From former prisoners to Ivy League grads, PCA’s Unity Fund casts a wide net
By Zoe S. Erler
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Dax Palmer knows that he hasn’t taken the normal route toward ordination in the PCA. Ten years before he took a position as the director of outreach for Christ the King in Raleigh, North Carolina, Palmer was wrapping up his third stint in prison.

Palmer is one of 68 current recipients of the Unity Fund, which provides scholarships for minorities seeking seminary education, financial subsidies for churches wanting to hire minorities, and other efforts toward greater racial diversity in the denomination. Here are a few of their stories:

Dax Palmer: “I can be a part of this”

A street kid from California, Palmer started selling drugs at 13 and received his first sentence in his early 20s. From there, it was in and out of prison, until he landed at Salinas Valley State Penitentiary, where he finally accepted the gospel, about seven years after attending a prison Bible study. 

When Palmer was paroled to North Carolina in 2008, he told his then girlfriend that she would have to be okay with his Christianity or break up with him. She stuck around.

Over the next several years, he got married, was baptized, earned a degree in counseling from community college and then an undergraduate degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He worked for a while for Converting Hearts Ministry and later for the YMCA.

Dax Palmer

After five years working for the YMCA, his supervisor recommended him for a position at Christ the King Church in Raleigh. Palmer says he had visited the church briefly several years before, but after meeting with senior pastor Geoff Bradford and other leaders, he was hired to head up the church’s outreach to the local Raleigh community.

As an African American, Palmer admits that he felt a little out of his element in a largely white congregation. Even more so, when he attended General Assembly in 2018. But during that assembly, Palmer also sat in on a racial reconciliation panel discussion with PCA leaders of color — including Irwyn Ince, Carl Ellis, and Alex Shipman.

That was a turning point.

“I felt like I can be a part of this,” says Palmer about seeing and hearing leaders of color discuss the value of racial diversity in the denomination.

In his role at Christ the King, Palmer says he gets to play a bridge between the church and the Raleigh community, whether it’s meeting with leaders of a homeless organization, a refugee outreach, or an anti-trafficking education group for local farmers.

“A lot of folks have the option of not engaging with people of color. I kind of provide that option, not just by myself but [with] people around the community. How do we do that? Not just treating people as projects, but how do we do that well?”

At the same time, he says it’s almost doing public relations for the denomination. “I’m meeting people who have never heard of the PCA, or opening up their view of the PCA.”

About a year ago, Palmer decided to pursue a master of divinity degree from LAMP Theological Seminary, and applied for a scholarship through the Unity Fund. With three kids at home and other limiting financial factors, Palmer says that pursuing an M.Div. right now would not have happened, if not for the Unity Fund.

“What the Unity Fund did and continues to do is show that the PCA is putting its money where its mouth is … [it] shows that [the PCA is] trying their best to help open the doors for other minorities especially in the PCA: ‘We want to see you guys develop and we want to put action into that.’”

Soojin: “I didn’t know that scholarships were available to me”

Soojin Park, a 29-year-old Korean American woman, says she sees the benefit of the Unity Fund in much the same way, although from a background unlike Palmer’s in almost every sense.

A sociology grad from Cornell, Park decided in college that she wanted to do full-time ministry in some capacity, but she sensed that working outside of the church for a while would better prepare her for whatever awaited her in professional ministry. After acquiring an appetite for Scripture through her college campus ministry, Park spent several years working in the non-profit sector: an outreach for victims of sex trafficking, a government consultancy for nonprofits, and a software tech company that served other nonprofits.

Soojin Park

Meanwhile, she found a church home at Christ Central Presbyterian in Centreville, Virginia, a PCA church of English-speaking second- and third-generation Korean Americans. Having grown up attending mostly immigrant churches with many first-generation Korean Americans, Park says Christ Central felt like a better fit.

After four years sitting in the pews, Park started an internship in youth ministry at Christ Central and began pursuing an M.Div. from the Washington campus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). While scouting around for scholarship options, Park learned about the Unity Fund from her senior pastor, Owen Lee.

Park says that as a woman she was surprised to learn that something like the Unity Fund was available for her.

“I just didn’t know that scholarships were available to me. As a woman, there’s always this additional question, ‘Do I qualify for this? Is that only for pastors?’ So much of the ministry space within the PCA or similar denominations is designated for ordained pastors. If my pastor didn’t go out of his way to tell me about these resources, I wouldn’t have known it would be for me.”

Park says that she would love to see more women, particularly those from ethnic minorities, serving in ministry roles in churches across the denomination, and she points out that efforts like the Unity Fund are steps in that direction.

“The Unity Fund demonstrates to me that not only does the PCA support and desire more ethnic minorities to be a part of churches and church leadership, it’s not just an idea. [It] shows me that they’re kind of behind it, and taking action toward that.”

Noah: “It shows that people care about me”

Noah Despinasse thought he was a good Christian, until his freshman year at the University of West Georgia.

“Even though I grew up in the church, thought I had a relationship with Jesus, thought I understood the gospel, through a conversation with a guy who was working for Campus Outreach … I realized I wasn’t really a believer and I didn’t have a relationship with God.”

He joined a Bible study of the book of John and jumped into college ministry with Campus Outreach. From there, the son of Haitian immigrants threw himself into pursuing a career in sports business. But when no doors opened in the sports world and he found himself being recruited to join the Briarwood Fellows program, Despinasse realized that God might be pulling him into professional ministry.

“I learned rather quickly that the Lord gets His way,” he said.

Prior to the fellows program, he had visited Urban Hope Community Church, a PCA church plant in Birmingham’s inner city, and was pricked by the poverty and despair.

Noah Despinasse

“By God’s grace I didn’t grow up in the inner city … but for me to be able to go into the ‘hood’ and be able to hear from people that lived there, to see the chaos, see the hopelessness for myself was just something that left me bothered … I couldn’t turn my eyes away; I couldn’t just ignore it.”

Meanwhile, he was inspired by Urban Hope’s Senior Pastor Alton Hardy, another African American. Despinasse began envisioning himself in a similar role as a church planter in an urban context. With that vision, he began taking steps toward seminary, enrolling in Beeson Divinity School in 2018 and then transferring to Birmingham Theological Seminary.

For the past two years, Despinasse has worked as the urban missions director at Briarwood and is a recipient of the Unity Fund.

“I think it shows that people care about me. To be honest, most minorities, if it were up to them, they wouldn’t be able to afford seminary, for a variety of reasons. Most of us can’t afford to go to undergrad. When you talk about getting a graduate degree, that’s not easy … I think the Unity Fund communicates that ‘We see the struggle, but we also see your desire so we want to come alongside you and help you accomplish whatever goals that God has set out for you.’”

Ultimately, he says, “It communicates the PCA cares, that they see us, that they hear us.”

Unity Fund Doubles Its Budget

Recently, the board of the Unity Fund doubled its annual budget from $200,000 to $400,000, increasing the amount that applicants can receive, from $1,100 to $2,200 for ordination-track students, and from $750 to $1,100 for non-ordination-track students.

To learn more about the Unity Fund or how to give, visit pcamna.org/unity-fund.

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