by: Pastor Christopher C. Thompson
Raised in Church
I think it’s appropriate to establish at the very outset that I was raised in church, and I hold a very deep commitment to supporting the church. My mother got up one morning and decided that she was going to church. My siblings were surprised, but they were given no choice in the matter. I being the youngest and a baby at the time was certainly not consulted, but we were all suddenly being carted off to church regularly, and that practice became a major component of our lives. At least by the time I was old enough to remember things clearly, church was a significant part of our lives. My mother became a baptized member of the First African Baptist Church where her mother was an active member, right around the time I was born. My grandmother sang in the choir. My mother (at one point) was the head usher. We went to church every week, sunday school and prayer meeting on Wednesdays.
In the early nineties my mother began to become restless in her church experience. I’m sure there are several reasons; one being her desire for more robust spiritual and theological engagement. As a result, my mom dragged us to church almost every night it seemed. We visited all kinds of churches for a number of reasons. Assembly of God, non-denominational, Baptist, Methodist, Christian, Holiness, In large part as a part of the BMCH Ushers Union (my siblings will laugh at that. So many memories.). I’m also sure it had something to do with the tragedy and grief that had visited our family with the death of her father and then the sudden death of my oldest brother. Shortly thereafter we became members of the Beaufort Seventh-day Adventist Church under the charismatic preaching and evangelistic fervor of Pastor C.C. Varner.
I’m telling this long story to make it unmistakably clear that I was raised in church my entire life and that my love for and commitment to the church is strong. There was a time that I was so mad at the world that I suppose I was also mad at God, and thus not at all interested in church. But even when I wasn’t feeling church, I still went regularly because mom dukes didn’t play that. If you lived in Mary B. Thompson’s house you were going to church when she went to church. I went, but I didn’t worship. After all, there were some girls there. I became really engrossed in Hip-Hop culture because I believed and felt that the elements of the culture were in every way more closely aligned with the life that I lived and with the values that I was adopting in the world that surrounded me outside of church. Nevertheless, church was always a part of me.
The Beauty of the Black Church
I first learned to understand, appreciate and embrace my blackness in general and gullah culture in particular in church because that was the place where it was so clearly expressed and worked out. As a small child, I enjoyed the nuances of black worship, black music and black preaching. I loved the old school devotions when the deacons would stand at the front of the church and invite the church mothers to strike up a song. These women and men (old enough to be my grandparents) would sing the powerful songs of spirit and struggle. They’d sing songs like:
This old buildin
keep on leanin
I gotta move to a better home.
That’s alright, That’s alright
That’s alright, That’s alright
As long as I know I got a seat in the kingdom
I woke up this mornin’ with my mind
Stayed on Jesus
I woke up this mornin’ with my mind
Stayed on the Lord
I woke up this mornin’ with my mind
Stayed on Jesus
Hallelu Hallelu Hallelujah
There was something magnetic and naturally beautiful about their voices and the deep soulful sound of their songs. When those folks sang those songs you could feel the depth of experience and the heart and soul with which they cried out to God. It was like a bluesy moanin’ groanin’ gospel that was indelibly connected to the experiences of the ancestors enchained in the bottom of a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, and then weighed down with the heavy load of a bail of cotton reaching yet again to the sun scorched earth to pull from it the white gold boll from the plant of our pain.
Then the deacons would pray; and boy did they pray. It was more than a prayer, it was more like a prayer, a sermon, a song and a deep guttural moan all rolled into one. Just like the pastors moaned and whooped and hollered, the deacons would do the same during the preliminary devotion. They just did so while they prayed.
Which brings me to the pastors. I never wanted to be a pastor. I did not romanticize their work, but I think I understood and appreciated the sociological and cultural significance of the role they played in the religious community and beyond, but certainly in the worship space. The pastor served as the grand maestro of the worship experience. The BMCH Ushers Union president would always refer to the pastor as the quarterback. The pastor often held the key to the culmination of celebration and exuberance that was always the expected result of the worship experience in the black church.
The people would sing. The deacons would pray. The choir would sing. The people would praise. But then the preacher would preach. And when the preacher preached, that was the climax and resolution to the mounting drama of the worship event. Everything rose and fell with the pastor’s prophetic proclamation. It was the moment that we all were waiting for. And when it was done right, everyone was satisfied, inspired and renewed. When it was not done right everyone left with this strange sense of a job left incomplete.
