The I Am You is a nascent social movement emerging from the increasing racial injustice highlighted by the May 2020 brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers. Hence, the I Am You movement reflects the racial challenges faced by people from all walks of life, all over the world. We wear colorful shirts, signifying that we areaccountable to one another. By joining this movement, we declare that all humans identify with one another on a fundamental level. This simple creed guides us. The results of this movement will inform countless individuals and give them a platform to go beyond their communities to transform and heal the world.

Rev. James Venable interviewed by Grace Jackson.
First of all, can you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about your background and what’s happening in your life right now?

Presently I'm a third-year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School. I'm also a Christian cleric. Next month I will have had 29 years of ministerial experience. I began my formal involvement in church life in 1987 as the president of the junior deacon board at Saint John Christian Community Church in Baltimore. I had this burning desire for a formal role in the church and for an even more Christ-centered life. I was called in 1992 to preach the gospel. In 1997, I accepted the position of youth pastor at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas. In 1999 I became the senior pastor of the Straight Up Believers Church in Duncanville, Texas. In 2002, I moved on to God's Regeneration Church in DeSoto, Texas serving as associate pastor. In 2009, I became an ordained nondenominational cleric. In 2010, I transferred to the church at Nineveh, in Dallas, Texas to serve as assistant pastor. After six years there, I decided to move on and serve another church community at the Lone Star Missionary Baptist Church, where I was ordained in 2017 as a Baptist cleric. When I moved to New Haven to study at Yale Divinity School in 2018, I joined the Summerfield United Methodist church as an executive pastor serving until March 2020. Currently I serve as a Yale Divinity intern at the St. Luke's Episcopal church. In this capacity, I lead daily prayers, teach weekly Bible studies, and preach every second Sunday.

What have you been doing during the pandemic in terms of preaching?

I've been preaching and doing weekly prayers and running Bible study. Because of the pandemic, it’s all been online.

How do you find that? Is it harder to connect with people?

It was a challenge. I had never taught Bible study online before. At the beginning, I planned a lecture, but I realized immediately that they were accustomed to more dialogue. That was a lesson I learned in the first week.

How did you come to be involved with Vision Lab?

I’ve known Kythe for six years now. When we met, I was a Harvard undergrad, and Kythe was my tutor. She believed in me, she encouraged me, and she mentored me—she still does, to this day. We built a strong relationship. As a matter of fact, in my last year at Harvard, the Harvard Gazette published a story about me, and the story went viral. They had me on the front of Harvard University website. In that story, Kythe is mentioned. I appreciate her friendship and I appreciate her integrity. She's a wonderful person. I also appreciate her scholarship and how she’s able to stretch me.

I reached back out to Kythe at the beginning of the summer of 2020. I got in touch because I have a strong desire to go back to Harvard, to work on my doctorate, and in the past, she always believed in me and encouraged me to pursue the Ph.D. program. She was all excited. And it so happened that she’s working with Dr. Cornell West, who was my senior thesis advisor at Harvard and who will work with me in the Ph.D. program. Coincidentally, when I called her she said, “James, you won't believe it, I was just reading a story that Harvard wrote about you.” She also said that she had just had a conversation with Dr. West. From there, we began talking about what she was doing, and her work on the phoenix with Vision Lab.

Tell me about your academic research.

I'm working on misogynoir, which is a term that was coined in 2008 by feminist scholar Dr. Moya Bailey. It deals with the mistreatment of African-American woman. My interest is in African-American religion as it pertains to the mistreatment of black women, including by clerics, and how it relates to the mistreatment of African-Americans in the United States more broadly.

Vision Lab is very broadly conceived as an artists’ collective. Do you think of yourself as an artist?

At this point I do, yes. I'm an artist in the sense that I'm a creative thinker. As a preacher, I'm able to paint pictures with my words through the experience of African-Americans and all people.

What does the phoenix mean to you?

When I think of the phoenix, I think of rebirth. I keep thinking about this rebirth and this mythical bird that’s rising from ashes of the flames of death. As a cleric, the theological concept of rebirth is important to me. Rebirth—being born again, being born from above. When I think about the phoenix, I think about life.

Do you see a metaphor for Christ in the phoenix?

Yes. Christians believe that we're born from above, we're born in Christ from above. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again,” but in the Greek it’s “born from above,” which makes me think of this bird, this phoenix flying above. Elsewhere in the New Testament, in Acts chapter 2, there is a description of the believer as clothed with tongues of fire, speaking a different language. The connection to the phoenix is there, too, that we’re on fire, that we’re motivated to speak other people’s language, with passion.

Tell me about your phoenix project and the inspiration for it.

Well, it was the bird—and the idea of being reborn again and on fire. Initially I was focusing on the idea of speaking in tongues—the theological term is glossolalia—that they were on fire, that the Holy Spirit gave them utterance, you know what I'm saying? They were clothed with tongues, on fire. I saw passion there, passion to impact lives.

That began to develop into the idea of “I Am You.” I define “I Am You” as a nascent social movement emerging from increasing racial injustice, which was highlighted by the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers. So, the “I Am You” movement reflects the racial challenges experienced by people from all walks of life, all over the world. The “I Am You” shirt has different colored faces, to signify that we are accountable to one another. I am my sister and brother’s keeper. When I wear this shirt, which is my phoenix project, what I am saying is, simply, that I can identify with you. And therefore, I'm going to do what I have to do to keep you, to preserve you.

