|SFTS student Renard Allen making a difference through youth education program
Rev. Renard Allen feels doubly blessed. The third-year Master of Divinity student at San Francisco Theological Seminary comes from a preaching family, following in the footsteps of his great grandfather and grandfather. Allen, a 2009 Morehouse College graduate, has also been inspired by the social justice activism and respected theological intellect of Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, senior pastor at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.
It was an unanticipated encounter where Allen's and Brown’s paths crossed. Allen was a young, talented and eager pastor who was preparing to make his way in the world. Brown, known throughout the world and considered a legend in his own time, saw innate qualities in Allen that aligned with his vision for scholarly excellence and social justice. Soon thereafter, Brown offered Allen the opportunity of a lifetime … to move to San Francisco and work under his direction.
As Brown’s administrative assistant for more than two years, coinciding with his theological training at SFTS, Allen has been called to direct the Third Baptist Freedom School for children of all races from underserved communities. Allen admittedly approached this duty as just another item on his to-do list. But after coordinating Freedom School summer sessions in 2011 and 2012, Allen has come full circle, realizing that God has been equipping him to serve in this special capacity long before he decided to attend seminary.
“I’m proud of the fact that Freedom School combines character development with cultural awareness and academic success,” Allen said. “It involves civic responsibility as well as encouraging discipline. It offers more than just a traditional classroom.”
>> Click here to see a TV news feature on Allen's Freedom School
Just has his great grandfather and grandfather encouraged him to pursue a well-rounded education, Allen has passed on these keys to success to the 65 youth he mentored the past two summers.
“Children need to be affirmed,” Allen said. “They need to know they deserve quality education and quality life. Because these kids are from underserved communities, it is more important for them to view education as a tool that will allow them to affect change.”
Freedom School grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, originating in Mississippi as a way to emphasize the importance of reading in relationship to freedom. Now hosted at various sites throughout the United States, Freedom School is supported by the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy organization.
The program at Third Baptist drew 65 youth 4 to 14 years old to its six-week program, which ran daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Each day began with what Allen termed a “pep rally for learning.” Allen said they sing, cheer and chant to infuse energy into the day.
“A traditional classroom can be very stifling – not liberating,” Allen said. “We take the Freedom School model and put our stamp on it, emphasizing reading.”
Third Baptist’s Freedom School also offers family workshops and meals to get parents involved in their children’s training.
Even though Allen comes from a long line of preachers, his personal story isn’t that far removed from the children he is serving. His parents separated when he and his brother were very young, and they were raised first by their great grandparents and then by their grandparents. His father was incarcerated for 13 years, but has since become a preacher, marking four generations of pastors in the Allen family.
“Ever since I can remember I knew I would be a preacher,” Allen said. “All I knew growing up is that I wanted be like my great grandfather and grandfather. I idolized them.”
Allen harks back to his days as a young boy sitting in the back pew with his brother, taking a nap during church services. But whenever his great grandfather would preach, he would rise up and stare at him, listening to messages he was rightfully too young to comprehend.
"I was very enamored with them. They were/are distinguished African American pastors - very well read with a remarkable presence and powerful eloquence. I wanted to be just like them."
Fast forward to 2010 when Allen moved from Atlanta to San Francisco to work with Brown at Third Baptist Church, the first Black Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains that dates to 1852.
"He reminds me of my great grandfather and grandfather," Allen said of Brown. "In terms of his distinguished demeanor and studiousness, he reminds me of them both. However, whereas they were/are priests who were prophetic, Brown is a prophet who is priestly, in that he is a social activist pastor. Therefore, I have been doubly blessed to be fully immersed in both the priestly and prophetic traditions."
Allen points out that growing up with a great grandfather and grandfather who were renowned preachers gave him a solid foundation for preaching. Working with Brown at Third Baptist complements Allen’s ministries, adding vital and inspirational social justice experiences.
Brown was instrumental in encouraging Allen to attend SFTS to earn his Master of Divinity degree.
"Dr. Brown pushed me to go to San Francisco Theological Seminary because it provided the greatest academic rigor,” Allen said. “I need to be at the place with the greatest challenge.”
Allen will be doing his internship at Third Baptist during the 2012-13 academic year. He is executive director of the Back on Track Tutoring program, a collaboration between Third Baptist and Temple Emanu-El that provides one-on-one academic mentoring. He will continue to serve as Brown’s administrative assistant and also writes a weekly Bible study for the Sun Reporter, San Francisco community-based newspaper.