Interview 6: Reverend Damon P. Williams

I already wrote an introduction to this post–and I once again apologize for the lateness. Sometimes life catches up with me. But I have finally transcribed my interview with Damon, and I am so excited to share it with you. It’s a long one, but worth reading, I promise you. So without further ado…

Interview 6: Reverend Damon P. Williams

“I just believe by faith that being in a relationship with something greater than me, God, is going to be better than what I’m doing now.”

Me: So basically, through my interview, I want to get an understanding of your beliefs and how you came to them. If you could use a sentence to describe your faith today, how would you describe it?

Damon: Oh gosh. A sentence to describe my faith?

Me: Well, okay, a paragraph. [laughs]

Damon: A paragraph. [pauses] So I believe in God, and I believe that the revelation of who God is, the character of God, God’s expectations, came through his son Jesus, who came to Earth approximately—the engineer in me won’t say two thousand years ago—approximately two thousand years ago, and that based upon the life that he lived, the way he lived his life, the sacrifice of his life, that he died for my salvation. So that would be the elevator speech of my faith.

Me: Good elevator speech. That’s exactly the terminology I should have used. [laughs] So how were you raised, and how did you come to those beliefs? Have you always believed that, or has there been a transition for you at any time?

Damon: That’s hilarious. No, I have not always believed that. I grew up in the most religiously nebulous household in the world. So, my mother, I would say is agnostic? She’s tried to come to an understanding of faith, most of her life, she’s tried to come to an understanding of God, just hasn’t been able to. When I was a kid growing up, she went to a Roman Catholic church. Every Christian and Judaic Christian denominational affiliation, she visited. Now she kind of goes to an interfaith center, so a place of spirituality and worship, but they would not claim any particular faith. My father grew up in an old-school Black Baptist church. His family went to that church. But during my childhood he was like a Sunday Christian. So Christianity wasn’t the core of his existence. He went to church on Sunday. He dressed up to the nines—excuse me, let me change my vernacular—he dressed as well as you possibly can—

Me: I understand what “dressed up to the nines” means. [laughs]

Damon: So you dressed to the nines and you went to church, and there was this old guy who had on this robe, and he got angry, and started yelling and screaming, who knew what he was yelling and screaming about, God was in there somewhere…. When I was a kid, to be perfectly honest, growing up, even through high school, I didn’t like going to the church. I loved the music, I didn’t like the length. Sunday, football season…I wanted to go home and watch the game. And the church wasn’t really about teaching. I didn’t learn very much. I didn’t learn about Jesus, I didn’t learn about this concept of faith. And then my mother—so the Catholic church—the music wasn’t hitting—this is going to sound totally racist, and it’s totally inappropriate, but I’m gonna say it anyway—black people are very—we’re rhythm-based people, and we’re into music, so these other churches that were singing like [breaks into falsetto Latin chant-singing], like you just can’t get with that. I couldn’t get with that. I needed something with a little more rhythm. So when I got to college, Georgia Tech, I went to church maybe twice? My entire collegiate career. Both times, it was because of a woman. [laughs] It had nothing to do with God at all.

So I didn’t actually come to faith, interestingly, until I was 24, actually, your age. I was a PhD student at the University of Michigan, I had just gotten my Master’s, and my roommate was going to this church, another typical Baptist church. The difference was the pastor was a teaching pastor, so he taught a lot. I used to not like people of faith, and Christians, I thought they just—the engineer in me, the scientist, I thought they just wanted to explain everything away with faith. He was very very very good at teaching. I was going because I liked the music, and I appreciated the teaching, and right at the age of 24 I went through this very traumatic experience—well it was traumatic for me at the time, looking back on it it’s not traumatic—where my advisor left the University of Michigan and went to Cornell, and he couldn’t take me with him. So I was stuck at Michigan with no advisor, not knowing if I was going to finish my PhD. Now I look back on it, not that big a deal, at the time it was like the world was ending, if I didn’t know what I was going to do with my doctorate. So that was how I came to faith.

Damon's official photo

Damon’s official photo

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Interview 6: An Introduction

Hi everyone! I am currently in the process of transcribing the interview I am supposed to post tomorrow, but due to a week full of mishaps and insanity (at this point, all I can do is laugh) I have not completed my blogging duties. I am helping a friend move to Denver from the Twin Cities tomorrow so I will HOPEFULLY have everything transcribed and post when we arrive. I’m very excited about this interview (to be fair, I’m excited about all of them) and I can’t wait to share it with you. To pique your interest, I have written an introduction to explain my relationship with the interviewee. So get excited.

