Alante and Grace
Altante Thomas (left) during class and Grace Okerson at a protest march in Washington, D.C.

August 4, 2021

Scholarship recipients vow to challenge status quo

By: Michelle Bearden

Seminary student Alante Thomas (right) meets Andrew Young, a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement and an ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter Administration. (Photo courtesy of Alante Thomas)
Seminary student Alante Thomas (right) meets Andrew Young, a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement and an ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter Administration. (Photo courtesy of Alante Thomas)

Alante Thomas knows his mission in The United Methodist Church is a challenging one.

As a young Black man, he wants to be in a leadership role one day — a path that might not always be easy in a mainly white denomination.

According to the Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center — a comprehensive report of some 35,000 Americans published in 2014 — nearly 95 percent of United Methodist Church members identified as white.

“If we’re to break down walls and fences, if we’re to have a place at the table, sometimes we have to put ourselves in a less comfortable position,” Thomas said.

And he isn’t afraid of taking the road less traveled. It’s what led him to The United Methodist Church.

Thomas grew up on the east side of Detroit, one of seven siblings. His dad worked in an auto factory, his mom in retail. Because money was tight, Thomas started his own landscaping business at age 12. After high school, he taught himself how to cut hair and became a barber.

Financially, going to college seemed out of the question, so he set his sights on becoming a cop and then working his way up to the FBI.

Fate had other plans. The chorale director at United Methodist-affiliated Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach was also from Detroit and had heard Thomas sing. He was impressed with the young man’s talent and recruited him to attend Bethune-Cookman on a scholarship and sing with the school’s concert chorale.

Leaving home and going to college in Florida was something Thomas had never imagined. And because he had always attended a Black Baptist church, it would also be a new faith experience.

Thomas embraced university life with gusto, settling on a major in religion with a concentration in philosophy. Thomas began attending nearby Stewart Memorial United Methodist Church and got involved in charitable work and community activism. He also joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, became student president of the United Negro College Fund and served on the school’s pre-alumni council, which helps undergraduates understand the role alumni play in sustaining the university’s mission. The council also gives students training and experience in fundraising that supports the school.

“I’ve been told enough times that I’m a leader for tomorrow,” he said. “But I prefer to be a leader for today.”

Doors opened for other opportunities he had never dreamed about as a poor kid from Detroit. He went to Israel twice and did a short-term music studies program in Africa.

And ever resourceful, Thomas turned to his haircutting skills to earn a little extra money. He set up a barber’s chair in his dorm room.

Thomas said his late grandmother would marvel at his ability to return home from church and repeat the minister’s sermon word for word. But it wasn’t until his college years that he knew he was called to ministry.

“Going to seminary was the next natural step,” he said. “I wanted the preparation and the education that would give me the substance and credibility to serve.”

Now Thomas is a clergy candidate in the Florida Conference and in his second year at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, attending on a full ride. To help pay living and school-related expenses, he delivers packages for Amazon and works at a nearby United Methodist church.

He also depends on scholarships and other funding, including a $5,000 scholarship for students of color and culture from the Passing the Torch Fund, a joint program sponsored by the conference and Florida United Methodist Foundation.

“God is doing a new thing in my life, and I am always willing to go where God leads. God has always called me to be a vessel for the good news.” — Grace Okerson

That money proved a bigger help than Thomas could ever imagine. In October, during his first year of seminary, he contracted COVID-19. He was sick for weeks and unable to work or go to school. Instead of playing catch-up with his bills, the scholarship gave him a small cushion post-COVID.

“I’m so grateful for this assistance,” he said. “Having the conference and the foundation on my side makes me even more committed to the ministry I will be doing in Florida one day.”

The Rev. Dionne Hammond, the Atlantic Central District’s superintendent, said it’s the conference that will benefit when Thomas is an ordained minister.

“Mr. Thomas is one of the best among the best,” she said in the reference letter she provided for Thomas’ Passing the Torch scholarship application. “His academic record, character and leadership ability distinguishes him as one destined for greatness.”

After his anticipated graduation from seminary in 2023, Thomas will return to Florida for the next chapter in his life. He wants that to include community activism, mentoring young people and encouraging diversity within the denomination.

He’s not daunted by the prospect of being a young Black leader in a church that leans toward older, white members. He believes those demographics can, and must, change over time.

