Karen Ellis is the director of the Edmiston Center of the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. She also serves as the Robert Cannada Fellow for World Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Karen was born and raised in Baltimore. Her parents helped to integrate Northwest Baltimore, and Karen’s childhood began at the tail end of the Civil Rights struggle of the ‘60s. She grew up in a household that epitomized Black excellence – Mayor Kurt Schmoke lived around the corner from her family, and they were surrounded by Black professionals. Her father was a schoolteacher, her mother a homemaker. Their family boasted graduates from Morgan State, Howard, and Hampton.
Karen grew up in one of a handful of predominately Black Presbyterian churches at the time and went from playing piano as a child to directing the choir as an adult. But she wasn’t yet a Christian. She describes a common feeling among people who grew up in the church but don’t yet have a personal relationship with Jesus – she knew all the right things to say, even all the right things to think, but she had not been inwardly changed by the Holy Spirit.
A woman in the church mentored Karen, teaching her how to play the organ and relentlessly sharing the gospel with her, but Karen describes herself as “resistant.” She told Karen, “The Lord has been after you since you were a little girl.”
The Lord continued to pursue Karen through the people he placed in her life. While attending an all-girls public high school, she was impacted by another old woman, her social studies teacher Deborah Barrett. She remembered that Barrett used to tell the girls, “I used to dance for the world, and now I dance for Jesus.”
Karen describes herself as a “truant” in high school, always getting into trouble and being sent to the principal’s office. Barrett would come and find Karen every time she got into trouble and sit with her and preach the gospel.
It wasn’t until Karen was well into her twenties that she finally came to faith. In 1993, while she was attending Yale School of Drama and searching for religious understanding, she went to an Easter service at the African and African American Cultural Center, and “everything changed.” She walked up during the altar call and walked away with newfound faith in Jesus.
Karen navigated the world of theater and faith simultaneously for a season. Ever since she was a child, she knew she wanted to be on the stage. After Yale, she had opportunities on Broadway, in television, and on the radio. Through her travel around the world, she was exposed to the persecuted church and the believers who were supporting Christ’s bride abroad. Her interest in and care for the international church was a seed that would blossom into her future ministry aspirations.
Karen describes her transition from the PCUSA of her childhood to the PCA affiliation of her adulthood as an “interesting ecclesiastical journey.” Her embracing of covenantal theology goes hand in hand with her gratitude for the genuine believers who shepherded her faith from a different perspective when she was growing up. This ecclesiastical journey eventually led Karen to complete her theological degree at Westminster Seminary, where she met her future husband, Dr. Carl Ellis.
Karen and Carl now attend a PCA church in Tennessee, where the couple resides. The church shares their kingdom focus and supports their work in sharing the stories of daring Christians doing God’s work on the margins – which is the focus of the Edmiston Center, which Karen leads.
The pillars of the Edmiston center are prayer, discipleship, wisdom, stealth, and transformative Christianity. The Edmiston Center has its own curriculum and certificate in the study of the Bible and ethnicity. Those enrolled have the opportunity to make connections between the local and global expressions of the church. The Edmiston Center boasts teachers from all over the world, including the Ellises. These ten-hour credits can also be rolled into another degree.
Their next course will be on the theology and mission of prayer. Karen describes it as “the doorway to the whole curriculum… reorienting revival movements and reorienting our thoughts about kingdom advance and what it actually means to develop habits of prayer.”
Karen describes transformative Christianity as the kind where people are willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. “It’s a very different gospel than the one we hear preached commercially here in the free world.”
This description goes hand in hand with the work Karen does to partner with the underground church – work that she has been doing for 25 years. She works with an organization called International Christian Response, which is involved in gospel ministry in places where Western missionaries can’t usually go. They are in 42 different countries supporting church planters’ education initiatives, providing legal aid, providing funding for families whose breadwinner has been martyred, and serving in many other unknown ways.
Karen’s passion for missions and serving in the margins is married beautifully in both her work for the Edmiston Center and the doctoral work she is currently completing. She has been a force to be reckoned with ever since she was a preteen being sent to the principal’s office or a twenty-something belting on Broadway– but now, that force has been helmed for glorious gospel purposes.