More than a dozen years ago I was a finalist for a reporting job at a small newspaper. All I needed to do was survive an interview with the top editor. The other editors warned me, saying their boss took perverse pleasure from smashing the hopes of naive reporters. I braced myself as he studied my resume. His lips curled into a sneer.
To be fair, my job history was a tad unusual. I had spent five years in full-time ministry, including three as an evangelical Christian missionary in Kenya. Then there was my master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. There didn’t seem to be a lot of churchgoing, Bible-believing, born-again Christians like me working at daily papers.
The editor scowled and said, “So what makes you think that a Christian can be a good journalist?”
He emphasized “Christian” as if it were some kind of slur.
I liked that he spoke his mind, but I was taken aback. I explained what I saw as a natural progression from the ministry to muckraking, pointing out that both are valid ways of serving a higher cause. The Bible endorses telling the truth, without bias. So does journalism. The Bible commands honesty and integrity. In journalism, your reputation is your main calling card with sources and readers.
Obviously, many people have succeeded as reporters without strong religious beliefs. But I told him my faith had made me a better, more determined journalist. He replied with a noncommittal grunt. But I got the job.
My response to that editor is more relevant than ever today. It has become popular for some conservative leaders to argue that people like me don’t exist in America’s newsrooms or that journalism is immoral. Just the other day, a Washington State lawmaker called journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people,” according to The Seattle Times. President Donald Trump seems to take delight in taunting reporters and has referred to members of the media as “lying, disgusting people.”
It’s estimated that about a third of Americans attend a regular church service. From my experience, most newsrooms don’t come close to that. But in 17 years, I’ve never had a colleague suggest that my religious beliefs kept me from hard-nosed reporting. In fact, my convictions give me a foundation to be demanding.
After a few years, I moved on to the Las Vegas Sun. Yes, it occurred to me that God must have a sense of humor, if not irony, if his plan for me involved Sin City. I became a health care reporter and began gathering statistics that showed the local hospitals were not as safe as advertised. The articles we published led to new state laws that favored patients and jolted powerful institutions in Las Vegas.
Journalists, particularly those who do investigative reporting, tend to annoy people in powerful positions. Some people might think that Christians are supposed to be soft and acquiescent rather than muckrakers who hold the powerful to account. But what I do as an investigative reporter is consistent with what the Bible teaches.
The mission statement of ProPublica, my employer, says we want to use the “moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform.” If you go through my work, you may sense a bit of “moral force.”
The Bible teaches that people are made in the image of God and that each human life holds incredible value. So when I learned that medical mistakes are one of the leading causes of death in America, I called attention to the problem.
The Apostle Paul points out that God comforts us so that we can be a comfort to others. So since 2012 I’ve moderated the ProPublica Patient Safety Facebook group, so people who have been harmed by medical care have a place to turn.
Proverbs talks about how hearing only one side of a story can be misleading: “The first to speak in court sounds right — until the cross-examination begins.” At ProPublica and many other journalism outlets, reporters go to great lengths to get all sides of every story.
Another basic tenet of fairness is refusing to accept any gifts, of any amount. Our readers need to trust that our work is untainted by any reward. “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent,” Deuteronomy says.
Most journalists admit their mistakes and run corrections. This is consistent with biblical teaching about humility.
God didn’t direct the writers of the Bible to avoid controversy. I love how Luke describes his mission in the first few verses of his Gospel: “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” he wrote, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
Luke’s goal was to tell the truth about Jesus, which upset many people. Luke didn’t airbrush the early Christians. He named names. Luke told the story of Judas betraying Jesus. He exposed Peter denying Jesus three times. He verified the facts and then told the truth. If it was good enough for Luke, it’s good enough for me.
The biblical mandate is to tell the truth. But some conservative Christians don’t seem to understand that. I started out in the Christian media and had run-ins with editors because of my interest in reporting about Christian leaders, even if it made them look bad. Administrators recently censored student journalists at Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution, for, in their view, making the school look bad. But God calls us to publish the truth, not propaganda.
The biblical prophets were the moral conscience of God’s people. Today, in a nonreligious sense, journalists are the moral conscience of the wider culture. We live in a fallen world, so there’s no shortage of material.
