Below is an edited transcript of a roundtable discussion on the future of black churches in America. Speakers include Reverend Otis Moss III, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago; Reverend Eboni K. Marshall, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York; Josef Sorett, Columbia University; Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania; Eddie Glaude, Princeton University; Fredrick C. Harris, Columbia University; Obery Hendricks, Jr., Columbia University.
Josef Sorett: Fred has set us up quite well for a discussion on the life and death of the black church, and we will actually proceed in the exact reverse order of the introductions in alphabetical order, if you will. So we’ll turn to Dr. Butler followed by Dr. Glaude, Dr. Hendricks, Rev. Dr. Marshall and Rev. Moss, and we look forward to the conversation.
Beginning in a general sense, allowing each of you to take this in whatever direction you want, we presume that because we are all here, at least in some capacity black churches are living and breathing, doing different sorts of work, would ask for each of you to open up the conversation by identifying and elaborating upon just one thing that you see as a major pressing issue that black churches are currently addressing or need to do a better job of addressing, something that black churches are wrestling with in this current moment.
Anthea Butler: Thank you all for having me here, I think about this question a lot, in part because of being a historian and looking at the black church through a historical lens, I’d say there is one word that I think about a lot, and that word is community. Community is what the black church does well in one respect, but what it needs to be doing better in another. Let me explain briefly, and I’ve got to tip my hat to Professor Harris on this one because we’ve had some conversations on this.
If you think about a black church now and an internal community of believers, a community that is located in one church, you can think that there is a pastor, there are people on the board, there are deacons, there are elders, there are members of the church, there are church mothers, and within that community, that community is cohesive, that community of individuals. It’s a safe place for people. It’s a place where you can tell people your problems. It’s a place where you can call out to God. What the problem is, is that most of our churches now are individual churches, and they are not collectives as a community within the communities that they live in.
And I think this has a lot to do with the kinds of black churches we have now. It’s not just a moderate one-hundred members church or two-hundred members church, we have mega churches of ten or twenty thousands. We have small storefront churches of one-hundred or two-hundred, but the thing that usually brings people together is that you have a set of shared common goals. During the Civil Rights movements it was Civil Rights, now that things have sort of dissipated into all sorts of ills of the urban community especially, how do you bring community together?
How do you bring communities churches together? How do you bring coalitions together? Part of the way that that happens is that you may make a community of churches or pastors coalitions or something like that. These things are going away. The second thing, and I think that the big moment that happened that probably a lot of people didn’t realize, but was a very big moment was the passing of Dorothy Height, and when Dorothy Height passed what that was, was a generation going away. You had the National Council of Negro Women, you had sororities, you had fraternities.
All these things have had a connection to black churches, but these organizational structures don’t exist anymore, and so where you could have linkages between churches and sororities and fraternities, all these things that make up the black community, they don’t exist. Those connections are broken, and because the connections are broken, there is not a sense of community anymore, and how do you continue to perpetuate yourself? How do you perpetuate when your internal church community might be 65 and older?
And no way to replicate itself, there is no one to come in. How do you community to perpetuate yourself if you don’t have like minded organizations to come along side of you, to help you fight for things in that urban space? How do you continue to perpetuate yourself when your membership is dwindling, or your members take their part of their offerings and give it to that nice TV preacher on TV every Sunday. So you can see that the structures that held everything together don’t exist very well anymore.
Eddie Glaude: Thank you brother Josef and brother Fred and all of you for joining us in what I hope would be a very powerful and insightful conversation. Let me try to jump into it rather directly.
I think what most churches do very well, and I don’t know if they need to do better in advertising that they do this well, is that they tend to souls. That folk come in to the sanctuary, they come in to experience the power of worship, and in communion with others, find affirmation and experience as best as possible, the grace and mercy of God, which can be for some and I hope for most renewing.
And so when we think about this priestly function of churches, primarily directed at that dimension of human living that is not reducible to our social and political activity, I think the church–or churches–do a very, very good job at this.
In addition, I think churches–and I’m going to get more excited as we go on, I promise, I’m just kind of tired, does that make sense? I am tired though. Another thing that churches do well, many churches, and you know this because many of you pastor them–is that they stretch a dollar in relation to the needs of their constituents.
So many churches are, they have soup kitchen; they have prison ministries; they are trying to address the foreclosure crisis that’s impacting their membership; they’re dealing with folks whose lights have been turned off. They are, in interesting sorts of ways, addressing the day to day circumstances and conditions of the folks who come to be nourished spiritually, but that can’t be nourished spiritually when if they are not living descent lives in the context of their day-to-day activity.
And I think church are for the most part, many local churches are doing wonderfully in this regard. I think the question for us to wrap our minds around is what is its national role? How do we think about what it means that the progressive Baptist convention isn’t as powerful as it used to be? How do we think about the function of like minded persons in the faith addressing directly conditions that are not just reducible to those who sit in the pews.
Progressive voices, prophetic voices, I want to make the claim that there is no inherit prophetic orientation in any church. I just want to be very clear. To me it is an oxymoron to think of an institution as prophetic. It’s just… and we can debate that. I hope we do. And so part of what I think is that when we look at it at a micro level, many churches are doing what they’ve been called to do.
When we think about–and we can talk about this in an interesting sort of way in terms of the challenges that they face–when we think about it at a macro level, I want to have a more careful conversation, and we can look at the data and start talking about what that means, in its details.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: Yes thank you, I’m very glad to be here. Let me say first that I speak as a son of the church and a former president of a theological seminary and as a former member of the general board of a historic black denomination. I speak as an insider, and so that gives the right to speak honestly, and more so it gives the responsibility to speak honestly.
Eddie made some points that I think are good, that churches are good at the empathic. They are good at what they call tending souls. And he spoke also of spiritual nourishment, there is a nourishment of the spirit, but I’m not sure that I would call it a spiritual nourishment, though, at the same time.
Because what I see is that there is a lack of a tradition of interiority in our churches. What I mean by a lack of a tradition of interiority, I mean, a tradition by which we inculcate and we engage spiritual disciplines in order to grow in a higher God consciousness rather than taking us to a cul-de-sac of something called the faith, that I have faith now, I am saved, but a tradition of interiority that sees us being on a path on our way to a higher God consciousness.
And we get a sense of that I think in the Gospel of Luke I think it’s modeled after Jesus has been baptized and initiated into the mission that would take him through his ministry and to his death. After that, he goes into the desert and he engages in spiritual ministrations and disciplines.
To prepare himself, he engages in solitude, and in silence and in prayer, but also meditation because when you’re in the desert for forty days there aren’t but so many words for you to repeat, you must be going inward and even if it’s words, it becomes mantras, and that becomes meditative as well. He engaged in contemplation. It was then–only then–after he had gone through this deep well spring in time of spiritual preparation, only then would he stand and say, “Now I am ready. The spirit of the lord is upon me.
Because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,”–which would have to be a structural change because then it wouldn’t be good news to the poor because some folks would still be poor–and liberation to the oppressed, in that sense. He had prepared himself spiritually to be engaged in the world, and in that way he exemplified what I’ve called holistic spirituality.
In a very unique proclamation, and the earliest we see in the documentary that no one else had conflated this verse from Deuteronomy and this verse from Leviticus that say, “Love your Lord, your God, with all your heart, all mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” What I’m getting at is that with a lack of a tradition of interiority, which is different from the tradition of exteriority which means we’re always singing, we’re always preaching, we’re always performing, we’re not listening to the still small voice of God.
I’m suggesting a tradition of interiority is lacking because there’s nowhere in our traditional worship where we can really have a meditative time, where we sit in meditation taring for the spirit like old folk used to do. We have moments of meditations at times, but that’s usually at the end of the service when the choir is processing out.
I see this as a real lacunae in black worship, and I don’t see it being addressed as fully as it could be or should be. Quite the contrary, I see it getting worse. We’re getting more involved in the performative. In terms of preaching, it’s more important how you’re saying it, quite often, than what you’re saying. Choirs are deeply into the performative. You don’t just sing, you got to sing. And, you know, preachers talk about burning the house down and tearing the house up, and that kind of thing.
And so emotionality becomes a proxy for spirituality. I think this is something that we’re really doing to have to address if we want to be as relevant as we could be. If we’re really lift up what we call saving souls, which becomes something experiential, very experiential, normatively, rather than it being a creedal affirmation.
These are the things I think that are really lacking in black churches, and that I think generally–there are some exceptions, of course–that we’re going to have to incorporate in the twenty-first century for churches to really realize the full depth of their promise, and to be, in my opinion, much more consistent with the gospel witness of Jesus, and I end on this note.
If I were allowed to say two things I was concerned about, the second would be that I’d like to see churches more concerned with reading the gospel and less concerned with all kinds of proclamations, all kinds of creedal proclamations, and all kinds of performances of piety, and be more concerned about reading the Gospels. And I didn’t say New Testament; I said the Gospels, because right now we read Paul, and because he’s so concerned about personal piety, and that takes us off the hook, but the prophetic Jesus, witness of Jesus is the second thing I would mention if I were allowed to do so.
