“Harriet” Director on the Film’s Themes of Spirituality, Love, and Family

“Harriet” Director on the Film’s Themes of Spirituality, Love, and Family

Director Kasi Lemmons on set. (Credit: Focus Features)


Director Kasi Lemmons spent seven months unearthing little told details about Harriet Tubman to rework a screenplay that had lain dormant and direct it into the first major film about her life. After years of delays, audiences across the country will get to experience on the big screen Tubman’s painful and hasty journey 170 years ago, starring Cynthia Ervio, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe.

In an interview with Urban Faith, Lemmons, who made her directorial debut with the film Eve’s Bayou (1997), shared some insights on how she crafted the storytelling to introduce the “Moses of her people” to audiences in 2019.

UF: In this first theatrical treatment of Harriet Tubman, what did you hope to accomplish?

KL: Really to get her story out there and to add to images that we had of her as an older woman and really give a context to her work. She was a young woman when she was doing these incredible feats of heroism. She loved, and she was loved, and she was passionate. One of the things I think that makes the story so accessible and not at all abstract in terms of her as a hero is that she was motivated by love of her family and love of her husband. And that’s why she originally went back. It was for her family.

UF: In the event that some say set her on the path to divinely led life as an abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, around age 13, was hit in the head with an iron weight. Many films that explore slavery capture the audience’s attention by opening with a scene of violence, but your film doesn’t. Why not?

KL: I really wanted to speak in the movie to the separation of family rather than the violence to the body. Definitely, it’s an important part of our history and understanding slavery, but also, what is the violence of separating families? It was in the news and it was very much on my mind and it’s very much a part of her story. She was haunted by the image of her sisters being taken away.

The thing that stopped most people from running away, if they chose not to, is they wanted to stay with their family. That can be missing at times in stories about slavery. When visiting or shooting at plantations where people have been enslaved you feel the horror, but you also feel the kind of sacredness, the kind of hallowed ground where these people lived and loved and had children and worked and suffered. They led lives. Sometimes the brutality, I feel, can kind of get in the way of you really seeing that these were people with lives.

UF: You show a lot about Harriet Tubman’s character through her dialogue with others. How did you find these words to put in the mouth of Ms. Tubman?

KL: The way that I write is the way that I write for fiction and nonfiction, which is I start with character. But when you’re writing something about someone who has really lived, you start with the research. It’s a character, but you’re starting with the research.

Harriet did one-woman shows for groups of abolitionists to raise money. So we have her own words because she would talk about her life to abolitionists who found her absolutely fascinating. She was entertaining. She would sing Go Down Moses. She would tell her own stories.

Sometimes I’m using the words that she actually said. For instance, she said, “There I was with a suit and no husband.” Because I know that she said that one sentence that way that tells me something about her and how she talks. So I used actual authentic quotes of hers. And I start to hear a rhythm. I can feel where she’s humorous or ironic. I can feel her intelligence and then a southern cadence, which is very important to me. What is that cadence like in Maryland? What is the regional specificity of it? And once I get into the research and start to look at it that way, I hear characters as if they’re talking in my ears and then I write down what they say.



An expert speaks about the role of spirituality in Harriet Tubman’s work.
Video courtesy of Cassie Chew


UF: Where do you think Harriet got her resolve? Who were her role models?

KL: Her father was a role model. She and her father were very connected–spiritually connected as well. They were bonded in that way. But also her mother was very fierce. I Iooked at the story that comes from her childhood, where they were going to sell her brother and her mother intervened and fiercely stood up to her master and was like, “I’m going to break your head open if you try to sell my son.”

So I look at that fierceness that comes from her mother and I say that’s part of Harriet. We tend to not think of enslaved people as quite human until we examine all of these things and then you say, of course, she had role models. We know that Reverend Green was a very complex character who was very important to the underground railroad. He became very important in her life. So he would have been a role model as well.

UF: Even though plantation owners used Bible passages to convince their workers that a life of slavery is what God wanted, the slaves were able to parse through that definition of spirituality. But that was instrumental in Harriet Tubman’s success.