It takes some sinners a while to repent, and some never do. That means the influential people we expose might criticize us or call us names. They might even think we’re godless. But journalists are called to keep digging until we find the truth — and then proclaim it.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The Rev. Alvin Herring speaks during a demonstration calling for increased funding for public schools, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
For the Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of the congregation-based organizing network Faith in Action, wearing a clerical collar is about more than appearances. It prepares him for the task of making social change.
“I consider this my uniform,” Herring said, gesturing toward his white-collar as he addressed the crowd at the Vote Common Good summit in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month. “When I’m ready to go to work or go to war, I put this on.”
Specifically, Herring, a pastor from California, says he and his organization are gearing up for work and war — metaphorically speaking — ahead of the 2020 election. Through partnerships with groups such as VCG and a series of organizing initiatives, Herring and Faith in Action — one of the largest faith-based liberal-leaning groups in the country — are hoping to prove that people of faith can make an impact come Election Day.
Or, as Herring later told Religion News Service: “The progressive community has to get it straight: Faith matters.”
Faith in Action, previously known as PICO National Network, is hardly new to the art of national organizing. The multifaith, multiracial group boasts 45 member organizations spread across 200 cities and towns in 25 states. Each organization claims the membership of multiple worship communities of various sizes dedicated to advocating for certain policies and legislation.
The group tries to avoid political labels, but Herring acknowledged in an interview with RNS that the positions his group advocates for often lean away from the current Republican Party.
“Our everyday work is about fighting for immigrant justice,” he said. “Our everyday work is about returning to citizens the right to vote and the right of personhood. … Our everyday work is with young people who are saddled under the significant and heavy weight of education debt and a lack of economic mobility.”
Faith in Action has mustered robust campaigns in the past. Recent efforts include rallying faith groups behind prison reform in California and equitable funding for public education in Pennsylvania. They often tie their campaigns to bigger elections: According to Herring, Faith in Action teams contacted roughly 800,000 voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
But this year they’re hoping to ramp up efforts to maximize their impact. For example, Faith in Action is now pushing to have 1 million conversations with voters before November.
The group has also forged partnerships with national-level organizations that Herring described as being part of an “ecosystem” of change. This includes the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — where Herring previously worked as the director for racial equity and community engagement — which in turn partners with the NAACP, Urban League, UnidosUS, National Congress of American Indians, Demos, Advancement Project, Race Forward and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum.
A Faith in Action spokesperson described the partnership as designed to “promote racial equity, advance racial healing and ensure that all children, families and communities have genuine opportunities to reach their full potential.”
Faith in Action also has a separate relationship with VCG, a new group led by progressive evangelical Christians that helps train Democratic candidates to engage with faith and offers outreach to liberal-leaning religious voters. The two organizations have entered into a formal memorandum of understanding, allowing VCG to benefit from Faith in Action’s network of worship communities.
VCG executive director Doug Pagitt told the crowd in Des Moines that Faith in Action will bolster his organization’s ongoing bus tour across the country.
“Oftentimes, when we go into a state or a city, we will tie into that (Faith in Action) network,” Pagitt said. “It’s a great gift.”
But Herring argued the real goal is to effect local politics. Instead of focusing solely on the presidential election, he said, Faith in Action plans to target sheriff’s races across the country — particularly in the South — because the position is “one of the most powerful” when it comes to impacting the lives of marginalized communities. They hope their member communities will push for candidates who will institute more liberal approaches to policing, incarceration and gun violence.
Faith in Action is also launching a “Setting the Captives Free” initiative — a reference to the Book of Exodus — that strives to push back against policies such as voter ID laws that Herring argued disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.
Organizers plan to discuss these and other issues at Faith in Action’s National Faith Forum Feb. 12-14. According to the event flier, leaders will gather in Las Vegas to discuss strategy, unveil a “People’s Platform” and dialogue with 2020 candidates and their policy staffs.
It’s unclear how well Faith in Action’s approach will work. Despite its size, the group’s hyperlocalized structure can make progress difficult to track, and Herring did not offer many specifics as to how the campaigns will be implemented at the local level.
But he said he is confident the efforts will have some impact on the lives of everyday Americans, a shift he hopes will send a message to more secular-minded liberals.
