Is Reformed theology for black people?

Video courtesy of Dedrick R. Briggs

A friend recently asked me, “Is Reformed theology for black people?” As president of the Reformed African American Network, I have frequently pondered this question, and it’s one that eludes an easy answer.

Reformed theology is part of the flood of teachings that tumbled forth from the Protestant Reformation. While all Protestant Christians trace their ecclesiastical lineage to the Reformation, Reformed theology represents a distinct branch of the church. Theologians and churchmen such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and Jonathan Edwards advanced the tradition, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God and a precise, scholarly brand of theology.

One issue black people have with Reformed theology is its Eurocentric roots. Reformed theology came to America by way of European countries, including France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands. White, educated men crafted the teachings, wrote the books and led the churches. They did not have black people in mind.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Reformed theology for black Christians is the fact that many Reformed believers condoned slavery or were even slaveholders themselves. All of their focus on meticulous exposition of the Bible didn’t lead them to conclude that people should not be property. Moving forward to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Reformed Christians, like many conservative white evangelicals, were either silent about the struggle for black civil rights or they outright opposed it.

Given the history of slavery and racism practiced by white Reformed Christians, black people are an unlikely group to identify as Reformed.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t resonate.

The rise of Christian hip-hop has played a role in a recent surge of interest in Reformed theology among African-Americans. With groups like Cross Movement paving the way in the 1990s, another wave of lyrical theology emerged in the 2000s. One of the most influential groups of this period was the label Reach Records, which featured artists such as Sho Baraka, Trip Lee and Tedashii. Along with other Christian rappers including Shai Linne, Flame and Voice, these artists were black, urban and unashamed of their faith.

Contemporary Reformed thinkers such as John Piper, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur influenced these Christian rappers. Quotes and sound bites even showed up in the songs. The music and the culture these artists embodied introduced many young black Christians to Reformed theology — without necessarily labeling it Reformed theology.

Other factors, too, have aided in the rise of self-professed Reformed black Christians. Greater access to seminaries that teach Reformed theology as well as church planting efforts in predominantly black, urban neighborhoods have broadened pathways into the tradition.

In the past few years, though, many black Christians have reconsidered the Reformed label. In many ways, the 2014 killing of Mike Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., served as a turning point. Younger black Christians became more vocal about systemic injustices such as mass incarceration and police brutality. They explored how their faith spoke to the persistent issues of inequality that harm black people.

These were themes that many white Reformed pastors and theologians seldom addressed. When they did talk about justice, it was most often focused on individuals, and not the collective, systemic nature and impact of racism over generations.

On top of that, the 2016 presidential election saw 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted throw their support toward the Republican candidate. While conservative white Christians usually vote Republican, black Christians expected Donald Trump’s racial rhetoric and support from white nationalists and white supremacist groups to at least dampen white evangelical enthusiasm for him. Instead, white evangelicals actually showed slightly stronger support for Trump in 2016 than for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

Black Christians realized anew how big the rift was between their core concerns and those of their white Reformed co-religionists.

Five hundred years after Martin Luther challenged Catholic clergy on key church teachings, the Reformation continues. This time the transformation needs to emphasize not only orthodoxy (“right belief”) but orthopraxy (“right action”) as well. Reformed theology prides itself on intellectual explorations of the faith. In the 21st century, though, it must also embrace an ethical approach to the Bible, especially regarding race and public justice.

As an African-American, I am learning to draw more intentionally on the expansive black church tradition to address these modern times.

The black church has always highlighted the demands of the Bible when it comes to public action. The Rev. Charles H. Pearce, who helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida in the 19th century, put it this way: “A man in this state cannot do his whole duty as a minister except if he but looks out for the political interests of his people.”

Religious beliefs motivated black women and men to pursue racial justice even at the risk of their lives. Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, John Perkins and a multitude of black Christians whose names will never appear in a history book saw the inseparable connection between Christian faith and righteous practice.

The modern-day Reformation must also bring to the forefront those groups that have been historically muted or silenced because of prejudice.

Black and brown people, among whom Christianity is growing exponentially in the majority of the world, must articulate the doctrines in a way that makes them relevant to present-day. Women, as half the population and equal as God’s image-bearers, must have a vocal and visible role in this movement. White Christians must follow and learn from those whom society has often marginalized. Today’s Reformation must be an inclusive one that makes room for both women and men, all economic classes and every tribe and tongue of those who believe.

