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As one of the founding pastors of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta and a co-founder of Portrait Coffee, John Onwuchekwa knows how to humbly lead and how to nurture a holistic vision of community.
In this episode, John and host Latasha Morrison discuss the history of the West End of Atlanta and the example of redlining as systemic racism. They talk about the importance of creating new narratives through opportunities and perspectives. They both share stories of personal grief and how that impacts the work they do. John’s insights into business and community development, Ecclesiates and joyful perseverance will bring encouragement and hope.
Redlining – the discriminatory practice in the United States that began in the 1930s of the government outlining certain geographic areas based upon race or ethnicity in order to deny services (both directly and indirectly) such as loans or insurance to someone because they were deemed to be a high financial risk; an inequitable and unjust practice that predominantly affected Black Americans
Where Do We Go From Here book by John Onwuchekwa
Integrity Home Solutions
America in the King Years trilogy by Taylor Branch
Where Do We Go From Here? book by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1930 Redline Map for Atlanta
“How Twitter Gamifies Communication” article by C. Thi Nguyen
The AND Campaign
Half of a Yellow Sun book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Connect with John Onwuchekwa:
Connect with Be the Bridge:
Connect with Latasha Morrison:
Host & Executive Producer – Latasha Morrison
Senior Producer – Lauren C. Brown
Producer, Editor, & Music – Travon Potts
Transcriber – Sarah Connatser
Not all views expressed in this interview reflect the values and beliefs of Latasha Morrison or the Be the Bridge organization.
The full episode transcript is below.
You are listening to the Be the Bridge Podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 0:06
[intro] How are you guys doing today? It’s exciting!
Each week, Be the Bridge Podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 0:17
[intro] …but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society, but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end.
Latasha Morrison 0:53
Be the Bridge community, I am so excited to have…I always call everybody my brother. I have a lot of brothers, but, I’m just saying.
John Onwuchekwa 1:03
Okay. I love it.
Latasha Morrison 1:03
Like, when I have a Black Nigerian brother, someone that’s from Nigerian descent on the call, I always call him my brother. So you’re gonna get used to me doing that, and I’m gonna tell you why in a minute and why I do that. And so, I am so happy to have someone that, we’ve known each other, this is our first time meeting and talking.
John Onwuchekwa 1:26
Latasha Morrison 1:27
But I feel like I know you. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 1:28
Latasha Morrison 1:31
And I have the pleasure of introducing you to Pastor John Onwuchekwa, who is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta – the best city in the world right now.
John Onwuchekwa 1:47
Okay, okay, okay.
Latasha Morrison 1:48
I get to say that because I live here, too. He is working in one of the oldest inner city neighborhoods. He currently serves as the Council Associate for The Gospel Coalition. He speaks at colleges, conferences, and internationally. You hold a degree in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing his doctorate in Church Leadership and Community Witness from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He’s been married for 14 years. He just adopted a dog, that I found out about, a poodle. And he loves his beautiful wife Shawndra. And they are proud parents to a beloved baby girl. And then some of the latest things that John has been working on that I want you guys to hear about is Portrait Coffee. If you’re here, if you’re listening from the Atlanta area, if you’ve gotten some gifts from Be the Bridge before in the past, you may have gotten some Portrait Coffee. It’s a company that exists to empower and equip Atlanta natives and residents with genuine career and life opportunities in the world of coffee. And so you’re speaking my language when it comes to coffee. So, brother, it is a pleasure to have you on the Be the Bridge Podcast. It’s been a long time coming.
John Onwuchekwa 3:11
Latasha Morrison 3:13
I want to hear more. I know I just did your your bio introduction. But I want you to kind of, I can’t say everything, I want you to fill in the gaps that I missed in the introduction. And just tell the Be the Bridge audience who you are, the things I missed. And I just want you to know that it’s a pleasure to have you on here. And we’re gonna jump right in. And so I’ll turn it over to you, Mr. John.
John Onwuchekwa 3:40
All right. No, thank you. So the bio was great. I think the only thing that, er one of the major things that changed is that so I’m no longer a pastor.
Latasha Morrison 3:55
John Onwuchekwa 3:56
In what I feel like is the best possible way. Right? So most times when people say that it was either burnout, moral failure, retirement in old age. Right? I lost my hair when I was 30. That was eight years ago. (laughter) So I’m not old now. I was a little bit of that pastoral stress. So I’m still working. But I’m no longer a pastor. So as of six weeks ago, I resigned from Cornerstone, so it was a church I helped to start eight years ago. Led as the lead teaching pastor for eight years. And at the end of last year, me and my wife decided that it was right time, not to, you know, we didn’t sell our house. We still live here in the West End. We’re still part of the church. But it was just yeah, the church had grown and got to a size organizationally, where, as I’ve just looked at my life and as we’ve thought about, we’ve been married 15 years, and I’ve been pastoring for 16 years. And again, I’m not an old man. And as we just thought about this next season of life just really felt like that the Lord was pulling our hearts in contributing to Kingdom work in a different way. For the past sixteen years it’s been inside of the four walls of the church. And now we’re just eager to explore about what’s next. Yeah.
Latasha Morrison 5:37
Wow. First of all, that is amazing, like, just the maturity to come to that decision. And I think it’s also just really accolades, in the sense where the church has been set up in a way where you could actually do that, like it wasn’t just revolving around you…
John Onwuchekwa 6:02
Latasha Morrison 6:02
…as the sole, you know, teaching pastor. And I think when I read your post, I was like, this is incredible. And I think you’re gonna free so many pastors up to do that. Because sometimes we’ll wait until, you know, pastors will wait until crash and burn or until you start going through that kind of the downward slope where the church starts declining. But your church is growing.