“I would say one other thing to the progressive community: It will have to come off the fence,” he told RNS. “It can’t have a deep aversion for faith on the right and a lack of commitment for faith in other places. It’s not enough to decry those who stand with an administration that is literally trying to suck the lives out of everyday working people, and yet say nothing about those hardworking men and women of faith who are every day in the streets, every day in the soup kitchens, every day in clothes pantries, every day in the voting booth — voting their faith principles and their faith guidelines.”
Some years ago, as he was concluding his sermon, my pastor asked us in the audience to take that Sunday’s message out into the world and “do life together.”
My pastor’s call was a reminder that we do not walk this human journey in isolation. We do so as members of communities created around our faiths, our hometowns, our families — and our schools.
The most powerful of those communities are created through daily actions that show care and develop connection. Not all blood relatives are family, and not all students and educators are, either, though it’s something I hear teachers say all the time.
It seems to me that whether teachers and students are family depends on the extent to which they’re “doing life together.”
I’ve thought a lot about this as a former teacher in Camden City. When I was teaching there, my students saw me in Camden City. I got my hair cut in Camden, I went to church in Camden, I ate at restaurants in Camden, and I worked with high school students in Camden during the summers. It didn’t hurt that I was from Camden, too. A student may have seen me at the barbershop in East Camden or pulling up at my grandmother’s house in Whitman Park.
While it’s true that my students saw other teachers at the mall or the movie theater, those spots are in the suburbs. It’s not the same as being on the home turf of your students.
That’s not to say that strong bonds between educators and students don’t happen within the walls of a school. Nor do strong bonds develop just because a student sees a teacher patronizing an eatery or attending a church service in the municipality where they live. I am not naïve.
But deeper connections happen between educators and students when they do life together. For teachers who teach Black and Latinx students in low-income communities, doing life together means making a connection with the community where you teach students. Doing life together means more than just going to work to teach Black and Latinx children.
This kind of connection is often misunderstood. Early in my teaching career, some teachers sought my advice on how to strengthen their relationships with students. Others were clearly jealous of my relationships with students. I got the sense that they thought my relationships were stronger than theirs because I am Black, and they are not.
What they didn’t understand was my Blackness didn’t earn me blind loyalty from Black students. My Black skin at the front of a classroom may have elicited good feelings from students on the first day of school, but those feelings would have dissipated if I could not teach, if I was unfamiliar with my content, and if I did not treat students with respect.
I could teach. I was familiar with my content. I treated students with respect. And I also was doing life with them, in Camden. That’s something any teacher can do.
What that looks like is home visits to share good news about students. It looks like attending a city council meeting to advocate on behalf of your students on an issue affecting them and their families. It is also supporting Black- and Latinx-owned restaurants, bookstores, pharmacies, bakeries, and corner bodegas. It’s volunteering in the community where you work. It’s bringing your family to the community you work to see fireworks on the Fourth of July or to watch the lighting of the municipal Christmas tree.
Doing life together isn’t meant to be taxing on the mind, body, and spirit. But it does sometimes require you to step outside your comfort zone and become vulnerable.
For White teachers who work with students from cities like Camden, it requires that you sometimes choose to become a minority in a world where a similar experience is all too familiar to your students and their families. That experience is a lesson in and of itself. And that’s what doing life is all about — learning to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.
Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.
James Forman, chief spokesman for the Black Manifesto, inspects a bulletin board in New York’s Interchurch Center after he and supporting members of the National Black Economic Development Conference seized three floors of offices in 1969. The NBEDC sought $500 million in reparations from the white religious community. RNS file photo
On a Sunday morning in May of 1969, as clergy processed into the sanctuary of New York’s august Riverside Church, civil rights activist James Forman vaulted into the pulpit to demand $500 million in reparations for the mistreatment of African Americans from white churches and synagogues.
At the time, Forman’s interruption represented the high point for the reparations movement. A week before, Forman had debuted a radical proposal for racial justice known as “the Black Manifesto” for 500 black activists gathered in Detroit for the National Black Economic Development Conference.
“(W)e know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth,” the manifesto stated, “and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people.”
The conference determined, by a 187-63 vote, that it was time for white Christians and Jews to pay reparations and demonstrate a willingness to fight “the white supremacy and racism which has forced us as black people to make these demands.”
