TheGrio’s 100: Jawanza Colvin, preaching across generations — from Joshua to Jay-Z

When 35-year-old Reverend Jawanza Karriem Lightfoot Colvin took the pulpit at Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, he had big sermons to fill – the previous pastor’s 33-year legacy included work with Martin Luther King, Jr. But using a blend of Biblical text, hip-hop, poetry, and pop culture, Colvin is now making his own legacy – as a pastor of the 21st century.

Jawanza Karriem Lightfoot Colvin is making history … preaching to each generation in its own language. Baptized in Washington D.C. and previously pastor of his childhood church, Colvin was elected to succeed Reverend Otis Moss, Jr. at Olivet, a church Colvin describes as “one of America’s national cathedrals for the African-American religious tradition.” With this tradition in mind, the minister calls himself part of the “Joshua generation” — because Joshua’s task to finish Moses’ leading of God’s people parallels the way Colvin now builds off Moss’s legacy.

Using a range of sources extending from the Bible to Jay-Z, Reverend Colvin appeals to the mix of older, more traditional congregants and iPod-touting Millennials who compose his 3,000-member parish. After two years, Colvin’s modern appeal has brought 600 new members to the church and expanded the reach of the parish’s community service efforts — with more than 50 spiritually-based programs in the greater Cleveland region.

What’s next for Jawanza?

With outreach activities that include support groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s at the Eliza Bryant Center as well as student tutoring at the Fairfax Recreation Center, Reverend Colvin follows a philosophy of “Reaching Higher, Growing Stronger.” Colvin is reaching higher himself; he is currently pursuing his doctorate of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, specializing in adult leadership and education.

In his own words …

“I really see myself as building on their legacy. Building on the foundation they have laid,” said Colvin, referring to Olivet’s past pastors. “Being more innovative in ways that are relevant to the 21st century.”

A favorite quote …

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

A little-known fact …

The top five hip-hop artists frequently quoted in the Reverend Colvin’s sermons are Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Kanye West, and Grandmaster Flash.

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