Franklin, 40, who was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, talked with Religion News Service about Christian film success, how men should respond to the #MeToo movement, and the importance of observing the Sabbath.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You are a Hollywood producer, an ordained minister and the author of a new book about men and the #MeToo era. How do you juggle these three seemingly disparate areas of your life?
I don’t view them as disparate. My goal in everything I do is to uplift and inspire and use entertainment as a way to do that. So anything I’m doing, whether it’s writing a book, or producing a movie, or speaking or preaching, it’s all with the same goal: How does the person that is engaging with me relative to what I’m doing in that moment — how can their life become potentially better or how can I say something or do something that can inspire them?
It’s like one wheel, just different spokes.
DeVon Franklin. Courtesy photo
How did you learn about the story behind “Breakthrough,” and how much is it a true story rather than “based on a true story”?
I found out about “Breakthrough” while I was promoting “Miracles from Heaven.” I met the family, Joyce Smith and (her son) John Smith, and Pastor Jason Noble. And when I heard their story I was blown away. It was just so captivating. I just knew that I had to bring it to the big screen.
When you look at films, there’s “based on a true story,” there’s “inspired by a true story,” there’s “inspired by true events,” but based on a true story is when it’s closest to the real story. And “Breakthrough” is without a doubt based on a true story.
“Breakthrough” comes to theaters around Easter. How has the success of your previous productions, including the animated Christmas movie, “The Star,” enabled you to present this new one?
I think every success is like stair steps — one leads to the other. And so “Breakthrough” being my third produced film, certainly, is building on the success of “The Star” and building on the success of “Miracles from Heaven.”
In “The Star,” celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Kristin Chenoweth added their voices to that story. In “Breakthrough,” main characters are portrayed by actress Chrissy Metz and actor Mike Colter. Has there been a shift in the willingness of mainstream actors and actresses to appear in Christian films?
Yes. What is amazing about this story “Breakthrough” — it’s a true story, and I think that sometimes the desire to put it in the faith-based genre sometimes overshines the fact that it’s true. And more people are looking to do a true story because they connect to it more so than it being a part of the faith-based genre per se. So it’s a blessing that these projects are able to get the attention of such incredible talent.
Following the example of other brother filmmaker teams, there’s a movie called “Sinners Wanted” that just premiered at a black megachurch in Maryland in March. Do you see more people trying to develop Christian films for the big screen? And do you think those smaller projects have more of a chance of being recognized by Hollywood than in the past?
I’m not familiar with that particular movie. I do think that there’s a lot of growth in this space. The Erwin brothers, who are my good friends, they did “I Can Only Imagine.” And that success led to an incredible new opportunity with Lionsgate for more projects to come through, which is great.
I have my deal here at Fox. The Kendrick brothers, who also do inspirational faith-based movies, they have a deal with Sony. I think ultimately as the right movies are developed and people find them, it’ll allow for even more new filmmakers and new films that may not currently be on the radar to emerge.
DeVon Franklin, from left, Jeff Lockyer and Danielle Strickland participate in a panel discussion about sexual misconduct with the Willow Creek Association near Chicago. Video screenshot
Turning to a completely different subject, you have spoken in a new video resource about ministry and #MeToo. What are some key tips you suggest for men to help reduce the chances of women becoming victims of sexual abuse or harassment?
One of the reasons why I wanted to write the book is because I do believe that, as men, we need to become better. And part of that is learning to love, and that means considering others’ needs before ours and putting our integrity and our character above the desire to sometimes feed those selfish impulses.
I challenge every man to not look at the #MeToo movement as a women’s movement. It’s not. We need to be a part of this movement. Whether we have been harassed ourselves or not, we need to help. It takes both of us to get it done. We have to be a part of the solution ’cause if not, I think we’re part of the problem.
You had spoken about how the #MeToo movement can cause some men to feel that they can’t or shouldn’t hire women who may be most qualified for a position in their church or other organization. What’s your advice for them?
My advice is to not allow fear to dictate decision-making, because, any man that’s afraid to hire a woman, it’s because of fear and a misconception of what’s really going on.
I think that it’s important that we hire the very best people. And if that happens to be a woman, we need to hire her. And, to me, a man that’s afraid to do that says more about the man than it does the woman. And it’s so important to not use #MeToo as an excuse to be afraid.
Let’s use #MeToo and #TimesUp as an excuse to become better and do that in every area of our life, including our hiring practices.
As someone raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, how do you keep your Sabbath even as you work on round-the-clock projects related to film and faith?
The first day that I was in Hollywood, I literally said when I was interviewing for the company that managed Will Smith, “I won’t take this internship if it requires me to work on the Sabbath.” And, every single job that I’ve ever taken since then, I’ve made it a part of it.