John Onwuchekwa 6:36
Latasha Morrison 6:35
It’s a fruitful church. And so, you know, I hope people listening can share. They can find out more about the story by reading the letter that you posted on your Instagram page. But I think it’s just having been in local church ministry, having served full time on three different, well four different staff, I mean, this is like incredible to hear that. Because I’ve never seen that. But I think it’s something when you go out strong and you go out, like you said, it’s just shifting positions within the kingdom work. Because there is work outside of pastoring. And so I’m thankful. I’m no longer on a local church staff anymore, but I am still actively doing ministry through this work of Be the Bridge.
John Onwuchekwa 6:36
I believe it. Yeah.
Latasha Morrison 6:37
And so yeah, I love that. I love that.
John Onwuchekwa 6:45
And let me be clear, too, right? So I don’t want to paint myself as the hero or as if this was completely altruistic. There is an aspect where it was, as the church was growing, part of it was, I was like, oh, I want to ensure that it continues to grow. And I think one of the things that I’ve learned about myself in, you know, this 16 years of pastoring, 20 years of even starting to think this way, I’ve learned that I’m a much better team builder than I am a team leader. Right? So if we’re going to start something, if we need to bring together a team and build those folks, I am your man. As we grow, and we get to a place where we need HR and structure, it is a detriment both to my health and sanity and a detriment to the organization to leave me in charge. And so I’ve learned that it’s if this thing really is going to continue to grow and be healthy, then I need to get out of the way for my sake, as well as for the sake of the church. So, yeah.
Latasha Morrison 8:51
So I say this a lot at Be the Bridge because you said you need like kind of like growers and builders and like you gotta have people that pioneer and some that sustain or maintain like, just different leadership skills that you need. But I think it’s important to understand your style of leadership. And so realizing that you’re a builder, I see this so much. And in this work, especially of racial justice work, you know, as we deal with the lack of racial literacy, I see a lot out there where you see a lot of gifted leaders, where there’s a gifting in the building, but then, you know, when it comes to the putting the infrastructure in place, then there’s a shutdown. And it kind of burns. So just knowing your leadership where there’s so much that can be accomplished. Where sometimes some people are called to start the work. And then there’s others that are called to finish it, you know, to take it on to the next level. And I think that’s just something that’s really inspirational. And I think that a lot of people can learn from that. With us, I remember we were going through some infrastructure StratOps within our organization. And the lady who was the consultant, she said, “In this space that you’re in, you need a lot of pioneers and you need a lot of builders.” She said, “But you have a lot of maintainers. That’s going to be problematic.” You know? And so and so that’s, you know, because building is difficult. Building is hard. Now, I would love to hear how you come to Atlanta. I want to know what you’re working on now. I want to talk about your book. There’s so much and we got to do all of this within an hour. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 8:51
Latasha Morrison 9:18
So how did you…I want to hear some of the backstory of how did you end up in Atlanta and why Atlanta?
John Onwuchekwa 11:00
Yeah. So after college at Baylor, I moved to Denton, which is north of Dallas. And so I did seminary at Dallas Theological and I helped a group of folks start a church there in Denton. So this is 17 years ago now. Right? Yeah, it’s crazy to talk in all these years. And a few years into the church, what took place was that as like, these like inner connected communities started to kind of talk about what God was trying to do. 17 years ago at least there was a resurgence in terms of wanting churches, in our context that were both contextually relevant for where we are and for a particular demographic. And so we started to have conversations about what it would look like to help to come alongside the movement that was already starting to plant churches in city centers. And as we talked about it, there was a core group that was a part of this church plant in Denton, about 25 people who banded together and said, “Hey, we have a desire to move to a place where we can plant roots long term.” We had a desire to move to a place that was a city of influence so that we could reproduce what we were trying to do. We had a desire to move to a city that was made up primarily of a minority people group. We decided to move to a city that had a strong college presence. So those were things like as we triangulated how God had moved in the past, we felt like, “Alright, we want all of this in a city.” And as we sat and prayed and talked and thought through Atlanta was that city. Right? So this is 2009, you know, 25 of us from Denton, 12 to 14 folks from Memphis, all made the move to Atlanta to start what was Blueprint Church back then. So Dhati Lewis, myself, yeah 25 folks there. There’s a lot of folks that don’t know, Lecrae and the rest of the guys from Reach Records, like they moved down and they helped and were a big part of that. So that was how we got from Texas to Atlanta to really see that launch. And the church launched and people came and they were part of the church in their seasons and transition. And then what got us to the West End was…this is probably 12 years ago, a guy by the name of Richard Mullen. So Richard Mullen, he’s the lead pastor at Cornerstone Church now, me and Richard were freshmen roommates at Baylor 20 years ago. And for 19 of the past 20 years, we haven’t just lived in the same city, we’ve lived in the same neighborhoods. So this is 12 years ago, Richard and a group of folks move into the West End. And this was back when the West End was, you know, there ain’t no BeltLine coming through the West End.
Latasha Morrison 14:40
That’s why I asked this question. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 14:42
That’s what I’m saying. Yeah. So this was that West End.
Latasha Morrison 14:46
John Onwuchekwa 14:47
And it was a time when nobody wanted to move in there. There was like no thought of a resurgence of the West End. And Richard Mullen and his family… Erica Brown, do you know that name?
Latasha Morrison 15:04
No, I don’t. I’m not famliar with her.