KL: They so underestimated the enslaved people who worked for them and lived on their plantations and farms. They so underestimated them that they completely missed it. It was a whole language going on and a form of communication that, as we know, started with the drums and then became a coded language in spirituals as well. They were coded messages for those that were ready to hear them. There were coded messages in most of the spirituals. There were coded messages in the scripture as well and as it was interpreted into spirituals by the African American community.

UF: Your earlier work, Eve’s Bayou, included a fictional character who saw visions. How did that work inform your writing on what some people consider divinely led visions that led Tubman’s work as an abolitionist?

KL: The two films are in conversation with each other. I come from a very southern family and Mozelle was based on my aunt. So to me, that’s something very familiar to me–something that’s been a part of my family. It’s been a part of a lot of families that I know and it’s part of Harriet’s life. When I realized from doing the research that this was such a big part of her life, I’m like ‘Oh, this is speaking my language. I know this language.’

UF: Why has it taken so long for a major film project on the life of Harriet Tubman?

KL: It’s hard to get any film made. But it’s been hard to get a film made with a female protagonist, not to mention a Black female protagonist. You know what I mean? And this is like recently we’re able to say, “Oh a film could be viable with a woman as a protagonist.”. And so the idea that a Black woman can carry an adventure film in the title role is still a relatively new idea—you know people have had the idea before, but you were told that that might not be viable or that Black dramas were not viable or that dramas starring women in period pieces were less viable than dramas staring men.

I think that we are seeing the industry change and there’s lots of reason for optimism. I do believe that we are beginning to see more representation, more films with women protagonists, and honestly, it really has to get diverse behind the camera. The storytellers and the gatekeepers of storytelling have to be diverse because we’re the ones interested in it.

UF: What do you look for in a script?

KL: I try and just look at an overview of the story and see if it’s a story that I like and if it’s a character that I like. I’m very interested in character. It’s really the way that I approach a story. So for me it’s like, is the story interesting? Are the people interesting? Do I want to spend the next two years, maybe three years, maybe four years of my life involved in this story? A story has got to be so compelling because it takes a very long time to get movies made and you have to sustain the passion that happens. I have to have a love for a project before I agree to sign on as a writer/director.

UF: Do you think this film might add to calls for Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill?

KL: I absolutely hope so. I can’t really think of anyone more deserving. The funny thing about those men on the bills is that most people don’t know very much about them. So what they really should do is look into Jackson. You know, look at the history of him and everything he did and was responsible for and look at Harriet and everything she did and was responsible for and you tell me who is more deserving to be on the $20 bill.

He’s very problematic as many of those guys and yet they are still commemorated. I think that it’s time to really commemorate Tubman and give her a place in history. I think she’s a really essential and important American hero. And people do. If you ask people who are the most admired people that have ever been Americans, her name is going to come up. She’s kind of like essentially an American hero–this idea of live free or die, give me liberty or death, that’s very American. She deserves her place in history and she deserves her place on the currency as far as I’m concerned.


About Harriet Tubman

Video Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel


With the peculiar institution of slavery entrenched in Antebellum life, Harriet “Minty” Ross Tubman, in 1849, learns that the Brodess family, who have owned her since birth, are about to sell her in order to pay off debts from running their small farm in eastern Maryland.

With her older sisters sold to plantations in the Deep South and never heard from again, Minty has no time to waste. She goes to the field where her mother is working. She sings a spiritual in her mother’s earshot. Then she goes back to her slave cabin grabs a knife and begins tucking it into her skirt. But Minty pauses, draws out that knife and takes some of her precious few moments to use its pointy blade to draw a heart on the dirt floor.

In these moments from “Harriet,” director Kasi Lemmons hopes to communicate to audiences how painful this hasty departure 170 years ago must have meant for the woman who would become known as Harriet Tubman after making a remarkable decision to leave her husband, parents, and siblings to be free or die.