Christianity is a worldwide religion that includes a diverse array of people. The challenge of the Reformation in America today is to reflect that heterogeneity while maintaining unity in the midst of it.

Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion and culture. He is co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast and a doctoral student in history at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.

Navigating Missional Work as the Lone Person of Color

Navigating Missional Work as the Lone Person of Color


Leroy Barber, Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh

In his book, Red, Yellow, Brown, Black, White—Who’s More Precious in God’s Sight: A Call for Diversity in Christian Missions and Ministry, Leroy Barber exposes the virtual absence of people of color in the mission field that threatens to compromise relationships with the people those organizations claim to serve. For more than twenty-five years Barber has led ministries serving the ones God loves: most recently as the Executive Director of Mission Year, a year-long urban ministry program focused on Christian service and discipleship, and now as the Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, an international organization that works among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. Barber, who is a trusted voice across a breadth of cultures, spoke with UrbanFaith contributor Margot Starbuck about his book, his ministry, and the challenges of sometimes being the only person of color in mission-based ministry.

What from your experience in ministry caused you to write this book?

I guess, on a personal level, I am tired of being the only person of color in many of my ministry circles: Christian colleges where I speak a lot and teach a lot, also, conferences, and a lot of evangelical circles where folks are doing missions, there are few people of color around.

Selfishly that might be some of the motivation for the book.

I was going to ask about the challenges that you see among your colleagues who are men and women of color leading missional ministries, but now I’m wondering: Are they there leading?

The answer is yes, they are there, but not in mass numbers. The ones in leadership experience what I have for the last twenty-five years. It can be an experience of feeling like you’re the only one and that you’re expected to speak for people of color, to represent the perspective of people of color or your race. I am finding now that a number of churches are hiring a person of color on their staff because they think they “should.” And that person of color finds himself pretty lonely and always kind of speaking on the issue of diversity and race alone.

Today and for the last several decades, there has been an appeal, to many white evangelical college students, about living and working in an urban context. What is the risk of an all-white staff working in a more diverse urban area? How does it impact the ministry?

You are going to have more resources given to the ministry when staff is part of the white community. No matter how young the population of whites is, they are going to have some resources that automatically puts them in a position of power in many places, especially in struggling communities that don’t have resources. They’re able to host a kid’s club or after school program or a dance or whatever. But people want that for their kids.

A black friend of mine in a predominantly white campus ministry doesn’t have the same kinds of natural access to donors who have a vision for campus ministry as some of her white counterparts. What is your experience as a person of color relating to donors and fundraising?

I would say there are two aspects to that.

For starters, you don’t have a network of people with the resources to help you feed your family and pay your bills. So it can be extra stressful for that person of color. You’re invited to come do the ministry but you’re worried about your family eating and the money that needs to come in. That’s an extra tax. The burden of fundraising affects the person in ministry with fewer resources: it impacts how they’re thinking creatively about the ministry and the people around them—because they’re constantly having to worry about their funding. It takes away from their work.

The second part of wanting for resources is that it, unfortunately, makes people doubt their call. Should I be here? Should I be doing this? Because they lack resources. Financial lack serves to deny people’s call.

Are you describing the person on the ground who is running the kid’s club or are you describing the person at the top of the organizing or both?

Both. I am describing lived reality. A lot of times my creativity is stifled as a leader because I’m concerned about financial burdens as a person of color. But it’s the person on the ground as well. I have gone months without paychecks and that is also a reality for a lot of people on the ground. They do it and do it for literally nothing.

Is it hard to recruit younger people of color to work in ministries where you have to do this kind of fundraising?

Yes. It is hard to recruit because of the fundraising. A lot of times these organizations and communities are not culturally friendly enough. It is hard to find funding and one of the reasons is because of not understanding the different cultures among people.

I assume you mean historically white organizations. You are saying the organizations aren’t culturally friendly?

Right, they are not understanding. I was a missionary for a very long time in a predominantly white-culture organization: in its worship, and in the books they were reading, and the language that was used, and things like that. A person of color has to decipher some of those cultural practices.