Reverend Eboni K. Marshall: I approach this topic, this question of whether the black church is dead, is the black church dead, from the perspective of womanist theoethics, and therefore, my womanist analysis has led me to pick up on Glaude’s immediate assertion in his proclamation of the black church’s death.
Of the black church, and I quote, “as we’ve known it, or imagined it.” And he contends, or rather this assertion contends that the communal memory, which undergirds the conceptualization of the black church, corresponds always with what really happened, and what womanist theoethical analysis would suggest is that the conceptualization of the black church does not always correspond with what really happens in black churches.
In other words, depending on whose experience is solicited, Afro-Christianity has never been monolithic. The black community has never been undifferentiated, and black prophetic witness has always been compromised. These things are not new, therefore the question for me rightly emerges: how can something be dead, if it never really was alive, according to the aforementioned assumptions of its former vitality?
And still, the black church, though it has never been all it has confessed to be and been confessed as, the image of the black church as all of these things– as a homogeneous institution for black people on the side of justice and equality– has undoubtedly served as a significant site, as my co-panelists have already mentioned, where many oppressed have come to believe in the God of justice and the God of love.
And although justice and love is not always its reality, it is not always the reality of the black church, this reality of justice and love does not die, even when it faces the trickery of a hegemonic imagination that attempts to make us believe that we are dead even when life is a proximate possibility.
As one who lives and breathes the ebb and flow of the black church tradition in her everydayness, it appears to me that the critical question that confronts us tonight is not so much whether the black church is dead, but more importantly how the image of the black church, as it has been fictively conceived, can be actually realized? That is, how can the black church really live beyond what has be presented as its chronic dis-ease.
For example, sexism, heterosexism, pigmatocracy or colorism, agism, class stratification, and more generally, its apparent obsolete witness in a postmodern world that is no longer dictated by the caustic boundaries of black and white, but rather, is colored and nuanced in various shades of grey identities.
For the black church tradition, the critical gospel work of affirming life amidst ostensible death requires that we who have given our lives to this high calling, must not merely address to seek the women’s problem, the woman’s problem over there, or seek to address the sexuality problem over there, or the class problem right here.
Rather, our call is to address a more primary problem that is situated as the crux of all, I would argue, death dealing body of justice that emerges from within and is too often endorsed by the black church, namely the problem of male normative identity.
In other words–who do you think you are?–is the identity question that the black church must wrestle with in order to propel a reassessment of the black male normativity, which functions in black churches toward the end of disregarding the value and the moral agency of all those–male, female, and otherwise–who defy that presumptuous brand of embodied perfection.
The future of the institution born at the interstices of abolition and enslavement, born in rebellion against the social morality that sanctioned the dehumanization and further demonization of black bodies is dependent, then, upon its willingness to acknowledge and to respond to the consanguinity of oppressions which enables the proliferation of moral scapes that inevitably leave somebody out. The black church must instead embrace a body ethic, which engenders justice for everybody and not just some of them.
Reverend Otis Moss III: I would just add to that –[laughter]– ditto, and we can move on. But it’s Zora Neale Hurston that states in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, there’s the scene that I love so very much, where Janie and Tea Cake, after the storm in the Everglades, the statement is, “It seems as if they are staring in the darkness, but their eyes are watching God.” Depending upon who is looking at them, it looks, after they’ve been through this incredible storm, that they can only be staring in the darkness, after all of this dysfunction and challenges, and the reality is for the black church, is it is a model of humanness and dysfunction that struggles with priestly and prophetic, not one or the other, but it’s constantly struggling with the priestly and the prophetic, constantly struggling with the private, the personal, and also the public.
The great challenge as we communicate about talk about the church tonight, is simply this: not, is the church no longer prophetic? But the fact that the postmodern church has been overshadowed by a prosperity ministry. If anything is killing or destroying the black church, it might be the word ‘network’, but that’s a whole other discussion, in many ways.
And so what I feel is the thing that that we need to deal with is really talk about the overshadowing of the priestly and the prophetic, and at some point, every church within a community context is going to have to struggle with the priestly and prophetic aspect of its ministry. If you were talking about Southern churches, in say for example, Fort Valley, or we’re talking about some place in Mississippi.
Some of the best work in terms of working with farmers is with the church, or after the BP oil spill, because the community context necessitated that we deal with these issues, not because we’re staying up, and we want to operate within a prophetic tradition, but because our members are struggling with these issues, and therefore, we must engage these issues. So we move from priestly into the prophetic mode. But as a result of the deregulation in America, and the decentralization, we have seen decentralization and deregulation in the black church in many ways.
So the models that we have imagined that had an impact, the Baptist Convention, they never had an impact; it was imagined. We imagined it. What happened is that people broke from those particular groups and said that we recognize the pressure upon us and our communities to make transformative communication and change within our community.
So I think that we need to begin to shift how we view the church because we have an imagined, fictitious idea of what the church is, and then the reality is is that there’s always a remnant or a fragment that is prophetic that puts pressure upon the church to make a shift in a direction. But we never want to make this bifurcation where priestly is bad, prophetic is always good.
It must be both/and; it must be the interior and the exterior. And part of the challenge is now we have people who are claiming the prophetic, but all they’re doing is modelling an unrestricted capitalistic model of ministry. So we have to have these discussions about what is it to be prophetic? What is it to be priestly? And we’re seeing the overshadowing of prosperity ministry, and overshadowing of people who are theological exotic dancers and all of that, in terms of what they’re presenting.
And the media, in many ways, of what we have seen, the word ‘network’ –that’s a whole other personal issue I’ve got– with a network such as this, where we think the model is the theological exotic dancing, when actually the real work of the church is not happening necessarily in the big mega churches, but it is happening in churches that are 75 and less and people who are doing incredible work on the ground.
But is it national? No, because it is just like all politics are local, all churches are local, and we have to come to that idea, that most of the movements that we imagine that had an incredible national fervor and power were always local: the Montgomery Improvement Association is a local group; the Southern Christian Leadership, it was a local group; SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], local group, and we have to begin to look from the perspective of local actually is how we go global.
Josef Sorett: Excellent, excellent, well, thank you panelists for your opening remarks, I want –in many ways, Otis, your final comment in clarifying this distinction between the priestly and political, the priestly and the prophetic is something that runs throughout, I think, all of our panelists initial remarks and this is the kind of dual heritage of black churches as spiritual and social institutions, spiritual and political, and I want to ask a first question about the spiritual and then a second to more clarify this political, this prophetic and get a couple of you to chime in on either.
So if we think about the spiritual first, it’s perhaps the less told story, right? This political narrative tends to dominate the way we think about the black church. Obery has already suggested some kind of spiritual substance that was at the center of his critique, this call for interiority. I’m interested to hear, is it this interiority, is it this a truer reading of the Bible, what is the substance of the Christian, the black Christian as it’s being re-imagined, so any two takers that may offer us some hopeful glimpses or some further clarification of what the substance is for the spiritual in black churches. What it is? Or what it might be? What it should be?
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: Well, I mentioned it, so I’ll take a stab. Again, I think that the definitive statement, when we talk about the church, as I said, I think one of the problems we don’t pay enough attention to, the things Jesus said and take them to the nth degree and get into the depth that we might. He said, I think his paradigmatic statement of spirituality, his holistic spirituality is –love your Lord, your God, with all your hearts, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. You can’t have a cross without them both, and this was unique to him. So spirituality I think, to be true spirituality, the question is: if we accept holistic spirituality as a valid definition of spirituality in the gospel context, the question is: are we seeing this holistic spirituality in our churches? And I think it’s a question that can answer itself.
Now, the genius of the prophetic mind was that it laid as the plum line of all our activity, personal, collective, justice —mishpat— justice and righteousness, these have to do with actions, so we look at the horizontal axis, love thy neighbor as yourself, that is tied to the prophetic witness, our responsibility and we love our neighbors as ourselves and we want to struggle against injustice as they do.
So, not everyone has the same resources, and Otis is correct, and not everyone is faced with the same struggle, but in order for it to be holistic spirituality, I’m suggesting, it has be part of the teaching. The prophetic must be part of the teaching of the responsibility, and the too many churches is just not, of the preaching, the proclamation, it always has to be at least taught it has to be acknowledged, the horizontal axis of what it means to love thy neighbor as ourselves rather than just as a some sentiment to want to give a holy hug and you go on your way the same day. So we look at it that way, as I recall your question: do we see that? Are we seeing that in the church?
Josef Sorett: What is the substance, the source that guides the spirituality? How do we put some flesh on the bones?
