Altered Calls

Altered Calls

UrbanFaith contributing writer Jacqueline J. Holness’s first book grabbed our attention right away. Yes, in part because we’re proud of the personal and professional achievement of one of our own (her first book!), but even more because the title, After the Altar Call, is where many of us spend our daily lives as Christians. The joy, freedom, and zeal that we experience in that initial moment of salvation at the altar is gradually replaced by the boredom, temptation, and disappointment of everyday life, and we’re soon left wondering, “How do I get that fire back?” As a preacher’s kid who has spent her entire life in the church, Jacqueline knows that feeling well, and she set out to create a book that could help her and other women (heck, I’ll say men too) recapture and maintain their sense of hope, passion, and mission.

After the Altar Call:The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship with God includes first-person accounts of 24 women who share stories of inspiration as they recount what happened after their altar-call experiences. Interviews with a variety of women, including The View‘s Sherri Shepherd, A.M.E. trailblazer Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and author and life coach Valorie Burton, make the book a fresh and relevant how-to manual for Christian women who want a serious relationship with God. Jacqueline, who is also a correspondent for the Courthouse News Service in Atlanta, says After the Altar Call is the handbook she wishes she’d had after her own salvation experience.

What I like most about the book is that Jacqueline avoids trite formulas and goes after answers to real-life questions that will eventually wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. So, among other things, we read about women who have faced divorce, religious conflict, breast cancer, the loss of a family member in the war, and chronic illness. We spoke with Jacqueline about her book and the lessons she learned from writing it.

URBAN FAITH: The title of your book, After the Altar Call, suggests a sort of post-conversion emphasis. This is for people who’ve had that salvation experience and are in the “Now what?” stage. What led you to write about this?

JACQUELINE HOLNESS: The Christian life traditionally begins for many of us at an altar at the front of a church. After that, your life changes because you now live based on what God wants for you instead of what you want for you. I wrote this book because when I decided to follow Christ in my early 20s, I wanted to know what it was like “for real” to live as a Christian. My father had been a pastor, so I grew up as a “PK” [Preacher’s Kid], but I wanted to get beyond the “rules” I had been taught at home and at my home church. Also, I have always been a person with a certain joie de vi·vre for life. I wanted to be sure that wouldn’t end because I decided to be a Christian.

So you went on a quest.

As a budding journalist at the time, the only way I knew to get my questions answered was asking numerous black women whom I met along the way about what it was like to be a Christian. I asked about really personal stuff. I also looked for books in which women shared their testimonies. I kept hoping I would come across one book that contained life stories from diverse black women and their faith in God, but I did not. This book is the answer to my earnest search for “realness” at the time. I have interviewed women of varied walks and stations of life, from their 20s to their 80s. I looked for inquisitive women like myself who needed to “count the cost” before making that all-important decision to be a follower of Christ.

CHRONICLING WOMEN'S STORIES OF FAITH: Journalist and author Jacqueline J. Holness.

You spoke to a variety women who are either famous or accomplished in their particular fields. What was the most common recurring theme that you heard from each of them?

Regardless of age, socioeconomic background, or career path, it was obvious that each woman was intentional about having a personal relationship with God, and that was inspiring to me. I was inspired that someone like Sherri Shepherd, who has a nationwide if not worldwide platform on The View and a glamorous life, not only knows but acknowledges her utter dependence on the Lord. And it was the same with Betty Prophete of the Haitian Christian Mission. In Haiti, where voodoo is prevalent, she has been able to demonstrate to thousands if not more that knowing Jesus is more powerful than knowing voodoo.

Who surprised you the most with something she said?

The most surprising statement came from Melissa Summers, who was once a prominent radio personality in Atlanta. She was so popular, she was known as “Atlanta’s Girlfriend.” She decided to leave her radio position, in which she earned a six-figure salary not including endorsement deals, to become a missionary in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.  Today, she does not even have a regular salary and is truly dependent on the Lord to meet all of her needs. Not too many people, even Christians, would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

What does faith in God look like today for ambitious, successful women?

I think God deals with each one of us differently according to His purposes for our lives, and success for one person may not be success for another. For instance, Sherri Shepherd is probably the most famous woman that I interviewed, and her success and faith are very public. But for someone like Tracy King, who struggled with infertility, faith and success are defined differently. Tracy King’s success is found in being a wife and mother. And while she does not hide her faith, it does not look like Sherri’s faith. Both are equally ambitious, successful, and faithful women in God. Stephanie Bronner, who is married to the youngest of the Bronner Brothers [who created the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show] is a mother to seven children. She toyed with idea of working as she started to have children but realized that success for her meant being a full-time wife and mother. Obviously, being a mother to seven children is very ambitious and requires lots of faith.

