NEW HAVEN — The Rev. Dr. Herron Gaston calls himself a people person, the perfect qualification for his job of recruiting an increasingly diverse student body to Yale Divinity School, including clergy from the New Haven area.
At the same time, he is well known in Bridgeport as senior pastor of Summerfield United Methodist Church for giving young people a path to become productive, mature citizens.
“I really care about the flourishing of humanity and helping people to reach their full potential,” said Gaston, associate director of admissions at the divinity school. “People normally say to me that my personality is magnetic and there’s something that they feel drawn toward.”
It’s a quality that has helped him carry out Dean Gregory Sterling’s goal of opening the seminary to a broader range of people, and letting potential students from Greater New Haven know that the high-quality theological education the school offers is available to them, and so are many free programs and speakers.
Gaston, 30, who holds two master’s degrees from Yale Divinity School, as well as a doctorate from Andover Newton Seminary at Yale, has been in his position for three years, focusing on colleges whose students didn’t necessarily think of Yale as a welcoming place, such as the 105 historically black colleges and universities, as well as institutions in areas such as the western region of Texas.
What Yale offers is a broad range of theological thought, Gaston said. “I think it’s very important for ministers to have a wide array of perspectives, so they’re not engaging in spiritual malpractice,” he said.
Harvard University professor Cornel West, the internationally known activist and philosopher, called “dear Brother Gaston” “such a powerful force for good in ensuring that students of color get a fair chance and have an opportunity to gain access to a Yale education.”
A graduate of the largest historically black public college in the nation, Florida A&M in Tallahassee, Gaston said, “When I came in [to Yale], I said we can recruit in other places.”
In New Haven, Gaston drew in clergy such as the Rev. Boise Kimber, senior pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church, who just earned a master’s in sacred theology to add to his master’s from Hartford Seminary and doctorate from United Theological Seminary. Kimber’s wife, the Rev. Shevalle Kimber, who was ordained July 1 and also ministers at First Calvary, will begin a three-year master’s program in the fall.
“He was very instrumental in looking at my application and helping to figure out the areas of study that I should take,” Boise Kimber said. “If Herron Gaston was not there I probably would have taken other routes to getting a master’s.”
Kimber said Gaston also recognized “my pastoral experience, leadership skills” and Kimber has responded by having 75 more local black clergy and other leaders attend a dinner to become acquainted with the school.
“As a partner with my husband in ministry it’s just important that I do this,” Shevalle Kimber said. “You have people sitting in your congregation that are smarter than you are. It’s important to be credentialed, especially by Yale. Where better to get a master of divinity from? I’m born and raised right here in New Haven, Connecticut.”
Since the 2014-15 academic year, the percentage of students from underrepresented groups has almost doubled at the seminary, from 17 percent to 32 percent for the incoming class. These include African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, according to school figures.
Diversity among the faculty and staff also has increased. Sterling said Yale will conduct a search for a professor of African-American religious history this year.
“Herron is a phenomenal salesperson,” Sterling said. “He’s a very gifted and charismatic individual and he does a first-rate job of representing the school to a wide group of people. I think one of the challenges is, sometimes people have perceptions that have to be overcome and they don’t consider Yale.
“What I know is that our immediate neighbors in Newhallville often viewed Yale … as at least an unknown and perhaps unfriendly place, so it’s of vital importance to us if we’re going to have good relationships with the local community … to have ties with the black churches.”
Sterling said welcoming people of color is “the morally right thing to do. … I worry about the tensions in our society and the racism that exists in our society and we have to overcome it. We have no choice.”
Besides academics, Yale Divinity School offers programs free to the public. Recent speakers have included poet Elizabeth Alexander and the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Barack and Michelle Obama’s church.
Gaston said Yale has a mission “to educating a critical mass of people who have been historically kept out of certain places.” In addition to recruiting people of color, Gaston said, he also seeks students “from various socioeconomic backgrounds, students who are from various religious traditions, students from different ethnic groups, as well as white students.”
In New Haven, Gaston is especially interested in bringing in younger clergy, members of what is known as the Joshua Generation, who “basically believe in more progressive forms of theology and are much more diverse and radically inclusive in hearing the voices of the younger prophets.”
He believes the church needs to be relevant, addressing issues such as unarmed black men being killed by police. “It’s time for our church to answer the clarion call and to stand on the right side of justice by holding our civic leaders accountable. I think that the church and its leaders must raise its voice and be instrumental in helping to shape public policy and to write a new narrative in our community that this issue is a human rights issue and not a black-vs.-white issue.”
A force in Bridgeport
At Summerfield on Clermont Avenue in Bridgeport, Gaston has made a mark with his Youth with a Purpose program, which offers 75 at-risk youths a chance “to change their behavioral circumstances and to put them on a clear pathway to success.”
The Rev. Cass Shaw, president of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, said, “When Herron became the pastor of Summerfield, the church was really struggling and they were on their way to closing.” Gaston “absolutely revived the church,” she said.
Shaw said the youth program begins with elementary school students but “even more impressively” is the mentoring of high school students. “They give them the kind of encouragement and support that really develops a plan for their lives … a vision for what’s possible and they are college-bound. They know their worth and they have a sense of not just dreaming but the steps they need to achieve their dreams. He’s really done an amazing job.”
Gaston also has recruited students from Bridgeport, including a Democratic state representative, the Rev. Charles Stallworth, who will enter Yale Divinity School in the fall. “I want to focus on political consciousness and Yale has a rich history for being progressive … and inclusive over a period of time,” Stallworth said.
Stallworth has been pastor of the East End Baptist Tabernacle Church for 12 years and said he wants to study “the junction of politics and religion.” He said “it took a little convincing” for him to enroll at Yale but that he realized “learning is an ever-growing process. We never know all there is to know about God.”
The Rev. Quavon Newton of New Haven is pastor of Mount Pleasant AME Zion Church in Danbury. He said he had wanted to go back to school but couldn’t because of his work schedule. “Upon meeting Reverend Gaston he not only reaffirmed what I’ve known about the school … but also told me what I didn’t know in terms of doing a terrific job of diversifying the school,” Newton said.
“Upon visiting the school … what I saw and felt reaffirmed everything he said.” He plans to attend full time, earning a master’s in divinity in three years.
–Ed Stannard, New Haven Register
CONTACT: Herron Gaston
Yale University Divinity School