And observing the Sabbath is so important for a number of reasons, not just spiritual reasons, but also practical reasons. We are not built to run 24/7. And what I have found is if we block out some time to rest, people conform around that. I’ve been on set, producing films, and then I’m like, “Hey, all right, the sun is almost down. I got to go.”
It’s been integral to my success. And I highly recommend it to everyone ’cause I think it really makes a big difference.
“As Americans, we face challenges head-on. Climate change is not a Democrat issue or a Republican Issue. It is a human issue. This crisis is complex. It impacts all of us and future generations. And those with the least resources are impacted first and worst,” testified Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, before the House Committee on Natural Resources a few weeks ago. “If this committee and both chambers don’t urgently come together, put the people of this country first, put God first and put your political party to the side to solve climate change, we don’t make it beyond 12 years from now without huge amounts of death, destruction, and suffering.”
For more than a decade, Rev. Yearwood and his celebrity-infused, non-partisan Hip Hop Caucus have been hyper-focused on voter turnout, but also tackling big issues, such as climate change and environmental justice, civil and human rights, voting rights and election system reforms, and economic empowerment. The Hip Hop Caucus is the result of four voter drive organizations merging back in 2004: Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network, P. Diddy’s Citizen Change (“Vote Or Die!”), Jay Z’s “Voice Your Choice,” and AFL-CIO’s “Hip Hop Voices.” It was the force behind the 2008 “Respect My Vote!” campaign, which touted registering the most voters in one day: 32,000 people across 16 U.S. cities.
With the 2020 presidential campaign season kicking in, Urban Faith reached out to Rev. Yearwood to chat about social justice, Christianity, his spiritual journey to fighting for underserved communities, and what’s up next for the Hip Hop Caucus.
Some Christian leaders believe that social justice is not “Christian.” How do you respond to that?
I think there’s nothing more Christian than having social justice. I can’t understand how folks can say they’re Christian and not, to me, see how many times Christ literally fought — fought for the woman by the well, fought for those who were out in the desert who were hungry, fought for those who were infirmed, fought for those who were hurting because there was no fish in the net. I mean, there’s story upon story upon story upon story, even to the very end with the thief on the cross.
I can’t understand how you could not connect social justice and overcoming when people have been wronged, with Christ. So that baffles me a little bit. To me, if your faith is not connected to justice, it doesn’t have the kind of power that it could have with a faith based upon justice and freedom.
You received your bachelor’s degree from the University of the District of Columbia and your Master of Divinity from Howard University. What led you to do what you do? What was your spiritual journey?
I grew up around the church, so the Christian faith was not something that was unusual. I have many ministers in my family. My uncle was a Church of God in Christ bishop. My aunt has her own church. I grew up around a number of faith-driven people who were Christians. My background was one in which I came from a very spiritual background.
I was the student government association president at the University of District Columbia. It wasn’t so much that I was in a situation that I had something that went wrong, so to speak, and was called into ministry. But I believe very strongly in helping people, and I could feel a definite call when I was finishing up my last term. I was also SGA president when I was at divinity school too, but in my second term I began going to homeless ministries here in Washington, DC, and was also very dedicated to working with young people, and a more of social justice type of ministry.
When I went to seminary, my first calling was to go and teach. I was extremely good at the Old Testament and became the first person at Howard Divinity to be a teaching assistant for both the Old Testament and the New Testament because I could speak Greek and Hebrew. I was going to go up and get my Ph.D. in Old Testament studies, which was normal because my parents both had Ph.D.s. My mom has her Ph.D. in psychology, and my dad a Ph.D. in African and social studies — he was a dean at Howard. So it wasn’t a long stretch for me to go that way at all, and to teach.
But it was also a retreat because I was at the time very frustrated with the church. There was a lot of emphasis around prosperity ministry, and that wasn’t for me. I think the calling came when the war was going to break out and we were getting ready to invade Iraq. I was a chaplain, and I began to speak out against the war while I was in the Air Force — I was in the Reserves on the weekends. It wasn’t the best career move.
I got a call from Dr. Ben Chavis, who was working with Russell Simmons, and he says, “Would you like to work with organizing young people?” So, at the time I’m going through a situation with the Air Force. I said, “Well, why not?” Might as well. You know, I didn’t know my journey. I may be thrown in prison. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me because of me speaking out.