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: I’m suggesting that should be one of the basic if not the basic notion of spirituality guiding us, spirituality is not what you feel, it’s how you act. The only true evidence it’s how we act in the world, to the extent that we put more emphasis on the vertical than on the horizontal, to the extent that in my understanding that we’re not fully understanding or practicing holistic spirituality, therefore it’s not full spirituality and therefore not completely consistent with the gospel witness, in my opinion, in my reading.
Reverend Eboni K. Marshall: I just wanted to say that it seems to me an agreement with Dr. Hendricks that the substance of our spirituality as the black church would be the gospel, and the problem is that that is not the case in so many contemporary church contexts, When we look at the gospel we recognize it that there is a mediating ethic at work throughout the gospel, there is no priestly without the prophetic. Jesus goes away to restore himself so that he might come back into the streets and do his ministry amongst the people, so what we see now contemporarily is this quasi-gospel or this non-gospel at work in so many church contexts where people just want to be –as one of my professors would often say– so heavenly bound that they’re no earthly good.
And are looking for cathartic release within their sanctuary sacred time, instead of really melding, or really adhering to the gospel witness, which in my opinion should be the thrust of our spiritual witness.
Eddie Glaude: I mean, I think that one way to concretize it would be to think about this extraordinary moment in Al Raboteau’s Slave Religion when the slave, Mort, who prayed three times a day, was confronted by the slave master, and the slave master said, “If you do not stop praying, I will blow your brains out.”
And slave, Mort, responded, “You may own my body, but God owns my soul.” Now for some people that’s an other-worldly gesture. But in the context of this account, it has this-worldly implications, yes? It is reflective of a relationship with God that fundamentally reorients the self and short circuits a master-slave relationship, which leads Mort to be maladjusted to a particular political-social-economic relation.
But what’s interesting is that too many people come out of churches and seem to be very much adjusted to the relations that define the world. And so if people aren’t saying, “You must be drunk,” –right? Remember in Acts, “They must be drunk, they must be full of a new wine.” If folk are is actually seeing Christians, in my view (and I know some people say, “Well, how in the hell is he talking about this?”), pragmatic naturalists, Catholic rearing folk,
these are some of the things that have been said to me by Christian folk– folk who have been taking me to the altar, but not for prayer. And the sense is that there is this notion that one could actually encounter the power and ineffable experience of God’s grace and not be transformed and enter into the world in such a way that you could be all right with the way it is. Then it seems to me that calls for an indictment. It calls for a response. And the response has to be, at least within the Christian context, on Christian grounds, right? And it seems to me that, if we wanted to give some substance, it seems to me if we want to measure the substance of Christian faith, it’s your relative maladjustment to the world in which we actually live.
Reverend Otis Moss: I think that you raise a good question, Eddie. Because one of the issues is that, within the Christian context, we have a lot of faith, we have a lot of doctrine, but our faith is not connected to love, and love is transformative. So one thing that I heard William Solm Kaufman say is that you have to be careful, when you’re talking about faith or critiquing people who have deep faith. Because they have deep faith, but the problem is that they don’t have love. And when you have deep faith without love, then you create doctrine that is destructive. And so people who’ve been taking you to the altar who have deep faith about what they believe, hold on to what they believe.
But love causes you to wrestle with issues. And so that becomes the central aspect of the gospel. The idea of love, and that becomes the love ethic that we, within the the Church, have not engaged. Because one, within the American context, we don’t like the word love because love deals with forgiveness, love deals with compassion, and all these other ideas. We like faith, because faith allows us to operate out of a doctrine that can be rigid in terms of our connection to people.
So I don’t have to shift with my faith, but love causes me to change the way I look at my faith. And that is what the gospel demands. So here you have this context of Jesus, who is now saying that, I want you to operate with this love ethic. But yet we are preaching, not love, or better yet: we preach Jesus, but we don’t preach what Jesus preached. That’s really what is happening. And so there needs to be, in many ways, for us to bring back the love ethic that is central to the ministry.
That then allows us to develop the interior and the exterior. Because you have a lot of people who are incredibly prophetic, but yet they are spiritually anemic. And so they are the people that can be an architect for a movement, but yet in their personal lives, they are destructive. And then you have people that are so high and mighty, but they don’t want to do anything about shifting things in a public nature.
So there’s always the tension, and essentially, in humanity, we have a dysfunctionality that we have to come to grips with, and that love ethic is one way that we begin to deal with those tensions.
Dr. Josef Sorett: If I could add one qualifier, and Anthea, if you could weigh in, if there’s a way to connect this – all of our departures for the spirituality have been the Bible or have been the gospels. But I’m wondering, Otis, in your initial comment, you’re claiming Zora Neale Hurston. Eboni, you make an appeal you a womanist ethic. Is the Gospel the only sacred text?
In particular, Anthony, in your work on COGIC [Church of God in Christ] women. What are the texts that are informing the spirituality that then emanates outwards? Is it just the Gospel, and I appreciate that claim as a call for Christian faith, but what are the other texts that we hold sacred?
Anthea Butler: What texts do we hold sacred? The texts of discipline. Okay? I was sitting here listening to your conversation, and it’s very rare that I’m quiet, but if I’m quiet that’s a dangerous thing. I’m minded to think about a whole other constituency altogether, which are a lot of my friends. And apparently to the Pew Forum, is a lot of people too. And that is all these people that claim to be spiritual but not religious. And the people who are black and Christian but hate the Church, and don’t want to go back no more.
And you see what happens is, is that this text of “no love, but we’re going to preach to you about the faith,” has driven a whole bunch of people up out the door of the church. And I don’t want to have to take a show of hands in here, because I know some of you all love God in here [clapping], but you ain’t trying to go in no Church. There you go. Okay? [laughter] So, this is the thing. We have to get real about what is really happening.
And what is really happening is we got some black churches with folks sitting in them, but the people that we need to have in them? The younger people, the people that keep these things going? They’re not there. Because they are sick of the crap. They are sick of being told what to do, how to do it by people who are hypocritical, who don’t have love for nobody, who ain’t trying to share their wealth with nobody, who will bother to tell you that your sexuality and your personhood is not worthy. Because they are the ones up in the pulpit, and you are down there.
Now, that’s not everybody. I’m not here to critique, you know, who’s good and who’s bad. But we need to realize that there are a large group of African Americans right now who ain’t never going to set foot in a black church again because of how they got raised. And what happened to them? And we need to contend with those people who have not been loved, who did not hear anything about the Gospel that was good, and decided that the moment they could get away from Mama and Grandmama, they were gone.
Dr. Josef Sorett: Alright. Well put, well put. To shift just slightly, not to assume that the spiritual and the social are mutually exclusive, but to move from that first half, thinking about the spiritual legacy to this question of the prophetic and the political and – as many of you even pointed out – that this over determined political narrative does not take full recognition of the work that black churches have always done, right? Y’all ready to go.
Still, we are calling, even in Eddie’s initial post on Huffington in the spring was the reassertion of the prophetic. So now, we’ve wrestled with the spiritual a little bit –its shortcomings, its insights, what sources inform it– what about the prophetic? What then, does the prophetic look like? In the post-soul moment? Arguably, prior to Dr. King, this image of the prophetic – even on our flier for this evening was a sense of shared interest, that Anthea directed us to in her initial comment. Now, in a post-soul moment, in a post-Civil Rights moment, competing interests, diversification, class divide, what does the prophetic look like in that milieu?
Eddie Glaude: Let me just say, quickly, that there are three different sorts of points that were made in the Huff Post piece. First is a historiographical claim, that we’ve got to wrap our minds around, that the histories of African-American religion have been dominated by liberal, what we might call religious modernist, accounts.
So there is a reason why we tell the story of African American religion in a particular sort of way. We think about all those University of Chicago theses, we think about all of those folk who were particular kinds of historians and sociologists participating in particular kinds of networks. Writing histories about African American churches, and accounting for those that fell outside their boundaries. Outside the bounds, right?
So when we think about why we haven’t told, and why we’re just now beginning to tell a thick story about African American fundamentalism, why we’re now just beginning to tell a thick story about the cross-fertilization of this very interesting religious development after the Scopes trial, and how African-Americans were deeply implicated in that, has something to do with the kinds of stories we told about our religious communities that we’re just beginning to break open.
That story has been driven by a particular theological orientation, with a set of particular normative claims about how churches ought to function. That’s the first class. Second thing is that we need to deal with the battle between Reverend Ike and Dr. King. Ike won. On a certain level.
Dr. Sorett: We’re going to get there, we’re —
Eddie Glaude: No, I’m not saying that he won – I’m being dramatic. Provocative, right? It’s like that moment in Car Wash, when Daddy Richie is coming to get his shoes shined, and the man who shines his shoes, and sitting behind him are images of Dr. King and Daddy Rich. It gives us a set of, a kind of complexity. Prosperity gospel isn’t new – DuBois talked about it in 1903. We know it was Prophet Jones, we can just begin this, Wallace Best’s piece, most recent piece in Huffington Post gives us a sense of the complexity of this moment.