Riverside, then a mostly white liberal Protestant congregation whose neo-Gothic landmark building was financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., would be deeply divided over the next few years over Forman’s challenge. As the activist brought his manifesto to other congregations and denominations, Riverside established a lecture series and a “Fund for Social Justice” that aimed to raise $450,000 over three years to help the poor in the local community. It fell short of the goal by almost $100,000.
Members of the congregation file out after Sunday morning worship services at Riverside Church in New York on July 20, 2014. The building is modeled after the 13th-century cathedral in Chartres, France. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
The Black Manifesto’s demands never caught fire in the broader U.S. religious community. The Rev. Gayraud Wilmore, a black Presbyterian leader in New York City in 1969, recalled 50 years later how religious institutions responded.
“I saw them withering and unable to step forward and say ‘Let’s be the church,’” said Wilmore, now 98. “I saw no bold action taken on our side to go along with the bold action Forman was taking.”
Earlier in December, Reform Jews, declaring that “racial inequity is present in virtually every aspect of American life,” voted overwhelmingly to support a U.S. commission to develop proposals for reparations and urged conversations in their congregations to redress systemic racism.
In recent months, Virginia Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and Georgetown University have all announced plans to fund initiatives that would benefit the descendants of slaves, while Episcopal dioceses in New York and Long Island made million- and half-million-dollar commitments as reparations committees continued their work.
In May, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted to study reparations and urge congregations to “examine how their endowed wealth is tied to the institution of slavery.”
Maryland Episcopal Bishop Eugene Sutton testifies before the U.S. Congress about reparaions in June 2019. Video screengrab via C-SPAN
Maryland’s African American bishop, Eugene Taylor Sutton, said tears came to his eyes when the measure passed at the diocese’s general convention with no dissenting votes, and he realized that the assembled delegates, representing a membership that is 90% white, “got it.”
“They get this thing called justice, and when you put it in a frame that there is a basic injustice in this nation of stealing from generations of people and that has a direct effect on today, then people,” Sutton said, “they say, ‘OK, we got to get that fixed.’”
Sutton, who testified before Congress in June with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to advocate for the idea of a U.S. reparations commission, emphasized that reparations can come in many forms. Starting next month, members of his diocese will begin to consider options such as providing better access for people of color to home buying, job training and faculty positions at seminaries.
It has taken some American religious institutions 50 years to get their heads around reparations. When Forman hijacked that Sunday morning service, two-thirds of Riverside worshippers, including the minister, stormed out in protest. After activists occupied offices in the Interchurch Center of New York, a court-issued restraining orders to bar Forman from the building. In Missouri, manifesto supporters in St. Louis carried out a series of “Black Sunday” protests, interrupting local services, which led to confrontations with white church members and arrests.
Activist James Forman walks in New York’s Riverside Church on May 11, 1969. Forman returned to the church after interrupting a service there earlier that month to deliver the Black Manifesto. (AP Photo)
The manifesto was quite specific in its demands. Black activists would control the distribution of reparations. The $500 million (soon increased to $3 billion) would be spent on programs designed to ensure black self-determination. These included establishing a Southern land bank, publishing industries, television networks, job training centers, labor unions and a black university.
The manifesto’s rhetoric was just as controversial. Written by Forman, a former member of the civil rights group known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the preamble framed reparations in Marxist terms. “Time is short,” Forman wrote. “(N)o oppressed people ever gained their liberation until they were ready to fight, to use whatever means necessary, including the use of force and power of the gun to bring down the colonizer.”
Prominent black and white religious leaders diverged on how to interpret Forman’s call for revolution. The Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, who succeeded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, compared Forman to biblical prophets who spoke truth to power. Writing in The Christian Century, he asked, “Was there not even a physical resemblance between Amos, the dusty-road-weary prophet in his desert garb, and Jim Forman in his dashiki?”
The response from some white denominations was outright rejection. The Southern Baptist Convention dismissed the manifesto as “outrageous.” The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York called it un-American and touted its own programs for the “needy and disadvantaged” instead.
The American Jewish Committee, which as part of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization had helped organize the National Black Economic Development Conference, withdrew from the IFCO. Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, IFCO’s first president, resigned, stating he could not “in conscience stand by in silence and appear … to give assent to the revolutionary ideology and racist rhetoric of the Black Manifesto.”