Despite the odds, the five-foot Tubman, who also was prone to “sleeping spells”, makes it 100 miles away to freedom in Philadelphia. As a young woman in her mid-twenties, she finds work and creates a life for herself. But her longing for her family is so strong that she does the unexpected.

Tubman makes a risky decision to go back to the plantations of Maryland’s eastern shore to get her husband and then, again and again, to lead other family members and friends out of slavery. She eventually makes a name for herself as one of the most successful conductors of the “Underground Railroad.”

Is Kanye West even allowed to talk about Jesus?

Is Kanye West even allowed to talk about Jesus?

Video Courtesy of Beats 1


Jesus was trending on Twitter last week, and I’d like to thank Kanye West.

On Wednesday (Oct. 23) in Los Angeles, Kanye debuted his new album, “Jesus is King” — the rapper’s first since he announced a few months ago that he would now be producing only Christian music. According to an inside look at the album and accompanying movie in a Pitchfork article by Jazz Monroe and Matthew Ismael Ruiz, the album’s tracks include lines like, “Sing till the Lord comes/Till the power of the Lord comes down.”

Since he announced his conversion and his intention to produce a gospel album, there has been a reaction from Christian Twitter, most of it mocking his pledge. Who does Kanye West think he is? Doesn’t he know that sinners aren’t allowed to talk like they know Jesus? Better save that to us, the real Christians.

I understand that not everyone might choose Kanye West to be their pastor, but if he wants to talk about his journey with spirituality through the gifts God has given him, who are any of us to tell him no?

Is there a spiritual litmus test that qualifies any of us to tell people what’s happening with our faith? Kanye may very well have holes in his theology, but last I checked, half of my Twitter feed was agreeing that author and speaker Beth Moore should “go home” for daring to speak at times reserved for men, while the other half argued that Jesus told all women “follow me.” One side has to be wrong, and yet on they’ll go, spewing incorrect theology in 280 characters, like it or not.

Honestly, if anything can bridge the gap between progressives and conservatives, it may be their mutual rejection of Kanye West. I’ve seen the liberals laugh and the conservatives clutch their pearls. Apparently, the Christians voted, and Kanye isn’t invited to the platforming of the gospel.

Musician Kanye West, top center, leads clapping in a “Sunday Service” performance on a specially made hilltop stage at Coachella on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, in Indio, Calif. Video screenshot

The fact is that Kanye’s fans are going to buy his next album, whether or not he believes that Jesus is king. If thousands of his supporters listen to his attempt to use his musical talents to bring God glory, is that so bad? Everyone has blind spots. Everyone is just doing their best to walk in the light they believe they’ve been given, no matter how dim or bright.

This isn’t the first time Kanye has talked about his faith. On December 3, 2004, he released the song “Jesus Walks.” At age 17, I hadn’t come far enough in my own religious understanding perhaps to demand to see Kanye’s baptismal record before I could trust him. But the opening words of “Jesus Walks” still burn in my head: “Yo, we at war, we at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves, God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down.”

I assume I wasn’t the only doctrinally confused 17-year-old listening to that song that day who thought about what it would look like for Jesus to be walking with them.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time God used a broken person to reach the people within their scope. He spoke with pagan wise men, he gave dreams to the tyrant King Nebuchadnezzar, he used a donkey to try and talk some sense into Balaam, who himself was wicked. If God can use Samson, who slept with prostitutes, and Jonah, the only preacher in history to be mad that an entire city came up for his altar call, can’t God use Kanye — even in spite of Kanye?

Christians don’t own Jesus. We don’t get to decide who God connects to. Maybe Kanye has truly had an intimate experience with God, maybe he hasn’t. Either way, I’m not sure that we are any more qualified to make judgments on his authenticity than we are any other celebrity.

If Kanye wants to use his platform to amplify his faith, why can’t he? And if we find that there are holes in his theology, he can join the line.

Last week, Jesus was trending on Twitter, and I’m willing to thank Kanye West for that.

