Jonathan Walton took to the stage rhyming.
“Couplets and quatrains bleed through my veins … because poetry is my release,” said the 22-year-old founder of the New York City Urban Project (NYCUP), an initiative to place students in internships while teaching them about Christianity and volunteerism. “A constant rhythm of rhyme is flowing through me.”
Walton rapped, rhymed and prayed his way through a presentation before members of the New Jersey Christian Fellowship (NJCF). NJCF is the on-campus division of InterVarsity, an interdenominational Christian organization for college students. Walton directs the NYCUP through InterVarsity.
During his presentation, titled “Poetic Justice,” the Columbia graduate discussed growing up in a small, impoverished town and how he discovered a larger world, activism and the Christian faith beyond its borders.
“(My high school counselor) told me I couldn’t get into an Ivy League school. So I googled ‘Ivy League’ to see what it was, and I applied. And I got in,” Walton said.
Walton enrolled in Columbia University that fall, moving from Broadnax, Va. — population 317 — to New York City – population 8 million, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. He remembered the lessons he scrambled to learn as a sleepy-town transplant in the city that never sleeps.
“I didn’t know that this world existed, where there were even bigger disparities between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots,” Walton said. “I did not know that I had a bigger chance of ending up in prison than ending up in college … what do you do when you learn about yourself?”
As an African American, Walton learned of the odds he surmounted without knowing they existed, and he developed a new perspective. His sophomore year, he saw the 2003 documentary “Invisible Children,” about child soldiers in Uganda. It was then that he turned his attention to humanitarian pursuits. Walton also credits his faith with this transformation.
“I started to think what it would be like to follow (Jesus), and that’s how the New York City Urban Project happened,” Walton said.
Walton waxed poetic about his goals for NYCUP.
“I want you to imagine a tree, and the roots are you – your passions, kids like you … The branches are opportunities. I want to be the trunk, to get (you) to that place,” he said.
Walton encouraged the audience to volunteer and to remember “don’t be concerned about the price of your shoes, ’cause if you look down, you’ve still got two feet.” He closed with a prayer.
Preceding Walton were three student performances by members of NJCF. Sophomore English major Kat Ashbahian and Alex Kim, international business major, performed the Christian song “Instead of a Show” by Jon Foreman. Ashbahian’s strong, clear voice accompanied Kim’s guitar for the stripped-down performance.
Freshman international business major Nelson Hernandez followed with a self-penned rap. Sophomore chemistry major Steve Malone closed the student performances with a reading from the Bible and the South African national anthem, read alternately in English and Xhosa, a South African language.
This was NJCF’s first large-scale event since establishing a Social Justice Committee. The organization will focus more on educating its members about social rights issues this year.
“It’s something that wherever you stand with your beliefs, you can (do something),” said senior chemistry major Devon Cocuzza, one of NJCF’s two presidents. “We know that the way the world is is not the way the world ought to be.”
Cocuzza was pleased with the outcome of the event.
“I think it was fruitful,” Cocuzza said. “Hopefully it stimulated people to think.”
Emily Brill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.