Student Profile: Marlon Millner

After Life-Changing Trip to Cameroon, HDS Student Aims to Bridge Worlds Between Africa and African Americans.

After returning from a recent two-week trip to Cameroon, where he helped staff an ecumenical media team from the United States that was covering the Eighth General Assembly of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), second-year MDiv student Marlon Millner said that what had surprised him most about his first visit to the African continent was how not surprised he was.

"I felt very connected," Millner said. "It was sort-of a cross between the less gentrified parts of Harlem and rural Mississippi. Having spent time in both of those geographical places, I found myself drawing upon them as metaphors or images. For instance, in Harlem, you might have a block or two of vast redevelopment, say around Magic Theater and 125th Street, but if you go three or four blocks south, you'll find every brownstone boarded up. It was like that in Yaounde [the capital city of Cameroon, where the assembly was held]. Next to our hotel was a makeshift automotive mechanic business with a bunch of rundown cars. But this makeshiftness is familiar to me, since it is also a part of life in a lot of black communities in the United States, both urban and rural."

Although Millner observed some definite differences in infrastructure in Cameroon—for example, phone service via cables isn't widespread so people often use mobile phones—he also noticed that the "digital divide" isn't quite as wide as Americans tend to believe it to be: There are accessible Internet cafés, and satellite dishes are evident at homes and in hotels. "I had more channels on my television in Cameroon than I've had in nice hotels in London," he added. "There was incredible variety—music videos, news, CNN, French and English channels, and Cameroon's station."

Millner acknowledges that any comparisons he makes or impressions he tries to convey are specific to the somewhat limited locations he was able to visit in Cameroon as he went about his work writing articles and recording video footage at the AACC meeting. Yet he was also immediately exposed to what he described as "the incredible diversity of Africa" through the event, which drew 8,000 people from 45 countries to its opening worship ceremony (the Assembly itself was attended by 800 people, including delegates from the AACC's 169 member denominations in 39 countries, along with local and international observers and guests).

"We don't think of the United States as anything other than a very pluralistic, diverse country," Millner said. "Well, Cameroon, which is about the size of California, is itself a fairly diverse country, and the continent of Africa is as diverse as you can possibly imagine. I met people from Tanzania or South Africa who complained about things in Cameroon, and for them it wasn't an 'African issue' but very specific to Cameroon."

"It helps us to understand better," Millner continued, "because some of us here in America like to make generalizations about 'those Africans,' but there are many ways of doing things there, many different countries with many different traditions."

What's more, he said, the denominational and ecumenical lines and divisions are different in Africa than they are here, meaning there isn't the same "evangelical vs. liberal mainline" struggle in the church world.

"Even the mainline Protestants in Africa," he explained, "place more emphasis on spirit and spirituality—to put it in traditional theological terms, they have a high view of scripture and a confessional one—and that informs the kind of ecumenical work they do. So although, like here, Pentecostals aren't as involved in ecumenical movements and organizations, there are ways in which Africa is starting to assert itself in the worldwide ecumenical movement in terms of styles of worship and views of scripture. This will have to be paid attention to, and may open the door for Pentecostal denominations to do more substantial work both there and here, and for new ethnic and ecclesiastical voices to be included within the institutional ecumenical movement."

Perhaps the only truly difficult situation Millner experienced in Yaounde was a language barrier. "Cameroon is primarily a Francophone country," he said, "which was strange for me because I'd see a group of black people talking, and I'd have the impulse to go up to them and say, 'What's up?' and they'd start rattling off something in French. That's really when I realized, 'Yes, I'm in another country.' And even though there is a lot of English spoken in Yaounde, all the Internet cafés I went to had keypads in French. So the biggest difference I had to negotiate was language rather than anything cultural."

When pressed, Millner admitted that, at a certain point, he did want Western food and conventional toilets. And he did take one ride to a village that included 45 minutes of harrowing travel on a dirt road that had received rain the night before. "I'd never done anything like that in my life," he said. "As we say in the streets, we were up in the cut, we were really in there."

But the occasion for the drive, a worship service at a Presbyterian church, proved to be one of the most moving experiences of the entire trip for Millner. "When I got to the village, they performed ceremonies and really honored us for coming, and I started crying," he said. "I was very touched, because of their incredible hospitality and acceptance."

"Again, we tend to think condescendingly about Africa, but they are so much more hospitable than we are," Millner said. "We're in a society where we differentiate everything and create all these sophisticated barriers that keep us from finding common ground: 'I have a PhD and you don't. I'm a scientist and you're an artist.' In Cameroon, I found those types of categories and labels to be of little importance. Everyone was welcoming and joyous, and I quickly found in conversations that we shared issues in common."

