We’ve all seen it before—picket signs bob up and down; rows of bandana-covered faces stare into police barricades; car horns, smoke, and chants fill the air; a controversial poster representing ideologies, beliefs, and movements stands tall in front yards and across store windows—activism. In its quiet form and in its active form, just as the name suggests.
A scroll through Facebook or a quick jaunt over to Twitter will reveal that, today, activism stands at an all-time high. No longer does the word “activism” only equate to protests, sit-ins, and marches. In fact, charities, movements, and revolutions can be supported with a “like” or a retweet. Links to news articles of the world’s problems accompanied with graphic images to pull at the heartstrings stand at the ready. And crowd-funding websites, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, reveal a generation that desires to help the world and its problems, one dollar (and one idea) at a time.
In just the last five years, we’ve seen movements around the world exceed the borders of “out there.” Individuals spanning the globe have taken part in revolutionary events—such as Arab Spring, the Save Darfur Cause, and KONY 2012, to name a few—all from the comfort of their homes.
But with activism comes the ever-present disclosure of “activist burnout,” which is defined as a phenomenon that occurs when a political or social activist feels overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, or depressed, usually after a period of extensive activism.
Causes like fighting human trafficking or feeding the homeless can undoubtedly feel intimidating when reading statistics or seeing the problem at the global level. Activists have to believe that they, as individuals, have some power or influence to make change or else the temptation of burning out lurks around the corner, ready to take them out for good.
On the other hand, Jonathan Walton, the 28-year-old executive director of the New York City Urban Project (NYCUP), refuses to believe in the power of one’s actions. Although his work includes feeding the homeless, mentoring students from low-income neighborhoods, and fighting human trafficking—all activities that could define him as an “activist”—he doesn’t believe in the power of what he can do.
“It’s impossible to change the world without having been transformed by the love of God,” Jonathan says. “You can change it. You can make the oppressed the oppressor, but you won’t actually bring peace. I am unashamed to say that people who don’t follow Jesus are not going to transform the world. They will change powers and systems but they will not bring fundamental transformation and redemption. Redemption comes from one place. That’s Jesus. The cross. Love comes from one place. Everything else is counterfeit.”
Jonathan shares his conviction with unabashed boldness. And while he may offend people who don’t agree, he can only speak from his own experience. And that experience led him through a process of shedding many masks to find what really matters.
Before Jonathan, the director of NYCUP, was Jonathan, the poet, an identity that surfaced early in his childhood. Raised in Brodnax, Virginia, a small town with a population of about 300 people, Jonathan and his three siblings lived on his grandfather’s 200-acre farm, where the rest of his extended family lived as well.
In the fifth and sixth grade, Jonathan began demonstrating a passion for the written word.
“Jonathan would read anyhow. I didn’t have this thing with him like I had with some of the other children,” Jonathan’s mother, Iva, says with her soft Southern accent. She speaks emphatically, as if every word holds greater weight than the last. An occasional laugh bursts out mid-sentence. “I would say, ‘Did you read it?’ and they would say, ‘Yeah,’ but if they would leave it on the table, I would’ve read it and I could tell whether they read it or not. But I didn’t have that problem with Jonathan because he would go ahead and do his. And a lot of his reading or writing was out of him. It was about what he decided to write about. It wasn’t a topic somebody gave him.”
He began filling blank pages with his own poetry about what he observed and experienced as a growing adolescent. At 15 years old, when he discovered his dad had cheated on his mom, he wrote. A year later, when Jonathan got thrown off of a motorcycle in the parking lot of an Arby’s and walked away unscathed, he wrote. As a high school senior, when a football injury forced Jonathan to find a way to get into college besides athletics, he wrote. Poetry quickly became his escape and way of expression.
When Jonathan was 16 years old, he wrote “My Release” to try his hand at slam poetry. It later became the poem of poems he performed, gaining attention from his peers and family members. The first part of the poem reads: Poetry is my release my shield from all grief my refuge to which I retreat when this world is too much for me These phrases on these pages are the language my mind speaks metaphors and similes poetic elements I just— b r e a t h e Phrases are written within me my spirit on this page is free I see my dreams I build my fantasies I am the author of my own reality Couplets and quatrains bleed free within my veins Sssssshhhhhhh…
And later: Random thoughts vex my intellect swirl around my head like swarms of insects I hear dogs barking, angels harking I see fireworks sparkling, real stars falling Harps, larks, frosted strawberry pop tarts Feel swinging hips as hip hop tops pop and rock on billboard charts Lyrics transcend uncolored minds and hearts Rock guitarists rap, rap stars play guitars Rappers bragging of acquired scars, Boasting of time spent behind bars Some people think it’s so cool to have entry wounds
Bullet riddled, twice addicted, now afflicted icons
are our idol superstars
Drugs and drinks are enclosed by minks
as fine clothes cloak the conflicts of rich folk
I then focus my attention on ordinary citizens
Gathered in a residence and forced to make decisions
Made to engage in senseless competition
Followed by cameras in pivotal positions
This weekly ritual is called reality television
One year later, on November 3, 2003, 17-year-old Jonathan published his first book of poems, titled My Release, with the help of his mother, who took out a mortgage to fund the book. Jonathan, the poet, was now Jonathan, the published poet.