“At the end of the day, it’s God’s church. We are all God’s children with a shared mission,” he said. “I think God has placed me here for a reason.”

Going where God leads

Grace Okerson remains undaunted, as well.

After earning her undergraduate degree in social science at University of Central Florida in Orlando, the 24-year-old made a two-year commitment as a United Methodist Global Mission Fellow. That opportunity sent her to Detroit, giving her a hands-on experience tackling issues related to homelessness and poverty.

Okerson then headed to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and earned her master’s degree in arts and public ministry with a concentration on racial justice and mass incarceration. She juggled her studies with serving as the parliamentarian on the student council, a social events coordinator and an intern at Cook County Jail.

She’s now continuing her studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory to earn a Master of Divinity focusing on chaplaincy.

“All these life experiences combined led me to the place where I am now,” says Okerson, a lifelong Methodist from Miramar, Florida. “To be honest, as an undergrad, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. God was exposing me to multiple facets so I could discern where he needed me most.”

In a reference letter for Okerson, Lisa Batten describes the candidate for ministry as having “a perseverance and maturity that goes beyond her age.”

Grace Okerson teaches class
Grace Okerson teaches a class during the Florida Conference’s Mission U, an education program coordinated by the denomination’s United Methodist Women that is offered and facilitated by each conference. (Photo courtesy of Grace Okerson)

“Grace has many gifts and skills,” said Batten, who serves as young adult initiatives director for the Michigan Annual Conference. “I can say with confidence Grace is one of those rare persons who is wise beyond her years. She seeks to grow spiritually through mentoring, worship, daily disciplines and practices.”

Through tuition scholarships and working while going to school, Okerson so far is debt-free. A $5,000 Passing the Torch Fund scholarship is helping her with books, school fees, housing and attending educational conferences.

“There’s enough stress in seminary without having financial stress,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a recipient of this generosity so I can concentrate on my work at school and in the community.”

Okerson, who moved to South Florida with family from her native Haiti when she was 1 year old, has always been immersed in the church. Though she’s been transient for the last several years, home base is still Miramar United Methodist Church.

Her strong connection to the denomination comes from her mother, Dr. Judith Pierre-Okerson, who serves as president of the Florida Conference United Methodist Women.

Each year, the denomination’s United Methodist Women sponsor Mission U, a transformative education program that prepares participants for faithful living and action through study on biblically grounded curricula. Conference leaders are trained to lead the courses and then facilitate the program in their respective conferences. Okerson has already taught two Mission U classes.

“What I love about this church is how open it is,” she said. “Yes, we have our challenges, but overall, Methodists are willing to stand up and fight for what we believe. And because social action and justice means so much to me, this is just where I should be.”

Tragic circumstances led Okerson on her path to becoming an ordained chaplain. In a seven-month span while working in Detroit, she lost two friends suddenly and then her father three months after a cancer diagnosis. She was not with any of them when they died.

“At the end of the day, it’s God’s church. We are all God’s children with a shared mission. I think God has placed me here for a reason.” — Alante Thomas

Instead of processing her grief, she held it in for two years, often struggling with her sense of self and who she knew God to be. Then when the pandemic took hold in the United States and around the world, Okerson felt that communal loss so many others were feeling: grieving old lifestyles, new realities and the deaths of so many.

“I was pushed to reimagine who God is in the middle of the chaos and darkness,” she said. “It was in this reality that my vocation expanded. I knew that my gifts, talents and lived experience of grief need to be put to use.”

While she envisions working in a hospital one day, she also is exploring the idea of death-row chaplaincy.

“I know what it’s like to go through overwhelming losses without seeking any support. That can be lonely and terrifying,” Okerson said. “I don’t wish that on anyone. My goal is to journey with people through their grief and in their points of crisis.”

Cynthia Weems, superintendent for the South East District, sees a bright future for Okerson. In her recommendation letter, Weems wrote how she was impressed with Okerson’s emphasis on social justice, which helped create programs in Chicago for people seeking healing from the trauma of marginalization and mass incarceration and its effect on communities.

“Grace is a person who is passionate about God’s call on her life, and she puts that passion to work through practical programs that enable change,” Weems wrote.

Now that she knows the direction of her calling, Okerson is focused on building bridges between the church and world.

“God is doing a new thing in my life, and I am always willing to go where God leads,” she says. “God has always called me to be a vessel for the good news.”

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