As a teenager, Darrell Goodwin began composing his own sermons, recording them in his bedroom on the South Side of Chicago, then having his grandmother listen and give feedback. Asked if she offered a critical or a tirelessly supportive ear, Goodwin laughs, and says that her fundamental lesson was engaging the listener. “She would tell me, ‘Start hot, end hot, then sit down,’” he remembers. Even after studying at San Francisco Theological Seminary, earning his doctor of ministry, Goodwin says that grandma’s is still the best advice he ever received for connecting from the pulpit.
Building connection is a key part of work ahead for Goodwin as he steps into a new role, the United Church of Christ’s Executive Conference Minister for Southern New England. It’s a pioneering appointment, as he becomes the first African-American LGBT individual to hold this rank in the church nationwide.
Goodwin, who earned his UVM master’s in Higher Education Administration and Student Affairs (HESA) in 2005, has followed a dual path in higher ed and Christian ministry for much of his life. He’s deeply grounded in the latter, growing up attending the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ that his great-grandfather founded when the family migrated north to Chicago from Chula, Mississippi. In 2000, he was ordained as a Church of God in Christ minister.
In addition to family and faith, another key influence upon Goodwin were his years at the University of Chicago High School (which traces to the laboratory schools founded in 1896 by distinguished UVM alumnus John Dewey), preparing him for his next step as an undergraduate at Boston College.
Goodwin was poised to continue at BC as a graduate student with a full financial ride when he was invited by UVM’s HESA program to come up for an interview. He was immediately taken by the campus, the faculty and, most importantly, the inclusive community. “At UVM I immediately saw invitations to those inclusive conversations that I couldn’t have imagined happening in college,” he says. In retrospect, he boils it down to a decision of more of the same from his undergrad years versus choosing to stretch himself. “UVM was exactly what I expected. There were conversations and expectations that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
The influences at UVM were many. Fifteen years down the line, Goodwin rattles off the names of people such as Professor Kathy Manning; VP Annie Stevens, Rob Kelly and other colleagues in student affairs he worked with during a practicum; and the late Professor Jackie Gribbons. He shares that her advice on crafting a resume has stayed with him to this day. “When I was putting my cover letter and everything together for this Southern New England job, Jackie Gribbons was sitting right next to me,” he says. “I can still hear her voice.”
Nearly simultaneous suggestions from former HESA faculty member Bridget Kelly and Beverly Colston, director of UVM’s Mosaic Center (then the ALANA Center), triggered a pivotal experience, a crucial turn on the path that would lead to his new leadership role with UCC. Both told him that many felt a desire to have a faith community for people of color at UVM. Yes, but who could lead it, Goodwin wondered? “Aren’t you ordained?” Kelly replied.
So began ALANA Campus Ministry, every-other Sunday nearly fifty people packed into the lounge space of Blundell House on Redstone Campus. “We built this amazing group: students, faculty, staff, the local community, all walks of life, LGBT, different multicultural family backgrounds. That was kind of my foundation of thinking of how to have an inclusive worship community. It stretched me in my theology, in my preaching, in my thought of how you make faith accessible to all people, because there were people who joined who were not Christian, but there was something about the community that made them want to join us.”
In 2016, Goodwin was dean of students at Seattle University during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Wanting to have a stronger voice on global justice issues, he decided to shift his work to the church. In 2017, he was appointed Associate Conference Minister for the Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota UCC conferences.
The United Church of Christ is among the most progressive denominations in the United States, with deep roots that reach back to the 17th-century. Goodwin’s appointment makes good on pushing forward that tradition. The Southern New England Conference he will oversee (Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut) is the geographic heart of the church, with some 600 congregations across the region.
The congregational church steeple is an iconic part of the New England landscape. As Goodwin outlines his plans and hopes in this new role, it’s with an eye towards helping congregations raise their profiles as places of welcome and unity. Speaking to societal divisions, acts of hate with attacks on mosques and synagogues, Goodwin says, “UCC churches, how dare us not make partnerships with the local mosques and synagogues and the Buddhist Temple and everyone else. What would it be if every town knew that they had a United Church of Christ that is committed to hope and healing and restoration?”
Now based in Hartford, Connecticut, after moving out from the Midwest in early November, Goodwin looks toward his first 100 days as executive conference minister. He says a top priority will be urging the region’s churches to look at all they do — from the make-up of their denominations to the contractors they hire to where they shop or invest — through a social justice lens.
“Who is missing from our table?” Goodwin asks, posing the question in regard to race, economic status, sexual orientation. “If we think we know it all, if we don’t have a sense of wonder, then we’ll continue to sow into white supremacist patriarchal systems. But if we wonder: ‘Why are we doing this like this? Why is this the way we think we have to be?’ Then we have room for new energy, new insight, and I might use a ‘churchy’ word here — ‘the Holy Spirit.’”