(Heather Thompson Day is a professor of communications at Colorado Christian University and the author of “Confessions of a Christian Wife.” She blogs at I’m That WifeThe views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)​​​​​

Almost 60, Donnie McClurkin says ‘I’m at a time now I sing when I want to’

Almost 60, Donnie McClurkin says ‘I’m at a time now I sing when I want to’

Gospel artist Donnie McClurkin. Photo by Christian Lantry

Two decades ago, gospel singer Donnie McClurkin stepped on a London stage to record his second album.

Now, he’s returning to the United Kingdom for 20th-anniversary concerts on Oct. 18 and 19 to reprise the music of his “Live in London and More” CD that featured songs like “That’s What I Believe” and “We Fall Down.”

The Grammy-winning pastor of Perfecting Faith Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Freeport, N.Y., says he latched onto the popularity of black gospel music that existed overseas long before his 1999 concert.

“People like Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins and the like, they made the music global so it was all a byproduct of the global impact that American gospel had,” he said.

McClurkin, who will turn 60 on Nov. 9 and celebrate with a gospel-star-studded celebration a week later in Jamaica, N.Y., also hosts “The Donnie McClurkin Show.” He features a mixture of new and classic gospel music, interviews and inspirational messages that airs online and in some 60 markets from the U.S. to the United Kingdom to Africa.

He talked to Religion News Service about how Oprah Winfrey boosted his career, the status of his relationship with gospel artist Nicole C. Mullen and how retirement is a ways off.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Donnie McClurkin presents an in memoriam tribute to Andrae Crouch at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Why did you decide to record an album in London 20 years ago, which some people might’ve considered an unusual move?

I decided to go to London, which was considered unusual by the record company itself, because of my mentor, the late great Andrae Crouch. He did a musical concert in 1978 in London. That became a landmark. And I always wanted to go to London from the time I knew where England was. And that was my prime opportunity because they gave me a blank check and said you just do an album however you want to do it.

There are certain celebrities who have helped you early in your career. Who are a couple of people that immediately come to mind and what difference did they make?

I was nominal, I was at B-level at best — and Oprah Winfrey got wind of the (1996) CD. She put me on her television show and held up the CD and said, “This is my favorite singer. This is my favorite project.” And we went from 30,000 to 300,000 in a month and then finally went platinum. Then there’s President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton and those kinds of things happened and made it something larger than life.

What were the presidents’ roles? What did they do?

They brought me to their convention, to sing at the (Democratic National Convention), to sing at the (Republican National Convention), opened it up to thousands of people in a room, millions of people around the world and that’s where a lot of attention started coming in.

Is this London concert an unusual singing venture for you now, given you’re pastoring a church and you’re hosting a radio show, or do you continue to perform in concert on other occasions?

I’m over in London just about once a year in concert. Since “Live in London” 20 years ago, I’ve got a very strong base over there, very strong community in England and in Europe period, from Italy to Germany to Holland to the U.K.

And do you sing much in the U.S. as well?

I sing less in the U.S. than I do in Africa and Europe.

You won a Dove Award in 2017 for “The Journey (Live)” and you were recognized in 2001 with a Dove for “We Fall Down” from your “Live in London” album. As the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards celebrates its 50th award show next week, what are a couple of main changes you’ve seen in gospel music over that time?

In the GMA, I see a lot of inclusion. For a long time, it was very, very segregated. GMA was for the CCM (contemporary Christian music) and the white gospel singers. And in the last three or four years I’ve seen such an inclusion, integration of black gospel artists along with the contemporary white gospel artists.

Gospel artist and pastor Donnie McClurkin. Photo by Christian Lantry

Do you mean that if you look at the show, if you look at the Dove Awards itself, that there is more integration?

The GMA as a whole, as an organization, not just the awards show but the organization itself. It’s grown and it’s matured and it’s let go of a lot of the institutionalized bias and has become inclusive of our music form, which is — and I probably will get in trouble — but our black music form is the strongest music form in gospel music. It’s what people gravitate to around the world, so “Oh Happy Day,” the whole of our repertoire. It’s been the most marketable. It’s been the most commercial. It’s been the most prominent. It’s apropos that at this point in time we are now sitting with equality at that table as well.