John Onwuchekwa 15:05
Okay. We got to talk about her, too. So there were a group of three families. And they said, “We could move anywhere that we want to in the city, let’s move to the part of town that nobody else wants to go to.” And their aim was, as we move in, we’re going to buy homes, we’re going to be intentionally relational, and we’re going to be explicitly Christian. So their thing was, we’re not going to hide the fact that we came here because we love the Lord. But they got involved in the PTA, the neighborhood associations, cleaning up the West End. And this was the West End two years removed from the financial crisis that hit our zip code harder than any other zip code in the US. So you would drive down the street at noon, and if there’s 20 homes on the street, 13 of the homes are vacant, drugs and prostitution in the daytime. And they move in. And as they just start to work and build the community, what you started to get was people that lived here in the West End, saying things like, “Now listen, I know y’all are Christians, and all of that.” And they’re like, “I don’t really, you know, fool with Jesus or mess with him like that.” But they’re like, “But it’s something about the way that y’all love one another and love us,” that their words were, “I think if y’all were to start a church here that we would come and be apart.” So Richard was like, “Hey, man. I think that we need to start a church here on the West Side. Our neighbors aren’t going to ride the train to take the five miles to the Old Fourth Ward. What does it look like to start a community where people can see people that love them throughout the week?” And at this point, I lived in East Atlanta. And me and my wife had just bought a house, you know a nice house. It was fine, safe. You know, pizza delivery came to our crib, like we didn’t have to worry. (laughter) Because back then you couldn’t get a pizza on the West End. So I told Richard, it’s like, “Yo, I’m down to move but good luck convincing my wife.” Right? I tried to use her as an out. And Richard was like text her, she comes downstairs to study. And in 15 minutes, Richard had convinced her to move to the West End.
Latasha Morrison 15:14
John Onwuchekwa 15:30
So we just prayed and started to round out the team. And once again, right, I’m a team builder, that I’ve just said, “Alright Lord, I think that you’ve called us here, but if you did, who else would you call?” And so Trip, Trip Lee is one of my best friends in the world. And so I’m like, “Yo Trip’s got to be a part.” So we call Trip, “Hey, man, we got a plan for your life.”
Latasha Morrison 17:59
John Onwuchekwa 17:59
Flew him down the next week and convinced him to come down. Richard had a friend involved. And all of a sudden, we saw this church start to form there in the West End. And we call the church Cornerstone for two reasons. One, we felt like there was already a community rebuilding project that was starting to go on in the West End. And we felt that when you’re getting ready to build something, a cornerstone is the first stone that’s laid. Right? That if you’ve got a strong cornerstone, then it’ll help to align all the rest of the stones. And we felt that, alright, that spiritual anchor is what we need here for the West End. We also called it Cornerstone, because we felt that this…Oh, a Cornerstone is the first stone that’s laid, it’s not the only stone that’s laid.
Latasha Morrison 18:29
John Onwuchekwa 18:29
If all you do is build a church, you’re not going to rebuild an entire community. Right? The church comes first. But there are other subsequent things. Right? There’s socio economic things that we’ve got to fix. There’s racial things that we’ve got to fix. There’s educational things that we have to fix. And so we said, “Alright, let’s start here and build this church. And then let’s move outward.” And so eight years ago, we set out on this journey. And we said, “Hey, the most important thing is that let’s plant roots. Let’s, let’s all buy homes. Let’s plant roots. And the journey to try to be a part of the change of the West End is going to feel like an acorn growing into an oak tree. We’re just going to plant that seed. And we’re just going to commit for the next 15 years, not to take an assessment of what goes on, but just to put our heads down. And to do the ordinary unimpressive work in obscurity of watering the ground and the soil. And then 15 years from now we’ll sit up and we’ll look at out.” But we know that the people that really bring substantive change are people who have a sense of urgency, but they’ve cultivated a virtue of patience. So they know that their work is what they have to do now. But they also do not expect to sit in the shade of the oak trees of righteousness that they plant. And so we said, “Alright that’s what we’re going to do, and give our time to, and nobody may ever come to this church that we plant in the hood. Nobody may write a article of what it is that we plan to do. But we trust that we’re doing our best to do what God has called us to do.” So that’s the, yeah.
Latasha Morrison 20:44
I love it, thanks for that background. And I definitely want to go back to just kind of like when you talked about the cornerstone, those three things that’s related to your, you know, like not just planting the church, but the other things that the holistic approach to community building. I want to go back to that. But I have to say this. You guys, if you’re listening to this, this is like, I mean, some really great information. But if you know anything about Atlanta and the West End, this is actually where Clark Atlanta, Morris Brown, Spelman, Morehouse is all located. And there’s so much history in that area.
John Onwuchekwa 21:27
Latasha Morrison 21:28
And, John, I want you to talk a little bit about the history in that area. And you know, so people can get a picture. Because these areas exist in just about every city that you would go to. But I had to say this, I think I contributed to your growth a little bit. You know? (laugher)
John Onwuchekwa 21:47
Come on, come on.
Latasha Morrison 21:48
Right when you guys were getting set to build and to grow like I moved to Austin, Texas, and I was in Atlanta and I moved to Austin, Texas in 2012. And I was there for about five and a half years. So where all this was taking place. And I was in like, what you call, we used to call it Life Development, but it’s just basically I was at one church I was on staff with. I was over everything from the cradle to the career in that church. And I have one of my former students, but right when I was living in Austin, contact me. They had graduated college, they had gotten married, they were looking at finding some churches in Atlanta. They wanted a more multi-ethnic church, you know, things that they were looking for. And I gave him a list of about three churches that I knew about at that time. And I knew I had heard about Cornerstone just from…although that I was living in Austin, I was of course keeping my pulse on what was happening in the area. And that student is now a grown man. His name is Aaron Felder.
John Onwuchekwa 23:08
Latasha Morrison 23:09
Fender. Yes. Fender, Fender.
John Onwuchekwa 23:10
No! Oh, oh. Oh my goodness. (laughter) That’s my business partner.
Latasha Morrison 23:15
I know! (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 23:17
This is crazy. That’s crazy.
Latasha Morrison 23:22
I know, I know. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 23:24
That’s wild. I remember this.