It all sounds heroic, but at the time it was very much a situation with my lifestyle of being a middle class, African-American with two very small children. I literally put it on the line for what I believe and trust in God that I was doing the right thing. What I began to see is that I had to give up all of my privilege. My privilege of growing up with parents who had Ph.D.s. My privilege of growing up middle class. My privilege of going to good schools. My privilege of being an SGA president or being on a basketball team. All those things that I would use as privilege had to be stripped away, and I realize that now. They had to be stripped away before I could do effective ministry, so I could be at the bottom. Then, once you get to the bottom and you feel vulnerable, you can connect. Not in charity, but in solidarity with those who have been oppressed. Your whole mission can change and that’s probably where I am now.
I am in a position where I can connect with young people, folks who are from really tough situations, because I’ve been stripped down and can connect with them through faith and Christ.
What are your plans for the 2020 Presidential election? Is the Hip Hop Caucus doing a bus tour again?
Yeah, yeah. We’re going to get out the vote. Just last year, our “Respect My Vote” campaign celebrated ten years, which is exciting. It was an award-winning campaign. We’re going to continue that. We take a lot of pride in being nonpartisan. When the “Respect My Vote campaign” was created in 2008, I mean, clearly there was a tremendous amount of excitement around Barack Obama, and for a good reason. Nothing wrong with that. But we felt that it was important that young people kept their lane in that. We got a lot of heat back then for not supporting any candidate, and if you were going to support one, that probably would have been the one to support. But we didn’t. We were like no, we want to make sure that we can also hold that person, he or she, accountable, and that’s what we did, and that’s important to us.
We want to make sure that whoever is in office, Democratic or Republican or Independent, we’re able to hold you accountable and measurable. Millennials and Gen Z drive us — I mean, we let their issues regarding the economy and climate change and civil rights be at the forefront. Right now, we’re very concerned about what’s going on with the voter suppression and what we saw in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. We have issues that affect everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democratic if you want clean air. I think we all want clean air and we want clean water.
We also challenge ourselves as an organization. We know that in general, our movement and sometimes the culture can be very patriarchal, very male-driven, and so we are actually board-mandated that anything that we do has to have gender balance, or even more so, we have to put forth women in our movement, because it’s such an important thing in that process. We’ve been very blessed doing that for the past 10 years.
It has been said many times that the Marvel movie “Black Panther” is an important landmark. I’m not referring to its deserved critical and box office success worldwide, the many awards it has won, or the fact that it is the first film in the superhero genre to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.
Instead, I’m focusing on a key aspect of its cultural impact that is less frequently discussed. Finally a feature film starring a black superhero character became part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a successful run of intertwined movies that began with “Iron Man” in 2008. While there have been other superhero movies with a black lead character – “Hancock” (2008), “Blade” (1998), “Spawn” (1997) or even “The Meteor Man” (1993) – this film is significant because of the recent remarkable rise of the superhero film from the nerdish fringe to part of mainstream culture.
Huge audiences saw a black lead character – not a sidekick or part of a team – in a superhero movie by a major studio, with a black director (Ryan Coogler), black writers and a majority black cast. This is a significant step toward diversifying our culture by improving the lackluster representation of minorities in our major media. It’s also a filmmaking landmark because black creators have been given access to the resources and platforms needed to bring different storytelling perspectives into our mainstream culture.
And beyond all this, “Black Panther” also broke additional ground in a way most people may not realize: In the comics, the character is actually a scientist and engineer. Moreover, in the inevitable (and somewhat ridiculous) ranking of scientific prowess that happens in the comic book world, he’s been portrayed as at least the equal of the two most famous “top scientists” in the Marvel universe: Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic). A black headlining superhero character written and directed by black artists is rare enough from a major studio. But making him – and his sister Shuri – successful scientists and engineers as well is another level of rarity.
The history and evolution of the Black Panther character and his scientific back story is a fascinating example of turning a problematic past into a positive opportunity.
Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he’s the first black superhero character in mainstream comics, originally appearing as a guest in a “Fantastic Four” Marvel comic. As a black character created and initially written by nonblack authors, guest-starring in the pages of a book headlined by white characters, he had many of the classic attributes of what is now sometimes controversially known as the “magical negro” in American cultural criticism: He ranked extremely highly in every sphere that mattered, to the point of being almost too unreal even for the comics of the time.
Black Panther is T’Challa, king of the fictional African country Wakanda, which is fathomlessly wealthy and remarkably advanced, scientifically and technologically. Even Marvel’s legendary master scientist – Reed Richards of the superhero team Fantastic Four – is befuddled by and full of admiration for Wakanda’s scientific capabilities. T’Challa himself is portrayed as an extraordinary “genius” in physics and other scientific fields, a peerless tactician, a remarkable athlete and a master of numerous forms of martial arts. And he is noble to a fault. Of course, he grows to become a powerful ally of the Fantastic Four and other Marvel superheroes over many adventures.
