Welcome | Rev. Dr. Semaj Y. Vanzant, Sr.
The Rev Dr. Semaj Y. Vanzant Sr., a child of New Orleans, grew up and left his hometown to traverse our country, studying and working on a path that brought him to Asbury Park and the Second Baptist Church three years ago.
It turned out to be “a perfect marriage between a pastor and people who were very community-minded,” says Vanzant, 34, of the church and congregation at 124 Atkins Avenue where he is pastor and teacher. “We both had passions. And when our passions matched, it is everything you’ve seen in these past three years” –referring to a succession of community events and programs added to those already in place.
Vanzant’s presence in Asbury Park has been fortunate for Interfaith Neighbors as well. Last summer, Vanzant joined the Interfaith team as a program director to help develop and manage an upcoming SOAR program that will provide local residents with a pathway and essential tools to gain and retain successful careers.
Vanzant says one of the guiding SOAR concepts is the belief that professional development can connect with the natural abilities an individual has for a job. “We believe you already have it inside you, and we’re going to pull it out,” he explained. “So many of our kids and people in the community have not had people who had the tools to properly invest in them.”
“Then, sometimes in communities, people get typecast,” he said. “Sometimes the children’s mindset and trauma and living conditions all interact together to cause them to miss out on some of the necessities that make them ready for careers and to have financial stability.”
“It’s not that they are incapable,” Vanzant added. “It’s that they were never equipped, and SOAR is saying we’re going to step in and stop the cycle.”
Semaj and his wife, Carla Vanzant, have two sons, Semaj, Jr., 7, and Seth, 4 and live in the church parsonage in Neptune. Carla is a success coach in the Educational Opportunity Fund program at Brookdale College.
“Our heart is in education,” Semaj said. “We both had an opportunity to be educated and believe in it strongly.”
Vanzant grew up in a New Orleans family with his mother and father and a brother two years younger. “Both parents were working but there were times when bills weren’t paid and sometimes lights being off, the gas being off,” he said. “Yet we traveled,” he said speaking of a love that would stay with him to this day.
He also talks of the family’s church, Phillips Memorial United Methodist Church in New Orleans, and being close to his grandmother who lived on Mirabeau Avenue where his family, after several moves, eventually bought a house next door. He attended parochial and public school and upon high school graduation, began his studies at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. where he graduated magna cum laude, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science with a minor in psychology. His next step was to study at Princeton Theological Seminary earning a Master’s of Divinity degree.
From Princeton, Vanzant went to Brooklyn, NY, where the Lily Endowment funded a pastoral residency program at Concord Baptist Church of Christ. Those two years were a transition into ministry program during which time he brokered relationships between the church and community organizations and had the opportunity to preach across the United States as well as in Liberia and Jerusalem. Vanzant then went to Oklahoma City where he obtained his Doctorate of Divinity from St. Paul School of Theology and helped rekindle a local United Methodist church and launch a relevant ministry once again.
Then he came to Asbury Park.
“Second Baptist’s legacy has always been about the community,” Vanzant said. “That is ingrained in the people here. This church is special in its belief in the work beyond the walls of the church. We have a food pantry. We have the Women’s Hospitality Network and we have multiple community meetings. It’s not uncommon for the mayor, city council, many groups to meet here for different reasons.”
Second Baptist started a community fair which drew 300 people the first year and over 600 people this past June, Vanzant said. He and Carla introduced a fine arts and technology camp for community children the past two summers.
“One of the things I believe in strongly is that Second Baptist sits at an intersection of various groups within Asbury Park’s east and west side, “ he said. This is a place – and now with the addition of Springwood Park right outside our doors – where everyone can feel safe and everyone can come together.”
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