 

Interview 6: Damon

An Introduction

To properly introduce my next interviewee, I must explain the circumstances under which I met him.

Those who know me know that I attended Georgia Tech, a school known for the quality of engineers it turns out. Part of creating these engineers entails destroying their psyches through sleep deprivation, an unyielding workload, and belittlement through grade deflation. But I digress.

Georgia Tech is a challenging school, but an intellectually un-stimulating one. Open discussion is a rarity for some majors, and non-existent for others. Professors are not there to teach, but instead are there to do research—teaching is an unfortunate side-job.

When I stepped into Damon’s class, I was a fourth year Industrial Engineering student. I was burned out on math class after math class, at the tail end of a three-year emotionally abusive relationship, and tired of classmates who seemed to only care about schoolwork, complaining about schoolwork, and drinking.

Damon’s first day of class was clearly intended to be an eye-opener, and it certainly was. He is an imposing presence on first encounter: tall, broad-shouldered, and—an unfortunate rarity in the engineering world—Black. He speaks clearly and precisely, his sentences are measured and calm, and you can’t help but be drawn in to what he is saying. Especially when, on the first day of class, he tells you there will be a quiz next class on the concepts he teaches that day. He wanted us to learn, and to learn well—and to be disciplined in our learning.

I was intrigued and terrified.

When I sat down the next night to study for this impending quiz, I got a phone call from my mother, telling me that my grandfather had collapsed at a routine dentist’s appointment and they didn’t think he would make it through the night.

While waiting for my parents to pick me up on the way to the hospital in Macon, I shot some emails to my professors, explaining I would be missing class. The email I spent the most time crafting was the one to Damon—I was terrified at the prospect of missing his quiz. I knew I couldn’t get in trouble for it—but it wasn’t the first impression I wanted to leave on such an imposing professor.

The next several days were a whirr. I stayed up all night in the hospital, as we waited for the news we already knew—my grandfather was brain-dead. We took him off life support and stayed with him until he took his last breath. I alternated between being overwhelmed with despair and being completely void of emotion.

I came home, went to class, went back to Macon for the funeral, came home again, and rescheduled my quiz with Damon.

I tried to study. Or rather, I tried to try to study. Instead I filled the emptiness with Netflix and Hulu. I didn’t care anymore.

When I walked into Damon’s office to take the quiz, I was surprised by his warmth and kindness. He had demonstrated his healthy sense of humor in class but the formidable professor was all of a sudden also a caring mentor. I didn’t know the solution to the quiz. I shrugged and tried to laugh it off, wanting to escape back to my cave of candy and dumb movies.

But Damon cared. He wanted me to understand the concept. He didn’t accept my failed quiz—he told me to come back and take it again when I was ready.

In my entire college career, I had never experienced such a feeling.

Once I realized how much Damon wanted us to learn in his class, I wanted to learn from him. He seemed to have as much stake in our success as we did—and it just made me want to impress him.

Of course, he knew my name from the first week of class, which meant he called me out whenever I wasn’t paying attention. I intentionally always sat in the front of a class to force myself to keep my eyes on the board, but even then had had trouble maintaining concentration. Damon called my attention back. He asked me to answer questions. I was so used to going off in a daze I no longer knew how to answer when a professor called on me. He helped me walk through the problem until I found the solution. It could be embarrassing and awkward, but it truly helped me learn.

The difference between Damon and most of my other professors was that Damon didn’t just care. He held me to a higher standard. Which, in turn, forced me to hold myself to that standard.

I got a B in his class. I’m still mortified to this day. I was less upset about the grade than I was about disappointing him.

But Damon did not just positively affect one class of one semester. Through him, I scored an internship in which I discovered I could be passionate about my major and what it allows me to do. I was so burnt out and broken down I hadn’t considered I might actually like being an industrial engineer—and all of a sudden, I was discovering a passion I thought I would never find. Without that internship, without Damon, I would not be where I am today.

 

When I heard that Damon had become a pastor, I was not surprised.

He is everything a pastor should be: passionate, thoughtful, observant, and open-minded. He speaks with intention and listens patiently. I am certain he will have great impact on this world, because I know he has already positively impacted me.