This was written by Charles McNair.
In fall 1970, Nawanna Lewis Miller (ABJ ’73) took on a daunting mission: showcasing the traditions of African American culture at UGA. The student body at that time was overwhelmingly white, and Miller remembers—painfully—how some classmates did not welcome Black faces.
Miller and her Black classmates resolved to stand up and stand out.
Bannered under the theme of Pamoja, the Swahili word for togetherness, Miller founded a pantheon of Black cultural organizations unlike anything seen before at UGA.
The Pamoja Dancers daringly expressed the Black experience through artistic motion. (Miller danced completely alone at first.) The Pamoja Singers gave beautiful a cappella concerts on the plaza outside Monument Hall. The Pamoja Drama and Arts troupe recounted Black life in stories. (Again, Miller performed solo shows at first.) Finding still more ways to share the importance of Black culture, Miller launched the landmark Journalism Association for Minorities (JAM), and that group produced Pamoja Newspaper.
The ripples of Miller’s work would spread through the next five decades into currently active UGA groups (The African American Choral Ensemble, the Black Theatrical Ensemble, etc.). Thousands of UGA students have taken part in these performing arts ensembles. A 50th Anniversary of Pamoja event in 2020 commemorated their contributions to UGA.
Miller’s leadership came with a unique title: Mistress of Cultural Affairs.
“I didn’t know what it meant. Nobody knew what it meant,” Miller laughs. “I went and typed out a job description and took it from there.”
The Pamoja movement excited Black students and left them optimistic … to a degree.
“We only had a minuscule number of Black students on campus,” Miller says, “but they made for a supportive audience.
“A few white students,” she smiles, “were curiously polite.”
New success against long odds
After earning a broadcast journalism degree in just three years–Miller took 20 hours each semester–Nawanna and husband George C. Miller (her sweetheart since junior high school), moved in 1977 to Washington, D.C. George took a high political post in the United States Department of the Treasury in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
The Millers started a family, eventually to grow to six children and seven grandsons. Though the home front kept her busy, Miller now set her sights on another lifelong dream–the ministry.
“My first encounter with Jesus Christ came while I was still in a high chair,” she says. “Through my whole life, I have vigorously served in the church.”
It would turn out that becoming a female minister at a time when men dominated the clergy would take more determination than she ever imagined.
“I can say that the physical, mental, and emotional impact of attending UGA as a minority student in those early years of integration was very, very costly,” Miller says. “But I believe it was even harder to be accepted among Black people—men especially—as Black preacher.”
Miller approached her pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington about her yearning. As a first step, she served as director of metropolitan youth ministries, offering spiritual guidance to children in 30 organizations. Then, in 1989, more than a decade after moving to D.C. and over the objections of other pastors, Miller was licensed to preach by Reverend Dr. H.B. Hicks, Jr.
Finally, in 1992, Miller was welcomed fully to the gospel ministry following a substantial public catechism by clergy who “courageously ordained her,” she says.
“The beautiful part is that this revolutionary moment happened in front of about 1,500 people. That was a powerful affirmation.”
She became one of the first female pastors in the Baptist church.
Miller went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity from Howard University. When the Millers returned to the Atlanta area, she founded the Messiah’s Temple Christian Ministries, serving as pastor there until 2016.
The Gospel of Great Health
After a stroke in 2015, Miller reduced her time in the pulpit. She now serves as a personal pastor to people “from all walks of life,” she says, sharing spiritual guidance through The Institute for Christian Fellowship, yet another organization she founded, this one in 1996.
She spends time writing books. She has five titles in all, with a new one, B.O.L.O. – Be On the Look-Out for Satan’s Top Ten Tricks, due in 2021.
Doctors gave Miller only a 15% chance of surviving her stroke. Yet, once again, her unbreakable spirit prevailed. Turning the setback into something positive, Miller designed The Gospel of Great Health program, teaching what she calls “supernatural energy techniques for healing and wholeness” to students and churches.
She’s seen many changes since her days at UGA, but Miller insists that one thing in her life has always stayed the same.
“Excellence was our brand for all of the Pamoja groups,” she says. “And I’m grateful to say that’s still the standard I’ve been blessed to attempt in everything I’ve done all these years.”