The key point here is that the superlative scientific ability of our hero, and that of his country, has its origins in the well-meaning, but problematic, practice of inventing near or beyond perfect black characters to support stories starring primarily white protagonists. But this is a lemons-to-lemonade story.
Black Panther eventually got to star in his own series of comics. He was turned into a nuanced and complex character, moving well away from the tropes of his beginnings. Writer Don McGregor’s work started this development as early as 1973, but Black Panther’s journey to the multilayered character you see on screen was greatly advanced by the efforts of several writers with diverse perspectives. Perhaps most notably, in the context of the film, these include Christopher Priest (late 1990s) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (starting in 2016), along with Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, writing in “World of Wakanda” (2016). Coates and Gay, already best-selling literary writers before coming to the character, helped bring him to wider attention beyond normal comic book fandom, partly paving the way for the movie.
Through all of the improved writing of T’Challa and his world, his spectacular scientific ability has remained prominent. Wakanda continues to be a successful African nation with astonishing science and technology. Furthermore, and very importantly, T’Challa is not portrayed as an anomaly among his people in this regard. There are many great scientists and engineers in the Wakanda of the comics, including his sister Shuri. In some accounts, she (in the continued scientist-ranking business of comics) is an even greater intellect than he is. In the movie, T’Challa’s science and engineering abilities are referred to, but it is his sister Shuri who takes center stage in this role, having taken over to design the new tools and weapons he uses in the field. She also uses Wakandan science to heal wounds that would have been fatal elsewhere in the world.
If they can do it, then why not me?
As a scientist who cares about inspiring more people – including underrepresented minorities and women – to engage with science, I think that showing a little of this scientific landscape in “Black Panther” potentially amplifies the movie’s cultural impact.
Vast audiences see black heroes – both men and women – using their scientific ability to solve problems and make their way in the world, at an unrivaled level. Research has shown that such representation can have a positive effect on the interests, outlook and career trajectories of viewers.
Improving science education for all is a core endeavor in a nation’s competitiveness and overall health, but outcomes are limited if people aren’t inspired to take an interest in science in the first place. There simply are not enough images of black scientists – male or female – in our media and entertainment to help inspire. Many people from underrepresented groups end up genuinely believing that scientific investigation is not a career path open to them.
Moreover, many people still see the dedication and study needed to excel in science as “nerdy.” A cultural injection of Black Panther heroics helps continue to erode the crumbling tropes that science is only for white men or reserved for people with a special “science gene.”
The huge widespread success of the “Black Panther” movie, showcasing T’Challa, Shuri and other Wakandans as highly accomplished scientists, remains one of the most significant boosts for science engagement in recent times.
There’s an old saying, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” In other words, before you give up, take matters into your own hands and try a little harder.
As a psychology researcher, I believe this adage applies to relationships, too. Before you let go, look for the “knots” that might save you from accidentally letting a great relationship slip from your grasp. Relationship science suggests that the problem is that people tend to overemphasize the negative and underappreciate the positive when looking at their romantic partners.
If you could build the perfect relationship, what would it look like? Perhaps more importantly, how does your current relationship stack up? Expectations for today’s relationships are higher than ever. Now that relationships are a choice, mediocrity isn’t acceptable. It’s all or nothing, and no one wants to settle.
The secret to avoiding settling seems simple: have high standards and demand only the very best. Researchers refer to people who are pickier than others and always want the absolute best possible option as maximizers. Their counterparts are satisficers – those satisfied once quality surpasses a minimum threshold of acceptability. For them, “good enough” is perfectly fine. As long as their relationship exceeds their predetermined benchmarks for “high quality,” satisficers are content.
Maximizer personalities will tend to exhaust all options and explore many possibilities to secure the flawless partner. You might think that sounds ideal, even noble, almost like common sense. But there are hidden downsides. Call it the myth of maximization, because the research reveals that maximizers report more regret and depression and feel threatened by others whom they perceive as doing better. Maximizers also experience lower self-esteem and less optimism, happiness and life satisfaction. And they prefer reversible decisions or outcomes that are not absolute or final.
See the problem? In long-term relationships, people tend to prefer more of a “‘til death do us part” approach rather than a “’til I find something better” tactic. Overall, the implication for your relationship is clear: The continuous pursuit of perfection could be fine for a car, but in your relationship it may result in failing to recognize the truly great relationship that’s right in front of you for what it is. Impossibly high standards can make an excellent relationship seem average.
You may also undervalue your relationship by being too quick to identify imperfections, notice the negatives and find problems. Blame what psychologists call the negativity bias, which is a tendency to pay attention to the bad or negative aspects of an experience.
