KINGSTON, R.I. – April 30, 2015 — Matt Quainoo is used to speaking in front of a crowd. In fact, his congregation has been growing for two years now, as he has helped create and cultivate a growing membership in Sankofa, a campus ministry at the University of Rhode Island that started with around a dozen members and now sometimes sees as many as 200 in attendance.
But Quainoo will address the largest crowd of his life when he steps before approximately 15,000 people – including roughly 3,000 graduating seniors — May 17 at the University of Rhode Island’s Commencement Ceremony. He is the student speaker representing the class of 2015.
The 19-year-old resident of North Kingstown, R.I., is younger than most of his classmates and, though his college experience lasted just two years, it is as rich and diverse as the experience of many students who spent twice as long on campus.
Quainoo began working toward his college degree before he arrived in Kingston, earning college credits by taking advanced placement courses in high school and summer classes before his official enrollment began in the fall of 2013. Quainoo worked relentlessly, taking online courses, Winter J-Term classes, summer classes and full course loads during the fall and spring semesters to earn his degree in just two years.
And he wasn’t just accumulating credits. Quainoo worked to get everything he could out of each class, experience and research project.
“If you’re motivated, if you’re willing, the faculty here will push you like you’re at Harvard,” Quainoo said. “At the start of each course, I went up to my professors and asked, ‘How can I earn an A? How can I get the most out of this class?’ They pushed me. They singled me out and took a personal interest in empowering me intellectually.”
Quainoo majored in Africana studies and political science with an eye toward becoming a pastoral scholar like his father, Joseph Quainoo, a part-time faculty member in URI’s College of Continuing Education, and his older brother, Tim.
Matt will pursue his master’s degree in theological studies, with an interdisciplinary concentration in religion and society at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.
As his brief time at URI comes to a close and he prepares to move to New Jersey, Quainoo is taking the opportunity to spend as much time as he can with his 13-year-old brother, John.
“I’m going to miss being able to see him do well in school and playing soccer with him,” Quainoo said. “So this is really a time when he can feel the legacy of love and support that I have always had.”
While some students enter college unsure of what their career path may hold, Quainoo has been on the path to becoming a pastoral scholar for most of his life.
“I was 6 or 7 years old and my family had a tradition of praying on Christmas morning before we opened our presents,” Quainoo said. “I was frustrated, like why are we delaying the climax of Christmas, the most important thing, opening presents? When my parents explained the narrative of Christmas to me, and what it really means, it suddenly became real. It wasn’t about me coming to the altar. It was about the experience of letting God alter me. That’s when I knew I wanted to preach.”
At URI, Quainoo worked to share his intercontinental upbringing — his father is from Ghana and his mother, Vanessa, an associate professor of communication studies at URI, is a native of Illinois — and to expand his own global experience.
Quainoo took classes and completed a research project in his ancestral home of Ghana in West Africa, where he was also able to reconnect with family members to learn about how they view family life.
“There was a group of us, all cousins ages 25 and younger, and we engaged in a lot of family introspection about where we come from and where we still have to go,” Quainoo said.
While in Ghana, Quainoo also spoke with African theologians to learn about their views on religion, and he later compared those views to a theologian he interviewed in Indiana.
All of these experiences have helped shape Quainoo’s views not just on religion, but on how he lives his life. He dons traditional African garb, such as a dashiki, and wears it over a perfectly pressed Western button-down shirt with a bow tie, reflecting a bicultural fusion he considers central to his upbringing.
“I had a very early exposure to the ethnocentrism and homogeny of the Western world,” Quainoo said. “My school was 99 percent white. I was told I talk white and ‘You’re an Oreo.’ So I wear this dashiki as a way to undermine that ethnocentrism and help people understand that, in the vast mosaic of our people, there is unity in our diversity.”
Unity and inclusion are among the great themes and aspirations that guide Quainoo’s pursuits. As the congregation at Sankofa grew during the past two years, Quainoo said they were careful not to attach the group to a denomination of Christianity. Quainoo’s goal was to preach the values and lessons of Christianity, without being bound by traditional rules and formalities.
“It’s about relations, not regulations,” Quainoo said. “Sankofa is really inclusive and open — it doesn’t erect walls, it breaks down walls. If someone comes to us in need of salvation, why would I want to communicate in any way that, ‘You’re not invited here,’ or ‘You’re not welcome here?’ ”
Instead, Quainoo has sought to bring more believers into the fold and to engage with those who disagree with him — whether on matters of religion, politics, race or other issues.
“I try to humbly engage, to inquisitively engage them,” Quainoo said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I try to question them to open them up to their own assumptions, and I try to allow them to open me up to my own assumptions. It’s critical for interfaith or political dialogue to be collaborative. I want to work with you.”
Similarly, while he’s open to questioning his own assumptions, Quainoo questioned whether he was the right person to speak for the Class of 2015. His own hectic class and extra-curricular schedule posed its own challenges for him and he did not intend to apply. But friends and professors spoke to him and convinced him his message of love would be a great message for the Class of 2015 to carry with them into the world.
“My friends convinced me to speak on behalf of the class not to self-aggrandize, but to give a voice to those who think they do not have a voice because they are too young,” he said. “It’s a very humbling opportunity and privilege that people see me as someone who can represent them.
“My message is the idea that we need to engage in love,” he said. “If you can defend love in the face of injustice, you can restore and affirm our humanity. You don’t need a pulpit or a stage. Wherever you are, just be an agent of love and justice.”
Photo by Nora Lewis