So, part of what has to happen is really a kind of fundamental understanding that we’ve told ourselves a story that flattens the complexity, that the myth is in fact a myth, but it has real consequences in how we think about black church functioning. That’s the first claim, with a whole bunch of subsets. The second claim is that prophetic energy cannot be inherited, in my view. People have to – you just can’t – I’m raised in the church, by definition I have prophetic energy, the prophetic voice in me, no.
I want to suggest that the prophetic voice has to be found in the place where one’s feet rest. And what is required in this moment is not so much a kind of recitation of the power of the black church qua black church. What is required is a reimagining, an insistence on its relevance in relation to current problems. So when those folk in the context of the Great Migration re-imagine the church. When King, pushed out of the pulpit, insisted on re-.
We have a moment that requires us not simply to just hearken back to a tradition. We have to step, and so, to give it content is to prescribe. What I want to suggest is just open up the space so that people can give voice to what it can be and to what it perhaps is.
Dr. Sorett: So that’s, if we could respond to, how do we give voice to the prophetic in this moment? How do you all give voice, in your work, in your ministries, to our pastors as well? What does the prophetic look like, in a post-Civil Rights mode?
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: Well, let me say, I think that very fundamentally –and Eddie, your point is a good one, and notwithstanding your points– I think that much more fundamental to the whole enterprise is a question of whether we really have given serious weight and consideration to prophetic discourse in our church discourses. There are many people who in church, when they hear you talk about the prophetic, they think you’re talking about foretelling. They have no idea that the major part of prophetic discourse is forthtelling, is indicting, the powers that be. So I think the first step is to try to make this a normative part of our discourse.
This is an important moment, and it’s not just left up to the Martin Luther Kings. It’s important that all of us know how basic the call to be on the lookout for opportunities to do justice, or situations that call for justice to be done, how fundamental that is to our faith. I think that’s the first step. Now we can think about how things look, and I think that’s really important.
But until that becomes a much more important part of our discourse, it is going to be fragmented. We’re going to have people –I won’t mention names– we’re going to have pastors, like one who is very much discredited in this moment, but he is a prosperity preacher, and he is saying a whole lot of crazy stuff, yet he can talk about taking on the mantle of Martin Luther King, and there’s no hew and cry. Because the prophetic is not part of -interrupted I’m not going to say his name, I’m not going to
Josef Sorett: It’s a broader issue, it’s not just about. How do you see that broader issue as a part of a set of questions and –
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: But until we do that, it’s going to be fragmented. And we’re going to have folk thinking that they are being prophetic and talking about taking on King’s mantle, when they’re doing a whole lot of foolish, a whole lot of performative stuff. It’s a whole lot of prosperity gospel stuff.
It’s a whole lot of making people think it’s about praising with your lips, and forgetting about what you do with your limbs. If it’s doing the holy dance, and it doesn’t matter.
Reverend Otis Moss III: It makes sense though. It makes sense because to appropriate the image of Dr. King fits within Americanization. And that’s why Reverend Ike, fits with an American narrative so well. That’s why prosperity Gospel fits within America.
The prophetic narrative does not fit with the American ideal. So, the prosperity Gospel and Donald Trump, P. Diddy and everybody else, they have the same narrative. And the prophetic narrative, when it is truly prophetic, does not fit within the mythos of America.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: That’s why it must be proclaimed by us, as part of our normative practice.
Reverend Otis Moss III: Any person who has made that claim – you’re always a remnant. So you’re always turned out by your own people.
So you go to Riverside and you say I’m going to speak out against the war, a speech that could be used today, just changed some figures, and you are turned out by your best friends, who say that, “I can no longer support you because you are supposed to be a local Civil Rights leader, not dealing with a poor peoples campaign.” You are turned out by your own people when you become radicalized, i.e. DuBois.
And so, the prosperity narrative, which we are giving a lot of energy to, is very American. The prophetic narrative is always going against the mythos of America, and any time you go against the mythos of America, you have to raise the question, “Are you willing to be killed as a result of it?” Not necessarily physically, but your ministry, who you are, your teaching, you will be assassinated, in some form or fashion, just for taking a position.
And the reason I know this is because our church was assassinated because of prophetic stands that we take, as a result of that, just because someone of color was going to the White House, the only thing they could find on him– “We’ll find a message from your minister”– which was a whole other thing, but that becomes the particular narrative. The prophetic narrative demands a spiritual life, an interior and exterior that raises the question, a question fundamentally of love: How does everyone live out their humanness as a child of God?
And the texts that we borrow from, not just the gospel, but the texts that we borrow from are also texts that come out of our collective narrative as African people, a narrative that demands space. Let me give you an example, a simple story, of an older woman who had several children. One child was same-gender loving, another child made some money on Wall Street, and another child was divorced, or something of that nature.
Well, the children came home, and there was some fundamentalism in the mind of the Wall Street guy, and he did not want this same-gender loving brother at the same table. And so they’re all arguing about the table, saying who can be at the table, this, that, and the other, til Mama stood up, and said, “You must understand, first off, it’s my table, and you’re in my house, and you are all my children. Don’t you ever put someone out of my house.
“Because you have a right to sit at the table. You didn’t make the food. You didn’t create the house. You are privileged to be in this house. Now, I don’t care if y’all don’t get along, but when you are in my house, you are at least going to struggle in dialogue.” And that becomes the best image of what we struggle as in terms of a community, drawing from, and again that Hurston narrative. I draw from Hurston because she gives so much black theology in what she does, because she deals with the folk religion that many in the academy, we diss as being menstrual.
She says the sanctified church, let me tell you about High John the Conqueror, that actually gives out information on how we live as human beings. And that becomes a challenge for us. Can we actually get back to a center of a culture of other narratives, and then again, going back to this love ethic, that becomes central to who we are supposed to be?
Eddie Glaude: I just, really quickly Otis, I was just thinking as you were laying out that powerful story, about Mama slapping Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, popped her right in the face, “As long as you are in my house, you will believe,” and I remember James Baldwin’s step father asking him was the boy saved? And James Baldwin said he was Jewish, and the the father popped him in mouth.
So we have to be careful when we invoke traditions because they contain within them disciplining mechanisms that police the boundaries of expression.
Reverend Otis Moss III: But they also have a narrative of love, too.
Eddie Glaude: That’s what I’m saying, I’m just saying let’s put them side by side.
Anthea Butler: I just want to really point out one very big thing. When we talk about the prophetic, it is always this notion that we have to immediately go to King, or to something else. Can somebody be prophetic that’s sitting in a storefront church with twenty people? I mean, can we have the prophetic without it being a figure?
Because, you see, what I think is happening, and this problem with, you know, the “black church,” put into quotation marks, is that, because these voices that are prophetic are not heard any more– it seems the problem with Jeremiah Wright, when you say, “God damn America,” nobody had heard that in so long, it freaked everybody out. [commotion] Even black people were like, “Oh my God!” You know? Not in Chicago, but everywhere else, they were. Do you know what I’m saying?
This voice has not been heard. And the second part is that if you’re going to be prophetic, it is not about individual sin, okay? This is about the corporate thing. It’s about “all y’all,” like we say in Texas. Not just one, but all y’all. This is where we’re at. Everybody. This thing is wrong. So for me, when I start to think about what would be prophetic right now, it would be really prophetic if, like a bunch of black church got together and said, “We need to get out of this damn war.”
How many black men and women have we got fighting over there? Can we get out of this war? Can we just back out of this thing? See, nobody wants to be prophetic because we finally have a black president, and nobody don’t want to call him out neither. Okay? So I’m going there, okay, I’m going there tonight. So, this is the thing. We are so happy to have him that we will let him do whatever he wants to do, and maybe that’s not right.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: But we let Bush do whatever he wanted to do, too.
Anthea Butler: And that’s right, we did, too. And you know how they let Bush do whatever he wanted to do? Because they took pay-offs!
Reverend Eboni K. Marshall: Well, to Dr. Butler’s point, I mean, when we talk about being post-Civil Rights, you know, that can be confusing to so many, right, because chronologically, yes we are post-Civil Rights movement, and yet we really are not post Black freedom.
When we look to what’s happening on the micro-level in our communities and how we are disproportionately represented in just about ever negative statistic that there is, we are still enslaved to a lot. And so, how can we be prophetic then? How are we prophetic to your question in light of what’s happening not necessarily in Raisin in the Sun, not necessarily in Hurston’s novels, but what’s happening right here on our streets?
In the homes of the people that we serve? And so to recognize, again, just using the language “post-Civil Rights” –while chronologically we are– we are still engaged in a Black freedom movement even as a black man sits in the White House.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: Josef, may I please just say this– I just want to say it and get it out. So much of the problem is is that our churches are so ensconced in mired in the performative. Everything is a dag-gone performance! And so much energy, so much energy is put into the performance. Every Sunday, there’s so little energy put into social resources.