In other words, when your relationship is going well, it doesn’t register. You take it for granted. But problems? They capture your attention. The bickering, insensitive comments, forgotten chores, the messes and the inconveniences – all stand out because they deviate from the easily overlooked happy status quo.
This tendency is so pronounced that when a relationship doesn’t have any major issues, research suggests that people inflate small problems into bigger ones. Rather than be thankful for the relative calm, people manufacture problems where none previously existed. You could be your own worst enemy without even realizing it.
Time to recalibrate. The key is separating the critical from the inconsequential in order to distinguish minor issues from real problems. Identifying the true dealbreakers will allow you to save your energy for real problems, and allow the minor stuff to simply fade away.
Beyond that list, there are certainly annoyances that can become dealbreakers in otherwise generally healthy relationships. And if your partner disrespects, hurts or abuses you, those are behaviors that shouldn’t be ignored and should rightly end your relationship.
In a follow-up study, researchers asked participants to consider both dealbreakers and dealmakers – that is, qualities that are especially appealing. When determining whether a relationship was viable, it turned out the dealbreakers carried more weight. The negativity bias strikes again. The fact that people tend to focus more on the breakers than the makers is further evidence that we’re not giving some aspects of our relationship enough credit.
What have you been missing in your relationship? Surely there are boxes that your partner checks that you’ve neglected to notice. Start giving credit where credit is due.
In fact, some studies suggest you should give your partner even more credit than she or he might deserve. Instead of being realistic, give your partner the benefit of the doubt, with an overly generous appraisal. Would you be lying to yourself? Sure, a little bit. But research shows that these types of positive illusions help the relationship by decreasing conflict while increasing satisfaction, love and trust.
Holding overly optimistic views of your partner convinces you of their value, which reflects well on you – you’re the one who has such a great partner, after all. Your rose-colored opinions also make your partner feel good and give them a good reputation to live up to. They won’t want to let you down so they’ll try to fulfill your positive prophecy. All of which benefits your relationship.
It’s time to stop being overly critical of your relationship. Instead find the knots, the parts of your relationship you’ve been taking for granted that will help you hold on. If you know where to look and what to appreciate, you may just realize there are a lot more reasons to happily hold onto your relationship than you thought.
At the time Virginia’s future political leaders put on blackface in college for fun, Dan Aykroyd wore it too — in the hit 1983 comedy “Trading Places.”
Sports announcers of that time often described Boston Celtics player Larry Bird, who is white, as “smart” while describing his black NBA opponents as athletically gifted.
Such racial insensitivities ran rampant in popular culture during the 1980s, the era in which Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, have admitted to wearing blackface as they mimicked pop singer Michael Jackson and rapper Kurtis Blow, respectively.
Meanwhile, Chicago elected its first black mayor, Michael Jackson made music history with his “Thriller” album, U.S. college students protested against South Africa’s racist system of apartheid and the stereotype-smashing sitcom “The Cosby Show” debuted on network television.
It would be another 10 years before the rise of multiculturalism began to change America’s racial sensibilities, in part because intellectuals and journalists of color were better positioned to successfully challenge racist images, and Hollywood began to listen.
“We are in a stronger position to educate the American public about symbols and cultural practices that are harmful today than we were in the 1980s,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
During the ’80s, college faculties and student bodies were less diverse, Gates said. Some scholars who entered college during the 1960s had yet to take on roles in which mainstream culture would heed their cultural critiques, he said.
At the time Northam and Herring put on black makeup, Hollywood and popular culture still sent messages that racial stereotypes and racist imagery were comical and harmless, despite pleas from civil rights groups and black newspapers.
Herring was a 19-year-old University of Virginia student when he wore brown makeup and a wig to look like rapper Kurtis Blow at a 1980 party. Three years before that, white actor Gene Wilder darkened his face with shoe polish in the movie “Silver Streak” co-starring Richard Pryor. He used a stereotypical walk to impersonate a black person living in an urban neighborhood.
On television, viewers could see a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring the character Mammy Two Shoes, an obese black maid who spoke in a stereotypical voice. The 1940s cartoon series was shown across several markets throughout the 1980s. Television stations ignored complaints from civil rights groups.
Elsewhere, Miami erupted into riots following the acquittal of white police officers who killed black salesman and retired Marine Arthur McDuffie in what many called a case of police brutality. President Jimmy Carter visited and pressed for an end to the violence, but a protester threw a bottle at his limousine as he left.
When Northam wore blackface to imitate Michael Jackson and copy his moonwalking skills at a 1984 San Antonio dance contest, television stations still aired Looney Tunes episodes with racially insensitive images using Bugs Bunny and other characters despite some controversial episodes being taken off the air in 1968.
