Julian is the Senior Minister at University Church Chicago, an Emmy award winning hip hop artist (JKwest), Adjunct Professor at University of Chicago Divinity School, and Community Engagement Fellows Mentor at McCormick Theological Seminary.
I’m grateful to be the pastor at University Church in Chicago (6 years). I’m also a hip hop artist/emcee known as J.Kwest. A lot of what we do at University Church is create a safe space for believers, seekers, and doubters, and definitely fight for justice. I think my music could be described in the same way - a safe space for folks that aren’t necessarily super church-y to hear dope music and still explore their faith, and I spend a lot of time making art that is based in reality and hope.
I like to think of this work is “being part of the most important conversation in the community.” We work on what’s going on around us! Right now we have an immigrant living in Sanctuary at the churchand we’re honored to be providing hospitality to Jose Juan.
We also were heavily involved in the campaign to bring a Level 1 Trauma Center to the Southside of Chicago. Sometimes that means making theological sense out of happenings; sometimes that means using our relative neutrality to bring competing voices together; and sometimes that means flat out condemning injustice and helping give agency to the oppressed. In everything it’s about deep listening for the wisdom of the community and the Spirit of God.
As a performer, I’ve been to a lot of places and seen a lot of faith communities - large and small - that were disengaged with the realities around them. It always felt, um…off…to have such an elaborate investment in what was going on inside the church but be divested from the surrounding community. So instead of blaming, I decided to take on the challenge of leading a faith community that was as passionate about spiritual transformation as social transformation. Both are the same to me in a lot of ways.
I’ve always cared a lot about the health of communities. I was also encouraged by mentors to focus on my education and spend time listening - to not be anxious about getting busy. When I was at Morehouse College, I focused on studying voices like Howard Thurman and MLK and Benjamin Mays, and studying the issues beyond the assumptions. I was pretty quiet in college, and at the same time have always admired the students that can find ways to be active while studying.
I have heard a lot of bad theology, never felt right, wanted to learn for myself. Religious voice has shaped American ethos, for better and worse, and I want to be part of constructing a Christian response to life that is ethical, loving, and inclusive. Ultimately, the reason anyone would be crazy enough to do seminary? I believe in the potential of Church!
The Family Reaction
Kinda shocked, because I had already deferred from seminary right out of Morehouse to pursue music. So when the tour ended and I was interested in going back, a lot of people were like, “Why???” Momentum in music is EVERYTHING and I had a lot of it, but I felt like I was living into only half of my vocation. I don’t feel like I wasted 3 years of my music career; I see it as becoming my full self. It’ll come full circle real soon.
Self-sabotage - believing in myself and that the uniqueness of my voice had a place in the world. I was taught - by a person I trusted deeply - that I could either be a pastor or a musician, but not both. That was the last time we ever spoke and I left that church, and since then I’m always reminding myself that affirmation will often need to come from within, that the inner voice is the true voice, and not to stifle it.
Anything you do that requires your whole self is a ministry. Anything that is about loving and serving others - at its core - is ministry. I mean, it’s a JOB too, and sometimes very tedious and technical - but that’s ministry too.
The Academic Journey
I went to Morehouse College for undergrad and University of Chicago Divinity School for the Master in Divinity. Dr. Melvin Rahming (and Ms. Dinwiddie in HS) pulled me aside my freshman year at Morehouse and told me I had great ideas and wrote with confidence, but “you don’t write well…yet.”
That was a turning point, because he crushed my ego and stayed with me until I could. Dr. Anne Watts told me I wasn’t Rhodes Scholar material, even though I had a 3.82 GPA, and then stayed with me to show me how to craft a life based not on the expectations and standards of others - to dare to be different and excellent in my own way. My favorite professors are the ones that gave it to me straight and walked alongside me.
The Last Word
I am who I am because of the mentors I have - folks that saw me, took the time to say something, and invested in me. Try not to be defensive against potential mentors in your life. Also, if you see someone, take the time and invest. Our selves are expanded as we risk. Finally, shut up sometimes. Don’t make an enemy of silence in your life.
For more about Julian's music go to http://jkwest.com/
For more about Julian's Church, go to http://universitychurchchicago.org/