Black Church at Yale Known as a Space for Worship Since 1973

Members of the Black Church at Yale, led by Pastor OrLando Yarborough III, meet at the Afro-American Cultural Center, 211 Park St., New Haven, Conn., on April 14, 2019.

The place at Yale University where generations of black students and others have joined in prayer and praise has a feel of familiarity, even in the way people talk about it.

It’s the Black Church at Yale, but everyone knows it as BCAY. It’s held Sundays during the school year at the Afro-American Cultural Center on Park Street, which everyone calls simply “the House.” And its pastor, OrLando Yarborough III, who earned his doctorate in genetics at Yale in 2010, is known as Pastor O.

BCAY, launched amid some controversy on Feb. 4, 1973, under the leadership of the Rev. Samuel Slie, who died in February at 93, is intimate and welcoming.

“I like that it’s a small group of people, that we set everything up and break everything down,” said Nana Mensah, a senior and one of two students from Ghana who was attending BCAY on Palm Sunday. “Yale being such a big place, it’s great to have a small group of people.”

“This tradition seemed more homey to me, the community,” said Naasey Arthur, a sophomore who is also from Ghana. “You know everyone, and everyone checks up on you, actually cares.”

On Palm Sunday, there were a dozen people on the second floor of the House on Park Street, including Yarborough, his wife, Dr. Rashele Yarborough, their 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, and Hannah’s grandmother, visiting from Baltimore. The Yarboroughs were trained at Church on the Rock, a nondenominational church in New Haven, and OrLando was ordained there in 2015.

OrLando Yarborough introduced the Palm Sunday service by explaining that Jesus was entering Jerusalem triumphantly, as a king would, but riding on a donkey, according to the prophecy of Zechariah. People spread palm fronds and coats in his path. Less than a week later, Jesus would be crucified by the Romans, only to rise from the dead on Easter.

“There are some who would understand who he is,” Yarborough said. “There are others who are questioning who he is and a crowd that begins to form as he comes into Jerusalem.”

Students led much of the service, including Meshach Cornelius, a first-year student from Rochester, N.Y., playing the keyboard and Jalen Parks, a senior from Flint, Mich., concluding the service with a benediction. Kalen Beacham, a junior from Dallas, led the “love assault,” when members shared positive thoughts with their neighbors.

Mensah, dressed all in white, brought a serene spirituality into the group by leading the members in a soft, repetitive song, swaying to the music.

Beacham said BCAY “resonated because it was very similar to my old church … very intimate.” He added, “My time at Yale, my time at BCAY has helped me grow as a Christian, find answers and further solidify my faith.” He said he’s also joined other groups on campus, such as the Christian Union at Yale and Yale Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship. “We even do joint services with Battell Chapel,” where the University Church in Yale worships.

‘Put that person first’

Rashele Yarborough started her sermon with the Great Commandment: “Love God with all of your insides: all of your heart, soul, strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” she said. “God calls us to love with this ‘I’ll love you regardless’ love.”

She referred to a verse from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Then Yarborough described the parable of the good Samaritan, in which two religious Jews passed by a man lying on the side of the road, beaten and robbed. But she described in detail how a Samaritan, a man from a group that was looked down on by the Jews, stopped, tended to the man’s wounds, put him on his donkey, found an inn (because he wasn’t from that place), paid for him to be taken care of and said he would stop back and pay any additional costs.

She said a friend had said the Samaritan “left his credit card to cover incidentals.”

The lesson is that everyone is our neighbor, whether black, Muslim, Jewish, white, homeless, addicted, even racist, she said. “This agape love to which we are called is not a feeling. … It’s a pursuit, it’s an action,” Yarborough said.

Yarborough, who studied the genetics of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes as a graduate and post-doctoral student, began co-leading a young adult group at Church on the Rock in 2004. He said the diversity of the students at BCAY leads to “not a lot of explaining but a lot of understanding … a lot of listening, through which comes more understanding.”

“We don’t have assumptions, can’t make assumptions about past experience and upbringing. … It just makes the experience rich,” he said.

Besides Sunday worship, BCAY holds Bible study and participates in worship nights with other religious groups on campus, he said. The students also will hold game nights or gather to watch a movie.

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Source: New Haven Register