Such was the case at the recent funeral of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. With such a rich history and legacy of providing spiritual support and guidance to a dynamic community it is essential that church maintain its commitment and ability to provide spiritual meaning and context in difficult times to a diverse group. Yet, in this moment, with the entire world watching, it’s apparent that the quarterback fumbled the ball.
Allow me to add an additional disclaimer in that when I learned that Jasper Williams was set to eulogize the Queen I was confident that the church and the wider community would not be disappointed. As a student and practitioner of the art and science of preaching, I have followed his ministry at a distance for quite a while as he has the reputation for being a master communicator and premier preacher. I said to myself and a few colleagues, “This is gon’ be good! I want to watch it.”
The problem arose as work responsibilities wouldn’t allow me to watch any of the funeral. However I did catch the occasional Twitter update. I saw that folks were very disappointed with Faith Hill’s performance. I saw when folks noted that Arianna Grande’s stylist likely didn’t properly prepare her to attend a black funeral at a black church, as they jokingly commented on the length of her dress. Then I saw the outrage at the subsequent mishandling of her name and apparent fondling of her body by the Bishop Charles Ellis. I saw a clip of the soul stirring renditions by Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson, but when the time came for the eulogy I was completely engrossed in my work and couldn’t even follow the Twitter updates. It was only afterwards that I was able to see the social media backlash and fallout from what should have been an ode to iconic artist. Instead what we received was a self-consumed diatribe about the ills of the black community.
A colleague sent me a youtube link and I watched it on the following evening. After I watched it I was incensed. How could a man of God with such a longstanding commitment to serving the urban community be so tone-deaf about racial issues? How could he not understand and effectively illuminate the underlying issues surrounding some the major challenges that plague our community? Now I have a few ideas that I’d like to submit as potential answers to those questions but I’ll get to that that later. However, I’d first like to first like to review some of the very low points of the sermon and see if we can find some valuable takeaways related to where we are, how we got here and what we need to do next.
Surveying the Sermon
“Hide me behind the cross” is a prayer that preachers often pray at the outset of their sermons and for good reason. One of the biggest mistakes a preacher can make is to make the sermon about himself. It was reasonable that Pastor Williams be asked to eulogize Aretha because he eulogized her father, the late great Pastor C.L. Franklin. However, he spent so much time talking about his connection to the family that it sounded more like he was talking about himself and apologizing for Aretha’s dad’s indiscretions. He would of done well to talk more about Aretha and less about himself and her father. But not only was the sermonly improperly couched, but there were several problematic points in the sermon.
Here are just a few points along with my personal reflections to them. The points here are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather indicative of the some of the issues that are unmistakable. His musings about the nature of man and the distinctions between body, spirit and soul were a bit convoluted as well as his explanations about musical genres, but I don’t care to address those types of matters here. Yet here are a few other points.
“If we are truthful, honest and fair, we would have to say that black America has lost its soul.”
Now, I will acknowledge that Pastor Williams did state that America (in general) has lost its soul. And while that statement in and of itself can be understood several ways, it’s based on a misconception. While the United States is often referred to as a Christian nation, history has proven and scholars have long contended that America has never been a Christian nation.
Pastor Williams went on to state that, “The one thing that black America needs today more than anything else, is to come back home to God.” One could make a significant argument that black America was never monolithic in it’s commitment to Christian values. However, being that African-American history begins largely with chattel slavery in the south one often equivocates the southern heritage of blacks, the civil rights movement, and the rich history of black churches in the south with the whole of the black community. In one sense the church was for a time was one of very few places where black folks could socialize. However, it is much safer to surmise that the black community has transversed the landscape of American history as the rest of mainstream America has done; as adjacent to a vibrant religious experience, but not necessarily always a part of it.
Furthermore, one could also argue that it wasn’t black americans that left the church, but rather the church grew up and walked out on a large swath of black America. I’ll revisit this concept later.
“But when we marched, when we protested, when we got through singing we shall overcome; yes we were rewarded with integration. We got what we fought for. We got what we marched for, but with the birth of integration there also came the loss of not only the black community’s economy, but there also came the loss of the black man’s soul.”
Let me first say that the fact that he seeks to conflate the result of the civil rights movement as integration and the secularization of the black community is terribly ridiculous, or a terrible oversimplification at the very least. Frankly it’s just wrong. However, that’s not really the part that bothers me. What troubles me most is the intimation that integration was the end game of the civil rights movement. It couldn’t be further from the truth that the civil rights movement was fulfilled and complete with integration. However, this false concept that he puts forth does shed some light on his misguided understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement comments that he shared later on.