Perhaps most important, he added, was the fact that "when you go to places like Cameroon, the people there can give you insight into how to live through tragedy and conflict."

"People," he continued, "have had to maintain their dignity in the face of genocide, in the face of devastating poverty, and it hasn't made them callous. That's a lesson we can learn, that certainly I learned, and that has been very important to me."

Millner said he had consistently wonderful interactions with the Africans he met at the meeting, particularly the young adult ministers and laypeople. "In addition to being there as a journalist, I was there as a youth delegate, so I interacted most with young people," he explained. "I was impressed by the way they involved young people in this general assembly in a passing the torch type of manner."

By the end of his trip, Millner was so moved by the stories and ideas of the young people, that he decided he wants to "build bridges of information and understanding between young adult black Christians in the United States and young adult Christians throughout the continent of Africa," using the print and video material he gathered while working on the media team.

"As our mentor on the trip, Willis Logan, said, 'Hopefully this is the beginning of a lifetime of engagement with the continent.' My engagement started before the trip, but now it's been taken to another level because I know so many people from so many countries to actually build relationships with. This was not a tourist trip for me."

Millner will be well equipped to do exactly this kind of work given his past vocation as a journalist and his future one as a Church of God in Christ minister. After graduating from Morehouse College, he spent seven years as a journalist for print and web publications (among his employers in New York and the District of Columbia were the Dow Jones Newswire and America Online). Although he says it was ultimately God who led him to his decision to attend HDS and choose the ordination track for the Church of God in Christ ministry, it was also in keeping with family tradition. Millner calls himself "a third-generation Pentecostal," since his father was a pastor and his maternal grandfather founded a group of Apostolic churches in the Martinsville, Virginia, area. He grew up in his dad's Apostolic church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Coming to HDS was not as much of a stretch as some might expect for a Pentecostal from the South. Although HDS's public reputation assumes it has liberal mainline and Unitarian Universalist leanings, Millner noted: "Harvard has an impressive history of Pentecostals who've attended, including academic luminaries like Grant Wacker, Edith Blumhofer, Stanley Horton, Cheryl Sanders, Robert Franklin, and Russell Spittler. These are all people that I, and many Pentecostals, respect as mentors."

Unfortunately, Millner said, "not even Pentecostals know how many Harvard-trained voices are dominant in the field." Sharing this "genealogy" is something that Millner believes is enormously important, not only for up-and-coming Pentecostal ministers and scholars, but for Harvard. "Much of the leading scholarly material has been written by people who did their degrees here, like Cheryl Sanders's landmark work on black Pentecostals, Saints in Exile. Harvard needs to do a better job in relating that history, so they can recruit even more thoughtful Pentecostals. The fact that those testimonies aren't heard also undermines the commitment to diversity and pluralism here."

Millner chose HDS, he said, because "I wanted to use as many different categories as possible to explore my own experience rather than go somewhere where I'd have to sign a doctrinal statement. Here, I have the tools, from Paul Ricoeur to Friedrich Schleiermacher, to help me hone a uniquely Pentecostal perspective."

Although he is getting precisely the kind of education he expected to get at HDS, Millner said, "at the same time, you can feel incredibly isolated here at HDS because no one is having prayer meeting, and though everybody wants to hear everybody else's experience, they tend to relativize it."

"The all-encompassing nature of my system of belief can get lost," he explained. "Sometimes I wish the students here would be more pro-active in holding their strong beliefs in tension with the academic project to dissolve all truth claims." Given HDS's "post-church" reputation, Millner said people in the pews tend to think all that goes on here is "deconstructing everybody's belief system," which means that some churches might even shun or be wary of HDS students.

"Harvard makes us into great question-raisers," Millner said, "whereas I make a confessional turn and believe the whole notion of revelation is that God answers these questions. Of course, we narrate the answers through our context. That's how Christianity got started—people chose to join that context. I intend, when I graduate, to speak to a constituency with relevant answers. We don't want to leave people unable to speak."

"Some of the best work done here is wedded to action," Millner added. "Instead of engaging in protracted discourse, that action is emancipatory. We need more people bridging worlds, like [HDS alumnus] Charles Adams does when he preaches in Baptist churches. If you are going to problematize how people have read a biblical text, you do so not to render it incomprehensible, but to open up new meanings in the text. Pentecostals, people from ethnic minorities, and women are all concerned about moving toward the faith act. We need more of that, more acts of faith. The methods we learn here should enhance what we do in the pulpit and the pew."

Recognizing the ethnic, religious, and theological diversity here at HDS, in Africa, and in the world, is a "good challenge to any essential notions about 'Christian,' " Millner said, "and a helpful reminder to any group that an infinite number of people are included in the Christian body, and there is a constant enlarging and evolving of the Christian body."