By Alan Bean
Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton, set off a fire storm last year when he performed last rites over the black church. “The Black Church is dead,” Dr. Glaude announced. I didn’t notice it at the time, but Joel Gregory, the dean of Texas Baptist preachers, wrote a spirited rebuttal to Eddie Glaude for the Huffington Post.
In the course of a post-worship lunch this Sunday at Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church, Joel Gregory’s name came up. I learned that he was teaching a Sunday School class at Broadway a few years back but was forced to withdraw (the story went) when the congregation decided to publish pictures of gay couples in the church directory.
The repercussions of that decision were immediate. The congregational infighting became so intense that the Rev. Brett Younger (a fine preacher in his own right), was forced to submit his resignation. Broadway had already been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention and withdrew from the Baptist General Conference of Texas to spare everyone an ugly fire fight on the convention floor. Finally, I was told, Joel Gregory was asked to withdraw his membership at Broadway. He was teaching homiletics at Truett Theological Seminary on the campus of Baylor University at the time and pressure was applied in high places.
Dr. Gregory is full of surprises. I was surprised to learn that he had been a member at Broadway, one of the flagship “moderate” churches in Texas Baptist life. There was a time when Gregory was the fundamentalist camp’s most articulate frontman. I’m not sure his core theology has changed much over the years, but his spirit has softened considerably.
I was also surprised to learn that when divorce made Joel Gregory damaged goods in the eyes of white Baptists, he discovered a second life of preaching among black Baptists. Black and white Baptists rarely cross paths. Gregory says he has experienced the grace of God in a profound way in the black church; that’s why he thinks Professor Glaude is so badly mistaken.
Finally, I was surprised to learn that Joel Gregory considers himself a close friend of J. Alfred Smith. Dr. Smith, a dear friend of Friends of Justice, holds the same preacherly reputation among black Baptist preachers that Dr. Gregory enjoys in the white Baptist world. Smith is progressive, prophetic and politically radical; Gregory has long been identified with the religious, social and political conservatism for which the world of southern white evangelicalism is famous. What did the two men talk about?
I’m sure they are poles apart on the issue of gay rights.
And yet, somehow, the two men established an intimate friendship strong enough to transcend their differences.
Surprises signify that the kingdom of God, despite our best defensive efforts, is breaking down the door. Grace is truly amazing!
The Rev. Dr. Joel Gregory
The past decade has afforded me an opportunity rarely found in recent American church culture. For a complex of reasons I have become a white preacher in black churches. I have spoken before more than 200 African American congregations, conferences, and conventions in more than twenty states each year. From coast to coast and border to border, in urban centers and small towns, I have preached in America’s black churches. These include not only black Baptist congregations but African Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, and other historically black denominations.
From that experience, I am at a loss for an explanation of Dr. Glaude’s statement that the black church is dead. If it is, I do not know who signed the death certificate or notified the next of kin. In every way I can measure vitality, the black church is energetic, living, and flourishing.
As a professor of preaching, I know well that preaching itself thrives in the black church as in no other culture I have experienced. The moment of preaching in the black church is an electric moment. The people anticipate that God will speak through the sermon with a word for them, right in their current existence and in that very venue. The Bible in black preaching is not an ancient story but a personal reality of their human existence now. For instance, every Sunday Rev. Dr. Ralph D. West stands in front of more than 10,000 persons in five services in Houston at The Church Without Walls. He started the church in his home 22 years ago. Through Dr. West’s consistent, honest preaching, God has filled the church. In far too many white churches, the sermon is a pill to be swallowed; in the black church, preaching is a meal to relish.
The vitality of worship in the black church has not waned. Warmth, freedom, expressiveness, liberty of voice and movement, spontaneity and response all stamp black worship. It is in every sense alive. The community gathers every week in a celebration of the grace of God that carried them through the previous week and will see them through the week to come. The sense of hope is tangible in black churches.
Social justice concerns still mark the life of every black church I visit. It is a short distance from the church’s fellowship hall to city hall or state house. My friend of the decades, Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., has only to suggest that he has a concern in Oakland, California, and a thousand will people will march with him to the seats of power. When Dr Smith recently retired, the Republican governor of the state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, came to his retirement banquet, sat through the entire dinner, and lauded Dr. Smith as one of California’s greatest sources for good and justice.
Community service reigns in the black church with insistent vitality. Care for the latch-key kids, the elderly, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the forgotten is a daily practice for every black church I know. Black churches do not hire somebody else to do it. The lay folks do it, freely and with love.
A high regard for education marks the vital black church. In state after state I have watched pastors call students to the platform at the end of a Sunday morning service and recognize those who have made the A and B honor roll, in elementary school as well as in high school and college. The entire congregation celebrates every report card, every academic admission, and graduation and every credentialing. The intentional affirmation of academic achievement in the black church is a cornerstone of the community’s educational advancement.
Empowerment happens in the black church. My friend Rev. Joe Carter serves the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. That city has as many challenges as any. He takes the poorest from the streets, feeds them lunch, dries them out, sobers them up, counsels them vocationally, teaches them how to write a résumé, and reclaims them for society. New Hope is not alone among black congregations offering such earthy empowerment. Computer labs and church credit unions, job fairs and school fairs, job training and financial workshops for credit repair and budget planning — these are all happening in the black churches I visit.
Where is the obituary? I do not see it. I do not know any organization in America today that has the vitality of the black church. Lodges are dying, civic clubs are filled with octogenarians, volunteer organizations are languishing, and even the academy has to prove the worth of a degree. The government is divided, the schoolroom has become a war zone, mainline denominations are staggering, and evangelical megachurch juggernauts are showing signs of lagging. Above all of this entropy stands one institution that is more vital than ever: the praising, preaching, and empowering black church.