Latasha Morrison 23:22
I was over the elementary, middle school, high school, and our college age ministries at a church in the Atlanta area. And he kind of went through middle, I think yeah, middle and high school there. And you know, with social media now you can kind of stay in contact. I remember his mom and his dad and so he reached out to me…I think it was over Facebook or one of those. And then I had wondered, I said “I wonder what did he get connected there?” You know, or anything. And then I saw when you guys were starting Portrait Coffee, I think I saw him and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, he got connected for real!” (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 24:03
Oh listen. Hey, listen. I need to send you a finder’s fee because that’s how my daughter’s going to college.
Latasha Morrison 24:20
John Onwuchekwa 24:20
I owe you a lot more, than, (laughter) yeah just to thank you.
Latasha Morrison 24:23
I can’t, I want to hear about that. I want to talk about these three important things and when you’re talking about just holistic approach to community building as it relates to church planting. And then I would love to hear about you know, Portrait Coffee, and we’re going to talk about your book, We Go On. And I think a lot of probably writing that and processing that is…because I’m hearing a lot of what’s in the book in speaking with you and talking about purpose and just reexamining and Ecclesiastes and just allowing God to just kind of to lead and guide you in your decisions. And I would love to hear about that. Because I think so many churches plant because they like a zip code, but they don’t have a full picture of what’s happening or understand the history of what’s happening in that community. I see so many churches that are in communities in Atlanta, specifically, where there’s a lot of history and a lot of destruction that had taken place. And if you don’t have the full context of that history, and come in with a plan, you’ll have a church of that area, but the church is not doing nothing for the area.
John Onwuchekwa 24:23
Right, yeah. So yeah, this story just kind of flows. One thing flows into the next.
Latasha Morrison 25:14
John Onwuchekwa 25:22
So we live in the historic West End. So it like the church is there; Portrait is there; my house is there. Right?
Latasha Morrison 26:04
John Onwuchekwa 26:04
So I live less than a mile from Clark, Morehouse, Spelman, three of the most prestigious HBCUs in the world. And it’s not a straight walk there. Right, that what you found is that I’ve got a cross I-20 to get there. And some of that is what you find when you think about the history of the West End. So the West End is a community, it predates the city of Atlanta. And so the West End was growing, it was being built, the HBCUs start. An interesting book, Taylor Branch has a trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement, and you just get great insight into how Spelman was formed. One of the Rockefellers sponsored it.
Latasha Morrison 27:09
John Onwuchekwa 27:10
So it’s a huge thing. Well, in the 1930s, Atlanta was redlined. And you can look this up online. There’s a map online of the redlining that goes on. And for those that don’t know what it is…if they’re on this podcast, I imagine that they know.
Latasha Morrison 27:29
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they should know, but if not then Google is your friend.
John Onwuchekwa 27:33
Got it. Yup.
Latasha Morrison 27:36
We’ll put it in the show notes, too.
John Onwuchekwa 27:37
Got it. Where communities of color, like the West End, are outlined in red. And what would take place is that banks wouldn’t loan money to people to buy homes in here. But they would build highways right through here. So in the 1930s, there is a map online that you can see right now. You can Google Atlanta redlining map 1930s. And what it does is it segments the city by geography. Right? Willie Jennings is going to say geography is never an accident. There’s something that took place.
Latasha Morrison 28:15
John Onwuchekwa 28:17
Blacks are forced South; whites are up North. Well, if you pull up the 2010 census data, and you break it down by demographics, again, a map that you can find online, what you’ll find is that the 1930s map and the 2010 map is the exact same map. So what you find is that everybody that drew the redlining map in the 1930s, is dead and gone, but their racist inventions outlived their racist intentions. Right? And so those are some of the things that we mean when we talk about systemic racism.
Latasha Morrison 28:57
John Onwuchekwa 28:57
It’s they are gone, but their plans achieve the greater heights; their plans were on autopilot. They didn’t need anybody in the passenger seat. So what you find is that even the demographics in Atlanta are shaped by…or the demographics and the socio economics in Atlanta are shaped by that. So these are the things that we learned. We find ourselves in a community, we plant this church. Early on we start a job readiness program. And what we do is we help folks through and we teach them, “Hey, we want to train you how to be ready to work.” People graduate from the program. It seems like things are all good. And they’re like, “We’re ready to work. And then as they start to try to apply in the West End as a BeltLine is starting to come through and gentrification is starting to come through, what they find and what we find very quickly is if you want to afford a home in the West End, you actually need to be employed outside of the West End to afford that home.
Latasha Morrison 30:08
John Onwuchekwa 30:10
West End is an opportunity desert; there are not opportunities that will give you a salary that will enable you to be able to live here. There are jobs here, there aren’t careers. And so now at that point it’s, “Alright. What do we do? How do we think about things?” And that’s when we got to a point where we started to try to think creatively. Erica Brown is somebody that you got to talk to. She was in real estate. And as she built this up, one of the things that they found was, “Hey, gentrification is starting to take place. There’s lots of people that need to fix their homes and sell their homes. People need lawn care. What does it look like for us to start a lawn care business – Integrity Home Solutions – where we employ people that are ex felon, or we can employ folks who can’t get a job elsewhere, and even provide opportunities for some of the people to own a portion of it at the end?” And so this is where as a church it’s, alright the people on church staff aren’t going to do it. But we had some extra bread as a church and we’re like, “Yo, we’ll help to fund the first part of the equipment, start this thing.” It’s turned into this thing where now people have a career path through that.
Latasha Morrison 31:33
Wow. I didn’t even know that. This is what I’m talking about. Like, I love it. This is local church.
John Onwuchekwa 31:42
Latasha Morrison 31:42
This is like your Judea, your Samaria, the uttermost, like this is where it begins. I love it. I love it.
