As part of our Alumni Spotlight Series, Gill St. Bernard's recently sat down with Reverend Dr. Paul Saddler, a St. Bernard's Class of 1969 alum whose journey has taken him from the pastoral suburbs of New Jersey to the heart of urban Washington, D.C.
What do you do now, and how did you get where you are?
Currently, I am a Senior Pastor presiding over the historic Twelfth Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Washington, DC, but I didn’t start out on this path.
My first job as a responsible adult was working part-time in trading control at Merrill Lynch in midtown Manhattan, and later, I accepted a position at Brylane Advertising in the garment district. Both were entry-level positions, and while I was learning a good deal, I began to give deep consideration to something I’d always thought I should have been doing at the start: preparation in Religious Studies and a career in religious services.
I started attending the New York Theological Seminary while continuing to work at Brylane. It became clear that my aspirations aligned more with helping humanity at large and with helping people to live their best life. I decided to stop working at Brylane and to return to school full-time. I ultimately earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Religious Studies at College of New Rochelle at the New York Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity Degree from Howard University School of Divinity, and a Doctoral Degree at Wesley Theological Seminary. My doctoral thesis was based on my theory of “Ethical Development.” My work was entitled “Whatever It Takes,” a demonstration of how religious organizations and non-profit public service groups can help reduce youth violence and unrest in “hot spot” urban communities.
While in school, my thought was to go into the field of Theology, which is the science behind religion, and to teach. Once again, life took me on another path. My first position out of Divinity School was to serve as the Executive Minister of the Shaw Community Ministry of the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ located in the District of Columbia. I worked intimately with children and youth of low-income families and opened a Science and Technology Resource Center that provided technological access to lower income students. In addition, the organization sponsored a safe after-school program and an annual college tour program. It was an incredibly fulfilling position I held for 8 years.
From there, other opportunities began to present themselves such as serving on the Board of Directors of the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust located in the historic Shaw Community of Washington, D.C. and as an Executive Board member of the African American Civil War Museum and Freedom Foundation, also located in the Shaw Community. Among other activities and by invitation, I had the honor of leading one of the United States Supreme Court Justice’s Prayer Breakfasts. Most recently, I delivered the invocation at GSB’s Commencement in 2021—before agreeing to join the GSB Board of Trustees in 2022.
My connection with the Twelfth Street Church evolved by fortunate happenstance. I was leaving a board meeting at the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust in the Fall of 2005, and when passing by the church, I noticed that the position for a Presiding Minister was open. I applied, and by a unanimous vote of the congregation, I was installed as Presiding Minister on January 1, 2006, where I still remain.
How did your education/experience at GSB prepare you for what you are doing today, your career, or life in general?
For me personally, St. Bernard’s in the 1960’s was an ideal place. It was then an affiliate of the Episcopal Church in my hometown where I grew up. That connection prepared me well for the future.
My brother, John ’68, who was a year above me, was the first student of Color to graduate from St. Bernard’s School. While there wasn’t a great deal of diversity in the student body at the time, I felt very welcome. The academics were superb, and there were courses like Latin and French (taught by Mr. Rush, who was actually from France!). Such subjects of interest to me would not have been available in a public school setting. I also had the opportunity to play sports, which I probably would not have made “the cut” in public school.
What would be your advice to current GSB students?
Allow Common Sense to find its place in your life.
Unfortunately, Common Sense does not appear to be so common these days. We have a great deal of freedom to think and make decisions, but we don’t incorporate basic common sense in all that we do. In every consideration, think: what’s the wisest thing to do? What’s the best and safest way to get from point A to point B: not the fastest way or the easiest way, and not the road with the best scenery, but the wisest way?
And remember, everything that looks good is not necessarily good for you.
What book(s) do you have on your nightstand right now?
Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote – A History, A Crisis, A Plan by Eric Holder and Sam Koppelman.
Before his appointment as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States under President Obama, Eric Holder, then Judge Holder, was my wife’s colleague at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. His recent book, Our Unfinished March, has really left an impression on me. The narrative starts out with a brutal recounting of the racial tensions that our country has confronted, but it ultimately moves into a hopeful message about the importance of preserving our democracy. Mr. Holder helps the reader to understand the institutional experiment of independence and the value of our voices.
Do you have a favorite school memory?
At St. Bernard’s School in the 1960’s, we held worship service every morning in the chapel, and students took turns performing different leadership roles during the devotions. In my junior year, I was given a turn alongside my classmate. We were Acolytes for the devotional service, and we both froze. We couldn’t remember what to do. Everyone was waiting on us, and eventually, the Head of School just gave us a look and said in a deadpan voice that they were all going to wait until we figured it out. Everyone started laughing, including us.
I still remember that laughter; that moment still makes me smile. It’s easy to watch others, but I never realized, when it’s your turn to act, you can lose it!