Other denominations were more ambivalent. The Reformed Church in America invited Forman to address its general synod after he occupied the denomination’s headquarters a month after his action at Riverside. The Rev. Rand Peabody, a 22-year-old white seminarian who had already been slated to give the sermon the next day, revised his sermon after hearing news of Forman’s “liberation” of the RCA’s offices.
The Rev. Rand Peabody. Courtesy photo
“I remember I said it’s not a time for us to feel either blamed or shamed and certainly not a time to feel futile,” Peabody, now 73, said in an interview. “Our denomination, in his eye, did indeed have the power to play a part and we should accept that as almost a commissioning of the denomination to indeed step up to the plate and get involved in more focused and proactive ways.”
Like other denominations, the RCA didn’t accede to Forman’s demand that reparations be handed over freely. Instead the synod voted to create a $100,000 fund “to be disbursed according to the decisions” of a newly formed Black Council. The council then rejected the money.
“We just basically wanted to be at the table where decisions are being made and not considered an auxiliary or an offshoot or a secondhand portion of the denomination,” said the Rev. Dwayne Jackson, a Hackensack, New Jersey, pastor, who was a panelist at an RCA event commemorating the manifesto in October titled “Unfinished Business.”
Jackson, who knew some members of the council from his childhood church in the Bronx, said the staffer hired to oversee the council was the church’s first black executive. (Today, people of color comprise a third of the RCA’s executive leadership team.)
Other denominations acknowledged the grievances raised by the manifesto but rejected the solutions it proposed and even the language of “reparations.” Instead they created or continued programs aimed at helping poor blacks and others. The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Fund for Disadvantaged Americans of Minority Groups and the Episcopal Church’s General Convention Special Program were all created around the time of Forman’s action.
Dominique DuBois Gilliard, the current director of the ECC’s “racial righteousness and reconciliation” ministry, recently reflected on how this kind of response “enacted a very problematic erasure of the black freedom struggle.”
Met with the manifesto’s demands, “the Covenant found it more palatable to shift the conversation to marginalization in general,” Gilliard writes in the May/August edition of its Covenant Quarterly, which focused on the 50th anniversary of the manifesto. “This response has strong parallels to proclamations that ‘All Lives Matter’ in response to the declaration ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
There has been a shift in recent years, however, which Gilliard has helped encourage. The ECC Resolution on Racism, passed in June, insists that “the time is right for white clergy to attend to the sins of our own community and make a public commitment to prioritize antiracism work within our ministerium.”
Activist James Forman speaks in Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. Photo by Glen Pearcy/Library of Congress/Creative Commons
Nell Gibson, a member and former chair of the Episcopal Diocese of New York’s Reparations Committee, recalled that in the wake of Forman’s declaration — which resulted in the Episcopal Church’s $200,000 donation to the National Committee of Black Churchmen — members of her Manhattan church created a Black and Brown Caucus. After receiving the $30,000 they demanded from their St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, they developed a free breakfast program for children, a summer “liberation school” that taught minority children their ancestors’ history and a prison law library.
Fifty years on, reparations are often framed as spiritual tests as much as financial ones. This year was named the “Year of Apology” for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and each Sunday Gibson’s congregation has said a prayer that includes this sentence: “For the many ways — social, economic and political — that white supremacy has accrued benefits to some of us at the expense of others, we repent.”
Soon, the diocesan reparations committee will consider a number of possible next steps, such as a truth and reconciliation commission or education and health care initiatives.
Likewise, Sutton said his Maryland Episcopal diocese is moving methodically after years of conversation about reparations to figuring out how that will be lived out financially and otherwise.
“We don’t have all the solutions, we don’t know everything that’s going to fix the problem and so we’re going to be humble in even what we think we can accomplish,” he said. “But, by God, we’re going to do something.”
John Perkins, left, speaks at the Mosaix conference on Nov. 7, 2019, in Keller, Texas. Mark DeMyaz, president of Mosaix Global Network, stands behind Perkins on stage. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Editor’s Note: The speaker uses a racial epithet in his first answer.
KELLER, Texas (RNS) — When longtime reconciliation advocate John Perkins took the stage at a conference of multiethnic church leaders, they gave him a standing ovation and kept standing as he counseled them.