“Where is your soul black man? As I look in your house there is no fathers in the home no more. Where is your soul? 70% of our households are led by our precious, proud, fine, black women, but as proud, beautiful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do. A black woman cannot raise a black boy to to be a man.”
The irony in the statement here is that it was given as a part of a eulogy at the funeral of a woman who raised four black boys into men as a single mother. It’s terribly confusing how that fact was lost on Pastor Williams; especially given the fact that he did acknowledge that Aretha’s father was also a single parent of four. This concept struck a very personal chord with me because my mother also raised four black boys into men as a single mother, and there are countless respectable, successful and honorable black men who were raised by single mothers.
There’s a deeper concept here though. First of all, studies show that black fathers actually are present and are more engaged than any other ethnic group in America. Yet, we must ask what has led to the breakdown of the American family and black American families in particular? What shouldn’t be missed here is that America has consistently sought to destabilize the black family unit. It was prevalent during slavery and in some ways it still persists today. Nevertheless, this conversation must (on some level) include discussions on the aggressive militarization, mass incarceration, the drug epidemic, the war on drugs, unemployment, underemployment, pay disparities and more. Michelle Alexander summed this matter up powerfully when she said, “Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.”
Also, Mychal Smith contends that:
And that families with women-led households are more likely to live in poverty speaks less to the necessity of fathers and more to the fact that a single income is no longer sufficient to support a family in this country, that our economy undervalues the work of women and that outside child care is a prohibitively expensive luxury. An economic shift to real living wages for women’s labor and a total societal investment in the well-being of all children would solve a number of the problems we think are only alleviated by fathers.
“The Ku Klux Klan has killed 3446 black people over an 86 year span of time. That’s an awful lot of black people to kill, but the study also revealed that blacks killed that number of black people; not once a year, not 86 years, but every six months.”
This was quite possibly the most painful part of the sermon as it introduced some of the most inflammatory of all of his remarks. That black on black crime was utilized as a primary point of a sermon is not surprising, but rather that this concept is still so prevalent is what’s very shocking. The way in which Pastor Williams normalized police violence is mind-boggling. He argued that “black lives cannot never matter until we start valuing black lives.” He suggests that it’s permissible for the police and racist vigilantes to execute modern day lynchings because black people commit more crimes against blacks, so one should care. Even if it were true that blacks didn’t care about violence in our communities, it’s still a terribly flawed premise.
The fact is police should be held to a higher standard because they took an oath to serve and protect civilians. They are trained in the very tactics necessary to preserve and promote public safety. Thus, it is fitting that they be expected to conduct their work without the reckless and disproportionate endangerment and harm of black people.
The idea that blacks are predisposed to violence and disproportionately more violent than our white counterparts is the same reasoning that has helped to create the justification for over-policing and the creation of the school to prison pipeline. This has been a part of a systematic attempt to constrict and control the influence and upward mobility of black people in general and black males in particular; which is predicated on racist stereotypes and white supremacist ideals. The fact is the assertion that African Americans commit more crime simply isn’t true. Now, it is evident that blacks are arrested at a higher rate than whites. The reasons for this are obvious. Yet. in the words of Michael Eric Dyson, “…the phrase white-on-white crime doesn’t serve a larger ideological purpose. White-on-white crime does not jibe with the exclusive focus on the black-on-black narrative that conservatives, and liberals too, have bought into.”
The fact that he doesn’t recognize Black Lives Matter as a valid, reputable, relevant organization that works tirelessly to combat injustice against black people is symptomatic of the traditional black church’s abandonment of substantive engagement in matters of civil rights for quite some time. By his own admission, “we got what we marched for.” It is indicative of yet another reason why and how the impoverished chocolate cities have continued to spiral out of control. He goes on to disparage poor, oppressed, addicted individuals with a kind of classism that is downright despicable. It is a sad display of how out of touch religious folks will only entertain those who are on par with their level of social standing (see James 2:1-7).
“So as a race black America does not need better houses…but a home is what I see black people need more than a house.”
Though this portion of the sermon where Pastor Williams compares a “house” to a “home” may have been rhetorically compelling to some, it is fundamentally flawed given the simple fact that a family’s ability to establish and maintain a peaceful home life depend heavily on their ability to secure quality living arrangements in a safe neighborhood. I have recently contended that access to affordable, quality housing is the single most important issue facing the urban center in this generation.
