Following God from the inner city to the Ivy League
Beginning with Jennings’s late high school years, the book paints a picture of a young man living in one of Washington D.C.’s worst neighborhoods who refuses to be defined by limitations. Constantly disappointed by the broken promises of an incarcerated father and with none of the material and educational advantages of his Brown classmates, Cedric does have two things that trumped all the absences. He is supported throughout his experience by a mother whose dedication to her church and her son gives him solid footing from which to leap. And he has an unyielding belief that God wants him to succeed.
Now 27 years old, Jennings has speaking engagements all over the country. He continued his education after graduating from Brown, and works as a clinical social worker and a youth minister at his childhood church—hoping to create for others some of those things he never had.
The story of his academic success is widely known, thanks to the popularity of Suskind’s book. But the back story has not been as thoroughly examined. Nicky Hitching talks here to Cedric Jennings about the Unseen in his life, and how it matters. What follows are some of Cedric's thoughts about his faith in God and how it brought him to where he is today.
EXPLOREFAITH: How has your personal faith in God played a role in your life?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: My faith is very much influenced by other people. I’ve watched other people model strength through their faith…and it became a part of me.
[For example], my mom….it’s interesting how my mom got involved in church and how church really shaped her faith. She discovered spirituality and God at a low point in her life, when she was going through depression. Her discovery of church and God helped her see her role as a parent differently—to be unselfish, to be there all the time and model positive behavior.
EXPLOREFAITH: What situation illustrates your faith’s effect on your life?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: Applying to school was a challenge because I knew what I was up against. My test scores were very low in comparison to what they would normally accept. I realized that in other areas I needed to be very sharp—in terms of my grades, in terms of my essays and everything. I was a very hard worker, and I realized that faith without work is dead, and so I had the work to back it up.
But when I applied to Brown University my faith was tested. I really thought that I probably wouldn’t get in because I just didn’t fit the mold of what they would normally take. But when I sent off my application…. first of all I prayed over the application and second of all I acknowledged to God that, you know, I’ve worked hard, I’ve walked upright before You, and You promised me these things—that if I stayed on the straight and narrow and walked upright before You, You would grant me the desires of my heart and bless me. So when I sent that application off, I said, “Lord, you know, well, do Your thing.” And essentially that’s what He did. He did His thing. He touched the hearts of those who read my application and saw my application. It’s funny because even before I knew I had gotten in, I just had this feeling that I had gotten in. Before I had gotten the acceptance letter, I was going around telling people I had gotten in!
EXPLOREFAITH: It sounds as if you feel God’s presence very strongly in your life. Do you feel as if God has something special in mind for you?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: At a very young age I realized that God had a special call on me by how He would bless me through certain gifts of singing, certain gifts of giving a word through people in church. I saw how God had anointed me in a powerful way …and how that would be nurtured in church, so that has always stuck with me….The idea of being chosen, the idea of being different, and called out from many. That’s why in a lot of ways for me peer pressure wasn’t as much of an issue. I had accepted the idea that I was indeed different, that I was indeed chosen, so it was a little easier for me to cope.
That has stuck with me and I continually watched God use me and operate in my life as I continued to walk upright before Him.
EXPLOREFAITH: Do you think there’s a relationship between your personal faith in God on one hand and your self-confidence on the other?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: Yes, I’m created in His image and I realize the power of the God I serve. I don’t limit what God can do, I don’t limit God’s power at all, and I think that was a very strong thing for me to understand at a very young age. In doing so I was able to exercise faith in areas where people would normally say, "This isn’t humanly possible." Understanding that I serve a God who is limitless by way of blessings, limitless by way of power, that helped me to understand this is a God that lives inside of me. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me because he lives inside of me. That’s a word that sticks with me.
I’ve always had a huge amount of faith in God. My faith is constantly increased each time I encounter and read the Word of God. My faith is constantly expanding with each obstacle that I continue to face in my life. You know, I believe that obstacles are a part of God’s way of reminding us how much we need Him while at the same time [they] serve [to expand] our own faith in Him.
EXPLOREFAITH: Can you talk about your life today. What are some of the challenges you face?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: Currently, I reside in Maryland and work in Washington, D.C., as a clinical social worker. When I graduated from Brown I had offers to go work on Wall Street. And when I got the offer, the Lord spoke to me and put in my spirit that that’s not what He called me to do, that He had called me to be a helper unto the people, to be a public servant….
I went back to D.C. after I graduated from Brown and worked in technology, and at the same time I was touring for A Hope in the Unseen and was being blessed by God each time I traveled. It wasn’t just a matter of me telling my story, but of hearing the testimony of others. It really blessed me. God started to speak to my heart even more about being a public servant, about being a servant to the people, and so that’s how I essentially got into the role of social worker/clinician/therapist, and that’s what my graduate training is in.
