Reverend Nelson Pierce knew, as early as 3 years old, that he wanted to become a minister. He started preparing himself for it since the age of 13 through the Baptist church that he attended regularly with his parents.
“I grew up in a very religious household,” he says. “I was very active in the church, sang in the choir, attended every week sunday school, participated in children retreats, and developed strong relationships with mentors.” “It is there also that i learned about black history,” he adds.
In fact both Pierce’s parents were active during the civil rights movement. His mother, a member of the Black Panthers, participated in their many protests between Detroit and Chicago; and his father, from New Orleans, took part in the 1st class of black students trying to desegregate Louisiana State University.
“My parents did not speak much about the struggles they went through during that era, but it was very present in the ethics of our house and of what was considered important.”
Pierce attended Country Day Summit school, a predominently white Catholic private school, in Cincinnati, OH. He felt there a subjacent racism, subtly embedded in the system, as he had to always prove himself, even though as successful academically as other white students.
“There was also very little social justice awakening during school,” he states. “We talked about it in the context of religious ethics, but it could barely compare to what I learned through church or at home, especially regarding being black in America.”
After high school, Pierce went to Washington University, in Saint Louis, MO, to study English literature. While there, he experienced some typical racial tensions. Black faculty, for instance, were not representative of the black students population, neither in number nor in tenured positions. African American studies also were not recognized as a separate Department, did not have their own budget, and could not hire their own professors. Pierce participated in struggles supporting such demands, also in fights for workers’ rights.
“Secretaries, mostly white, had many benefits, including free tuition for themselves and their children, also very good health care plans,” says Pierce. “Groundkeepers and food workers, 80% black or latino, on the other hand, did not. We protested, occupied the administration building, and went on hunger strike, until we got equal, equitable benefits for all.”
Graduating from Washington University with a Bachelor’s degree in English, Pierce decided to join Eden Theological Seminary, right outside Saint Louis, to deepen his study of religion. A year earlier, at the age of 22, and crowning many years of preparation and a final taxing exam, he had already been ordained a minister. And a year into Divinity school, at age 24, he was hired as the senior pastor of an independent church, in Alton, IL, also near St Louis. Pierce’s ministry for his new church lasted four years, during which he preached every sunday and taught Bible studies every week. This is also when he connected with Gamaliel, a foundation that trains and develops leaders in low-income communities, helping them create, maintain and expand independent, grassroots, and faith-based community organizations with the power to influence political and economic decisions that impact cities and regions. Exposed to community organizing, Pierce became taken by it.
At the same time he was pursuing his divinity studies, discussing daily issues of social justice through his various classes. Being black, he was also experiencing the prevailing racism and discrimination of the city of St Louis.
“Before, we felt discriminatory behavior to be normal,” says Pierce, “just for being black in America. But at Eden, our conversation became about the world, what it should be and look like, and especially about the role and responsibility of the church as an instrument for social justice everywhere.”
This led Pierce and his student friends to create a NAACP local chapter and to start using various resources to fight black-targeted police violence in the area.
After graduating in 2008 with a Master’s degree in Divinity, Pierce left his church and joined the staff of a larger local Baptist church where he participated in its mission and outreach programs. Two years later, in 2010, he returned to Cincinnati to become the senior pastor of the independent Beloved Community Church in Norwood, a position he holds until now.
For the 1st four years, and at the same time as ministering for his church, Pierce worked for Amos as a community organizer. He acted through churches, training pastors to help them understand issues and present them to their parishioners or provide someone to doing it; gather petitions, canvassing from door to door asking people to sign them; helping changing laws and rules, etc. His efforts contributed significantly to the repeal, in 2011, of Senate bill 5 which would have limited collective bargaining for public employees in Ohio, and in 2012, to reinstating weekend voting that the Ohio Secretary of State wanted to eliminate for the then presidential elections.
In 2014 and in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by white officer Darrel Winson in Ferguson, Pierce responded to a call from PICO and went to St Louis to volunteer on a task force to organize, help the local clergy pay attention to what was happening in their city, teach them how to engage their voice in the debate, how to help their young black kids who were out in the streets.
“I thought I was going to St Louis for only few days,” says Pierce, “but I ended up staying there four full months. What i saw was so atrocious and the civil rights violations so egregious that I could not leave. The police had transformed Ferguson into a real war zone…”
Taking advantage of his connection with Eden Theological Seminary and being one of its board members, Pierce used their facility as a homebase for his and his friends’ activist actions.
For the past couple of years Pierce has also been working at Xavier University’s Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice where he trains and directs a gospel choir consisting of students. They offer their services to various local churches.
He also plans once a year retreats and trips exposing students to what community organizing is, how it can be beneficial, teaching them the tools for relationship building. He recently returned from such a week trip to St Louis where he took ten Xavier University students to study racial and economic justice; engaging them with community activists; examining what happened in Ferguson and the protests in the wake of the recent acquittal of Jason Stockley, the former officer who had shot to death in 2011 African American driver Anthony Lamar Smith; experiencing the current homeless crisis in the face of the bitter cold wave that has affected the area this past winter.
Pierce recently joined the Cincinnati Homeless Coalition board where he will be using his community organizing skills to make a difference. He served as the field director for Yvette Simpson’s recent mayoral campaign. And he is very engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, supporting it in anyway he can. Pierce also keeps his church community involved in many of his activities.
” I try to equip my parishioners with tools and resources to always stand on the side of justice,” he says. “One cannot do Christian religion without speaking of social justice. It is an important part of the Gospel, and an important part of who we are as a church.”
Pierce’s church will be soon leaving Norwood to relocate in Avondale, sharing space with Fred Shuttlesworth’s Greater Light Baptist church. He hopes that this proximity will create even more opportunities for his church’s engagements in social justice.
When asked what he would like to achieve in the future, Pierce is quick to answer: “Help the most vulnerable, the poor and oppressed, which often times mean the blacks, high on the list in America.”
“I would like to help them organize and create the power necessary to start a systemic change toward an equal and just society,” he states; “empower them to fight for their dignity,” he adds.
Pierce would like also help reframe and reimagine what religion is like and what society should be. He would always use his strengths of community organizing and political advocacy to achieve his goals of a just and peaceful world.
What is Beloved Community Church Beloved Community Church is an Independent Protestant Christian church. Its Beliefs: *God is always on the side of the oppressed in the struggle for liberation. God is on the side of Black People in the United States and around the world in their struggle against institutional and systemic racism. *The church can and should be a healing place where people can come to be loved and accepted as they are. *The church can and should be a place to strategize, not only to worship; a place where members can plan how to work together to make sure that God's love and justice is at work in the world, and not just something they talk about. Its Mission: *To live into and share God’s revolutionary love and justice so that Cincinnati becomes God’s Community of Peace. Its Vision: *To be passionate in the pursuit of God’s peace, and intentional in resisting oppression, in oneself, the church, the community and the world.
Religious Peacemakers is a regular column published in Streetvibes; it highlights Greater Cincinnati individuals who use their faith and religious beliefs for peace and justice and for a better world.
It is authored by Saad Ghosn, founder and president of SOS (Save Our Souls) ART.