In 2004, the narrative of Jonathan’s identity got even more interesting when he went from Jonathan, the published poet, to Jonathan, the Columbia University student with a full-ride scholarship.
“Somebody bet me that I couldn’t get into an Ivy League school, so I Googled ‘Ivy League schools’ because I didn’t know what it was…” Jonathan recalls. “I literally remember going home to Google ‘Ivy League poetry’ and what came up was Langston Hughes because he went to Columbia.”
Throughout his time at Columbia, Jonathan continued to write poetry fervently as he studied theater. During his sophomore year, when he was 20 years old, he published his second book, titled Second Verse, which included an added verse to “My Release” as well as the juxtaposition of New York City and Brodnax through portraits of people and places. Two years later, at the age of 22, Jonathan published his third book, Legal: the First 21 Years, which was an edited version of the first two books with additions from his senior thesis.
was an edited version of the first two books with additions from his senior thesis.
Although Jonathan’s list of accomplishments exceeded that of most undergraduate students with three published books under his belt, he lived conflicted. Jonathan grew up knowing of God. He went to church. He even got baptized at the age of 13 at a revival church service, but only because “everyone else was getting baptized.” Walking away from the motorcycle accident that aggressively threw him onto the pavement made God’s existence real to Jonathan. How else could he explain not getting hurt when he should have died? But his relationship with God didn’t go beyond a functional one, in which he asked God for things he needed and behaved well enough to get them.
Perhaps the items in his freshman dorm room best represented his inner-conflict. Above his bed hung a poster of Jesus with every name for Christ in the Bible, like “Morning Star” and “Risen King.” And yet, the other wall boasted posters of rappers 50 Cent, Eminem, and Dr. Dre. Jonathan didn’t possess any sort of real relationship with God, yet he felt the need to fill his dorm room with remnants of Christianity. A Bible laid proudly on his bookshelf, although dusty and hardly used.
The truth was, the poet, the published poet, or even the Columbia student with a scholarship didn’t address the bitterness he harbored against his father years ago when he found out he cheated on his mom. Nor the disappointment Jonathan pushed away but couldn’t deny when his father failed to show up to soccer games or spoken word performances as a young child. Nor the secret struggle of watching pornography he felt too ashamed to admit but proved too addicted to stop.
And all of it came to a dramatic confrontation in the summer of 2006. Jonathan accepted an internship in New York City that promised to pay him a lot and give him a nice apartment. But within three weeks, he discovered his first paycheck bounced after he spent the money he thought he earned, he got locked out of his apartment with a notice that rent hadn’t been paid for in six months, and his computer broke down. Jonathan, the man of much success and talent, had nothing but the clothes on his back.
With no money and no job to hide behind, Jonathan fell to his knees. Up until this point, he attended church at a safe distance and sporadically went to Bible studies hosted by InterVarsity, the largest college Christian fellowship in the U.S. But now, he had no choice but to confront the shame, the exhaustion, and the emotions he got so good at suppressing.
“I had a conversation with [InterVarsity’s campus minister] on the top of Morningside Park,” Jonathan explains. “And I was just like, ‘Why do you care? You’re this Hawaiian-Chinese-Filipino wrestler, who came to Columbia and graduated and came on staff on InterVarsity, and you care about me? I couldn’t be farther away from the narrative you have.’ He was just like, ‘Jesus cares, so I care.’ And I was like, ‘Who are you talking about?’ So I prayed and asked God to take over.”
Jonathan’s invitation to let God take over his life didn’t result in an overnight change. In fact, his schedule got busier, his struggles with pornography still lingered, and he didn’t know how to balance what he was good at—poetry and performing—with what God wanted him to do.
But his perspective began to expand beyond his own life. When he learned about child soldiers and victims of human trafficking for the first time, his heart broke the way God’s heart broke for them. His eyes opened to the drug addicts, the hungry, and the homeless in the city he now called home. And for the first time in his life, he knew it wasn’t about who he was—the poet or the Columbia student—but it was about who Jesus is.
And that was enough.
