Editor’s note: This edited transcript of my conversation with Mashaun Simon, a former reporter turned pastor to pastoral care counselor, is the first in a series of episodes. I’ll talk to journalists who have left for the ministry, or who are still journalists but practicing ministry in some fashion. My conversation with Mashaun over Zoom, reached him in his home in Atlanta. Listen to the hourlong podcast for the complete conversation.
Yvette: Hi, Mashaun. You're a favorite face, a welcome face to my podcast, but this is a different podcast. And I'm so happy to have you come back and talk about this new area that we're going into and that's Journalists Advancing Ministry, or JAM for short. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Mashaun: It’s my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
Yvette: Absolutely. Well, you and I have known each other for a while. We came into contact with each other many, many years ago, when you were still, I think, in college. You were interning at a magazine. We'll get into that in a minute.
But now you have moved into ministry and that's really what JAM, this new podcast, is all about. So, I want to talk about that today, but I want to start off asking you about your faith walk. How you basically came to be a believer.
Mashaun: It is exciting to be talking to you again and to be talking about this topic most specifically because it is interesting. I say that partly because for a long time, I felt like I might have been like the only one making this transition, but like you said, there have been a number of journalists that have made the shift. I know one in particular who is a doctor of ministry. Her name is Garland Davis, who is a former journalist. And then there's another woman who comes to mind, who was pastoring a United Methodist church in Florida and she's a former journalist, so yeah, this, this is an interesting transition.
But my faith walk, I, I like to say that I did not grow up in church because I really didn't (go) for a lot of different reasons and factors that really had nothing to do with me, but had a lot to do with family baggage. So, my people are deeply ingrained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I have learned in the past five or six years that there are at least three AME churches in the metropolitan Atlanta area that are like the Simon family churches. But I didn't start out there.
I started going to church with some friends from school a church of Christ church on the west side of Atlanta. And then from there eventually started going to the family church with my father and my mother, but faith or religion always hovered over me and around me. So, I grew up in a household that was very much influenced by church or influenced by faith. There were things … I couldn't listen to certain music ... I couldn't do certain things like get ear piercings … we couldn't get tattoos. There were a whole lot of things we could not do because of these religious influences that hovered around us.
And so, I grew up for the most part with this mindset of this is what church was because of all the things we were told not to do.
Yvette: all the don'ts.
Mashaun: All the don'ts. And somewhere around 11 or 12, we started going to the family church. And it was then that I began to recognize it to a certain extent as more of like a community center, a place where we could come together in fellowship, but I can't really say that I paid much attention to what was being preached. I do remember the don’ts. I do remember the sermons across the pulpit, as it pertained to sexuality and sexual identity.
I remember the messages as it pertained to Jesus says to come as you are. But then at the same time, there are all these other things that you aren't supposed to do. And so, my stepping into ministry was very unexpected because (even though) I spent a lot of time there between 11 and 16, I left again after I came out.
Yvette: How do you self-identify?
Mashaun: So, I also identify same-gender-loving or black gay or queer. And so, I didn't really, so to, you know, to be in ministry now was never really this thing that was expected. However, there came a time -- I think I was around like 15 or 16 just before I came out – where there were certain people around me who would refer to me in a way that made me think they saw me as like a ministerial figure.
And since then, as we sort of reflect now what, some 20, 30 years later, there have been several of them who have said, “We're not surprised that you ended up in ministry.”
Yvette: Isn't that interesting. So mid to late teens, you come out and you move away from the church at that time. At the same time, you’re ending high school, beginning to go to college.
Mashaun: I majored in professional writing initially with a minor in sociology. And then I majored in communications with a minor in sociology. I got my Associate degree from Georgia Perimeter college. Mm-hmm and I got my Bachelor's with Kennesaw State University.
Yvette: Okay. So, as most people who are interested in going into this field you start looking around for opportunities, internships, things like that. And you had, you had a very famous one because you ended up writing about it. And that was your internship at Black Enterprise magazine. It was a summer internship. But I'm sure were there other internships as well?