Do you see any movement toward people of color leading organizations that are already serving primarily people of color?

Yes. I think in the last several years there has been an acknowledgment that we need to be more diverse, especially racially, and people are interested in hiring culturally diverse leaders. I do see organizations taking steps to hire people of color, that’s a first step. The challenge then is adapting an organization culturally and changing a system of funding. Leaders of color can lead as leaders of color and not leading as persons of color who are trying to conform to white culture. I’ll explain.

I am a person of color. I come into leadership, but I am expected to lead it the way it is and not bring in my cultural perspective or understanding into the mix. That is a whole different conversation. We need to be asking what does it truly mean to have a multiethnic and multicultural organization.

So how do you help people in the institution get there?

That is the big question.

A first step is hiring and making sure you at least have a diverse staff, but achieving authentic multiculturalism within your organization means an openness on the part of your leaders to learn. Quite frankly, it is difficult for established leaders to consider changing when they see that the organization is currently “successful.” They ask, “Why would we change this for diversity’s sake? Why would we change just so that we can have other people in the mix? Things are going so well.” That is a real challenge for people to get their heads around. They think, “It is going (well) why would we attempt something that feels like it could threaten the success that we already have?”

And so what is the motivation to implement change?

You have to go back to what God has to say about it. The only reason people are willing to entertain change is when they become convinced that this is closer to the kingdom and closer to God’s heart.

Check out Barber’s book, now available:


African rhythms, ideas of sin and the Hammond organ: The evolution of gospel music

African rhythms, ideas of sin and the Hammond organ: The evolution of gospel music

Gospel Music History
A choir sings traditional gospel music.
Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller

The enslaved Africans who first arrived in the British colony of Virginia in 1619 after being forcefully removed from their natural environments left much behind, but their rhythms associated with music-making journeyed with them across the Atlantic.

Many of those Africans came from cultures where the mother tongue was a tonal language. That is, ideas were conveyed as much by the inflection of a word as by the word itself. Melody, as we typically think of it, took a secondary role and rhythm assumed major importance.

For the enslaved Africans, music – rhythm in particular – helped forge a common musical consciousness. In the understanding that organized sound could be an effective tool for communication, they created a world of sound and rhythm to chant, sing and shout about their conditions. Music was not a singular act, but permeated every aspect of daily life.

In time, versions of these rhythms were attached to work songs, field hollers and street cries, many of which were accompanied by dance. The creators of these forms drew from an African cultural inventory that favored communal participation and call and response singing wherein a leader presented a musical call that was answered by a group response.

A cornfield holler.

As my research confirms, eventually, the melding of African rhythmic ideas with Western musical ideas laid the foundation for a genre of African-American music, in particular spirituals and, later, gospel songs.

Spirituals: A journey

John Gibb St. Clair Drake, the noted black anthropologist, points out that during the years of slavery, Christianity in the U.S. introduced many contradictions that were contrary to the religious beliefs of Africans. For most Africans the concepts of sin, guilt and the afterlife, were new.

In Africa, when one sinned, it was a mere annoyance. Often, an animal sacrifice would allow for the sin to be forgiven. In the New Testament, however, Jesus dismissed sacrifice for the absolution of sin. The Christian tenet of sin guided personal behavior. This was primarily the case in northern white churches in the U.S. where the belief was that all people should be treated equally. In the South many believed that slavery was justified in the Bible.

This doctrine of sin, which called for equality, became central to the preaching of the Baptist and Methodist churches.

In 1787, reacting to racial slights at St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, two clergymen, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, followed by a number of blacks left and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The new church provided an important home for the spiritual, a body of songs created over two centuries by enslaved Africans. Richard Allen published a hymnal in 1801 entitled “A Collection of Spirituals, Songs and Hymns,” some of which he wrote himself.

His spirituals were infused with an African approach to music-making, including communal participation and a rhythmic approach to music-making with Christian hymns and doctrines. Stories found in the Old Testament were a source for their lyrics. They focused on heaven as the ultimate escape.

Spread of spirituals

After emancipation in 1863, as African-Americans moved throughout the United States, they carried – and modified – their cultural habits and ideas of religion and songs with them to northern regions.