John Onwuchekwa 31:51
Portrait Coffee, too. So, Aaron, finds this church. Right? Your favorite podcaster told him about our church. Aaron comes through. And at this point, me and Aaron both have this love for coffee. So the way that we meet in church is somebody comes to me and they’re like, “Yo, John, I know that you love coffee. There’s this other Black dude at the church,” (mind you our church is predominantly Black), and they’re like, “and he loves coffee. Y’all should get together.” Comes over to my house, Aaron starts to talk about coffee. He’s worked in coffee. And here’s what he says, he starts to talk about the supply chain. And as he talks about the supply chain of coffee, I say, “Wait a minute. That reminds me of the city of Atlanta.” And here’s what I shared with him. MARTA in Atlanta runs South to North. If you get on the Marta train stop at the South most train stop – and you know this – the train is all Black. The train is Wakanda. Right?
Latasha Morrison 32:59
John Onwuchekwa 33:00
In the 20 minute ride, that you go from Airport Station to North Springs, there’s two things that change – the inside of the train changes and the outside of the train changes. So with each stop that you go up North on the inside, more and more Black and Brown folks get off the train, and more white folks get on. So the train goes from Wakanda to Switzerland in like 20 minutes. Right? But then the outside of the train starts to change as well with each stop that you go up North, the economic conditions skyrocket. So you get a parable of Black and Brown people getting off the train before they can take advantage of the economic opportunities in a city that they helped build. Now, you look at coffee, the second most consumed beverage in the world outside of water. And what you find is that coffee grows where Black and Brown people grow. Coffee grows along the equator. But when that supply chain starts to go North through processing through exporting through importing through roasting and retailing, it’s the same thing as that train. It moves from Wakanda to Switzerland really quick. And it goes from third world country origin to an industry that’s $250 billion per year. And Black and Brown people share in less than 1% of the wealth. So we said, “Hey, what does it look like for us to bring that industry into the West End? If we do it that way, and we create a compelling story and narrative around it. I think that there ways, or we think that there are ways, that we can teach somebody this skill in the time that it takes them to learn a trade, no four year degree needed. And I think we can create careers in coffee instead of just jobs.” And we set out to do that. We told our story three years ago. We started, and three years later, it’s a seven figure business. Three years later, Food and Wine named it one of the top 50 coffee roasteries in the US, the top in the state of Georgia. And it was a…but this is like no sales team. It was just us saying, “No, there’s a passion that we have. There’s a story to be told.” And in so many ways, it’s an extension of what we feel like that the church should be doing in communities to help to restore and to set things right. And I think, yeah, Aaron is an operational genius. He dreams in Excel spreadsheets. Marcus Hollinger, he is a marketing guru. My wife Shawndra, her aesthetic is amazing. Khalid Smith gets…like we’ve, yeah, we just have an amazing team of people that love the Lord, that love their craft. And it was a, hey, there’s an economic issue that’s affecting our community. And we didn’t rush to a solution. Right? That a problem well defined, is a problem half solved. So we said no, no, no. What’s the problem beneath? And it was a opportunity. How do we create that? And the rest is history.
Latasha Morrison 0:00
There’s some threads where we connect in that coffee story and tea story that I have to fill you in later, even for myself, having spent a lot of time in Rwanda myself. You know?
John Onwuchekwa 0:15
Okay. We got a lot to talk about.
Latasha Morrison 0:19
I know you’ve been there. Right? You’ve been to Rwanda?
John Onwuchekwa 0:21
I haven’t been to Rwanda.
Latasha Morrison 0:22
Okay. Okay. Okay. Yeah. But that’s incredible. Now, I want to hear, just tell us a little bit about We Go On, like just the spirit of the mission behind the book and why you wrote the book. I think we can see the fruit of the book in your life. But I would love for the audience, you know, just to Be the Bridge audience to hear about your work and what this book is about. And I know that it’s a short book, but how to keep moving. Because sometimes when we don’t know or we don’t hear God, or we don’t sit, we just get stuck. And I talk to people all the time, and that was just even with my journey to moving from Atlanta to Texas back to Atlanta. And my prayer was always, “God, I’m going to do the next thing I know to do; I’m going to do that next right thing.” And you’re sensing God as you’re continuing to move forward. But I think sometimes we just get stuck. And I just look and I say, “Okay, I’m gonna step right here. Okay, God, you’re doing this, I’m gonna step right here.” But getting confirmation along the way. So, I wanted you to just kind of talk about this. Because I know I get a lot of these same questions. You know, how did you decide to start Be the Bridge? Or what was the…you know, and it wasn’t a decision. It’s like the thread and the patterns have always been there in my life. I could point back to elementary school.
John Onwuchekwa 2:01
Right, right. Right.
