration issues. He has since begun work to establish a non-profit in his hometown to address local incarceration issues.

He is concerned with policy issues, in particular a culture of unjust policies that work to create a rap sheet for men of color. Gaston says that policies such as “stop-and-frisk”, and other policies of detainment without just cause perpetuate institutional racism, because they automatically associate men of color with crime.

Gaston’s role in changing these systems of injustice will likely be a political one. He has already engaged his old gubernatorial political contacts to begin work on engaging local communities politically to create social change.

For Gaston, public service-as-ministry merges well with pulpit ministry. He looks to the social justice legacy of African-American Protestant traditions as a place to develop his prophetic voice. But, he says, preachers must “take the pulpit to secular space, indicting governments to treat citizens justly.”

For the last two years, Herron Gaston was one of the first person to engage many visiting prospective students when they arrived at the admissions office, where he served as a greeter and guide for a few hours each week. As a representative of YDS students in the admissions office, Gaston’s journey through his theological education at Yale represents the challenge, commitment and drive that helps form YDS students into extraordinary leaders.