There’s so much energy and so many resources that are squandered and that are lost, so if we want to talk about, it’s not about people getting pay-offs, directly, as much as the pay-off comes from folk are having a whole lot of fun talking about how deeply spiritually calling the church, and coming out not transformed, just changed the way they feel for a couple of days, then they got to go back and re-up and go again, now come on! Let’s get to it.
Dr. Josef Sorett : If I could, I want to bring in a question. We can think of the performative as both a blessing and a curse, if we will. And more complicated. But I want to bring in a question from the audience, and just so you know, the cordless mic is not working, so that’s why I’m raising these, but someone in our audience, and several point to this question as a particular concrete issue that you all are calling black churches to deal with is the question of class.
So where are black churches in the economic crisis, right? Soledad reimagined her documentary to focus on debt, right? Many of you have pointed to questions of wealth or lack thereof and these disparities across society. Where are black churches on –and I’m not saying they’re not anywhere– where are they concretely? How are black churches dealing with the class reality in this post-Civil Rights era and the particularities of the most recent economic recession?
Rev. Otis Moss: I want to try to get at that in two different ways. One is that when we talk about the black church and the work of the black church, and all of the overshadowing of those things that we consider to be negative –which is true, I agree with all that– but what is tragic is that when you do have people who are coming together as we’ve had– 300 churches came together to stand against the war, 300 other churches dealing with this issue of poverty– they don’t get the mic.
They don’t get the mic, at all. No one wants to talk with them when they take a prophetic stance. And the reality is that the prophetic is always a remnant. They are always on the margin, and we would love it to be the center, but if it becomes the center, then somebody else is going to have to critique it from the margin, if it becomes the center, but the prophetic has always been, always been. And so the issue of class is one of the issues that the church has challenges with, because it is so Americanized so we still have churches that are certain colors, certain classes, or you have to have certain degrees to be a part of, all of that.
And some of the amazing work is really going on in storefront churches, people who will never come into Union Theological Seminary because they are dealing with the issue of poverty on a day-to-day basis, in a very real way. Children who just are straight up hungry; they can’t learn because their bellies ache, but within a privileged church, which many people have attended, a privileged church, those are stories that you see on television or you hear from the pulpit.
Reverend Eboni K. Marshall: Speaking from the perspective of Abyssinian Baptist Church which is often looked upon as, to use Reverend Moss’s language, a privileged church, I just want to push back a little bit on that because those are not just stories for many of us. We actually are a congregation that is inter-class although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the outside.
We are a congregation that is made up of those who are poor and those who are very rich, and we all come together, and in the context of our ministry, we are touching hands on the flesh and blood realities of the community around us through not only the development corporation as an institutional entity, but through the folk in the pews who actually clothe those who are naked, who actually feed those who are hungry.
So I don’t want to, although we recognize that many black churches and many churches are set apart just by the mere privilege of having a sanctuary, are set apart from those who are really the oppressed of the oppressed, even though that is factual. There are those contexts wherein you have persons who are really touching those flesh and blood realities, and so I don’t want to discount that.
Eddie Glaude: Absolutely, I think we need to wrap our minds around some fundamental shifts taking place in the nature of African American church landscapes. We’re seeing, in interesting sorts of ways, and I know, Fred, you’ve talked about this, is we’re seeing the disappearance in interesting sorts of ways of the neighborhood church.
Churches and their organic relationship to the folks who live around them. In fact, if a church hasn’t moved out into a suburban area and stays in, most of people who attend the church actually come from some place else to go to the church. Ardor Smith has done some wonderful work in regards to those pastors who are progressive, who stay in their neighborhoods and the relationship actually to the community that’s out there, the skepticism of folks in the neighborhood vis-a-vis the church, where the church resides.
It’s really complicated in a number of different ways how the very ways in which church life have been constituted under these very unique conditions, how the demographics have put in place certain pressures, on the very ways in which churches function, right?
And then I want to be very clear too, we can talk about general trends even as we want to lift up what particular churches are doing, we need to be able to offer general descriptions of a problematic. If we want to say that black men are disproportionally being incarcerated, and someone says, “But my brother isn’t”, that doesn’t impact the fact itself. So part of what we want to say that there are churches that are doing extraordinary work, there are churches that are inter-class, but what we’re seeing are all sorts of pressures that are impacting the very demographics of churches and who sits in those pews and where they’re located.
Anthea Butler: And I just want to take off just a second and say, and twist this another way and ask the class question in a different way. Who is moving from one class to another because of this economic situation? I’ve been tracking, I’ve been watching Memphis, Tennessee, I believe if I’m not mistaken, they’re over 24 close of Black Churches in Memphis right now that have to close their doors. Now what does that mean? That has already changed the demographics of that city.
If you’ve got people who have lost their jobs and they’re been in these churches and the churches have lost their homes and they’ve lost their home, the went then maybe from lower middle class or middle class to poverty, okay? So this is another thing that is really happening. So we can ask a class question but we have to ask it in a different way, about how people are moving and what this is doing is.
I’ve got to quote this figure that Professor Harris gave me and I was just stunned but this so sad, the average net worth of a white woman in this country is something like forty-two, forty-three thousands dollars or something like that, single white woman, this is a woman who is not married, does not have anything, forty-two to forty-three thousand dollars. Do you know what the net worth of a black woman is in this country? Five dollars! Five dollars.
That was stunning, stunning. Who is sitting in the churches? Black women. So once we begin to start to think about this in different ways and not just talk about this in a religious way and look at the economics and everything, this is serious.
Obery Hendricks Jr.: Yes, this class question is a very important question and just as sort of an addendum, that is one of the things that prophetic discourse brings to the fore. Questioning the systemic configurations, the way society is set up, the institutional configurations, asking questions about why are some people poor and some people rich, questioning capitalism, and that of course presupposes taking some extra energy in our churches to do more reading, more study.
But something that impressed me, one of the times I spoke at J. Alfred Smith’s church out in Oakland, and I noticed when it came time for the announcements, and I was waiting to hear someone say, “Given honor to God, we’ll be having a bake sale” and nothing is wrong with that because I love the the bake sales, but instead, they got up and started telling people about what was going on politically, what was going on in the community, things that they should be aware of, the issues they might contemplate, and they were upholding that prophetic responsibility to raise people’s consciousness to look at questions of class.
So many black people, we know that what happened with the sub-prime mortgage thing is terrible, but so many of our people don’t have a real sense of what happened and why it happened. Why aren’t we questioning? Why don’t we know that anyone who fights for radical deregulation, they’re fighting against regulatory protections for the average person and this is not consistent with the biblical witness. I don’t care what the conservatives say.
But these kind of things don’t come up because prophetic discourse is not normative, and because it’s not normative, we don’t understand that these questions are class questions that we can and should be asking. That’s why I keep pressing it, and why I keep saying that at the largest lacunae I think in our community. That, and this notion of holistic spirituality that moves us to a certain point that says of spirituality, spiritual entertainment, to the point that we can’t help but love our neighbor as ourselves and want to change circumstance for our neighbors and we’d like them to change for our loved ones.
Dr. Josef Sorett: If we shift our attention from the question of class to something that’s been already put on the table, if we address it more substantively by applying this love ethic that we are all appealing to– how does this get mobilized? And there is interest in the audience that talking about what Obery suggested and what Otis encouraged him to make plain, the more recent Eddie Long scandal, but rather than directing our –I said it–
But rather than having our conversation be more determined by an individual record, recognizing that this implicates a broader gender and sexual politic that is not just about black churches but about religion, gender, sexuality and more broadly, how do we think about strategies for mobilizing this love ethic? Or what can we expect reasonably of black churches in terms of engaging their own sexual and gender politics?
Anthea Butler: You know, I’ve got my mouth fixed up because I’ve got a lot to say. No offense to the pastors on board with me but you know the first thing you have to do is when you’re a pastor messed up, you’ve got to love them enough to sit them down. It’s always been very interesting to me as somebody who does American religion to look at white evangelicals, and the moment a white evangelical messes up, they throwin’ ‘em out the door. Or they’ve got to go sit down somewhere or go to a camp or go to reconditioning or something, you know. You’re going to Betty Ford, or you’re going to the sex clinic or something else.
In a black church if the pastor messes up and it’s just a heterosexual, hallelujah. You know, it might be a bad Sunday when somebody sweating up there for a couple of hours or something and somebody gets called out, but that person can stay in the pulpit. There is no retribution for bad behavior. It’s got to stop. You know, I’m not from a black church, I’m from the Catholic Church; I’m on them everyday about the mess that they’ve perpetrated. But you see we’ve got the same thing right now, the black churches are across the country so I’m going to start laying it out for you.