It’s unfortunate that Pastor Williams failed to draw attention to the fact that the environment where a person lives determines in many ways the quality of life they will have. Everything from the quality of your child’s education and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, to the likelihood that you will be harrassed by police and the dollar amount you pay for car insurance is largely predicated on where you live. It is a well-established fact that there has been documented consistent, systematic effort to restrict and constrict the housing options of black and brown people in this country by several institutions of our society.
The worst part about all of this is quite possibly that these are not the random, isolated musings of a grumpy old man, but much closer akin to a philosophical framework that plagues a large sampling of the black church. It is indicative of where we might locate the present day black church and assess its viability and relevance for 21st century ministry.
The Problem with Prosperity
Another deeply troubling and ironic element about this entire ordeal is that several years earlier Bill Cosby made an almost identical rant in a public place that was caught on camera. It went down in history as the infamous pound cake speech. It was the acclaimed response in book form by Michael Eric Dyson, wherein Dyson sought to shed light on issues raised by Cosby. The book, Is Bill Cosby Right (or has the black middle class lost its mind)? deconstructed the destructive rhetoric practically point by point to address the larger issues surrounding and underlying concepts Cosby mentioned.
Utilizing the two major groups of the Afristocracy and Ghettocracy as a framework for the divide in black America, Dyson contends that Cosby’s damaging remarks represent a kind of “seething class warfare” that has “boiled over into the general public,” which “lets many of these whites off the hook” who believe that blacks folks should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Closely akin to Dyson’s views on class warfare are that of Eugene Robinson in Disintegration. Robinson expands Dysons two groups to four. Instead of simply the Afristocracy and the Ghettocracy, Robinson portends that the Mainstream, Abandoned, Transcendent and the Emergent are vying for a firmly established place in society.
Robinson powerfully encapsulates the tension between these groups when he writes:
And when these distinct “nations” rub against each other, there are sparks. The Mainstream tend to doubt the authenticity of the Emergent, but they’re usually too polite or politically correct, to say so out loud. The Abandoned accuse the Emergent–the immigrant segment, at least–of moving into Abandoned neighborhoods and using the Abandoned as mere stepping-stones. The immigrant-Emergent, with their intact families and long-range mind-set ridicule the Abandoned for being their own worst enemies. The Mainstream bemoan the Abandoned–but express their deep concern from a distance. The Transcendent, to steal the old line from Boston society; speak only to God. They are idolized by the Mainstream and the Emergent for the obstacles they have overcome, and by the Abandoned for the shiny things they own. Mainstream, Emergent, and Transcendent all lock their car doors when they drive through and Abandoned neighborhood. They think the Abandoned don’t hear the disrespectful thunk of the locks; they’re wrong.
Something happened to us after the Civil Rights movement “got what we wanted” as Pastor Williams put it. When I say “us” and when Pastor Williams says “we”, we mean the traditional black church. After the civil rights victories of the late sixties the church was largely quiet during the seventies and eighties, and during that time saw a decline in membership. Quite possibly the most compelling image of progress was the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister, in 1984 and 1988. Anthony Pinn argues that several forces including comfortability with the victories of the sixties and newly found middle class status, along with the rise of philosophical and intellectual movements like black nationalism, as well as the growth of secular organizations like the NAACP all contributed to the decline of the church during this period. And with it grew the distance between the frontline issues of the urban center and the concern of the upwardly mobile black church.
Therefore, in a very real sense, the house of the black church has been left desolate because the masses were once attending the rallies and marches that were sponsored and launched by the church. But with the church members moving to the gated communities of the vanilla suburbs, and the urban poor spiraling downward from the removal of key resources and supports; the church has lost its core. Yet with such a complex crowd to engage it is hardly likely that disparaging comments like those of Pastor Williams will do much to engage the masses again towards remerging as a vibrant, diverse religious community. It is likely that the children don’t want to attend the family reunion because the adults are either arguing or berating them about their short skirts and tattoos. These children aren’t interested in either.
It is possible that today’s black church is more concerned with external trappings of progress like materialism, economic prosperity and respectability politics rather than aligning with those entities who are still on the frontlines of the fight for equality and the overall uplift of the black community. What we need now are strategies to promote a more relevant and robust religious experience.