You have described yourself as a victim of childhood sex abuse and when you claimed you had overcome homosexuality, that prompted opposition from gay rights groups. How do you describe yourself now and are you involved in either so-called ex-gay ministries or initiatives that affirm LGBTQ people?

First of all, I’ve never been a part of any ex-gay anything. My past is just that: past. P-a-s-t. It’s gone. Who do I consider myself to be now? I consider myself to be Donnie. A wonderful, old man now — I never thought I’d be calling myself that — who is peaking 60 years old come next month and who has overcome a lot more than sexuality. But that’s been a great part of my life. It is something that I celebrate. I am a part of a church that embraces everybody. I am a pastor of a church that has hetero and homo in it as well. I believe in the love of God that reaches out to everybody, the love of God that is unconditional, the love of God that is not based on ethnicity, it’s not based on denomination, it’s not based on classification.

I believe in the transformative love that only comes through God and that’s what I preach. That’s what I live. That’s what I teach. I have a lot of LGBTQ friends in and out of the church. I’ve got a lot of people that appreciate what I’ve been through and they don’t judge me and I don’t judge them and that’s the way that this is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be a love that is real and genuine, that can accept people for who they are, even if you don’t agree with them.

Gospel artist and pastor Donnie McClurkin. Photo by Christian Lantry

There were reports in recent years of you dating another gospel artist, Nicole C. Mullen. So where does that relationship stand now?

We are great friends. We are very, very great friends.

Is there any thought of retiring from singing or from preaching anytime soon?

In another 10 years (laughs) or maybe 20 years. Singing is something that’s marginal for me now. I do it when I want to do it. I do it when it’s convenient to do it, and I do it when it has a purpose, if it’s going to bring somebody to a greater understanding of who Christ is. I don’t do it just for the entertainment aspect of it any longer. I am selective in what I do. Aretha Franklin told me years ago, “There’s a time when you got to sing and there’s a time when you sing when you want to.” And that makes sense to me now. I’m at a time now I sing when I want to.

Singing and Praying Justice

Singing and Praying Justice

“What’s going on?” — Marvin Gaye

The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.

A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.

War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.

Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?

At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?

In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?

The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.

Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:

“Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)

“I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know”
(from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).

“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that”
(from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).

Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.

The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?

The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.

The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.

Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.

Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).

If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).

Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.

What to Do?

How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.

Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.

In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:

“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”

As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).

Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.

How We Get There

1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:

The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.

Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.

2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.

3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).

4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.

5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.

6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.

Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”

‘The Best of Enemies’: What Happens When a Klansman and an Activist Talk it Out?

‘The Best of Enemies’: What Happens When a Klansman and an Activist Talk it Out?

Video Courtesy of STX Entertainment


Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film The Best of Enemies.

I did not know what to expect from the film The Best of Enemies, but what I experienced was a range of emotions—disbelief, pride, anger, discomfort, and finally, hope. If it were not based on the true story of the fight for school integration in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, I would have had a difficult time believing the events of the 2019 film, The Best of Enemies directed by Robin Bissell. That is not to say that Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell did not offer compelling performances as civil rights leader Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis—because they did—but the notion of deep-seated and systemic racial oppression being rectified through charrette, the meetings held for the community to resolve the issue of school segregation, co-chaired by a civil rights activist and the local KKK leader is incredulous. Yet, it is true. Based on the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, the film portrays the unlikely beginnings of a lasting camaraderie between Atwater and Ellis. Throughout the film, viewers are presented with Black pain, Black resilience, Black joy, and the hope that justice will prevail, which it does very neatly in the end. Despite the ending, the issues addressed in The Best of Enemies felt eerily familiar as America is still plagued with systemic racism in housing, healthcare, education, and employment that affects the lived experience of Black people across the United States.

