Answering God’s call is essential to MDiv senior Otis B. Byrd Jr. While he’s always had an affinity for music and has spent most of his life in music ministry, it was the call for him to serve in a different capacity that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary.
“When I began discerning there was more to my call than music only, I was reluctant to accept it. After much prayer and many questions, I finally said yes to God,” he says. “Once I answered my call and began the journey toward being licensed, seminary was not optional for me. There was no way I could accept this serious call and not be prepared. For me, a theological education is a necessary part of that preparation process.”
While at seminary, Byrd consistently uses his music ministry in many ways. A known figure in Princeton Seminary’s chapel, he conducts chapel choirs, forms gospel ensembles, and sings. Last year, in addition to interning at the Princeton University Office of Religious Life, he led as a student conductor during the 2021 and 2022 Carols of Many Nations services.
“I appreciate that I can demonstrate the diversity of my training and experience within the PTS community. I have conducted not only traditional and contemporary Gospel music but also music from the likes of Felix Mendelssohn,” he explains. “To do both in one space with a receptive ensemble and audience has definitely been a rewarding experience here.”
His work in music while at Princeton Seminary connects to his youth. The Atlanta native is a son of a Baptist preacher, and he grew up in the church. At age 15, he started conducting and directing the choir at his father’s church. Byrd also toured and was a recording soloist with the Morehouse College Glee Club while attending Morehouse College. In 2007, he secured a position with Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta, where he currently serves on the music and ministerial staff.
“It is an honor to share music which contains the spirit of my faith tradition and my upbringing,” Byrd says of his time at seminary. “It is life-giving to have the space to share and for the music to be received well from my colleagues who sing in the choir and to those who attend Chapel as worshippers.”
Entering a new space and a new field of study can be rewarding, though it’s often not without challenges. Byrd is taking it all in stride as he continues to learn on this journey. Throughout his seminary experience, he’s been able to “deconstruct, build, and develop” as it pertains to theology, which has made for an imperfect yet transformative experience, he notes.
“It’s important that I continue to discern even what my ministry will become and even what I will become as a person,” he says. “Seminary has been very vital in both affirming ways and challenging ways.”
One fulfilling aspect of Byrd’s music ministry occurs after service when attendees respond with “I needed that” or “that song helped me.”
“That’s definitely affirming for me,” he says. “Knowing that the ministry is relevant, significant, and impactful.”
Another illuminating part of his work relates to diversity. Some of Byrd’s colleagues at Princeton Seminary never sang gospel music prior to performing with him. To be able to expose people to different genres and experiences is impactful because there’s not one way or one style that’s superior to another, he says.
“We can all participate and all learn from each other and with each other, even in music,” he says. “I believe music is one example of what diversity looks like on a larger scale for all of humanity and all creation.”
Byrd’s appreciation for music runs deep. For him, it’s a connection to the Word.
“Music is analogous with the Word of God when it is not misused and weaponized,” he explains. “For any given season, feeling and moment in any life situation, there is a place of safety, hope, or even lament that you can find for yourself. The Word and music are synonymous for me in that regard. No matter what I'm feeling, music can soothe, answer, and inspire. It just has a myriad of benefits and possibilities.”
Following seminary, Byrd’s plans include getting ordained, serving on a ministerial staff, and later becoming a senior pastor. While Byrd admits he’s still working through the details, his intention is to pursue a DMin after earning his MDiv from Princeton Seminary.