If you go on the web right now, you can look at websites for the Church of God and Christ where all the sex scandals have been, and how much they’re having to pay up to all these people who a suing us. There’s a big suit today in Dallas had just came up, there is a lot of stuff going on, people. See, it ain’t one church. It’s a lot of them. And a lot of these churches are having these issues. What do we do? Well, one thing is to start talking about sexuality in a different way. You can’t just use sexuality to get people in the door because you’re selling sex.
No more sheets. The lady, the lover, and her Lord. All this stuff – I mean, people use sex to sell their sermons. And then they want to tell you, when you come in the door, you can’t do nothing. What about that? I mean, this is double messages going on all the time, it’s ridiculous. [laughter] So, everybody’s laughing – it’s the truth, you know? In the past, in Memphis, they had a bed up there in the church, talking about this is how you’re supposed to please your spouse.
That’s ridiculous, people. I didn’t come to church for porn! You can get that at home. See, I’m just saying it. But see this is the problem. It’s like the Destiny’s Child song – it’s No, No, No, No, No from the pulpit, when everybody’s really saying Yea, Yea, Yea, Yea, Yea. It’s gotta stop. This messing around, it’s not serious. But this is a serious issue.
The homophobia. The stuff that comes out of some people’s pulpits about gay folks. And people sitting up there right in the congregation – why would you sit there, and let somebody take you on like that? Walk out the door – don’t give that person your money. Don’t give that church your money. These are the things, you know, I’m being very glib about this, but I’m not really glib. I’m really grieved. Because it is something that is tearing our churches apart. And if you look in places like Georgia and other places, you know, who has HIV the most?
African American women. So this is taking a toll, and we cannot afford to be light about this anymore. We just can’t. It’s time to clean house. And if the people won’t do it, somebody else will.
Dr. Josef Sorett
If I can, just to tweak this in terms of thinking in strategies, right? Anthea’s just invited – and many churches are doing the work of offering a more inclusive sexual ethic. I give the example of someone I worked with who took a church where he and his wife were co-pastors through the process of becoming open and affirming.
And in the process, he coined a term called “straight flight.” So the same consequences of, Otis, you suggested if we take a prophetic stance on the war. So how does – in the face of that reality, how do we negotiate strategies for putting that forward?
Rev. Otis Moss: Well, within the context of Trinity, with a church that has a same-gender loving community, in that church.
And as a result there was straight flight. Now, my predecessor spent years teaching this idea of love and raised a fundamental question, he preached on it, and the fundamental question that he raised, and then raised within Biblical context. Because one of the things that is a little different about Trinity is that we actually have professors from seminary that teach our Bible study classes.
So that you can even get credit to graduate from Virginia Union, if you want, through some of the classes that we offer at Trinity, in connection with several of the partnerships that we do. And so the fundamental question that he put forth, which I thought was incredibly powerful, was: if you take the position of going to Hell, sinning, all that kind of stuff – would God intentionally design someone just to go to hell?
Would God intentionally – and that was the fundamental theological question to jump off from there. So now, let’s discuss it from there. The second thing is, is that there is a rise in homophobia that was not as prevalent previous to the rise of the fundamentalist movement, especially in the case of the Southern Baptist Church. Because ethical reason is determined by relationship.
And so within the South, there was a position previous to the ‘60s and ‘70s, where if you were to make a statement, in small communities, from the pulpit, you could get sat down as pastor. Reason being is because, and this is exactly happening with my first pastor, where a gentleman who was transgender died, who happened to be the local florist in the community.
And there was a deacon who said, “We can’t have this funeral.” You know, this that and the other. And to see all of these elder, quote “straight men”, stand up and say, “You don’t understand, when my mother died, he was there. And I will show my respect and you will not disrespect him.
Second thing was, “He’s been in this church longer than you.” And that was one of the most powerful moments, to see a Southern community to say that we don’t have all the theological language but we do understand that we’re in relationship with each other. And that becomes the jumping-off point of building the fundamental relationship with people. We love doctrine, we don’t like love.
Anthea Butler: Can I ask you a question, Reverend Moss? I’m just interested because it’s interesting to talk about relationship, but I also think that black people have a relationship to the Bible. And we could say doctrine but let’s say what it really is, it’s really the “Bible.”
It’s particular reading of the Bible. I’m just curious because – I’m not going to tell on this person, but somebody said, you know, while you all are talking about this Eddie Long thing, just don’t get into the Bible stuff.
Because if you get in to the Bible stuff, then you’re going to have all these churches getting on you. Because as long as the Bible is not contested about what to say about homosexuality, then this is the case. So I’m really wondering about how to deal with that dichotomy. Because for those of us in the academy, who have some ways to want to talk about this, it’s one thing. But when you’re in a church, it’s another thing all together.
Reverend Otis Moss: We teach a hermeneutics of suspicion. We do that. I mean, if Howard Thurman’s mother can do it, Howard Thurman’s mother said you know what, I like Jesus. I’ve got an issue with Paul.
And anything he says, I ignore. I mean, she had a hermeneutics of suspicion. She said, “Jesus is my model. I can deal with that. But as soon as Paul says, ‘be silent.’ I’m not being silent for nobody.”
Anthea Butler: But I do wonder, though, that’s her, but there’s so many other people who won’t argue with that. How do you deal with that from the pulpit? Because that’s my question, my fundamental question. Because you know I could walk off and go back to Penn any day.
But what the real issue is going to be, how does this happen, if we are going to change these conversations in our churches? You’ve got a good way to do this, because you’ve got training. But for most churches, they don’t have that. How does that conversation happen?
Reverend Moss: Well, I use that Southern narrative again. Churches, which was fascinating to me when I was first a pastor in Augusta, GA and had to go to these small Southern communities. I couldn’t understand why Atlanta could be so homophobic.
But yet, Blackville, SC, was not. And it was a very interesting dichotomy. Now, there’s a continuum. They’re not way over here and way over there. Just somewhere in the middle. But there was a different ethic, and I think, an ethical reasoning based on relationship. Because it became very difficult for certain individuals to make certain statements.
It’s easy in the urban context, in a broad context – I can do that. But when you have to look someone in the eye every day, because there’s only eleven hundred people in the town anyway. You know and ten percent of them, more than likely, may be same-gender loving. So you know, you’re raising these particular questions. And I heard that from many older ministers, usually women, who raised that question. You know, that really pastoring it’s not a fatherly model, but is a motherly model.
Eboni Marshall: And also, in a more concrete way, Dr. Butler, that’s one reason why I do actually find it important to, while we speak in generalizations and look at raw statistics, to also highlight the exceptions. The exceptions to the rule.
Because when you ask questions like that – how do these smaller churches, who may not have access to seminary learning or a more progressive model of ministry, how will they communicate liberation? How will they communicate God’s expansive love, God as inclusive, the exclusive inclusivity rather?
To their congregation and, through relationship with other churches, who may be the exceptions, there is a cross-fertilization where, through the preached word, and through teaching, that learning can happen in spaces that are not normative spaces. And so, again, I think that here in Harlem there are smaller conventions of churches, as in other places as well.
So your storefront church will get together with a larger congregations for a week at a time where there is study, where there is preaching, where there is dialogue and communication. And it’s in those contexts, I think, and hopefully there are others, but at least on the micro-level where that exchange to relationship can begin to happen.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: It’s very important, I think, just a couple of quick, quick points. One is, with regard to why ministers are allowed to get away with so much, often, is that because we confuse what is a role with a status. And the ministry becomes a status, and we also make personality cults around ministers.
And because they have a different status, they are judged a different way. And they have their catchphrases that support that. They’ll quote something from the Psalms that has nothing to do with the context, but it’ll be “touch not the head of my anointed.” And the other thing is, when we talk, because there is a dearth of real tradition interiority you can become a pastor with no spiritual attainment at all.
And I know a few of them. They just – it’s mercantile, and it is a good job, that allows them to be James Brown at least once a week. [laughter] And of course, that’s, there are many who are wonderful. And I’m not generalizing, but we all know that’s the case. They say it loud, too.
And they can dance and jump and sweat, just like James. But in terms of teaching, if we focus on – we have to have something that’s normative. And it must be the Gospel, in my opinion. I mean, the Gospel writings. And if we look at the Gospel writings, a lot of our excursions into doctrinal minutiae, and cul-de-sacs, and irrelevancies, would not happen. Now, with regard to homosexuality, I think one way that’s easy to teach is,
if we look at the teachings of Jesus, Jesus gave one primary way to judge people in Matthew 25. It says, “As you have not done it to the least of these, you have not done it unto me. As you have fed, as you have clothed, as you have looked out for those who are really in need, then you’ve done it to me. But to the extent that you have not, you haven’t done it to me.” And then it ends by saying, “and then off you go to Hell.”
And this is really the primary judgment that Jesus gives. Now, if we used that mode of judgment – I did a C-SPAN special for the Center for American Progress, half hour, hour and a half on my book called the Politics of Jesus, it was lovely for me, I hope other people enjoyed it because I certainly did. In it, someone asked this question, the same question.