Getting Back to Basics
While there is no secret sauce; not shortcut to restoring the relevance and strength of the black church. It is necessary for us to establish some key strategies to help us engage the masses and prevent further decline and reestablish the church as an unwavering beacon of hope, change, redemption and restoration.
A Renewed Commitment to Teaching the Word
It would have been nice to hear an encouraging biblical exposition about the need to leave a legacy or our responsibility to grow and share our gifts while we still have time. There are countless biblical messages that would have been appropriate for the moment at Aretha’s funeral. We get into trouble when we lose our focus on the word and make the moment about something other than a clear thus saith the Lord.
Many people still come to church for encouragement, hope and direction. We have to help them center their search in the word of God. Anything else complicates our responsibility far too much. When people come to church, they should be able to pray and sing praise to God, but most of all they ought to hear a distinctive, clear, biblically sound message that challenges them and inspires them to further seek God’s will for their lives.
Churches ought to careful to clarify more concentrated Bible study times, where members come together simply to study and be taught God’s word. If we aren’t careful to do that work then why do we exist?
A Renewed Commitment to Outreach, Advocacy and Activism
The abandoned urban poor are not “zombies” that we shew away like flies, but rather they are brothers and sisters in the black community and the family of God who need the support and advocacy of those who have access to key resources and who understand the dynamics of the challenges they face. While our resources may be limited, we would do well to remember that God is on the side of the oppressed God demands that we do justly and love mercy and we are also commanded to “defend the cause of the oppressed” (see Ps. 9:9, Mic. 6:8, Pr. 31:9).
Churches are usually inclined to do evangelism. Yet, just as important to the work of the church is the work of advocacy and activism. We are challenged to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; uphold the rights of the afflicted and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; save them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4). The wider community needs to see that we are the hands and feet of God ready to attend to their needs for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Developing Community Partnerships
We might run a school, but we are not an educational organization. We might promote healthy living but we are not a health organization. We might promote economic freedom, but we’re not a financial planning corporation. We should be careful to identify organizations that align with our values and our commitment to the people and support and assist them as they try to meet the needs of the people. Maybe we can host a meeting or lend some chairs. We can attend a meeting or help distribute products.
There are countless organizations (like Black Lives Matter) that do good work, but need more avenues and opportunities to connect with the people. By opening our doors and donating our time, we can often ensure that more people receive the services and resources and support they need.
Talk Less, Listen More
I saved the best for last in that the eulogy at Aretha’s funeral is a reminder that sometimes we can speak up when we would do much better to listen up. We assume that the answers lie with us. And while God’s word is filled with answers to every question that humanity will ever ask, there is no guarantee that we have yet to mine the scriptures to unearth those answers. But in a simpler sense there are some who have insights we can gain from. And herein lies the value of partnerships again. By building partnerships we connect with committed leaders from various disciplines who are committed to good work. We can leverage their knowledge and influence about what works and what doesn’t.
Also, there is a need to listen to the people. Listen to their stories. Listen to their experiences. Listen to their struggles. Hear their hearts, and commit to being a companion along the road in the journey of life. Presence is power. There are times when we don’t have to have all the answers. In those times our presence and our listening ear is the best representation of the love of God than can be mustered. We need less pontificating, and more listening. When we listen we might just find that where we thought America had lost its soul, it simply developed into one that is more complex and nuanced, yet still deeply spiritual and receptive to authentic, biblical spirituality.
The black community faces countless complex issues in the 21st century. Many of these issues are recalibrated versions of the slavery, Jim Crow and the like from generations past. However, the church has a long history for being an institution that stood for the advancement, restoration and preservation of God’s people. Political change, prosperity and numerous other forces have worked to erode the influence of the church in larger society. However, there is still a great work for the church and believers to do; especially in the inner city and impoverished communities. It is evident that while many may be closed to the reckless and presumptuous influence of the church in recent past, people are not closed to the good news of hope, reconciliation and restoration. And people are certainly not closed to committed service and care from those who are authentic and compassionate.
It is evident that Jasper Williams missed the moment to properly eulogize the Queen of Soul., but we don’t have to keep driving people away and alienating them from church. With committed consistent frontline work with and for the people, we can help to rekindle the commitment of others to the church and the mission of the church. A renewed commitment to the word, outreach advocacy, activism, community partnerships and a compassionate listening ear will go a long way to communicate the power of the gospel in ones life and in the world. Let’s recommit to making our churches center of hope rather than a repulsive and desolate house.