“You will find me in the so-called white church; you will find me in the so-called black church. But I’m there to be redemptive,” he told them. “It’s intentional, being a reconciler.”
At almost 90, Perkins, a civil rights activist, advocate for the poor, and worker for inclusivity in evangelical churches, told hundreds of people attending the Mosaix conference in early November that he’s “almost finished” with his work but there is more ahead for them.
“I want to be encouraging to this generation: This generation, don’t give up, don’t give up,” he urged. “Let’s love one another.”
In an interview the day before his brief address to the conference, Perkins said he’s planning the final book in a trilogy that will be the “centerpieces of my theology.” The first, “One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love,” has been followed by the second, “He Calls Me Friend: The Healing Power of Friendship in a Lonely World.”
He talked to Religion News Service about the importance of friendship, overcoming hate with love and his hopes about heaven.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are a veteran in the realm of race relations in church and society. What concerns you most about the current state of those relations?
Integration and racial reconciliation is that space between when the first black moves in and the last white moves out. Now the whites are moving back and the blacks say, “We don’t want you in here with us and we want to stay like we were. Y’all taking our land.” We haven’t decided about getting together and loving each other. The church hasn’t made that decision.I don’t think we’re developing authentic friendship. Our discipleship is not going there. I think our racial reconciliation continues to antagonize each other. I don’t meet many white folk who want to be a racist and we’re calling them a racist. I don’t think that’s affirming their dignity. I don’t think that’s receiving ’em. I don’t meet many black folk who want to be called a n—– again. That’s not affirming our dignity. So we haven’t found a language of accepting each other. We don’t have the language for the conversation. Even if we have the conversation, our language itself is already bad.
In speaking to people attending Mosaix, a multiethnic church conference filled with people who are from the generations that follow yours, what advice do you have for clergy seeking to create or maintain churches that are inclusive of a variety of ethnic and racial groups?
We’re trying to be a prototype. We’re trying to find the model that can reflect that dignity within humanity. We don’t quite have it, and if we have it, we haven’t found the peace that surpasses all understanding. We haven’t found that peace. We’ve still got too much hate in there. Hate is still winning and hate is of the devil and love is of God. So we got to find that language of love. We’re trying to be intentional. We want that to happen. We ain’t there.
Your mother died in poverty when you were still an infant —
When I was 7 months old —
— your brother was killed by a police officer, and you were jailed and beaten as you fought for civil rights. How did you move from what could have been a life of anger and hate to one that has focused so much on faith and love?
I didn’t find that liberation until I came to know Jesus Christ, until I realized that Christ had died for me and that God loved the little children, all the children of the world — red, brown and yellow, black and white — they’re all precious in his sight. I knew that before I was beaten in a jail but when I was beaten in the jail, I think something happened out of that beating that gave me determination to do this. I think after coming out of that jail, I found authentic love from blacks. I found authentic love from whites. I think blacks thought I wasn’t just a do-gooder, a token black, that I wanted to live for them. I think white folk came and washed my wounds. I think real reconciliation is washing each other’s wounds.
In your new book, “He Calls Me friend,” you say that friendship can help people overcome what you call “the sin sickness of ethnic hatred and prejudice.” Can you briefly explain what you mean by that?
I mean that friendship is the outliving of the good Samaritan story that said, you can get into the kingdom if you can be like that good Samaritan. That’s an oxymoron. That’s a complete change of behavior. Those Jews — and they were the religious Jews — they left that Jew there. This mixed-bred guy, this guy who saw beyond racism and color, he saw there was a human being and he affirmed, he invested in him and he invested in his future and he said, I’ll invest some more if I come back. He became a friend, and Jesus said, go and do likewise.
He called us to be friends. I’m changing my name. I’m telling you all to call me friend. My name is friend.
You and your wife of almost 70 years founded what is now called the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1983. What was the goal?
The goal was to create (Christian Community Development Association) and to plant within it the biblical mandate. I would come every time we would meet in the morning and anchor people in the Word of God. This is our guidebook. This is our blueprint. And where I would take them would be into the incarnation, looking at the first purpose for which God came: They shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sin. They got a housing problem but they need to be saved too. Do you wait ’til they get saved to do that? No. If they’re poor, if they’re hungry, feed ’em. If they’re naked, clothe them. If they don’t have shelter, bring them to your house. You don’t wait until they’re saved to do that. Doing that might show somebody else our good work and (they may) say I want to be a part of that group.
