It might have been over a game of Monopoly or backyard croquet that I last crossed paths with the Rev. Nita Johnson Byrd. It could have been in the hallways of Garner Senior High School, or in our driveways growing up across the street from each other in Southeast Raleigh.
Nita was my friend, my school-mate, my neighbor. Now she’s yours, too. Always has been, really.
On Dec. 4, Byrd became the chaplain of St. Augustine’s University Historic Chapel. Two days earlier, she was introduced as a new deacon at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, where she serves as quarter-time assisting clergy alongside the Rev. Jemonde Taylor.
As childhood friends come and go, that’s big news. It’s been decades, so of course I wanted to catch up.
Byrd, 49, is the youngest daughter of the late Rev. Paul H. and Susie C. Johnson, a former first couple of Martin Street Baptist Church, where Johnson was pastor for 40 years. Her older brother, the Rev. Cureton L. Johnson, was assistant pastor at Martin Street, and has been pastor of Fayetteville’s First Baptist Church since 1991.
The Johnsons moved from our neighborhood around 1980. Nita finished Enloe High School the following year. I graduated two years later from Garner High School, so it stands to reason we’d lose touch. We chuckle now at the irony she chose N.C. State and I chose rival UNC.
Byrd earned an undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s in electrical computer engineering. She married Kevin Byrd, a cradle-Episcopalian, 26 years ago. After a few years’ work for Carolina Power & Light Co., she became a stay-at-home mom and homeschooler .
The Byrds have lived 24 years in Cary and joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Nita Byrd began her spiritual journey toward priesthood about eight years ago. She has also served at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh and at St. Titus in Durham.
Foundation of service
Byrd said her upbringing at home and at Martin Street Baptist Church gave her a foundation of Christian service that asks us to reach out to others and embrace our commonality as humans made in the image of God. “That’s what’s important to me: To look for that image found within every person and respond with charity in the imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“It was a beginning,” she said, enhanced by mentoring she got through N.C. State’s Caldwell Fellows and Scholarship Program, a leadership development program.
“It encouraged us to work collaboratively with others for the betterment of society as opposed to trying to better ourselves individually,” Byrd said, noting that Taylor also is a Caldwell scholar.
It has helped define Byrd’s goal “to build bridges between different groups in the community and St. Augustine’s University,” she said. “What we want to realize is the interconnectedness between all institutions of higher learning and our community.
“Part of my call to ministry is to preach a gospel that all people are welcome into the arms of Christ.”
Byrd graduated from Duke Divinity School with a Master of Divinity degree and a Certificate of Anglican Studies. She was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June, “with hopes to be ordained into the priesthood one day,” said Byrd, who also studied at Canterbury Cathedral in England.
‘From depths of earth’
As chaplain at St. Augustine’s Historic Chapel, Byrd serves the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. The chapel is the oldest building on campus, built in 1895 by students under the tutelage of the Rev. Henry Beard Delany, the first African-American Bishop elected to the Episcopal Church and the first bishop to graduate from the university, followed by more than a third of all African-American priests in the Episcopal Church.
University and chapel history, plus witness of community transformations and university growth – including the planned Honors College – excite Byrd most about her new post.
“This place was constructed from the depths of the earth as a place to spiritually nourish the student body and community with the word of God and the sacraments,” she said. “It’s a space for all people to come into the presence of the holy Lord and understand the mystery of God.”
‘Chapel reaches out’
Byrd won’t wait for students to come to the chapel.
“The chapel reaches out into campus,” she said, outlining nighttime prayer in dorms and other programs that “permeate every aspect of community life on campus.”
Byrd said she and her brother, who has been her encourager, have talked about what their father would say now.
“One thing he always said that sticks out in my mind , was that he hoped to one day hear God say, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant,’ ” she said. “That is what I pray for also.”