African-Americans, however, had reason to be hopeful amid electoral gains. A year before, in 1983, Chicago became the latest city to elect a black mayor, Harold Washington, after activists registered 100,000 new black voters. That election, Jesse Jackson later said, paved the way for him to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1984.
“It was out of that context that my own candidacy emerged,” Jackson said in the 1990 “Eyes on the Prize” documentary. Jackson lost the nomination to former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Two years after Northam’s moonwalk performance, the comedy “Soul Man” hit theaters. In the movie, Mark Watson, played by white actor C. Thomas Howell, takes tanning pills in a larger dose to appear African-American so he can obtain a scholarship meant for black students at Harvard Law School. The movie drew a strong reaction from the NAACP and protesters to movie theaters.
Still, “Soul Man” took in around $28 million domestically, equivalent to around $63.5 million today.
Despite those images, new and popular black cultural figures also emerged, including Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey and a young Michael Jordan. Black Entertainment Television, or BET, was founded in 1980 by businessman Robert L. Johnson, giving the country access to black entertainment using 1970s sitcoms and music.
But as Nelson George argued in his book “Post-Soul Nation: The Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans,” BET failed to counter negative images by relying on free music videos and investing little money in original programming. “Through this conservative strategy, BET prospered while offering little new to a community starved for images of itself,” George wrote.
In addition, the new black cultural figures rarely engaged in politics or spoke out against racial injustice.
Sometimes, stereotypes and comments did result in consequences. For example, CBS fired sports commentator Jimmy Snyder, known as Jimmy the Greek, in 1988 after he suggested in a television interview that black athletes were better because of slavery. The Los Angeles Dodgers fired general manager Al Campanis in 1987 for saying on ABC’s “Nightline” that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager” and they were poor swimmers.
In 1987, black demonstrators marched in all-white Forsyth County, Georgia, to protest the racism that kept blacks out for 75 years. They were promptly attacked by white nationalists hurling rocks and waving Confederate flags. The shocking images sparked national outrage and led Oprah Winfrey to air an episode of her then-5-month-old syndicated talk show from the county.
“What are you afraid that black people are going to do?” Winfrey asked the audience.
“I’m afraid of them coming to Forsyth County,” one white man told her.
Today, Gates said, people can no longer claim ignorance. While it should have been understood that blackface was offensive during the 1980s, one might have had to go to the library to learn exactly why, he said.
“We also have more records digitized,” Gates said. “The access to archives is larger, and we have more diversity in the media so we can say these images are painful … and why we shouldn’t use them.”
Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman, a trailblazing African-American sister who was the first black sister in her white congregation, the first black woman to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and an inspiration to thousands of people with her words and songs, is another step further toward sainthood.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted Nov. 14 at their general assembly in Baltimore to advance Bowman’s cause, opening the way for a diocesan commission to determine whether she lived a life of “extraordinary and heroic virtue.”
Bowman, who was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, was declared a servant of God on May 15, when her home Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, requested the bishops endorse opening her cause for sainthood. On Nov. 18, in a ceremony scheduled before the vote even took place, Jackson Bishop Joseph Kopacz will read the edict opening the investigation, followed by a special Mass. Bowman died of cancer on March 30, 1990, at age 52.
Bowman will be declared venerable, worthy of imitation by the faithful, if the tribunal finds in Bowman’s favor and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome endorses the decision.
“Sister Thea always encouraged people to stand up for their rights and she continues to inspire,” said Sr. Eileen McKenzie, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration president, in an emailed statement. “As FSPA and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious pledge to unveil white privilege and purge the destructive effects of racism, we recognize Sister Thea’s cause to sainthood serves as a sign of the times. We believe she’d find hope that in this canonization process, there’s continued movement toward racial equity.”
McKenzie said the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration will follow the Jackson Diocese’s lead as the process moves forward, and that the community’s archives are open to commission officials.
There was a buzz in the motherhouse before and after the vote, McKenzie said.
“We’re looking around with eyes wide, saying, where is this going?” McKenzie told GSR in a phone interview. “It’s a fascinating time, and we’re having lots of conversations about how providential this moment is.
McKenzie said Bowman in 1989 challenged the bishops on racism, while today the bishops are themselves again taking up the cause with a pastoral letter on racism, even as they are being challenged by the sex abuse crisis in the church. Bowman’s message of reconciliation is again needed, she said.
Sr. Thea Bowman, seated, leads the singing of “We Shall Overcome” during the U.S. bishops’ meeting in South Orange, New Jersey, June 19, 1989. With Bowman are, standing from left, Atlanta Archbishop Eugene Marino, Albert Raboteau and Baltimore Bishop John Ricard. (CNS)
“We’re just kind of swimming in this understanding that there’s something happening with the Spirit in the world,” McKenzie said in the interview. “She was singing to them her pain, but she had a way of engaging them in the healing.”