What were some of the different views about the church that you found among your subjects?

I did not ask the women about any of the polarizing issues in the church, because I wanted as many women as possible to be drawn into the book rather than be put off by various opinions and debates. Also, I tried to include as many denominations as possible. However, a few topics came up that may be conversation starters. For instance, Cee Cee Michaela Floyd, a minister and actress probably best known for starring on Girlfriends, talked about courtship versus dating, and I know that many people have debated this topic. Fiction author Monica McKayhan has been divorced twice and is married again. I know some Christians don’t believe in divorce, so that may be controversial for some people.

The topic of love and relationships is, of course, the source of never-ending discussion, debate, and anxiety for women in general, but there are obviously unique challenges for black women. What new light does your book shed on the subject?

I did not get into the gloom-and-doom of the present day when it comes to marriage and black women. And in fact, of the two dozen women in the book only three are not married (and one of them is me!), so we are not all “man-less!” Instead of focusing on negative statistics, I interviewed them about how their faith came into play in their romantic relationships. Erica Mountain, who is in her 20s and was probably the youngest woman in the book, shares an incredible story of meeting the man who would become her husband when she was a teenager but not realizing it until years later when they were both engaged to other people. After Cee Cee Michaela Floyd became a Christian, she was celibate for close to 11 years before she got married. Lisa McClendon confessed that the views of a church she attended at the time persuaded her and her first husband to get married less than a year after knowing each other, when in fact they should have never married. She has an interesting perspective on the 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 passage that says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried …”

In speaking to these women for your interviews, what did you recognize as the greatest challenges facing them on their faith journeys?

I think it is difficult for all Christians to develop a personal relationship with a Being whom we can’t see. I think their greatest challenge was to learn how God speaks to each of them and how He directs them in their daily lives. I hoped to demystify some of that process in my book.

You write about your own experience of having grown up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, being a PK, yet you didn’t really begin to embrace the faith as your own until later. Can you talk about that?

I’m a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid, and a preacher’s niece, so faith is our family business so to speak. Like most people, I just wanted to fit in as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I actually do fit in because we all, to some extent, are the products of our family background. And as I’ve met more people, I realize that it was a blessing to be raised in a Christian household with clear rules. It has spared me a lot of drama, being the adventurer that I naturally am.

You spoke to a lot of successful, professional women? What about women who aren’t there yet — women who have experienced setbacks, made poor choices, or who just can’t seem to catch a break? What kind of encouragement does your book offer them?

Many of the women in my book have experienced setbacks or made poor choices, but through their relationship with God, they are being redeemed. Susie Doswell, executive director emeritus of the Annual Christian Women’s Retreat, talked about her history of teenage pregnancy and marrying abusive men and how she has been able to make better choices. Lola Uter, the oldest woman in my book, talked about hearing about the Lord as a teenager but not responding to what she heard and how that poor choice affected the rest of her life. These, as well as other stories, encourage women to acknowledge poor choices and make better ones in the future.

When readers are finished with your book, what do you hope they’ll do with the stories and information?

This quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, applies here: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” I hope my readers develop an inspiring and adventurous personal relationship with God that sustains and propels them from season to season in their lives. And I hope the book shows them that it’s entirely possible, regardless of their inevitable mistakes and missteps.

For more information about Jacqueline Holness and her book, visit her website: AftertheAltarCall.com.

A Note of Grace in Sugarhill Gang′s Sad, Angry Film

A Note of Grace in Sugarhill Gang′s Sad, Angry Film

Rappers Delight Backstage

Sugarhill Gang regoups as Rapper's Delight: Hen Dogg, Wonder Mike and Master Gee at the Garden State Film Festival. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller)

It’s been more than 30 years since a trio of young men from Englewood, New Jersey, recorded the first cross-over hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” After a drawn-out legal battle with their former record label, Sugar Hill Records, two members of the original Sugarhill Gang, Mike “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, have teamed up with Henry “Hen Dogg” Williams in a group named for the Sugarhill Gang’s one big hit. The band’s evolution and protracted legal fight is the subject of a new Roger Paradiso documentary called I Want My Name Back.

The original Sugarhill Gang from back in the day, crica 1979.

I saw the film and a brief Rapper’s Delight performance at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey, March 24. It’s a bitter film about how record label owners Sylvia Robinson, her husband Joe Robinson, and their sons allegedly defrauded the group members financially and then trademarked the name Sugarhill Gang and the stage names “Wonder Mike” and “Master Gee.” After Wright and O’Brien left the record label, the Robinson’s son Joe Jr. actually began performing as “Master Gee” with remaining original member Henry “Big Bank Hank” Franklin.