In the basement of a church in Washington Heights, Manhattan, Jonathan stands in front of 20 individuals, who have volunteered their time to brainstorm for the multiple programs that make up the New York City Urban Project. The vision of NYCUP is to help transform college students into world changers through its programs, including Feed 500 and Feed-a-Few, Teach 500, Spring Break, Summer, and LoGOFF. These programs connect college students to existing organizations who care for the homeless, mentor students from low-income neighborhoods, and educate consumers to be responsible by bringing awareness to child slavery and sexual exploitation.
Before the workshop begins, Jonathan takes a moment to shake hands and say, “Hello,” to the students who are scattered about the underground auditorium. He then makes his way up to the front, welcomes everyone, opens with prayer, and jumps right in. He asks the students whose responsibility it is to translate the Bible studies on campus to the rest of the world and to the local church. The answer is theirs. Campus is a nice construct that students have, he explains, but it doesn’t reflect the real world.
“I want to develop leaders with character and capacity to change the world. And the way that we do that is by creating concrete, sustainable experiences for people to actually follow Jesus well, not just learn about Him, but actually do what He did,” Jonathan says.
do what He did,” Jonathan says. Heads nod in agreement across the room and bodies lean in a little closer.
“Those words go together: word and deed and power. Jesus was not just a cool guy. He wasn’t just some cool teacher. He didn’t just write things down and then lots of people figured it out. But he actually did everything He asked the disciples to do. Therefore, if you’re sitting there and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to be betrayed,’ Jesus knows what it was like to be betrayed. One of his best friends put him on the cross.”
Although most individuals in the room have likely heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, every ear tunes into Jonathan’s words, as if the story depends on what he says next. The dramatic silence drowns out the loud hum of the dehumidifier in the auditorium.
“Jesus knows what it was like to be forsaken because of the brokenness of this world. Jesus knows what it’s like to be followers. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee. He knows what it’s like to be broken. He knows what it’s like to be burdened. He knows what it’s like to live under oppression. That’s the Jesus that I serve. And that’s the Jesus we want to preach about and teach about and actually invite people to get to know.”
For a moment, it doesn’t feel like a workshop in a basement auditorium with a small group of students. For a moment, the space transforms into an underground café where Jonathan memorized a poem to perform it to life. There’s an overwhelming temptation to clap. But no one does. Instead, a silenced awe and a stirring call to action hang heavily in the air.
“Because when you follow that Jesus—the Jesus of Scripture, the refugee, Palestinian, born to a single mama teenager Jew, that King—you get transformed…If you’re following the stained-glass window, flowing hair, holding-the-lamb Jesus, that Jesus doesn’t transform the world.
holding-the-lamb Jesus, that Jesus doesn’t transform the world. still. That Jesus isn’t alive. But Jesus got off of the cross.”
Jonathan’s delivery stirs people. His words flow so methodically and rhythmically, listeners can’t help but hunger for more. A natural gift that has given him attention and success for most of his young adult life. Which is exactly why God asked him to give it up.
At the start of Jonathan’s third year at Columbia in the fall of 2006, InterVarsity asked him to become the large group coordinator, where he organized weekly worship meetings for students and made sure each meeting included a speaker, a time to sing worship songs, and prayer, among other elements. His leadership skills, confidence, and overall zeal brought growth as more and more students came out each week. But for one particular large group meeting, Jonathan double-booked another event, where he emceed a concert for battered women. I can easily do both, he thought. When the day arrived, Jonathan did a run-through for the concert at 2 p.m., making sure all the lights and sound were in check. As soon as he finished, he sprinted over to the chapel to present the speaker for large group, leaving again for the concert as soon as he stepped off of the stage.
“Literally, when I left, it’s like the spirit of God left me and stayed in [the chapel], and I went by myself,” Jonathan remembers. “So when I got [to the concert], people were like, ‘Are you OK? You look like something’s different or missing.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’m really tired. My head hurts.’ When I got on stage, everything was fine. But I was completely exhausted…When I sat there that night, God was like, ‘You could either be with Me or you could be by yourself. It’s up to you. But all this stuff comes from Me.’ So after that, I was just like, ‘OK then. I’m just not going to do anymore performances thataren’t for You.”
aren’t for You.”
Wishing to never again feel God’s presence leave him, Jonathan committed his life to doing only what God wanted him to do. This began a process of shedding off the comfortable and successful identities of poet and performer while simultaneously redeeming his existing poetry. God wanted Jonathan’s identity in Him, not in what Jonathan did or didn’t do.
“Poetry, hip-hop, slam poetry is literally all about building an altar to yourself,” Jonathan explains. “When you battle somebody and your goal is to tear them down and build yourself up and the person who does it best wins, that is not what the kingdom of God is about. So ‘My Release’ was rewritten.”