Later chroniclers of spirituals, like George White, a professor of music at Fisk University, began to codify and share them with audiences who, until then, knew very little about them. On Oct. 6, 1871, White and the Fisk Jubilee Singers launched a fundraising tour for the university that marked the formal emergence of the African-American spiritual into the broader American culture and not restricted to African-American churches.

Their songs became a form of cultural preservation that reflected the changes in the religious and performance practices that would appear in gospel songs in the 1930s. For example, White modified the way the music was performed, using harmonies he constructed, for example, to make sure it would be accepted by those from whom he expected to raise money, primarily from whites who attended their performances.

As with spirituals, the gospel singers’ intimate relationship with God’s living presence remained at the core as reflected in titles like “I Had a Talk with Jesus,” “He’s Holding My Hand” and “He Has Never Left Me Alone.”

He Never Has Left Me Alone.

The rise of gospel

Gospel songs – while maintaining certain aspects of the spirituals such as hope and affirmation – also reflected and affirmed a personal relationship with Jesus, as the titles “The Lord Jesus Is My All and All,” “I’m Going to Bury Myself in Jesus’ Arms” and “It Will Be Alright” suggest.

The rise of gospel song was also tied to the second major African-American migration that occurred at turn of the 20th century, when many moved to northern urban areas. By the 1930s, the African-American community was experiencing changes in religious consciousness. New geographies, new realities and new expectations became the standard of both those with long-standing residence in the North and the recently arrived.

For the former, there was little desire to retain what some called “corn-shucking” songs, songs associated with plantation life. New arrivals, however still welcomed the jubilant fervor and emotionalism of camp meetings and revivals that included, among other things, the ring shout, a form of singing that in its original form included singing while moving in a counterclockwise circle often to a stick-beating rhythm.

The 1930’s were also the era of Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music. Dorsey began his campaign to make gospel acceptable in church after the tragic death of his wife and child. A former bluesman who performed under the name of Georgia Tom, Dorsey, after his tragic loss, rededicated his life to the church. His first gospel song published was “If You See My Savior.” He went on to publish 400 gospel songs, with the best known being “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Thomas A. Dorsey discusses his gospel song “Precious Lord.”

Dorsey was also one of the founders of the first gospel chorus in Chicago, and, with associates, chartered the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, the precursor to gospel groups in today’s black churches.

Gospel song and the Hammond organ

In the ‘30s black gospel churches in the North originally, began using the Hammond organ, which had been newly invented, in services. This trend quickly spread to St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia and beyond. The Hammond was introduced in 1935 as a cheaper version of the pipe organ. A musician could now play melodies and harmonies but had the added feature of using his feet to play the bass as well. This enhanced the players’ ability to control melody, harmony and rhythm through one source.

The Hammond became an indispensable companion to the sermon and the musical foundation of the shout and praise breaks. Solo pieces within the service imitated the rhythms of traditional hymns in blues-infused styles that created a musical sermon, a practice still common in gospel performances.

The ConversationGospel’s journey continues today producing musicians of extraordinary dedication who continue to carry the word.

Cory Henry, American jazz organist and pianist, gospel musician, and music producer, paying a tribute.

Robert Stephens, Professor of World Music, University of Connecticut

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Black female pilot makes history in Alabama National Guard

Black female pilot makes history in Alabama National Guard

2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman, the first black female pilot in the Alabama National Guard, stands at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala., June 21, 2018, after her graduation from the aviation school. (1st Lt. Jermaine Thurston/Army)

An Alabama woman has made history as the first black female pilot in the state National Guard’s history.

News outlets report that 2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman of Huntsville graduated from Fort Rucker’s Army Aviation School last month, following her 2016 graduation from Tuskegee University where she was enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Freeman’s aviator wings were pinned by retired Col. Christine Knighton, the second black woman in the Department of Defense to earn aviator wings and the first from Georgia. Freeman says Knighton has been an inspiration since college and “it was only right” to have her do the pinning.

Her assignment as a black female pilot was also applauded by Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon, the Alabama National Guard’s first female general and the first female to serve as adjutant general for the state.

“We take the ideals of equal opportunity very seriously and we’re extremely proud of 2nd Lt. Freeman’s achievements,” Gordon said in an Army news release. “She is further proof that we don’t see race or gender in the Alabama Guard, we see soldiers and airmen and their potential.”