That’s a very radical message. What are the implications of that kind of pure empathy? What would society look like if we all internalized the message of “I Am You”?

A progressive society, a liberating society, an altruistic society that is concerned about the other and doing for the other, not to get something in return. A world that is concerned about other people's pain. We would see ourselves as physicians, metaphorically, healing the wounds of the past. Or we'll see ourselves as attorneys, metaphorical attorneys – people who are defending other people, treating other people the way they want other people to treat them. So, whatever that person wants for themselves to achieve greatness or whatever, that's what they're doing for other people. As Jesus said, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant.” So, the higher you go, the lower you become—servants. I'm seeing a world of service. Rather than being served, we are serving.

With your shirts, what have you distributed them to people in your community?

Well, I've had quite a few people order them, family and friends, in different States and in different religious traditions. For example, in Dallas, Texas, one of my pastor friends wants a few shirts for the ministerial staff at his church – it’s a way for the leaders to lead by example.

In the past year, we've lost a lot. I'm just wondering what you have found to be permanent this year. What have you not lost? What have we not lost?

Well, because of the pandemic, I think that many people today aren’t taking life so much for granted, that they’re cherishing life with a more conscious awareness. It has created a desire to not take life for granted or to take one another for granted. So, I have not lost – rather, I’ve gained that desire to cherish life with more consciousness. I'm not taking this moment, this second, this hour for granted.

As a cleric, how has this year challenged you?

I found myself out of my comfort zone, having to teach and preach online, which I've never done before. That was a real challenge. It was a learning experience.

Finally, I want to ask you, what are your hopes and fears for the current moment?

One thing I am concerned about is the behavior of our leaders. Of the previous president, for example. The negative behavior of political leaders and even some clerics and what they’re willing to do for political gain.

Do you mean those religious leaders who went along with Trump?

Exactly. Not only the politicians, but those pastors. It raised the question, how far are the politicians and pastors willing to go? Sadly, we've seen how far, in the recent riots in our Capitol. There are evangelical pastors who came up with a way to justify what happened, stating that Donald Trump has the prophecy, that God wants Donald Trump to have a second term. That is my concern. I'm concerned with the direction of political leaders and pastors, their mindset. How far are they willing to go for political gain?

Do you see this having an impact on the young people that you teach?

My concern is when young people look at leaders like former President Donald Trump, when they do wrong, they can point to that leader and say, that person did it, I'm following the leader. That's what I'm concerned about – following the wrong leaders. Young people in high school might look at the President’s behavior, for example his disrespectful behavior towards women, and say, “monkey see, monkey do” – he did it, and so will I. They’ll disrespect the opposite sex because we have a leader, or had a leader, who disrespects the opposite sex. That's my real concern about this younger generation, that they’ve got the wrong example.

As a devout Christian with 29 years of ministerial experience, Rev. James Venable began his formalinvolvement in church life in 1987 as President of the Junior Deacon Board at St. John Christian Community Church in Baltimore. Seeking a more formal role in the church, as well as an even more Christ-centered life, he was called to preach in 1992. After 10 years at St. John Christian CommunityChurch, in 1997, he accepted the position of Youth Pastor at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas. In 1999, he became the Senior Pastor of the Straight-Up Believers Church in Duncanville, Texas. In that capacity, he prepared and delivered high-quality teaching and preaching messages weekly. In 2002, he moved on to God’s Regeneration Church in Desoto, Texas, serving as its Associate Pastor. While there, in 2005, he became a licensed non-denominational cleric and then, in 2009, he became an ordained non- denominational cleric. In 2010, in consultation with his Senior Pastorat God’s Regeneration Church, he transferred to the Church at Nineveh in Dallas to serve as its Assistant Pastor.

After 6 years, in 2016, in consultation with his Senior Pastor at the Church at Nineveh, Rev. Venable moved on to serve another church community at the Lone Star Missionary Baptist Church, where he waslicensed in 2016 and ordained in 2017 as a Baptist Cleric, also serving as Executive Pastor. In that capacity, he was fully responsible, in concert with the Senior Pastor, for preaching, supervising church staff, tutoring youth, and collaborating with church members on a redecorating project, among a myriad of other responsibilities. With each of these new positions, Rev. Venable’s responsibilities increased, both in the administration of church affairs and in attending to the spiritual and pastoral needs of the church community.

While maturing as a Cleric, Rev. Venable decided to achieve his lifelong goal of furthering his education.He matriculated to Harvard University in 2015, where he received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree in Religion. While studying there, he completed his thesis under the guidance of the renowned African American scholar, Dr. Cornel West. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, cum laude in 2018, Rev.Venable matriculated to Yale University Divinity School on a full scholarship. Upon moving to New Haven, Connecticut, to study at Yale University Divinity School in 2018, Rev.Venable joined the Summerfield United Methodist Church as Executive Pastor. In that capacity, his responsibilities consisted of overseeing Church operations, administration, finances, strategic planning, and human resources to achieve the vision and mission of the Senior Pastor. Currently, he serves as a Yale Divinity Intern at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. In this capacity, he leads daily prayers, teaches weekly Bible study, and preaches every second Sunday for 8:30 AM prayers and 11:00 AM High Mass.