After creating a map of his family’s history, known as a genogram, and seeing five generations marked by infidelity, drug abuse, and failed marriages, Jonathan knew he had to do something different…but only under the umbrella of grace. The main focus of Jonathan’s poetry had been about himself. But rather than revise all the poems to reflect a blameless Jonathan who had it all together this whole time, he chose to demonstrate redemption and restoration.
In a blog post about his reworking of “My Release,” Jonathan writes:
Now, I am not saying I didn’t write words that weren’t true. I am not saying God didn’t use the poems, sermons, prayers, and conversations to bless the people I was privileged to address. What I am saying is, I thought all of the good things in this world were because of me, and I realize now it’s all because of Jesus. I did not get into Columbia because I published a book. I did not get a scholarship because I was charismatic and gifted…I am saved by grace through faith and all my deeds are but filthy rags.
And so, Jonathan rewrote “My Release.” In the same order he performed the first version of “My Release,” he performed the newest version to his family first, then to his church. An excerpt from the newest “My Release” reads: Yes, I am my father’s son but I’m also Our Father’s son and because of His first begotten son my wife and one day son to come will know the love of his father and Our Father too.
So, poetry is still my release But God is my shield and He holds my grief He is my refuge and retreat When this world is too much for me
His phrases on His pages are His messages of freedom to me. I exchange my life for His and receive His Holy Spirit The mighty rushing wind is all I want to b r e a t h e. And with that, Jonathan put away his poetry until it’s time again. Today, his priority is to be the best husband he can be to his wife, Priscilla, and then to train up students through the NYCUP program, which he made a 20-year commitment to do in 2011.
“Out of Jeremiah [chapters] 28-29, God was calling me to a person, a people, and a place,” Jonathan says. “[God said], ‘You’re going to marry Priscilla. You’re going to live in New York City. And you’re going to hang out on that bridge where people with physical and spiritual resources want to get to people who don’t have it, and vice versa.”
to people who don’t have it, and vice versa.”
When Jesus revealed to Jonathan that his identity had nothing to do with his actions or any activism he participated in, Jonathan witnessed dramatic success. From 2010 to 2011, he saw more than 2,000 students volunteer with New York City Urban Project. But more than numbers, Jonathan saw students’ lives being transformed as their eyes opened to a living and active Jesus in New York City.
“We’re afraid to say x, y, and z, but no strategy that I have is going to multiply the boxes of food when I’ve got 400 people who are going to take two boxes a piece. And I only have 600 boxes of food on this truck,” Jonathan says. “No strategy that I have, no education, is going to give everybody a box of food. Jesus did that. You have to show people the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of Jesus, and then allow them to make a choice.”
Carolyn Carney, the spiritual director for InterVarsity in New York and New Jersey, first met Jonathan when he was in her small group at Columbia eight years ago. Since then, she’s worked alongside him on staff and witnessed his growth firsthand.
“He is really hungry to learn more. And he’s very humble,” Carolyn says. “He will ask questions for something he doesn’t understand, which for someone who has a background as a Columbia student, someone who is so creative and talented as he is, to be someone who’s so humble and wants to learn, I find that to be really admirable. And he’s so open about his own failings in life and his own struggles. As I’ve seen him work with students, Isee that as an incredible asset that warms students up to him and allows them to be in a place to share what their struggles are.”
see that as an incredible asset that warms students up to him and allows them to be in a place to share what their struggles are.”
The large-scale impact that NYCUP has on the local community can be traced back to Jonathan. Not because of what he does. In fact, he readily admits that he has a long list of things not to do. He made mistakes and continues to make them. But he isn’t crushed by those mistakes because he knows that his identity isn’t found in what he does. It’s found in Jesus.
“I know I can speak, but I have no desire to make $20-, $30-, $40,000 giving talks to people all around the world,” Jonathan says. “I did that already. I’ve done the getting on the plane, selling books, smiling, taking pictures, and leaving. I have no desire to do that for the rest of my life.
“When you cast demons out of people, when you see people get healed, when you see demon-possessed people yell at you in the street, when you actually walk like Jesus, it’s the best thing in the world. To see people turn from darkness to light, they open their eyes, they get it, they see themselves for the first time, that’s the best thing in the world, hands down. And if I can keep doing that, then I’ll do it.”
Because, at the end of the day, Jonathan isn’t the poet, the published poet, the Columbia student, the activist, or the executive director. Jonathan is, simply, His.
Copyright © 2017 re.write magazine. All Rights Reserved.
FOLLOW JONATHAN:@foreverfocused nycurbanproject.com
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