Freeman is currently at Fort Hood in Texas, where she is preparing to deploy to the Middle East as a platoon leader in the Alabama National Guard’s 1-169th Aviation Battalion.

Video courtesy of WVTM 13 News

A Tale of Two Farmers

A Tale of Two Farmers

Courtesy of CNN

Few people have heard of Conetoe, North Carolina (pop. 287). Fewer know how to pronounce it correctly (kuh-NEE-tuh). In Conetoe, however, we can learn much from a pastor and congregation that decided to combine faith and farming to save bodies, minds, and souls. Rev. Richard Joyner, one of thirteen siblings born into a sharecropping family, experienced a moral epiphany when he officiated more than 30 funerals of congregants under 32 years of age in one year. So many of his members died needless, health-related deaths. Joyner lamented, “It just started to feel unconscionable that you would see someone 100 pounds overweight on Sunday and not say anything about it. Then they’d die of a heart attack.” No longer could he ignore the plight of his church members dying because of poor health choices and poor health options.

Conetoe is situated in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Edgecombe has the highest rate of diabetes of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Conetoe was a food desert. Fresh, affordable produce was hard to come by. Church and community members suffered from high unemployment, obesity, low education, poverty and poor health. Joyner knew that farming could help the people’s health by providing physical exercise and fresh, affordable produce. Joyner had the agricultural know-how, but memories from his sharecropping past stood as a mental barrier he had to overcome.

Farming reminded him of working to benefit the man—farm owners who routinely underpaid and mistreated their workers. Farming reminded him of an endless cycle of poverty, with no personal benefit. Nevertheless, the dismal condition of his members convinced Joyner to overcome his personal concerns. Joyner chose to extend his ministry beyond the pulpit in 2005 by starting the Community Garden and Family Life Center, a summer program to grow nutritious food and get children physically active.

More than ten years later, the two-acre garden has grown to fifteen farm plots around Edgecombe County. Youth work the fields. Elders mentor the youth in farming and academics. The produce from the farm generates income used for school supplies and scholarships to further the youths’ education. Faith and farming are transforming this rural South Carolina community.

Courtesy of Own

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a lay person named Will Allen was showing young people how to do urban farming. Allen, also the son of a sharecropper, returned to farming after a successful career in professional basketball and corporate sales and marketing. While living in Belgium, Allen learned intensive farming methods used to increase yields on small plots. Years later, Allen applied that knowledge to create Growing Power, Inc., a non-profit center for urban agriculture training and building community food security systems.

Before creating Growing Power, Inc., Allen was content to simply farm his three-acre plot located on Milwaukee’s north side and provide nutritious food for people living nearby. Things changed, however, when young people in the neighborhood began asking him questions. They sought his advice on growing produce in their gardens. The youths’ eagerness to learn inspired Allen to mentor them. Eventually, Allen created Youth Corps, a year-round youth development program that teaches community food system development and maintenance.

Through his innovative methods of using composting, vermicomposting (using worms to fertilize compost), and aquaponics (growing fish and food plants in a closed system), Allen’s urban farming organization provides intergenerational education, nutrition, and fellowship particularly for low-income and immigrant peoples in the United States and various countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Haiti. His three-acre urban farm alone, located six blocks from Milwaukee’s largest public housing complex, feeds 10,000 people.

In an interview, Allen remarked, “I feel that farming is my calling. I think I was meant to do this. To be a farmer you have to have tremendous faith and trust that something good is going to come.”

Joyner and Allen represent a groundswell of clergy and laypersons who are rediscovering the importance of responding to one’s call to work. Work as a calling compels us to discern how our work is our Christian vocation. Faith and work, the two should be mutual partners. Faith should inform work; work should be an extension of faith. Our expression of Christianity should be seen in all we say and do; yet, how often in church do we talk about faith and work? This essay was taken from our 2016 Adult Vacation Bible School, Getting Work Right. Do you need a job? Are you dissatisfied with a job? Do you know how your job fits into God’s eternal plan and purpose? Take our free career self-inventory at to start the journey toward getting work right!

“Fresh, affordable produce 
was hard to come by”