Latasha Morrison 2:02
John Onwuchekwa 2:02
Yeah. So I, we started our church close to eight years ago. So this is 2018 or 2015 we start the church, June 7, 2015. April 14, 2015, it is four days removed from a failed adoption. So me and my wife had been trying to adopt, for years struggling with unexplained infertility. April 10th we get news that the adoption we tried to work on for a year fell through. I’m speaking at a conference in Orlando and April 14th, I get a phone call that my older brother who was 32 years old at a time, a wife and three kids that he died suddenly. No explanation, autopsy was inconclusive, in the best shape of his life. Was a pastor at a church in Memphis. Came out from doing premarital counseling for a couple that just started to go to his church, went in his car, started to prepare for his next time that he was going to preach, and just went to sleep, and didn’t wake back up. And this is six weeks before we start the church. And to say that my life and my world and my faith fell apart, would be the grossest of understatements. So I think my brother dying was the second biggest surprise in my life. I think the first biggest surprise in my life was how quickly my faith in the goodness of God and everything that I preached on crumbled, shattered. And I just found myself at a place where I was stuck. And I pushed through to start the church. But after that next year, I found myself in a pretty, pretty depressed to the point where my church granted me a one month sabbatical. And as I’m there, it was, I was in this little like, this study, this shed that I’m in right now. And I pick up the book of Ecclesiastes. And I just started to read. And the opening lines got me, where it just says, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything’s meaningless.” And I think it gripped me because it was, here I was, I lost everything. Everything that I like held dear. And I thought, “Oh, yeah, of course, I’m depressed because I lost it all.” But then I read this book, and from what I know, Solomon wrote that. And it’s like, wait a minute. I’m depressed because I lost it all. It seems like he’s depressed because he had it all. And it was at that point that it clicked and it was like, well, wait a minute. If depression isn’t circumstantial, then maybe joy isn’t either. Maybe there’s a way where even through the bitterness of life, that there’s ways to find hope and joy and perseverance. And so it was actually that book that helped to lift me up out of my depression, not by saying things were going to get better. But by helping me realize that, “Oh, no, no, no, John, nothing in life is going to be everything that you hope it would be. And so if you let disappointment, stop you in your tracks, then you’re always going to be stuck. The way forward is not to hurdle over your obstacles or grief, the way forward is not to graduate or get past your grief as if grief has some expiration date, and it’s not going to be with you for the rest of time. The way to move on is to move forward with your grief. Right? And just to know, I’m gonna lean into it.” And what I started to find was, like, I wrote this book dealing with the loss of my brother, but I wrote the book in the middle of the pandemic. So what I started to find was even people that hadn’t lost somebody tangibly, found themselves with this ambiguous sense of loss. Right? When you have a loved one die, when people see their body drop into the ground, and they see the tears fall from your face, people can connect your falling tears to your fallen loved one. And you’re surrounded with hugs and handshakes and casseroles. When you have a dream die, when you have a relationship die, when you have an expectation of what life would be like with a diverse community die, that’s an ambiguous loss. And when those things die, and you physically and emotionally respond in the same way, you’re not surrounded by the same chorus of pats on the back and casseroles. In some way you grieve all by yourself. Right? And so as I wrote this book, it was oh, no, no. I don’t want anybody to grieve alone. I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re the only one. I want everybody to feel like no, nothing in life is going to be everything that we hoped it would be. And the sooner that we embrace that, we can start to live the life of our dreams by learning – and this is a learned skill – we can start to live the life of our dreams by learning to enjoy the life that we have instead of longing for life as we think that it should be. So the book was really this, the title was a response to Dr. King’s last work. Right? Where Do We Go From Here?
Latasha Morrison 8:15
John Onwuchekwa 8:16
And it’s, oh, we go on. Right?
Latasha Morrison 8:20
John Onwuchekwa 8:21
It’s not a destination. Where do we go from here? We just take the very next step. And then once we get to that next step where both feet are firmly planted, we ask and answer that same question. And so I found that if we can get the courage and fortitude to do that, we’ll be surprised at how far we’ve come when we finally look back at the things that we think had us stuck.
Latasha Morrison 8:49
Yeah. That’s beautiful. I think the work that…speaking of Dr. King, the work that I feel that Cornerstone is doing is an extension of Operation Breadbasket that King talks about in Where Do We Go From Here?
John Onwuchekwa 9:05
Latasha Morrison 9:05
And also a part of the beloved community, you know, and so that’s incredible. I mean, because you do, you know, death it could bring out, it brings out the good and the bad in that sense with that deep sorrow. But I think in that deep sorrow, you know, and I think there’s actually a scripture in Ecclesiastes three where it talks about, it’s better to be in mourning than at a wedding.
John Onwuchekwa 9:40
Latasha Morrison 9:40
And I think just having…I lost my father during COVID, during the…
John Onwuchekwa 9:47
I’m sorry. I’m sorry to hear that.
Latasha Morrison 9:47
you know, optimal health, 68 years old. And I’m the only child, I’m my dad’s only child. I have a stepsister also, who he loved like a daughter. But that is some deep pain and work. And this year I was actually traveling on the anniversary of his death. And I told Lauren, I said, you know, I was doing exactly what my dad would have wanted me to do. I was moving on, I was going on in that. Because he loved the work that I did. And so that would bring him joy to see me still doing and going and being in that work. And I said, “You know, I think I want to acknowledge the time that he departed his earthly body.” I said, “But I think I want to just celebrate his birthday when he entered into this world, but I think I just want to acknowledge when he passed on privately, but not something that I probably talk about every year.” You know?
John Onwuchekwa 10:07
Yeah, I understand.
Latasha Morrison 10:17
We all handle death in our own ways. There’s no right or wrong way in that process of grief. But I think that is a lot of like, probably some of the, you know, the working that I see within this next work that I’m working on comes from that time of just of deep sorrow. And that’s an incredible story. You also mentioned the issues with infertility. And I know in your bio, I mentioned a baby girl.
John Onwuchekwa 11:41
Yes, yes, yes.
Latasha Morrison 11:42
So that is something to celebrate.
John Onwuchekwa 11:45
Latasha Morrison 11:45
And so to hear you say that. And then to know that you just bought her a puppy that she don’t want to take care of. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 11:53
Right, right. Right. (laughter) See that’s the perspective that I need. Right?
Latasha Morrison 11:58
Right. That’s the perspective. You know, you talk a lot in the book about mentorship. What is the greatest advice that you’ve been given as a leader?
John Onwuchekwa 12:17
Latasha Morrison 12:18
That has helped, like a guiding principle or something that’s been said that you are still leaning into every day of your life?