What felt true as I watched The Best of Enemies was the prominent role that Black women, particularly women of faith, play in the fight for social justice. Academy Award-winning actress  Taraji P. Henson, in her role as Anne Atwater, embodies a kind of holy courage. The film highlights the most notable work of Atwater in the desegregation of Durham Public Schools, however, she was known for more than the events depicted in the film. Atwater was a generous organizer who leads the charge for Black and poor people in the community over several decades. She lent her voice in the face of great evil, stating, “God gave me the gift to reach out and touch.”  Atwater is part of the great cloud of witnesses of Black women whose faith informs their activism and understanding of the humanity of all people, including Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Prathia Hall. This faith informed justice is still being witnessed in the life and work of Rev. Traci Blackmon who serves as Executive Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for The United Church of Christ, Rev. Jennifer Bailey of the Faith Matters Network, Rev. Neichelle R. Guidry, Dean of Sisters Chapel at Spelman College, and many more who, like Atwater, are getting in the way of racism, sexism, and disparities in healthcare, economics, employment and education.

What also felt true and frightening as I watched The Best of Enemies was the relationship between White Nationalism and White Christianity and the systemic support of racialized oppression. The acting in the film had such depth that it felt all too real. The closing prayer offered at the KKK meeting left me squirming in my seat. I had a visceral reaction every time there was an exchange between Ellis (Rockwell) and members of the city government showing the way in which the government was in bed with the KKK and other White supremacists. I was maddened every time Atwater testified before the all-White, all-male city council as one member blatantly disregarded her by turning his chair so his back would be to her as she spoke. I was infuriated when Ellis was hand chosen by the Mayor (Bruce McGill) to steer the charrette in such a way that so that school segregation would continue to be enforced remarking, “He’s about to hand you the keys to school integration and you’re going to lock the door.” Days after the screening, I was still unsettled. While the costumes, hair, make-up, and set design transport viewers to 1971, I was sitting with the fact that these are not solely historical realities, but rather issues that are alive and present today. There is still a strong relationship between Christian supremacy and White supremacy in the United States.  And a quick glance at the headlines shows institutional racism is present in our local, state and national governments in 2019. From Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam admitting to President Donald Trump’s clarion call to Make America Great Again alongside statements and policies that devalue Black and Brown people, it is evident in the film and today that the fight for justice is rigged.

As much as I enjoyed The Best of Enemies, it was not above critique. In my estimation, the glossy cinematography and upbeat score did not jibe well with the grit and tenor of events. There was a cognitive dissonance present as my eyes and ears were stimulated against the backdrop of racism, especially the heinous words and actions of Ellis and the Ku Klux Klan members. Also, the conversion of Ellis’ ideals, as the Black Gospel choir sang, “God is Tryna Tell You Something” is an overused trope in film that adds to the sanitization, saccharization, and oversimplification of the work of racial reconciliation and redemption. There was no conversation at the KKK meeting as Ellis led the prayer for God to bless the “Invisible Empire” early in the film. There was no conversion as Atwater reminds Ellis “Same God made you, made me” in the parking lot after a charrette. The scene where Ellis has a change of heart after witnessing Black bodies joyfully singing to God, I would argue, dangerously puts the onus on Black people to do the heavy lifting in the work of justice while making a joyful noise despite their pain. Dismantling racism is going to take a lot more than Black folk ushering White people into the presence of God, rather it requires White people facing their own privilege and power and truly recognizing and living out an ethic that all are created in the image and likeness of God, a point that was missed in the film.

The Best of Enemies is a film that arouses a range of emotions but leaves the audience feeling hopeful. This story of expected and unexpected courage, civility and camaraderie in the plight to desegregate Durham Public Schools in 1971 is a must see. And for me, the film piqued my curiosity about the lives of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis and the ways in which their story can be studied, adapted, and replicated in the continued plight to dismantle racism, sexism, and other injustices that plague American society.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer who loves to study the Word of God, encourage others, and worship God. Rev. Owusu-Ansah holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University, an MFA in Photography from Howard University, and a Master of Divinity, Pastoral Theology, from Drew University. You can check out her website at https://www.reverendmotherrunner.com.