LaKeesha Walrond: Living Her Best Life at NYTS

By R.L. Witter
Eight-year-old LaKeesha was a Texas girl— you can still hear a hint of it in her voice. She loved playing outside in her bare feet, eating ice cream, and visiting her great-grandparents’ farm where she had her very own
cow. Life was sweet and simple back then. “There was so much freedom and so much land,” grownup Dr. LaKeesha Walrond reminisced. “Being there with the apple trees and hearing my great-grandmother sing… she made peach cobbler. Those were some of my fondest memories.” As she reflected upon her youth I asked what Little LaKeesha might have wanted to be when she grew up. Without hesitation Dr. Walrond replied, “She wanted to be everything, but most urgently, Wonder Woman,” with uncontainable laughter.

Young LaKeesha seemingly always had a calling on her life. “The call has been on my life since I can remember and my mother would talk about me praying for hours on end… She said I would go on and on praying for every
single person I knew, naming each of my classmates, aunts, and uncles,” she recalled. Her mother explained she could simply ask God to bless her class, her family, and her friends. But Young LaKeesha’s reply was, “No, no; I want God to know specifically who I’m talking about,” and prayer became an integral and constant part of her life. “I’ve always had this love relationship with God,” Walrond explained. “I come from a very spiritual family and I was always in church, Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, and Baptist Training Union…”

Fast forward ten years and eighteen-year-old LaKeesha was enrolled at Atlanta’s Spelman College. To fulfill her religion requirement Walrond took Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges’ “Women in the Bible” class and despite her spiritual prowess and personal relationship with God, she was failing the class. “I grew up in a church that didn’t believe God called women to preach,” she explained. “So every time I referred to God as ‘He’ or ‘The Father’ she’d give me an F.” Walrond was offered the opportunity to elevate her grade by attending a service where Dr. Wilson Bridges would deliver the sermon and upon hearing Dr. Wilson Bridges preach realized, “They lied to me!” because she had truly believed women weren’t called to preach.

Walrond graduated from Spelman in 1993, and in 1995 while her husband, Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr., was preaching at a church, she felt a pulling and tugging in her stomach. “I remember asking God, ‘Is it me—are you calling me to preach?’ And at that moment the sun shined through the back of the stained glass window behind the pulpit… It shined so brightly I remember closing my eyes and feeling the light on my face, and crying and saying ‘Yes’ to God—‘Yes, yes, YES!’”

Upon accepting and announcing her calling and plunging headfirst and wholeheartedly into her faith, Walrond was met with resistance and patriarchal thinking. Some people whispered; some employed deafening silence when she preached; one particular group of deacons showed everyone in the church exactly what they thought of a woman preaching. “Whenever I would get up to preach,” Walrond recalled, “the five of them
would stand up in unison and walk out of the church.” Undaunted, she continued to preach. While she never received an actual apology from any of the deacons, one did begin addressing her as “Revered LaKeesha,” and
that was enough for her.

In addition to ministry, Walrond was clearly called to the field of education. After meeting and being impressed by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Spelman’s first African-American woman president, she set her sights on a similar trajectory combining her loves of education and ministry to change lives and empower women. And she took her education both seriously and to new and higher levels. Walrond currently holds an undergraduate degree from Spelman College; a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary; and a Master of Arts in Teaching, Master in School Administration, and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has also worked as a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and a coordinator for the superintendent of schools in preparation for her dream job as president of Spelman College. But first, she had to become executive pastor at Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church, where her husband is senior pastor.

Today, Walrond is the first woman and first African-American woman to hold the position of president at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS). She described the position as “a culmination of all things,” adding, “God has been working on this for a long time; I just didn’t know it… I wanted to be president of Spelman College, but God saw NYTS—a place where I could bring my faith with me to work every day and help prepare the next generation of faith and thought leaders to engage in relevant, restorative, and revolutionary ministry.” She then exclaimed, “I’m living my BEST life!”

Beyond her educational accomplishments and years of ministry, Walrond also brings a personal touch to NYTS. Because she’s been an educator, a preacher, and quite importantly a wife and mother, she is relatable to nearly every student who is enrolled or will enroll at the school. As she rattled off many of the degree programs offered, she lingered a bit on one in particular. “We have a master of arts in Pastoral Care and Counseling,” she explained. “Folks learn not only how to counsel others, but how to engage in self-care in a way that they can be responsible to themselves, their family, and their call… One of the things I’m looking forward to doing is finding a way for all of our pastors to go through therapy while they’re in
their programs.”

January 8, 2020 marked NYTS’ 120th anniversary and with that, Walrond has five areas of focus to begin the next 120 years: “To enrich our students through scholarships because we have too many students graduating with debt where they have to focus on repaying debt, rather than restoring communities. We continue to stress empowerment through restorative justice, so we have our Sing Sing program, which is the only master’s degree program in New York offered inside a correctional facility.” She hopes to expand the program to include a women’s facility. She continued, “We want to equip through leadership development… and as a part of that, we want to make sure all of our students have an opportunity to do some sort of international service—whether it’s study abroad or going over to help with a specific project or program. We want to endow NYTS. Currently, we have office spaces in the Interchurch Center and we have our classroom space at Riverside Church, but we are looking to find our own home, a place in the community where we can be engaged with the community around us.” She
continued, “And finally, we want to expand by having a technologically informed global ministry… making sure we’re meeting those needs. So we’re looking to do a soft launch in October and we want to raise $50 million in five years to ensure the school has a future that will continue to impact our communities in positive and transformational ways.”

As our conversation ended I asked one last question, harkening back to the goal that set her on her amazing path to being president at NYTS: If Spelman called tomorrow and asked you to take the role of president there, what would you do? Without hesitation Walrond replied, “I believe I’m exactly where I need to be at this moment, at this time. I know without a shadow of a doubt, God has placed me here. I didn’t see it coming, and they didn’t see me coming.” She chuckled as she explained how in preparation for her new position she read through notes from past board meetings. “There was a list of potential candidates [for president] and my name was not on it… But God has this list of the unlisted — like Moses, who was a murderer, probably wouldn’t have made the list. David, who was an adulterer, wouldn’t have made the list. Even Jesus, a poor, Palestinian Jew wouldn’t have made the list.” Her voice rose and resonated and I felt like I was sitting in church as Walrond continued, “But they made God’s list. I believe this unlisted leader and unlisted institution are being called to do something that’s never been seen before. That’s why I’m exactly where I want to be, right dead center in the will of God and I will stay here until God says something else to me.”

As I reflect on our time together I am taken back to the beginning of our conversation where she said as a child she had wanted to be Wonder Woman. “There were lots of Disney princesses, but I felt more the need to rescue others than to be rescued,” she explained. “So for me Wonder Woman was it. She had the tiara, the belt of truth, the gold bracelets that deflected bullets — she was pretty amazing.” And with her crown of golden curls, the truth of the Bible and God’s word, and the way she deflects negativity and doubt (I’d be willing to bet she owns a few gold bracelets, too), Rev. Dr. LaKeesha Walrond is pretty amazing herself. She may just have succeeded at being Wonder Woman when she grew up.