Born Bertha Bowman on Dec. 29, 1937, in Yazoo City, Mississippi, she was the daughter of a doctor and a teacher. She attended Holy Child Jesus School in Canton, about 38 miles from her birthplace, run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. At age 8, she decided she wanted to become a Catholic. She knew by her early teenage years that she was called to consecrated life.
In the 1950s, she studied at Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where the order is based, while preparing to enter the convent. She was the first African-American member of the community, and one of very few African-Americans in La Crosse at the time. She went on to study at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. When she eventually returned to Canton in 1979 to care for her elderly parents, she continued to teach and inspire the people in her community.
Bowman led the Jackson Diocese’s Office of Intercultural Awareness, taught at several Catholic high schools and colleges, and was a faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Renowned for her preaching, she took her message across the nation, speaking at church gatherings and conventions, making 100 speaking engagements a year until spreading cancer slowed her. Music was especially important to her. She would gather or bring a choir with her and often burst into song during her presentations.
In addition to her writings, her music also resulted in two recordings, “Sister Thea: Songs of My People” and ” ‘Round the Glory Manger: Christmas Spirituals.”
Before the vote, Kopacz told the assembly that requests that Bowman be considered for sainthood have been coming to his diocese since before he was installed in 2014.
“She courageously proclaimed that she would live until she died. And she did,” Kopacz said. “Her word, witness and song testified to her joy and holiness even as she faced the cross of terminal illness.”
He said Bowman believed African-American spirituality had much to offer the church, and now the need for that healing spirituality is critical.
“There is an urgency for her sanctity to be a leaven in our church and our society,” Kopacz said.
Bertha Bowman as a child (Courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration)
Sr. Marla Lang professed vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the same class as Bowman, and will attend the ceremony in Jackson.
Lang said entering religious life is jarring for anyone, and Bowman had the additional pressure of being in an all-white congregation in an all-white city, not to mention the cultural — and weather-related — shock of moving to Wisconsin from the Deep South. But if Bowman was troubled by her circumstances, Lang said, she didn’t show it.
“She had her spirituals — the music that was so beautiful. Most of us had been living with little or no contact with anyone of African descent, but her voice was so beautiful, it was just a very rich experience,” Lang said. “She was just a very graceful person to be around. But there must have been times when she must have felt like she was in a whole new area or culture.”
But Bowman’s words and her songs brought people together, she said.
“It just oozed out of her whole life. You give her a microphone and her spirit just moved into the hearts of those around her,” Lang said. “She just knew how to let her energy flow. … Her warmth just kindled people’s hearts.”
At the order’s chapter in 1980, Bowman was asked to sing the Gospel at the final liturgy, Lang said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that proclamation of the Gospel,” she said. “There must have been four or five hundred people there, and she just rang it out. She just called us to live out the Gospel not only with great joy, but with great intent and spirit.”
Sr. Mary Ann Gschwind was Bowman’s roommate during their first summer studying at Catholic University in 1966. Gschwind is the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s archivist and has been sworn in as a member of the historical commission for Bowman’s cause.
Even at Catholic University, Bowman was unique, Gschwind said: There were African-American sisters on campus, but they were all in African-American congregations. Since the sisters still wore habits, it was easy to see that Bowman was from a white congregation.
Sr. Thea Bowman through the years: “Her story and lived experiences as the first and only black Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration remind us that the church was never an innocent bystander in the story of American racism.” (Photos courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration)
“It took a lot of nerve for her to join our community,” Gschwind said. “I don’t think I could have done it if the situation were reversed.”
And yet Bowman inspired and moved people everywhere she went.
“She taught at the school here in La Crosse, and of course it was all white, but she was still just a phenomenon,” Gschwind said. “They have very precious memories of her.”
It may have been growing up in Canton that drove her to bring people together: The small town was so extremely segregated that even in the 1970s and ’80s, there were stores African-Americans knew they were not welcome in. When Gschwind and her mother visited Bowman in Canton, her mother was so charmed by Dr. Bowman that she kissed his cheek when saying goodbye. Thea Bowman almost burst into tears.
“She said, ‘No white woman has ever kissed my black father,’ ” Gschwind said.
The investigation into Bowman’s life will have no shortage of material to examine. The congregation’s archives contain three file drawers of Bowman’s speeches — most of which she handwrote on scrap paper to avoid waste — and 20 bankers boxes of documents, Gschwind said. There are also many artifacts, such as Bowman’s wheelchair and the academic hoods she received with each of her many honorary degrees.