John Onwuchekwa 12:25
Yeah. There’s a few things. One is the sweetest word in any language is somebody’s first name. And so yeah, I had a mentor that told me that years ago, and I never forgot it. So everywhere I am, every church I’ve pastored, every time I meet somebody, I ask them their names. And if I forget their names, I’ll just embrace and say, “Hey, I forgot your name that quick.” Names are important. And they instill dignity in a world that wants to commodify, use people, and consume them, and spit them out. And so that was one thing for me. And the other thing that he, same mentor, one thing that he brought up was, he would always say this word, “Praise what you want to see more of.” And I think we live in a world where if you say things strongly, even if they’re wrong, if they’re strong and wrong and they’re polarizing, the winds of social media and public opinion and outrage will carry those words and provide a sense of prominence and platform and clout. And if you encourage people that doesn’t travel far. But pastoring for 16 years, one of the things that I’ve learned is that nobody is discouraged into faithfulness. right? Nobody becomes more faithful by consistently hearing, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” even if they ought to be ashamed of themselves. But there is something about encouraging people towards faithfulness, praising what we want to see more of that has this unique way of encouraging people to do things that they never thought was possible. So those are two of the things that I think have shaped me and anybody that knows me, and has been led by me, there’s lots of critiques in the way that I lead. Like I told you, I voluntarily left from leading. And the people in the organization were not like, “Please stay.”
Latasha Morrison 14:46
(laughter) I get it, I get it.
John Onwuchekwa 14:47
They were like, “Alright yeah, that’s about right.”
Latasha Morrison 14:53
I think it’s incredible for a leader to be self aware. I love that. What are some things, you know, there’s a lot happening, in our world, in our community, within the church, what are some of the things that’s causing deep lament for you right now?
John Onwuchekwa 15:16
Yeah, um you know, one of the things that I feel like that’s like causing a bit of lament for me is the continued critical nature by which I feel like people are continuing to operate by. Right? So I think, years ago, an article came out called “The Gamification of Twitter” by a guy by the name of C. Thi Nguyen. And he just talks about how social media has actually changed the way in which we communicate, that we’ve learned to score points off of critique, polarization, and things like that. And I think I just really lament the fact that one, the church has an amazing opportunity to be this like, beacon of encouraging words in dealing with people that have done some very, very bad things in very stern, but gentle ways. And I think that we’ve missed that. So that’s one thing. And then two, even as we find ourselves in a place with conversations continuing about, you know, diversity, it’s hard to see continued polarization and argument instead of a civilized definition of terms. Those are the things that I just feel like, yeah, just really wanting to find ways to define terms and to come together and to focus on the right things where I feel like, yeah, a focus on solidarity. What does it look like when the church comes together to address the needs of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged? That when that takes place, when the Church takes seriously her responsibility to remember the poor – and that word remember is as broad and expansive as when God will use it of himself – it feels like it’s that kind of solidarity that produces the diversity that we all want. And so I think I’m just lamenting a pathway that seems to be so clear, is obscured because there’s been an overgrowth of meanness and confusion and misunderstanding.
Latasha Morrison 18:17
I love that. That’s good. I lament that with you. And, you know, I think, lament also leads us toward hope.
John Onwuchekwa 18:29
Latasha Morrison 18:29
And I feel like it’s an act of worship. We see David, the prophets do that, model that in Scripture for us, and beacon to God to change their life and human condition. And so as I speak of, you know…what are some things that’s bringing you hope in this moment? So there’s some things that’s bringing you lament, but what are some things that’s bringing you hope?
John Onwuchekwa 19:07
People that are building. People that are putting their hands to the plow, and are working in obscurity. People that nobody know of, but I just look off to the side and I see them, and it’s like, oh, no, no, they’re putting one foot in front of the next. So I’m always encouraged by people who do lament, but who don’t use the best of their platform or wisdom or words to merely publicly lament as if that and only that’s going to change things. But I love the folks that are honest but hopeful. And so they will lament with the best of us, but each day they get up and they say, “Oh, I’m right back to work. And yeah, I’m gonna be patient. Because I know that this is God’s work.” So I love, yeah. Yeah. So I love the work that y’all do. Justin Giboney and the AND Campaign, oh my goodness for years, right. And people don’t know this, Justin was the first person to give $1 to Cornerstone Church back in the day.
Latasha Morrison 20:29
John Onwuchekwa 20:30
And for these past nine years just to see him and that group just say, hey, in some of the most polarizing political times in our world since like 1864, right.
Latasha Morrison 20:45
John Onwuchekwa 20:47
They’re just minding their business, just quietly building and I think we’ll sit in the shade of some of that fruitfulness.
Latasha Morrison 20:56
Of that work. Yeah. I was just on a panel with him last week at Calvin University. So although we’re from Atlanta, we’ve been in some of the same circles and we’ve spoken at some of the same events. But this was the first time we really got a chance to talk, sit down and talk. So that was great. Yeah, I’m with you, brother. I have to have some hope.
John Onwuchekwa 21:20
Right. Got to.
Latasha Morrison 21:21
And hope, I gotta have some hope. And it’s like, my hope is not necessarily, you know, fixated on people.
John Onwuchekwa 21:30
Latasha Morrison 21:31
But in the God that we serve.
John Onwuchekwa 21:32
Latasha Morrison 21:33
I think we have to…in this complex world, and things that we’re dealing with with structures and all of the things, you know, if we’re not leaving as followers of Christ, we got to leave people with some hope.
John Onwuchekwa 21:33
Latasha Morrison 21:33
Last question, and then we can close up. What are some things that, what is something that you did that brought joy to you this month?
John Onwuchekwa 22:07
Latasha Morrison 22:08
Yeah. Just this month.
John Onwuchekwa 22:10
Yeah. Okay. Um, I love my books. I love my books. I love to read.