Mashaun: Yes. So, I started in high school writing for a team publication. In the Metro area called Vox. From Vox I did an internship at the Island Packet in Hilton head, South Carolina, and then I did one at the Herald in Rockhill, South Carolina, before I ended up in New York at Black Enterprise.
Yvette: The Black Enterprise internship was rather famous because of something the employers asked you to do, and that was cut your hair. And during the time when natural hairstyles, were beginning to be worn in newsrooms. That was kind of a time when a lot of people came to know you. And I'm wondering, that had to be a stressful summer. I know you told me that you said, Hey, I need the experience, so I'm gonna cut them. I'll do what I have to do. Yeah. But still was that a stressful summer? And did you turn to God at all during that whole experience?
Mashaun: It was a stressful summer. Did I turn to God? That's a really good question because I don’t know. Hmm. Yes and no. I had several stressful summers, like every internship had some form of stress in one way or another. And I do remember sort of being in this space. You know, a lot of people when they talk about prayer, they talk about getting on your knees. They're being like this concentrated time for prayer and just like petitioning to God and tearing on your knees. I don't do that. For me, it's very much a conversation in a way in which you and I are conversing.
Earlier today, we had some drama because we're supposed to be having some doors installed here at the house. We've had a very stressful week, and I just remember sort of sitting on my steps and just being like, “God help me in this moment.” And so, I know I've always done that. Like I've always stopped what I was doing, steeled myself, and just sort of been like, “God, I need you,” or “God help me,” or “God, I love you, give me direction.” And so, to that extent, yes.
When the drama was going on at Black Enterprise, it shifted perspectives for me because I did not know for one that people were paying that much attention to me. Mm-hmm Granted, I sat on the board of the National Association of Black Journalists as, student rep. I was the first openly gay student rep, but I still didn't really connect to the fact that people were paying attention to the things I was or was not doing or the choices I was making.
Yvette: And let's point out you were a young person. That is that's a lot for young person to take on. So, you're like what 20 at the time 20, 21?
Mashaun: I was drinking age. I was pretty young and pretty new into my career and sort of also just oblivious to what authority or, for lack of a better phrase, platform that I had at the time. And so, it was pretty stressful and it, it took some adjusting. It took a lot of adjusting at that point in time. And at the same time, I just wanted to do what I came there to do. And so, I didn't want to give a whole lot, I mean, it was a, it was a messed-up situation. Don't get me wrong, but I just wanted to do what I came there to do and not be made a, a poster boy for other people's agendas.
And so, I was getting both of those pressures. The situation that to some extent felt unfair, but I recognized to some extent, these are sometimes the choices that have to be made. And at the same time, I didn't want everybody's bullhorn to be placed in my face and on my shoulders and around my head to make a point around all of that.
Little did I know, that that would sort of also lead into this because that's what ministry also is. And I didn't know then that, that experience was preparing me for now.
Yvette: Wow. Okay. So, you had that internship and graduated. What happened next? Where did you work next in journalism?
Mashaun: I came back to Atlanta, interviewed for the Atlanta Press Club and then went on to finish my bachelor's at Kennesaw state. And I did that in like a year and a half when at the same time, that is when the whisper of the call started manifesting itself around me.
Yvette: The whisper of the call?
Mashaun: Yes. I had started going to a couple churches here in the Atlanta area. One was known as an affirming church It was a very quickly growing church here in Atlanta where I had become pretty close to one of the executive pastors there. So, we were inseparable. We were like best friends. And I like to say that he was coming to grips with his sexual identity. Because at the time he was an in the closet, a black gay man. So, as I mentored him out of the closet, he mentored me into ministry.
Mashaun: And so, ministry started happening. Not long after that. I landed an internship at the Atlanta Journal Constitution here locally. And it was there that I answered my call. It was there that things just kept happening. They kept sending me on stories that I just really wasn't happy about or excited about. Conversations kept happening around me in the church space. People kept saying things that I was just really fighting against and I remember vividly it was in the spring. It was April, 2009. I remember saying to someone I was dating at the time that I hear what the people are saying about me. I hear the ways in which people are calling me, minister, Bishop, I hear all of it, but God, God self. is going to have to come to me and say, this is what I want of you. And this is what you are called to do. I say it's the only way I will do what it is that everyone keeps saying I'm supposed to be doing.
And the very next morning in, intercessory prayer at the church, as we were praying, two people stepped to me and said to me verbatim what I had said the night before. And I knew it was God. And I. Oh, okay. So, this is what this is supposed to look like. Hmm. Noted. And so, then I started processing what I needed to do. I left that church, went to another church and was sitting in a class. We were new members' class. And we were talking about the importance of Jesus in the Bible. And the teacher had said, what is the most important thing about Jesus? And I had been wrestling with this already for, for. I had visited another church and the preacher was talking about doing an inventory of yourself, and I remember. The way in which he kept talking about being like Jesus and this divinity and this perfection. And I shuffled in my seat the entire time. Like I was so uncomfortable that when I went to this new member's class at this church, I had joined when the teacher asked the question, what's the most important thing about Jesus.
I said, his humanity. And she said, you're right. You need to go to seminary. And it started that process for me. So, I enrolled at the school of theology at Emory University. I deferred for a year to finish my fellowship with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And in August of 2010, I started classes.
Yvette: What was your beat? What was your focus of reporting?
Mashaun: So initially I got hired as an intern to work on the breaking news team because they were transitioning. The industry itself was changing. We were, we were going more digital, social media was a thing. So, I got hired to be a part of the breaking news team, exclusively for ajc.com and a part of that job was also tweeting. I was a breaking news reporter and manager of the social media, or one of the managers of the social media. I had the opportunity to stay with them for a year.
I was in the newsroom the day Michael Jackson died. I remember that vividly. It was also part of the reason why I decided I no longer wanted to be a journalist.
Mashaun: The sensationalism of it. And I felt like we were doing more damage than good. That's really part of the reason why I went to seminary. I felt like journalism and the kind of journalist that I wanted to be was not what I was seeing in the newsroom. Cause it was all about click bate, getting the story, getting the scoop and not really caring much about how it was impacting people who were close to the story. That just didn't sit right with me. And so I wanted to have an impact in the world in such a way that I was doing more good than harm. And so yeah, I left the AJC that June and I started school that August.
Yvette: Yeah, I, I can see what you mean. Because the greatest commandment seems to be at odds sometimes with what we're asked to do as journalists. And although. There are the SPJ code of ethics. Yep. There are several newsrooms that have code of ethics that say that we should seek the truth. We should be honest. Mm-hmm we should not, we should minimize harm to the people that we're reporting about, but sometimes the job itself is difficult.
Mashaun: and every choice that I've made in my career, per se, since then has been connected to, or tied to, in what way are we impacting the greater good mm-hmm even the writing that I continue to do, it's all about informing, educating, and highlighting and not sensationalism. And I've made some slipups in the process as well. Like I remember some years after I graduated from seminary, I was writing for NBC news and I wrote this story about the black lives murder movement and how young people in the black lives matter movement wanted nothing to do with the church. And there were a lot of church people who were upset with me for writing that story. Yeah. For a lot of different reasons. And it really hurt my heart that they were so upset. One, because again, I wanted to be the kind of writer that caused no harm, but two, I now am a part of the Clergy society, if you will. And I had created this level of frustration with the very people who, to some extent were colleagues or soon-to-be colleagues.
I'm gonna say it this way. Church folk are really good at trying to put on a certain air or reputation that isn't always authentic. It isn't always true. And in the same way, the journalism is supposed to always be about getting after the truth ministry is as well. And sometimes it is necessary for those of us that are clergy members to be honest and authentic about the ways in which we have failed the very people we are called to, but a lot of us don't want to do that.
It's hard to be authentic even though you're supposed to be authentic. I have rattled … there are a lot of pulpits I'll never be invited to back to because of that.
Yvette: What was that like when you, when you decided to go to seminary?
Mashaun: I went in thinking that it was supposed to be almost like a glorified Bible study and it was a lot more academic than that. It was a mix between the academic and the practical, the ministerial practice, if you will. And so. That worked for me because I was a journalist. I came in knowing you ask questions, you're a conspiracy theorist. You want to break everything down to get to the truth and at this, but at the same time, struggle with what now do I do with this? And how do I take this into the world?
The practice of seminary did not make me closer to God. The experience of seminary is what made me closer to God because I ended up spending a lot more time with God talking to God about. Why did you bring me here? One of the reasons why I went to seminary was because I wanted to prove God wrong. I (still) did not believe and was not convinced that I was supposed to be doing ministry.
The three years that I was in seminary only made the reality that I am called to ministry clearer. Whether or not I was called to pastoring was another question.
But being called to ministry, I was more clear about, than anything else at that time, but it was because of the experience, not because of what they were teaching me. What they were teaching me was giving me foundation what I was experiencing. What's causing me to interact with God more, if that makes sense.
Yvette: I remember on Facebook when you announced that you were going to divinity school, and I remember when you said it, it is done. I mean, I was so proud of you. So tell me, tell us a little bit about your ministry, CV. I guess you could say your ministry resume, where have you worked and then I want to ask you a question maybe that only a pastor could answer about maybe journalism, but tell us, tell us first about where you've worked and what you've done there.
Mashaun: So, while in seminary, I. Wanted to be as prepared as possible for ministry. And so, I got myself involved in ministerial practices. So that's where the ministry CV begins. While in seminary, I was a teaching assistant for intro to preaching courses. One, because I felt as though in order to be a better preacher, I needed to study it, but also helped others because I realized I had a very critical ear.
So that started, that sort of began the CV. After I graduated from seminary, I had plans to move to Canada. To do a master's and then a PhD in homiletics, the art of preaching. I wanted to study preaching more. And what ended up happening was life brought me back to Atlanta.
While I was making my way to Canada, I found out that a dear friend of mine died. I found out that my housing and financial aid fell through in Toronto. And I found out that the state of Georgia was suing me for overage and unemployment benefits. And so, I had to come back to Atlanta.
Yvette: That’s a lot.
Mashaun: That’s a lot! Not knowing that would begin the next leg of my ministry. And so, while trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do with my life from like September to like February I started attending a small non-denominational Pentecostal leaning church called House of Mercy Everlasting in College Park, Georgia.
It is there where I met my dear friend and pastor Pierre Cox and unofficially started the grooming process to lead his ministry. From then, which was November of 2013 until Thanksgiving of 2019. I served in very different capacities. I led a preaching course there. I began organizing and planning worship experiences at the church and in Thanksgiving of 2019. And in that time between 2013 and 2019 Pierre battled, colorectal cancer.
And so, while he was in treatment I served as the interim pastor. And when he came back from his first set of treatment, he invited me to be his assistant pastor. I served in that role until the beginning of the pandemic. And then took back over the church as he started declining from colorectal cancer, a blood infection and full-blown AIDS.
He passed. Of 2020. I was named successor and pastor of the church in September of 2020, and I served in that role until February 4th, 2022. After my sabbatical ended after my father passed and it was after my father passed in October of 2021, where my heart for ministry shifted. But also, my commitment to myself shifted. And what I realized was I did not do a good job of grieving after Pierre passed. Yeah. I was so committed to making the church continue and giving them the breaks that they needed, the leaders, the members his spouse that I never really grieved. And so, when my father passed, I saw myself doing some of the same stuff again.
And I was like, I can't, I can't keep doing this. If I keep doing this, it's going to destroy me.
I decided in January of 2022, I decided that what was best for me was to no longer pastor pull back and take some time to myself and then rethink what ministry looked like for me. At the same time. I am two years into a four-year doctor of ministry program. Where I am studying grief from pastoral theology.
Yvette: Oh, wow. Certainly, someone who has been through it can, can understand better. What other people feel, and also and you know, and, and just be that light and encouragement to them.
Yvette: Wow. Well, thank you so much. This has been such an interesting and rich conversation. Thank you. I appreciate you spending the time.
Mashaun: I appreciate the invitation. I hope some good came out of me running my mouth for all this time. Thank you. I appreciate it.