Acting on Faith

Nola Haynes-News
Nola Haynes. Photo: Prentice Sinclair Smith

Eboni Haynes has gone by many names: actress, Angeleno, Catholic—but now she prefers Nola, in homage to her beleaguered and beloved hometown of New Orleans.

"After the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010, friends started calling me Nola, and I liked it," explained Haynes, now a second-year student in Harvard Divinity School's (HDS) master of divinity degree program.

It's been years since Haynes lived full-time in New Orleans, but she's never been able, or willing, to shake the city's imprint on her life. It was there where, as a young girl, Haynes discovered her passion for religion.

"My childhood in New Orleans was beautiful," recalled Haynes. "I went to private Catholic school my whole life. Growing up in that secluded Catholic world was pretty much all that I knew in New Orleans. My dad worked at Xavier University (a Catholic and historically black school), and I pretty much grew up on that campus, doing every summer program underneath the sun."

Haynes's parents divorced when she was a teenager, and she relocated with her mother to Pasadena, California. Acting was Haynes's second love; she had already picked up some commercial work in New Orleans. Now she had access to the Hollywood life that she first glimpsed back home.

"I had my own talk show on local television [in Los Angeles], and that flowed into beauty pageants and commercials and all these other things," said Haynes. Her show, "What's Really Goin' On," delved into teen issues and gave Haynes the opportunity to experiment behind the scenes, producing a few episodes. It was no surprise when Haynes abandoned college plans to pursue acting.

"Opting out of a free education at a prestigious Catholic school was not my parents' favorite thing ... but I did it," she said. "After Hurricane Katrina, I made a decision to go back to school because the negative portrayals of New Orleans did something to me. People would say things like, 'I'm so sorry for you, I know the education is really poor there, and people don't have any money.' … But that's not the entire picture. So I went back to college focused on doing work about New Orleans."

Haynes enrolled in Los Angeles Valley College before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she majored in political science. While at UCLA, she won a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which changed the course of her life.

Fusing politics, history, and religion, Haynes's research focused on the way that social classes formed in New Orleans, especially among the black population.

"I realized that I had to go all the way back to colonial Louisiana. So I went all the back to French-colonial and Spanish New Orleans, and found out some very interesting links between Catholicism, class, and race."

While things coalesced academically for Haynes, she was spiritually in turmoil. She had stepped away from Catholicism when a monsignor from her former church in New Orleans was implicated in a wave of sex abuse allegations against the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, it was Katrina that brought her back.

Haynes jump-started a charity almost overnight. She began running a clothing drive for victims of the hurricane and appealed to a monsignor in Hollywood to use church space for donations. He agreed, and his support reignited Haynes's faith in the church. "And I'm really excited about the changes taking place within the church now," she said.

Now a full-fledged Cantabrigian and Harvardian, Haynes focuses on religion and political rhetoric at HDS. After graduation, she plans to become a professor. She said that the generosity of HDS donors is making her experience—and her future—possible.

"I'm very grateful to the Monrads, the donors of my scholarship," said Haynes, who is a recipient of the Elizabeth H. Monrad Scholarship. "I think the funding is more than generous. HDS definitely tries to make you comfortable, and with their work-study positions, too."

Haynes keeps partially tethered to the acting work as co-head of the Boston chapter of Harvardwood, a group of Harvard community members who work in the arts, media, and entertainment. Haynes is currently working to lure Precious director Lee Daniels to lecture or lead a master class at Harvard.

With her Hollywood past and her Harvard degree in progress, Haynes is ready for the future.

"Maybe at some point someone may want to give me a talk show," she said with a grin.