You are turning 90 next year. It doesn’t appear, though, that you’ve really retired. What are your goals at this stage?
To finish my manifesto and I want to write one more book. I want to put these three together: “One Blood,” “He Called Me Friend” and the thought is why did James say count it all joy when you fall into suffering? I want to learn a little bit more about the vicariousness of suffering and the value of suffering, so I can get ready and get the people ready to die, to welcome his return, but also welcome death if it’s for a noble cause.
You mentioned in your new book that you yearn for heaven. How does that desire relate to your concept of friendship?
I think if we’re going to join our friends forever, we will never be separated again. I had a little theological trouble with it because (Jesus) said somebody in heaven, he won’t be married or given in marriage because I wanted to be in heaven, around the throne, I want to have Vera Mae’s hand.
This past Sunday, Kanye West appeared in front of perhaps his biggest church audience yet: Lakewood Church of Houston, pastored by Joel Osteen. West wore a blazer and crew neck sweater — a more conservative outfit than his typical fashion-forward attire. Answering a series of questions that felt more suited for a midday Christian talk show, West revealed a tidbit that goes a long way toward explaining why Kanye is Kanye.
“We actually grew with a church,” West said. “It was a pastor named Johnnie Colemon.”
With those words, Kanye’s interest in political commentary and his current spiritual trajectory suddenly became clear. The Rev. Johnnie Colemon, an African American female pastor, grew Christ Universal Temple, a megachurch on the South Side of Chicago, with her famed “Abundance Campaign.”
While Colemon’s theology often gets lumped into the classic leagues of prosperity gospellers, it belongs more properly within New Thought. This is a theology, which grew out of the 19th century American metaphysical movement, that encourages material wealth as a sign of God’s blessings and a focus on positive thinking — the notion that one’s mental state can manifest into daily living. In 1974, Colemon founded the Universal Foundation for Better Living, branching away from the core of New Thought because of blatant racism.
If Kanye’s understanding of God and Jesus are understood through the lens of African American New Thought, I would argue that his egotism, ostentation and even the tangents into seeming megalomania — onstage with Osteen, Kanye declared himself “the greatest artist God ever created” — have a historical and theological context.
If Colemon’s brand of New Thought is truly the foundation of Kanye’s beliefs, it makes sense that he sees his fame and fortune as positive manifestations of God’s blessings in his life. It makes sense that he would associate himself with Osteen, a preacher of prosperity gospel. And it explains why he associates himself with President Donald Trump.
In Trump, Kanye may see a person who, with no previous political or military experience, spoke his presidency into existence, much the way West spoke his spiritual community — the Sunday Services — into being.
The danger with such a theology is that it ignores the malicious market forces that serve to encourage poverty, white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia and trenchant immigration policies at the Southern border. If this theology were true, we should tell the children who have been separated from families and placed in cages to simply think more positively about their situation in order to be reunited with their parents.
But no amount of positive thinking can save prosperity gospel’s uncritical devotion to Western capitalism, and therein lies the rub.
Up until now, most of the discussion around West, the Sunday Service choir and his most recent album, “Jesus Is King,” has been a flat discussion about generic Christian beliefs, told mostly through the gaze of white evangelicals. The way Kanye spouts his own theology and the way it gets reinterpreted in social media posts and through media reporting offer a Pollyanna Christianity.
Such a sanitized Christianity, to quote Cornel West, “is just like everything else in America: highly packaged, regulated, distributed, circulated and consumed.”
That Kanye is a black man from the South Side of Chicago, influenced by an African American woman who split from a predominantly white denomination to start her own, isn’t a trivial piece of information. Rather, it’s the fulcrum on which everything is balanced. Kanye should not be a racial prop for white evangelicals who ignore their own racial biases because he raps about Jesus. His complex story has an origin, and it isn’t the white evangelical church.
My hope is that the collective American conscience does not idolize Kanye’s self-professed conversion to the point of whitewashing his narrative. Although, at this point, such hope may already be an exercise in futility.
(The Rev. Joshua Lawrence Lazard is the C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement at Duke Chapel at Duke University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)