And I said, well, wait a minute. If we take Jesus seriously, how can I possibly – I had a colleague at Drew University when I was on the faculty there, wonderful man, in every kind of way, godly man in every kind of way. I didn’t know he was gay for the first year and a half we were on the faculty together – didn’t matter. But how could I take someone like Dick Cheney, because he’s heterosexual, how can I value him over someone who is loving, who does justice, who fulfills Matthew 25, but he just happens to love another one of God’s creatures who are his same gender? How can I possibly do that? [clapping]
So, if we again go to the prophetic witness of the Gospels themselves, as something normative, and stop all these flights of fancy and all this foolishness – because if we did that we wouldn’t have the prosperity gospel, we wouldn’t have all this madness, we wouldn’t have Leroy Thompson talking about “Money! Come here, money!” from the pulpit. [laughter] That must be normative to us, that’s why I continue to stress it.
That’s not just because I’m a Biblical scholar, but because I think it shows that Jesus’ teachings were relational, and not doctrinal. He didn’t teach much of anything about what to believe, but everything about how to live and how to treat others.
Eddie Glaude: Just really quickly, I just think, I was having a conversation with the great Jim Forbes, recently and he said that we ought to, perhaps, include as a part of licensing, that pastors commit themselves to ongoing counseling.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. Because they’re human beings, they’re just like we all are, cracked and messed up. Trying to figure out how to walk this journey with some sense of decency in the short time that we have. Second point, really quickly, is that we’ve got to figure out how to have conversations within church spaces about sexuality and sexual desire without it being framed by negative acts.
The fact that the accusations around Bishop Long, predatory acts, are framing our discussion around sexuality, truncates how we think about sexuality. And so I think it’s important for us to disentangle, you know, the TMZ story that is Bishop Long. And the horrors that are associated with those young brothers, who have had to deal with what they’ve had to deal with. From this broader question of how we imagine ourselves as God’s children, who desire other God’s children, other children of God. And we’ve got to do that in a way that is not framed negatively, but positively. And then maybe we can get some … And some people are doing that.
Rev. Otis Moss: I’m just curious, and I’ve heard this from a Gospel minister not too long ago, because when you mention the issue of sexuality, he made a statement that just blew me away. I’m trying to remember the gentleman’s name, but it doesn’t make a difference who it was.
He said that in black churches, you can get away with any type of quote-unquote “sexual indiscretion,” but don’t mess with the money. And white churches, you can mess with the money and stay, but any particular sexual indiscretion, you’re gone. And he says that there is a different way that these communities view issues of sexuality. And also, for a community that has not had enough, because you know – if you really want to get removed from a black church quickly, just mess with someone’s money, and there will be a physical fight very quickly.
I think there is some history behind that. Somebody needs to do some research around– I would be curious– around why is it that we are so permissive when someone is utilizing the congregation as their own personal dating service?
Anthea Butler: Or brothel. I don’t even think it’s dating.
Different person: Or brothel, maybe. I was being nice. [laughter]
Dr. Josef Sorett: I want to offer up a couple of questions, try to fuse them together, from the audience. One is the question of what are the responsibilities of black churches to not be defined solely by serving a racial group in this moment, right? This is a question, but also to tie that to the question of the reality of religious diversity, right?
So whether it’s the long stories told about the Nation of Islam with the increase of West African Muslims here in Harlem. How do we think about the broader religious landscape of black America and the role of black churches in engaging in conversation? So where does interfaith and interracial conversation show up in what we’re talking about as the present and future reality of black churches?
Anthea Butler: Well, I’m minded to think about –and I don’t know if it was this past Sunday or it’s this coming Sunday, I’m sorry if I missed this– but there’s going to be a group of African churches that are going to Washington to pray for America, which I thought was fascinating, okay? And the reason why I think this is fascinating is because, within the midst of us, we have all these immigrant churches from the diaspora, and so when we sit here and we talk about black church, it leaves out this whole space of people that are around us, especially in urban space. Where I live in Philadelphia, I’ve got not only immigrant churches, I also have a huge Muslim community there.
And, you know, I’m not sure yet because I’m still new to Philly, what is happening there on the ground for people to speak back and forth to each other, but I do think that is a creative way to start to think about how to talk about the first thing I thought of, which is community. What is community comprised of? Are we only talking about Christian communities? Are we talking about something broad? I think we have to start, especially if I’m going to think about Malcolm X especially, if we’re going to do anything about thinking about the diaspora, and what is happening in the diaspora, and some insane issues that people are facing. Otherwise, we’re going to have to reach across lines interreligiously in order to make a broader kind of community so that we can have some movement back and forth.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: I think we need to stop talking so much about being Christians, and start focusing more on our common humanity, stop focusing so much on doctrinal division, and refocus again on the example of Jesus and the Gospels. He stressed how we should live and treat one another, and if we focus on that, I think that will open all kinds of room for ecumenical activities in the real sense. And the reason I say that is because too many Christians take too much pride in being Christians. And when we take too much pride in being one thing, that’s tantamount to placing a value judgment on being something else.
Not only that, we need to sit down, and I think we need to interrogate what it really means to be a Christian, and really interrogate that. If we do that, that will open up room to talk to other people. We also need to ask others, find out why others believe what they believe, and not just discount them as the other and leave them as the other, but look at the commonality.
But then again, that comes to looking at the prophetic witness of Jesus in the Gospels, being serious about reading them, then we’ll see that it’s mostly about ethical behavior, how we live in the world. The Kingdom of God is relational, we take that seriously about building in Heaven a new Earth that means embracing all of humanity, not just other folk who call themselves what we call ourselves.
That also means that we take a different sense of what it means to be saved. Because, in the Old Testament sense, it means to be delivered, but it means to be delivered from certain kind of conditions, and when we say that we are saved and others are not, then we construct this box around ourselves, and we end up looking down on people in our same churches! “They ain’t saved.” And you know what I’m talking about. So, I’m going to leave that alone, because you can imagine how many times people ask me if I’m saved, and my response is, “None of your business. Why would you even ask?”
Reverend Eboni K. Marshall: I think often for congregations, what prohibits ecumenical dialogue and interracial dialogue is fear. Because, you know, again, when we think about the Christian narrative, you know, Christian triumphalism, which I think Dr. Hendricks was pointing toward, is synonymous with American triumphalism. And so what see of the other in the media, in those spaces that are most accessible to our congregations, is predominantly negative of that which is than what we are as American.
And so the Muslim or Islam becomes a site of fear. And the other, African traditional religions becomes a site of fear for our congregations. And so I think that in order to really begin to encourage this kind of dialogue and community amongst differences, it has to be preached from the pulpit. The people, in large part, the only continuing education most of congregations get is on Sunday morning.
And so we have to be able to put it in a way that is palatable for the audiences, for the people that we serve. But going back quickly to this point about male normativity, I think that until we really are serious about looking at that and inquiring about how that affects our communities, then all of our prophetic tendencies to move forward are going to compromised because we start from a place automatically where we believe that humanity has to be synonymous with, or equate with a certain kind of normativity. And so anyone who is outside of that normativity is, you know, could be, runs the risk of being sub-human or non-human, so why even engage with them? Why not oppress them?
Dr. Josef Sorett: We have about ten minutes left, and I want to try to synthesize a couple of questions into one that might allow each of you to offer some final remarks of about two minutes or so. Several questions in the audience want to make sure that we address how black churches are addressing the generation gap, hip hop, Civil Right, the kind of prominent media image of black youth as super predators. Where are black churches in this discourse?
And if I could open that up to the broader generational question, there’s been a larger discussion about mega churches, televangelism, prosperity gospel as somehow, at the same time as this generational shift, as evidence of the decline of a true black church tradition that we’ve all dismissed, but still refer to it as such. So if we frame that along the lines of this generational axis, what is the significance of new media and technologies in terms of this conversation about black youth, but in terms of the contemporary landscape of black churches, what role do new media and technologies –I know many of you write on the Internet, show up the television, on the radio, what have you– how does new media and technologies play the role in addressing the generational divide, if we agree that there is one?
Anthea Butler: I think there is one just because of the age of people in lots of congregations. I mean you just can’t get past the fact that there’s a gap, okay? So if we acknowledge that then the issue becomes, if are used to being on Facebook and Twitter, and you get your church gossip from somebody’s blog, and you can watch your favorite pastor on that, I don’t know, if it’s not Streaming the Word Network, it’s Day Star or Day Spring or whatever it is that streams it live, why do you even need to go somewhere?
This is a big question. And so what churches will have to face now is that it makes it a lot harder to get somebody in the pew that has access to all these things and using them in certain kinds of ways. It’s not that older people don’t use them, they just use them in different ways. So, I really do think this presents a very big issue, but the other issue that I sort of alluded that I think is a really interesting thing for me that I’m tracking is how many people are blogging about their church, or their denomination, or the particular following gospel following they have, and that creates a whole other kind of space.
