Bringing People Together
Chris Burton has always been a people person. In high school and college, he easily struck up conversations with anyone in his path. He gathered other students for movie nights, game nights, food and fellowship.
“It was good training for ministry,” says Burton, who is now 26 and set to earn his M.Div. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2015.
Burton is comfortable in his own skin—even when his skin is not the same color as most of those around him. Growing up in New Jersey, he was one of only a few African Americans at the private schools he attended in Brooklyn, New York. From there, he headed south to majority-white Davidson College in North Carolina, after learning about the school at a college fair.
At Davidson, Burton met Brianna, who is now his wife. He became student body president. He says this gave him “an opportunity to make sure everyone had a seat at the table.” Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he was developing a pastoral leadership style.
Burton grew up in a church-going family. “In college, I began to claim my faith for the first time,” he says. “I had a lot of friends who weren’t Christians, but they knew faith was important to me.” He picked up the nickname “Rev.”—a clue that God might be calling him to ministry.
Following God’s call to UPSem in Richmond, however, brought unexpected challenges. He struggled to adjust to life in a city full of monuments to the Confederacy, where, he jokes “it felt like the Civil War ended just a couple of weeks ago.”
Burton transferred to Union’s Charlotte campus in 2010. In February 2012, he was hospitalized for three weeks and diagnosed with lupus. He uses sports metaphors to describe the impact of that diagnosis: “Before, I tried to play life like basketball, with a full-court press.” Life now, he says, is more like being starting pitcher for a baseball team.
Lupus-induced fatigue may have slowed Burton’s game, but he is determined to win. “I’m learning to take care of myself and get the rest I need.” Now back on the Richmond campus, he is starting to think about life after seminary. A job as chaplain at a middle school in Charlotte kindled an interest in ministry with young people. “I love helping them understand Scripture, figure out who they are, and realize their calling and purpose,” he says.
Burton especially loves “bringing people together” to learn from their differences. “Living in that tension strengthens us,” he believes. “That’s what the church ought to look like.”