3rd-Year M.Div. Student
What inspired you to become a spiritual leader?
I find inspiration in just about all that I see. Being a spiritual leader, for me, is as much about following as it is about leading. That is, I believe in following the signs that appear before me that I was not expecting and listening with my eyes to what they have to say. I was born a Baptist in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My parents Howard and Ruth Johnson said it was the biggest snowstorm they had ever seen. They would later become a part of the great migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North. In our case, it would be Chicago. It was here that my father met The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and converted to Islam. I was raised as a Muslim, following the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and The Nation of Islam. My dad would later change his name from Howard Johnson to Howard 5X and then later to Abdul Hakim Shareef.
I have always questioned the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the big three. Somehow, they never seemed to make sense to me, though I attended a Christian church and the Islamic Mosque. Instead, I always felt connected to something bigger and more mysterious. My dad and I have a fifty-year ongoing religious discussion about organized religion in general and Islam in particular. I chose not to change my name as I felt it was exchanging one slave name for another.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago in what they called a tough neighborhood. I was initiated into gang life when I was 11 years old; running the streets and getting into trouble. I have often reflected back on those days and am so grateful for having survived all the stupid things we did. When I was 16, things changed in a big way. We moved to the suburbs of Chicago and I began to associate with white people, whom I had believed to be the enemy. It was quite a shock, as I had only seen or known white folks on TV and as the police.
My spiritual awakening blossomed in college. I began to listen to so-called Jazz music in general and John Coltrane in particular. It spoke to something inside of me that let me know, in real terms, that there was more to life than what was seen.
It was here in 1971 that I was given my African name “Mtuaswa”, which in Kiswahili, means natural man, and I began a journey down the path of my ancestors which has led to my current spiritual moorings in indigenous spirituality generally and in African Spirituality in particular.
I graduated with a BA in Radio-TV-Film and went on to grad school, getting a MA in Human Learning and Development.
Why did you decide to study at Starr King?
The decision to come to Starr King is a great example of what I mean about “listening with my eyes.” I had no intention of attending seminary when I discovered Unitarian Universalism in rural Mississippi. I had been a spiritual director for years prior and did not consider myself a church person. Yet, I accepted an invitation to a UU church and was blown away by the historical commitment to justice and I found the principles so close to my very own. From there, while working with ex-offenders in Atlanta, to my surprise, UU came up again, and when I moved to Sedona, AZ., there it was again. So, I went online and found Starr King and saw this six foot-eight-inch-tall brother with an orange beard-and he was the provost! And they not only acknowledged oppression but had a commitment to educate to combat it. I was in! I have always had a commitment to fighting oppression from working with young folks in the neighborhood as a counselor, to teaching in a maximum security prison in Pontiac, Illinois, to coaching Special Olympics, to teaching and counseling child soldiers in war-torn Liberia, it is something that I feel called to do, in a natural way.
Can you tell us a little about the work you do outside of Starr King?
Outside of Starr King I am a practitioner of African Elemental Divination. That is, I offer private sessions/readings based upon the discovery of the “Elemental Self”, that which the personality is based upon. Together we remove unconscious debris from the soil of the soul. Starr King contributes to my practice by standing on principles that allow for an ongoing search for truth and understanding and a respect for all ways.
What has been your most meaningful or memorable experience at Starr King?
There have been so many. I have met so many wonderful folks. But the one memorable one that comes up now is the discovery that our president Rosemary and I grew up in the same neighborhood and we both watched the same cartoon shows growing up. It’s funny and also a sign for me in my ongoing discernment for the ministry.
What do you hope to do with your Starr King education going forward?
Going forward I am convinced my Starr King education and experience will make an indelible mark on everything that I encounter. I say this because of the people I have encountered during my Starr King seminary journey. The Starr King experience has solidified my belief in the power of people to make a difference and to speak truth to power. Though, not perfect by any means, the social justice and life affirming commitments I have seen and experienced at Starr King will influence, in an elemental way, all that shall cross my path and all the paths that I shall cross.
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