And I don’t know if anybody has really started to look at this in terms of African American religion or African American churches, but I think it’s an important part of what’s happening right now because things move a lot faster than they used to. So the good and the bad is out there, living on the Internet in perpetuity, and so that makes it very interesting about what happens with churches, and what kinds of churches have life, and the ones that may not have life.
Obery Hendricks, Jr.: You know, I think one of the problems that we have with some mega churches, and I say some because I’ve spoken and taught at Trinity, and it’s a huge congregation, and it’s one of the most loving congregations I’ve experienced where people know each other. I don’t know how you’d know so many names, but it’s extraordinary.
Mega churches can have a sense of community in that you follow like the class cell setting like the AME Church is supposed to follow, where all congregations are broken down into groups of twelve with a class leader. It’s sort of a cell, and there’s always someone to look after you, to be in touch with, so a huge church can have a small church feel, and some of that is what goes on there. But one of the problems we have is that in too many churches, because they are so large, they have audiences rather than congregations.
Audience in the sense that they are performed to, and not really fed in the sense of the kind of spiritual nourishment that Eddie talked about earlier. And with regard to young people, it’s really problematic because– Kirk Franklin made a statement about ten years ago in WIRED Magazine. He said, “I am the holy dope dealer, and Jesus rock, or crack, is the drug I’m dealing. And it’ll give you a high like you’ve never had before.”
And the problem with that is when, if you attract young people to the church with that kind of performance orientation, and you say, they buy hip-hop, so we’re going to make it hop-hop. If you attract them with that, that’s what they’re coming to. They say, if we get them there, we’ll give them something different, but if people come there for that kind of performance, there almost usually given nothing else.
The question is, we can get them in there, but then again, what are we giving them when we get them in there? And what does that mean in the final run and then ultimately for our churches and for our society in terms of contribution we empower our young people to make through the churches?
Reverend Eboni Marshall: I would say that, in terms of the generational gap, first I want to say that there are young people in the church. There are, and yet we still see the generational gap. We still see this problem. And I would say two things. One, that there has to be a transformation of liturgy, of liturgical presentation. Now, does that mean that you go for hip-hop? To the hip-hop scholar? [laughter] I don’t think so. But there has to be a space for young people to feel as if they are welcome and that they belong.
In terms of media, yes, young people are very media driven, and engaged in the various social networks that are available to them. However, it’s shocking how many young people I come across who will admit that they come to church for community. They actually come so that they can touch and see, even amidst this e-driven society.
And so I think that speaks to this notion of having to have a place for them where they can come, see, and touch and feel that their being there matters, that they are welcome in that space. And too many churches really don’t welcome young people. And lastly, I would say that beyond the show, right, beyond the fast preaching, fasting talking, singing, and all of that, this notion that people are coming to touch, to see, to feel, there has to be a reevaluation of the ethic of care that goes into this, as far as pastoral ministry, right?
So we have the priestly, the serving communion, the baptism, the preaching. We have the prophetic, but what about the pastoral? And people need that, people need to know that they are seen, that someone cares, that someone is wondering about them when they are not there. And too often, the reality is, when they’re not there, “I’m glad they’re not here this Sunday.”
Reverend Otis Moss: I think that there’s always been a generation gap. There always has been generational conflict. The challenge for us today is that I think you have many churches– If I may use the analogy of Mary and Elizabeth, that Mary, when she was pregnant with Jesus, she went to be with a seasoned saint by the name of Elizabeth. And the challenge is that when you have a church that is only centered on Elizabeth or a church that is only ministering to Mary, you have a problem, you have a church that may have a lot of wisdom but no energy, or a church that has a lot of energy but no wisdom.
And what happens when we now come to a moment in our community when we no longer have Mary and Elizabeth churches? I think it’s a good thing, the emerging churches that are developing within our community, there’re a lot of churches that are nurturing that Mary generation. And they do a tremendous job nurturing the Mary generation. Alise Barrymore in Chicago, a tremendous pastor in Chicago Heights, a very distressed community, but an emerging church.
Phil Jackson, the House Church, on the West side of Chicago, very distressed community. But pretty much, you’re not going to find anybody over 32 in those churches, which means there is a gap in history and in theology that is problematic. There needs to be an Elizabeth, and there is a gap when you have a church that everybody is Elizabeth. So that becomes, I think, the fundamental challenge, but as a post-soul or postmodern church, I think that the pillars of hip-hop should be instituted within the church.
I think that you should use rap or orality, technology, that’s all that you’re talking about when you’re utilizing swiping and things of that nature and dance, and artistic aspects which we call graffiti. When you begin to utilize, it is a form of transformative liturgy, and that’s what we’re really talking about. And people are able to lead in those. Now with the technology, one of the things that happens at Trinity is, Dr. Hendricks has been there to speak, and every Sunday, we have two-thousand people who don’t attend church, but attend church virtually.
We have two-thousand people every single Sunday on top of everybody else. Some of them give, some of them complain, they do everything that regular church members do. And they’re part of the life, and we’ve created a network, and that network that has been created has been created by the 20-something ministry in our church, so they Tweet, they blog, they do the Facebook piece, creating conversations around specific issues.
And they mobilize. And so we also utilize it as a mobilizing tool because we’re recognizing that there is such a deep hunger. I want to add this: there is a break that’s happening in the young evangelical community where they are so tired of the personalized doctrines that are presented as, this is what it means to be Christian, and this is how you practice it in civic society.
They’re raising questions around poverty, around race, and around HIV, and they are now partnering with black churches, and they are now Dr. King as a model and Howard Thurman as a model, which is fascinating, that within twenty or so years, the traditional evangelical community that we think of will not exist anymore. It will be what they call Red Letter Christians.
And for those who may not be familiar with the term, it’s, “We’re Red Letter Christians. Jesus says the stuff in red, that’s what we believe.” [laughter] And they’re operating out of that context, that we’re Red Letter Christians. Shane Claiborne in Philadelphia is a pastor who operates out of that Red Letter edition, where he connects with the African American community and says that there is a hunger for us to be connected in a prophetic way because we have always been boxed in the personal and the private.
And we want to move out of that, and within the African American community, there is a hunger for how do I apply my living, my faith on a daily basis? I know how to shout. Show me how to serve. You know, I know how to praise, tell me how to protest. I want to be able to operate with the cross, and if all you can do is one or the other, you have a stick and not a cross.
And the challenge for this generation, I think, and for those who are nurturing is how do we build the kind of leadership development because we don’t like young people taking hold of the mantle. We don’t want them. We want mini-me’s. We want people that look just like us, speak like us, talk like us. They’re not going to do it that way.
And every movement, every organic development of anything in our community has always shown that when you fuse younger people, they will never operate the way you do. They will take the ethic of what is presented, but they will flip the script and go in a different way. And that becomes, I think, the fundamental challenge, if the church is able to nurture another generation using the pillars of hip-hop and let Mary and Elizabeth work together so that we have power and wisdom in our churches.
Eddie Glaude: It’s hard to follow that, and he’s been talking that way since we were at Moore House together, so it’s very hard to follow, and I agree with every word that has been said. I think we need to understand African American churches as dynamic institutional spaces. Those narratives that fix our conception of “the church” often times to more harm than good.
As we were talking about hip-hop, I was thinking about Tom Dorsey. I was thinking about when the drums came into the church. I was thinking about the kind of resistances when that blues corp made it’s way in. Folks said, “What was that?” And how the dynamism of worship enabled this extraordinary creativity that’s a part of a people who are trying to make sense of their living and do so in a joyous way, to become apart of their worship of God and of their affirmation of His grace extended to them.
If the church is dynamic, the way it changed under the context, as I said, of the Great Migration, the way it shifted in the context of this black freedom struggle of the 60’s and 70’s, how will it look in this moment? In this moment when so many young people suffer from Post-Traumatic Syndrome, when so many of them have seen somebody that they love get shot and killed right in front of them?
So many folk are walking around proclaiming their piety. So many folk are walking around saying how saved they are. And somebody right in front of them just needs a hug and an affirmation that they are the children of God, but you’re walking around showing your feathers. And I would like to say, by way of closing, that the intensity of my remarks has something to do with my own personal struggle, my own sense of God’s grace extended to me, my own acceptance of stepping into the expansiveness of His love, and my sense of the newly converted being kind of zealous.
And so I say this by way of conclusion, that what I’ve heard tonight, it’s relational, not doctrinal. That faith without love can lead to Pharisees. And what I would hope to do as I grow up in my own faith is to understand the power of the church and to take seriously Emerson’s response to those young pastors at Harvard Divinity School, to insist that they not let their faith, their love of God be atrophied by the noise and chatter of those who claim to know what God is.
Dr. Josef Sorett: I want to thank again our sponsors, the Institute for the Research of African American Studies; the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life; our host, Union. Thank you all for coming out this evening, for your wonderful questions, and let’s give our panelists a final round of applause.