Volume 5 Number 3
by Erika Marksbury
Twelve years ago, with nothing but ninety dollars in his pocket and the knowledge that his life needed to change, Adetokunbo Adelekan caught a Greyhound bus at midnight on its way out of his hometown of Sacramento, California. Three days later, with sixteen dollars left, he stepped off the bus in Atlanta, Georgia. Though he had not been accepted at any college to which he applied, Adelekan wanted to attend a historically black institution, and his sights were set on Morehouse College.
Dressed in a three-piece Nigerian outfit, as soon as Adelekan set foot on campus he caught the eye of Clarence James, an African scholar. James asked Adelekan for his story, then dropped his plans for the day to spend six hours in the admissions office working to get Adelekan enrolled. Adelekan made straight As his first semester, proving both that he appreciated James’s effort and that he would earn his right to attend Morehouse. “I was terribly disillusioned and confused as a high school student,” Adelekan remembers. “If there was a turning point in my life, a turning from despair and disillusionment to being somewhat of a progressive individual, that was it.”
That’s Adelekan’s modesty speaking, though. He did not turn into “somewhat of a progressive individual”; he turned into, according to Ebony magazine’s first issue of the new millennium, one of the “30 Leaders of the Future.”
Adelekan gets an incredulous smile on his face when he remembers finding out he had been featured in Ebony. “I didn’t even know…. Somebody from church called and said that they saw me in the magazine! At first, I felt ‘Why me?’ I was kind of surprised. But now, I feel kind of overwhelmed: What do I do? What lofty vision is now placed upon my shoulders? What grand scheme am I supposed to be a part of?” The tone in Adelekan’s voice gives away that he’s (mostly) kidding. And while others cannot answer all of the questions he has concerning his new designation, the answer to his “why me?” query is obvious to all who know him.
PTS professor Max Stackhouse knew Adelekan when they were both at Andover Newton Theological School. When Stackhouse came to Princeton, he invited Adelekan to follow, to continue pursuit of his master’s at the Seminary. After encouraging Adelekan through his M.Div. and then advising his doctoral work for the past several years, Stackhouse is not at all surprised that his longtime student was chosen for this “striking honor.”
“I have great regard for his talent,” Stackhouse says. “Even at Andover Newton, he showed himself to be a very bright and natural leader. I heard him give some talks in public meetings, and I remember thinking, ‘This guy is a natural teacher and preacher. He has to prepare himself, because he will be a public figure.’”
Certainly Ebony chose Adelekan as a leader for the future because he is already a leader today. Not many thirty-year-olds hold positions as assistant professor of theology and ethics at a seminary (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia), associate minister of drama ministry at a church, and president and CEO of an international cultural and educational consulting firm—all while pursuing a doctoral degree full time.
Passion lights his face as he speaks of Maafa (in Swahili, “the great suffering”), an annual drama production at Saint Paul Community Church in Brooklyn, New York, where Adelekan serves. The drama ministry’s purpose is to “be healing and Christ-centered, and to celebrate Africanity in a way that is true to Scripture,” which comes through in Maafa’s portrayal of a mythological return to the past to trace the steps of history and of the African faith pilgrimage. Adelekan’s involvement varies each year—dancer, actor, conceptualizer—but he always leads Bible study for the participants centered on the play’s message.
Much of Adelekan’s other work follows similar themes: a recognition of the past in order to understand the present and celebrate the future. His African American mother, African father, and the ten childhood and adolescent years he spent in Nigeria have sparked his passion for cross-cultural relationships. Out of that, he founded the Tosabo Group, a consulting firm that facilitates the development of relationships between Africans and African Americans and that takes him across the country and throughout Europe to teach seminars. “I don’t have a clash of civilizations,” he says. “I have a confluence of civilizations. Africa and America are both home for me.”
His doctoral dissertation is exploring an American theme—the idea of freedom in John Locke and Martin Luther King Jr.—but, he says, it is “intractably autobiographical.
“I’m having great fun. I’m actually having problems shutting it down. Every time I see Professors Mark Taylor or Max Stackhouse or Peter Paris, I tell them about all the new ideas I have, and they say, ‘Great! Run with that!’ The only problem is, I have to graduate sometime….”
Most likely, Adelekan will graduate in May. Then he will begin the next, post-education leg of the journey that began when he stepped off the bus in Atlanta. Academics, ministry, and consulting all remain part of the plan—though he’s not sure what specific form this will take. But to be sure, this leader’s work in “public theology for social reconstruction” will be worth following.
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary