Empowered by Relationships

Jazz drummer Aaron Houghton uses a musical metaphor to describe the discernment process that led him to Union Presbyterian Seminary. His call to ministry, he says, was like “God slowly turning up the volume.”


Two elderly African American men, Sherman and Buddy, helped Houghton tune in to God’s call. Jazz aficionados as well, they entered Houghton’s life while he was pursuing a degree in music at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.


One of Houghton’s professors told him about Sherman and his collection of more than 3,000 old jazz albums. Months later, looking for someone to hang out with, the young student gave the old man a call. This was the beginning of what Houghton describes as “my second church.” Every Sunday afternoon, following worship, he would go over to Sherman’s place and listen to jazz.


“Sherman was slowly dying of cancer and heart problems,” he recalls, “but music always brought him to life.” Houghton and a couple of other students took their instruments and played a concert in Sherman’s hospital room two days before he died.


A professor also introduced Houghton to Buddy, who had been friends with jazz legend Miles Davis. Buddy just needed someone to talk to. So Houghton visited Buddy, first in his apartment and later at a nursing facility, until Buddy succumbed to cancer.


Houghton says Sherman and Buddy taught him that “ministry is empowered by relationships.” The men became grandfather-figures to Houghton, who lost both of his grandfathers when he was very young.


Houghton cherishes a collection of prayers and sermons left by one grandfather, James Earl Drinkard, a Union Seminary–educated Presbyterian minister, who died in 1996. “There have been times since I’ve been in seminary that I’ve wished I could talk to him,” he says.


The son of two teachers, Houghton expects that education—as well as music—will be central to his ministry. He graduates this spring with both M.Div. and MACE degrees. A month later, he will marry Beth Curfman, a middle-school teacher. He says he will be proud to be called a “teaching elder” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


“Often churches look for dynamic leadership in the pulpit, but that same kind of energy and creativity is lacking in their educational program,” Houghton says. He believes teaching is essential, whether it’s done in sermons, Sunday school classes, or Bible studies. Christian education, he says, equips a congregation to be the body of Christ in the world, witnessing in such a way that “when other people hear or see it, they say, ‘I want to be part of that.’”