In the film, O’Brien says the Robinsons didn’t seem like crooks to him at first, in part because Sylvia Robinson was going to Bible studies when they met and “praising the Lord.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhStIg3Ft5s&w=560&h=315]

Williams, who was a former producer at the now defunct Sugar Hill Records, says, “Big Joe was a crook, but he was an honest crook.” He would tell artists “straight up” what he was going to take from them.

O’Brien says he descended into a “deep state of violent depression” and began using drugs after parting ways with the Robinsons over their alleged thievery. He sold magazines door-to-door and says that helped him emerge from the depths. Because his anger isn’t as raw as Wright’s in the film, I thought perhaps faith or a 12-step program had played a role in his recovery. I was wrong.

“I did it myself,” O’Brien told UrbanFaith. “I just walked away from it. It didn’t benefit me. It made me worse, and in the situation, there was enough bad going around so I didn’t want to add to the equation.”

“I believe in the power of positive thinking and self-improvement,” he said. “I trained my brain and I maintained a really positive attitude. I looked at every adversity as a seed to an equal and greater benefit. That just gave me the opportunity to become stronger than whatever it was.”

Hen Dogg signing Rappers Delight album

Rapper's Delight: The hit that made hip-hop mainstream. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller)

Wright struggled with diabetes and asthma after he left the band and the record label, but he also started a successful painting business, got married, had children, and later divorced. He returned to the Sugar Hill label from 1994 to 2005, but says in the film that those years were “the dumbest years of my life.”

Perhaps this explains why the vitriole Wright hurls at Joe Robinson Jr. and Jackson is so aggressive and bitter. He gave the label a second chance and felt like he got burned again. He calls his former bandmate “gutless” and “heartless” in the film for not leaving with him.

But in 2000, when Joe Robinson Sr. was on his deathbed, Wright went to visit him in the hospital. Amidst all the anger and accusations in the film, I was surprised to hear him say he went there to pray with Robinson. I asked him about this after the screening and concert. He said he was able to pray with the man who had done him so much harm because “He [Christ] loved us first before we loved Him, and because He said, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.’ He forgave the people. He said, ‘Father, forgive them because they know not what they do.’ How many times do we forgive somebody? Seven times? No. Seventy times seven. And it’s grace. Grace can’t be earned. It’s mercy. Mercy has to be shown in unruliness.”

Wright then recounted the story of God’s mercy in delivering the Israelites on the banks of the Red Sea and with manna and a pillar of fire despite their complaining.

He said it was the “prayer of salvation” that he prayed with Robinson.

“I was hoping that he made that move because what they did to us was absolutely terrible–it can’t be overlooked, but eternity is eternity. This is for a small season, and it was really wrong, but you have to overlook that when you’re feet are on the edge of going over to the other side. So, I had to throw all that out the window. And, it really wasn’t hard when it came down to that. When it comes down to crossing over, we’re all one heartbeat, we’re all one breath away from eternity,” he said.

Wright is a person of faith, he said, but he doesn’t want to “put walls” around himself or “any kind of bondage” because “there’s freedom in Christ.”

“I want my priorities to be changed,” he said.

Wonder Mike

A painful journey exposed: Mike "Wonder Mike" Wright expresses it all in film and song. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller)

It was perhaps a necessary qualification because forgiveness, mercy, and an eternal perspective don’t come through in this film at all. But when he was introducing the band’s song, “I Want My Name Back,” during the concert he said the song and the film were “cathartic” for him. Thirty years worth of frustration and anger spill out on screen. Even after Wright and O’Brien reunited, Joe Robinson Jr. allegedly tried to sabotage their careers.

O’Brien told me the film was cathartic for him too, but said he has never seen it in its entirety. “For me, it’s just a little eerie, so I kind of take it in bits and pieces,” he said.

The music Rapper’s Delight performed was “clean” and upbeat. As someone who is far from being a rap aficionado, I thought perhaps I was guilty of stereotyping a genre, but in an interview with NPR Wright said the group’s message “wasn’t too heavy” and that what he “wanted to portray was three guys having fun.” This, music historians say, is why “Rapper’s Delight” was a such a big hit.

“When we strike up [Rapper’s Delight], the audience goes crazy 100 percent of the time,” Wright recently told The New York Times. “That’s love,” he said. “That’s appreciation. I’ll never take it for granted.”

Why is it that we expect perfect consistency from people of faith? While I can’t imagine myself publicly expressing the kind of raw, intensely personal anger that Wright expresses in this film, I’ve certainly felt it and communicated it in private, and I’ve never had my public identity stolen. Who knows what I would say and do if someone did that to me?