Latasha Morrison 22:18
I read that, that you’re an avid reader, a deep thinker. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 22:24
Oh, my goodness, this book.
Latasha Morrison 22:26
Which one is that?
John Onwuchekwa 22:27
Latasha Morrison 22:30
John Onwuchekwa 22:31
Oh, it’s fantastic. So while African Americans were fighting for civil rights in the 60s, Nigerians had gained their independence from Britain as a colony in the early 60s and we’re fighting a civil war at the end. And it was, like this is, so much of this is like, like my dad was college age when all this stuff went through. And I just never had a clue of the gravity of the Biafran War. And so I read that book, and it brought just so much context to my parents. You know, I called my dad and it’s like, “Alright, Dad, I’m gonna fly down, and I got to sit down, and I’m gonna record it. And you got to tell me everything about it.” So it was like, yeah, people often talk about the benefit of books and what you learned from them. But this past month, I read that book and at least for me, I’m Nigerian, I’ve grown up in the United States my whole life. And so I’ve read and all that stuff. And I know a great deal about the history of Black folks in the United States. And I feel a great sense of solidarity as it relates to that. And I’ve just found out oh, there’s this whole other section of Black history that I tapped into. So I read that book, and then I went online, and I bought every other book that I could find on the topic. So I’m set for my reading for the month. But that’s a thing that I did that, yeah, yeah, caused me great joy. You?
Latasha Morrison 23:05
Yeah, I love it. I love it. I’m so glad. And I guess thinking of that, like you said, having grown up here you know this history, but then there’s this whole history that you’re disconnected from.
John Onwuchekwa 24:53
Latasha Morrison 24:54
And I know with me, I did the African Ancestry a couple of years ago and so, you know, when they kind of like trace your paternal and maternal bloodline. And for my maternal bloodline it went back to Yoruba.
John Onwuchekwa 25:21
Oh, yeah! Yup.
Latasha Morrison 25:21
And so, so yeah. So the week I found that out, I was involved in this mentorship, executive leadership mentorship program, and there were three people there that were from Nigeria, and all of them were of the Yoruba tribe.
John Onwuchekwa 25:45
Latasha Morrison 25:46
And we were talking about that, and I had the opportunity to share that. And they were like, “We need to christen you with a name.” (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 25:53
Listen. Okay. They gave you one?
Latasha Morrison 25:53
So they gave me a name. They gave me a name: Oluwakemi.
John Onwuchekwa 25:55
Okay. Okay. Okay.
Latasha Morrison 26:01
And I had to let it you know, sit. And why it was so fresh, I was talking with my cousins about it. They like wait for me to do the research and just want me to tell them all the research that I’m doing. (laughter) But yeah, and so it’s so funny. So I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Nigeria. And I know that the lines that exist today, that is a reflection of colonization, those are not the lines that existed during the transatlantic slave trade. So I know that and understand that. But to have a name and to have something attached to a tribe and a people group, and then there’s certain characteristics about that people group, and then people can tell me about that, having names attached to that. I was able to look up what your name meant up, your surname, I was able to look it up and find out what it meant and what it was related to. And I’m just like, wow, names mean something. That’s why I wanted to say your name at the beginning. It’s great that we call you John O. But also, understanding what your surname means and where it comes from is really important. So that’s more important to me now having learned all of this information. I had a chance to interview Ekemini.
John Onwuchekwa 27:28
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Latasha Morrison 27:28
Who is another Nigerian sister. Sam Acho, you know, I haven’t had a chance to interview his brother, but that’s coming. So I’m getting the opportunity to…just look so we’re doing some incredible things. You see how I said we are? (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 27:28
Listen. Hey, say it. Say it.
Latasha Morrison 27:41
We are doing some incredible things. Right?
John Onwuchekwa 27:50
I love it. I love it. We are, we are.
Latasha Morrison 27:52
Yeah. Thank you so much.
John Onwuchekwa 27:55
Oh, thank you.
Latasha Morrison 27:56
I have got to…I really want to take a tour of Portrait Coffee.
John Onwuchekwa 28:01
Latasha Morrison 28:01
So we’re gonna have to make that happen.
John Onwuchekwa 28:03
Come on. We’ll set it up.
Latasha Morrison 28:04
We also have some other mutual friends, Samuel Dula. I don’t know if you know Samuel Dula.
John Onwuchekwa 28:04
I know Sam. We played at Blueprint together.
Latasha Morrison 28:15
Yeah, we were on staff together for many years at a church together, I was actually Samuel’s boss. (laughter)
John Onwuchekwa 28:26
There we go. There it is.
Latasha Morrison 28:29
Yeah, but listen, I’ve known him since I was in college. He was actually one of the main reasons why I went into full time ministry. You know, he was right out of college. And he was helping mentor student leaders on campuses in North Carolina area. So we go back a long ways. I was in his wedding.
John Onwuchekwa 28:52
Really? Tina. Look at that!
Latasha Morrison 28:53
I was a bridesmaid. (laughter) We go back and actually we’re going to be meeting, I’m going to be meeting with him and a couple other people in Atlanta in the next coming week. And so, small world. That’s why I think I feel like I’ve known you. So it was a pleasure. This is just the beginning.
John Onwuchekwa 29:14
This definitely can’t be the last time.
Latasha Morrison 29:17
Yeah, I’m gonna have to collect my finder’s fee though. (laughter) We got to talk about that.
John Onwuchekwa 29:21
I got you. I got you. Listen. My daughter’s going to college off Portrait! (laughter)
Tandra Potts 29:35
Go to the donors table if you’d like to hear the unedited version of this podcast.
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge Podcast. To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization and or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BeTheBridge.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it all on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the Senior Producer. And transcribed by Sarah Connatser. Please join us next time. This has been a Be the Bridge production.
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