My main contact is with kids. I love the work that I do. It’s very rewarding for me. I certainly feel like I’m in the mold of what God has been calling me to do. I live a relatively modest life. I’m very comfortable in the lifestyle I’m living now. I live out in the Maryland suburbs. I am very much connected to the community through the work that I do touring for A Hope in the Unseen as well as the work I do with my church as youth minister.
EXPLOREFAITH: How do you help a child who’s particularly troubled or challenged, knowing from personal experience how hard their struggle is?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: What helps me to be able to help this child is to recognize that every person has a level of resiliency and strength about him or her. My goal is to try to nurture that and back up their psyche, their spirit….
It is very much a spiritual experience in that I’m having to exercise my spirit of discernment; I’m having to exercise my gift of healing that God has given me, healing in the sense of how I’m able to be empathic with my client, with God giving me the words to say to trigger certain emotions that will help them work out the issues that they face in their lives. Not that I hold the key or the solution, but God has given me the gift to help facilitate management of emotions, healing of emotions, making sense of one’s past.
EXPLOREFAITH: How does faith play a role in your relationships?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: I’m 27 now, and in the past three to five years, I have been dealing with the idea of friendship and what it means, because I was having people coming in and out of my life. Frankly having those people come in and out of my life made me reminiscent of my dad, and the inconsistency, how unhealthy it was and how angry it made me. It forced me to have to deal with, “What is a friend?”
I had a large circle of people that I considered my friends but at this stage, at 27, I have downsized. I can say I have two very best friends. I cherish the relationship we have because they’re like family. I can talk to them about anything. We don’t necessarily share the same religion or anything like that, but they’re very accepting and respectful of my faith and where I come from.
People weren’t always who they said they were. I had to deal with that and face that …. It was hard for me because these were people I had put a lot of trust in, people who I respected and shared a lot about my life with, and I rarely do that.
EXPLOREFAITH: In the book, it sounded as if you didn’t trust just anybody.
CEDRIC JENNINGS: The trust thing has always been an issue for me. It still is now. Not as much as it was before, but it’s something that God has been working with me on, ‘cause that is a huge challenge for me…the “everybody is out to get me” type of thing. For a long time, based on my own personal experiences from the past, I had to look at friendship through that lens, because I had been burned and hurt so much.
EXPLOREFAITH: Did you ever have a time when you questioned your faith?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: I didn’t question my faith, I didn’t question my future. I simply questioned religion, because religion is so man-made. I remember going to my pastor and asking him, “Why is it so rigid, the rules and regulations...almost to the point where it’s like we’re forbidden to live?”
This was when I went off to Brown, when I was about 19.
Essentially, I thought he was probably going to be a little upset with me. But actually he wasn’t. He was very open and he was very encouraging. I never questioned whether or not God was in what I was doing. And I think in a lot of ways, my pastor validated my concerns with regards to religion.
As a church family we’ve come around a whole lot, because growing up we were very traditional to the point where women had to wear a certain thing and we couldn’t go to the movies or do certain things. It was very rigid. We’ve come around a lot and are a little more liberal.
I still questioned how religion played out in terms of limiting people in living their lives and being happy, because I realized that with freedom there should be boundaries, there should be structures, you should still operate within the will of God. But I felt like sometimes [the church] tried to put out even more boundaries.
EXPLOREFAITH: Some people think that church is sometimes an impediment to spiritual growth. What would you say to that kind of thing?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: Church is what you make it. As long as you know that you’re not serving man, you’re serving God, that’s what’s most important to keep in mind. When you get locked into what man is doing, what man says, what man dictates…that’s where you lose your sight of God, and that’s where you don’t really hear from God. If you’re focusing on the natural, you don’t really hear from God in the spiritual realm.
EXPLOREFAITH: What are your thoughts on how a person of faith can really help another person who’s struggling?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: It’s important that we live by the Word of God but at the same time we have to understand the actual issues that people go through. There has to be a balance between the spiritual and what’s in the natural. It’s important for us to feed the souls of people with the Word of God, but it’s also important for us to at least try to acknowledge and understand [their] issues, because the issues aren’t going anywhere. What I’ve found is that people are not as free in the spirit, in worshipping God and serving God like they should… because a lot of the issues they face are not addressed.
EXPLOREFAITH: Are there any specific issues you’re thinking about as you say this?
CEDRIC JENNINGS: Issues like sickness, health issues, AIDS, that’s a taboo issue in the church. When you talk about gays, that’s a taboo issue in the church. I think what people fail to realize is that you’re not condoning the sin by acknowledging that it’s there. You’re simply addressing it, and you’re trying to help get a handle on the issue to help the person get through it. That’s what it is. That’s where people get mixed up.
Just imagine if Christ was as judgmental as we are. Where would we be?
Interviewed by Nicky Hitching.
Copyright ©2005 explorefaith.org
A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind (Broadway Publishers, 1998) tells Cedric's story. A new edition was published in the summer of 2005 with an afterword that updates the lives of Cedric and others who appear in the book. Help support explorefaith.org. Purchase a copy A Hope in the Unseen by following this link to amazon.com.