Damian Young never planned on being a Christian. He just wasn't interested. The first part of his life was in Oakland, California. His grandmother loved Jesus and brought him to church as a child but he had other interests as a teenager. After spending a night in a county a jail, he became intrigued after being told all about Jesus by a murderer. Damian learned more at Quail Lake Baptist Church in Oakland, and one day, he felt a distinct and surprising calling to start a church in the NorthWest of the United States.
As an adult, Damian moved to Vancouver, Washington with a job and attended the Community AME Zion Church, where he was mentored by Reverend Pastor Joyce M Smith, who nurtured and encouraged his vision. She was a great shepherd who helped develop Damian and gave him the chance to preach for the first time. Damian was listened to and encouraged. He also learned the value of systems that the methodist practice.
From there, Damian attended New Hope Missionary Baptist church across the river in Portland, Oregon. He grew under the teaching of Reverend Pastor Jay Walter Hills the II. New Hope is a historic African American church that was in a gentrified area now surrounded by a predominately white neighborhood. Damian became the superintendent of education at New Hope and developed a new curriculum. He decided to open himself up to spreading the Gospel in the community, despite the fact that the Black community was being pushed out and many of the new families did not have a connection to faith. Damian shifted the Christian education toward a curriculum that addressed the needs of both the established black community as well as the new neighbors that came from all different backgrounds.. He still firmly believed that the Church could be relevant and valuable in the community. He desired to keep spiritual development available and alive in a community that was changing.
At New Hope Damian challenged people to thinking about what God was doing in them. One of his mottos was: “It's all about you.” Connected to his training in the methodist church, Damian created systems that could help people wherever they were at in their journey. All of these elements built towards a vision that lingered in him about starting a church.
During this time, Damian started a non-prophet called Seeds of Greatness, which did outreaches where he lived in Vancouver, Washington. Seeds of Greatness projects served the hurting, the hungry, and the downtrodden in the community. Damian was mentored by the founder of the longstanding homeless ministry called Open House. He planted himself in Vancouver, while continuing to serve at the church across the river in Portland each week. Damian's hope and vision to start a new church never wained. He didn't want it to be a black church, or a white church, but a Jesus Church that was the backbone of the community.
There were moments that Damian's call to start a church felt interrupted. However, God was growing him every step of the way from one ministry to another. He was developed at each step, and shaping a vision of the type of community God was calling him towards.
He realized he wanted an open environment where anyone would feel comfortable to explore spirtuality: “I wanted a place where individuals are free to explore and indulge in the grandiose thoughts of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”
To Damian, that means there is space for people in his community to have a voice and find a family. He envisioned a place where people become aware of their gifts and talents, and the greatness that lies within them. He imaged a space that met the needs of the community and then challenged them into the fuller versions of themselves that God breathed into them.
Damian encourages people, and doggedly believes we can do better. “That's the best feeling. Seeing people come in that think they can't do something, and telling them they have greatness in them. That is the best feeling as a pastor. Getting behind people's dreams and watching what thrives as we work them out together.”
When his non-prophet Seeds of Greatness was three years old, now established in their service projects in the community, Damian took an internship that was focused on church planting. He honed a mission statement to empower the powerless and help individual development. Much of this was also rooted in collaboration and sharing space with other communities in the area. Seeds of Greatness didn't need to compete with existing churches, but rather came alongside and partnered with existing churches in the area.
In the midst of all this planning, the pandemic struck. Damian worked with fluidity, canceling in-person gatherings and focusing on caring about people, like Seeds of Greatness had been doing all along. George Floyd's murder had a profound impact across America. In Vancouver, there has been an alarming rate of murders of African American males. Damian hadn't seen himself as a civil right activist, but like his calling to be a pastor and church planter, he could not ignore the call. Damian was invited to be the spiritual representation at the local NAACP in Vancouver, Washington. He noted that Sunday morning is still one of the most segregated times in America. Damian is working to change this each week, trying to cultivate a place where everyone feels safe.
Alongside all the trauma of 2020, a building space opened up in Bagley Downs, a neighborhood where many people served by Seeds of Greatness ministries lived in Vancouver. The vision God had given Damian so many years ago in Oakland was coming into focus, at a time when all communities around the world, including churches, were being shaken and changed.
So why another church? Damian's story brought him to a point where he believes that each and every individual matters. Living into their, calling, their authentic selves, means there is space for each individual, there is space for more creativity, there is space for more communities, and even new churches.
Damian's church is unique. A church focused on those who have been wounded in society, marginalized and underserved people. It goes far beyond Sunday morning, and encompasses transitional housing, partnering with local businesses to create jobs, jail ministry, and providing spaces for spiritual development and prayer. People that normally would not get a change to be heard, being listened to. Damian's vision stands in the gap bridging issues of race, poverty, gentrification, and spirtuality into once space, and believing that Jesus can walk us towards healing.
What if the call forward isn't in deconstructing churches away, but every individual living into their heart and passion, creating more spaces -different spaces- where ideas and love flourish. What if these many, varied communities are the basis of re-formation of our spaces, starting with our spiritual spaces, tapping back to what Jesus was talking about all along. As Damian says, “we all have a piece of the puzzle, and we all fit together.”
Cynthia's talk from the conference 2021.
Part two of Damian Young's story of starting a new church community.