Dan Johnson-Wilmot was a colleague of Bowman’s at Viterbo in the 1970s, where he was a professor in the music department and she taught English and studied voice.
“Anyone who went to her presentations, I don’t think she ever had one where she didn’t sing,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “She had an uncanny gift — it didn’t matter who was there, she could weave a song into just about any kind of presentation she was giving, and people were just struck when she began singing because it was always from her heart and soul.”
Johnson-Wilmot said the two became fast friends after an incident that started out ugly but became just another sign of how Bowman could bring people together.
“She had an uncanny gift — it didn’t matter who was there, she could weave a song into just about any kind of presentation she was giving, and people were just struck when she began singing because it was always from her heart and soul.” (Courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration)
There were several African-American students from Bowman’s hometown of Canton at Viterbo who formed the core of a gospel choir Bowman established called the Hallelujah Singers. The choral group Johnson-Wilmot directed was invited to sing at a local function, but learned an earlier invitation to the Hallelujah Singers had been withdrawn when organizers found out the singers were African-American.
Johnson-Wilmot said he called the organizers and said his group wouldn’t sing unless both groups were invited. In the end, he said, both groups sang and the event was a success.
“[Bowman] asked me, ‘Why did you do that?’ She knew I was this white boy from Duluth, Minnesota, with very little contact with African-Americans,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “But regardless of your background, you can feel the presence of discrimination, and I wasn’t going to allow it.”
That was the beginning of a deep affection, he said.
“She was an only child, and one day she told me, ‘I decided you’re going to be my brother,’ and she became my big sister,” Johnson-Wilmot said. “I have so many letters from her that are addressed like that to me.”
“I always say my claim to fame is I was a friend to Sister Thea for 35 years,” Smith said. “She was a star and I was in orbit around her.”
Smith said Bowman’s parents worried about her joining an all-white religious order in the North.
“Her dad said, ‘They’re not going to like you up there.’ She said, ‘I’ll make them like me,’ ” Smith said. “She spread joy even during her struggle with cancer. She was always spreading joy and happiness through her songs and her wisdom.”
Sr. Charlene Smith with Sr. Thea Bowman: “I always say my claim to fame is I was a friend to Sister Thea for 35 years. She was a star and I was in orbit around her.” (Courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration)
Smith said Bowman’s joy came out even when she was seriously ill.
“She didn’t know how to not sing. She sang all day long; she sang in the night,” Smith said.
In 1989, Bowman traveled back to La Crosse for a symposium, but was so sick Smith was certain she would be unable to speak at the event. “As soon as people knew she was in town, they just streamed into the convent to see her,” Smith said.
At the symposium, “they rolled her out in her wheelchair and she absolutely electrified the whole audience there,” Smith said.
When Bowman spoke at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in June 1989, less than a year before her death from bone cancer, she was blunt. She told the bishops that people had told her black expressions of music and worship were “un-Catholic.”
She began her presentation by singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a rebuke to the shepherds of a church that often neglects its members of color. “Can you hear me, church?” she asked. “Will you help me? Jesus told me the church is my home.”
Bowman pointed out that the universal church includes people of all races and cultures and she challenged the bishops to find ways to consult those of other cultures when making decisions. She told them they were obligated to better understand and integrate not just black Catholics, but people of all cultural backgrounds.
Catholic News Service reported that her remarks “brought tears to the eyes of many bishops and observers.” She also sang to them and, at the end, had them all link hands and join her in singing “We Shall Overcome.” They gave her a rousing standing ovation.
Gschwind said Bowman challenging the bishops and having them embrace her in response is known to many in the community as “her first miracle.”
The legacy of Bowman and her generation is one of both condemnation and redemption, said Shannen Dee Williams, a history professor at Villanova University who is working on a book about black Catholic sisters.
“Along with the possible canonizations of Servant of God Mother Mary Lange and Venerable Henriette Delille, the formal opening of Sister Thea Bowman’s cause for canonization will signify that the church is ready to embrace the story of the real sister act in the United States — the story of how generations of devout black Catholic women and girls fought against racial segregation and exclusion in their white-dominated church in order to answer God’s calls on their lives and minister as women religious,” Williams wrote in an email to Global Sisters Report.
“Sister Thea Bowman was a member of the generation of black Catholic women and girls who desegregated the nation’s historically white sisterhoods after World War II. Her story and lived experiences as the first and only (African-American) Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration remind us that the church was never an innocent bystander in the story of American racism.”
Williams said that while those in the battle for civil rights often had the protection of the public eye to shame opponents, those desegregating white Catholic institutes did not — which makes their fight that much more inspiring.
But that fight also deeply wounded many.
“Sister Thea’s refusal to abandon her call to religious life or succumb to bitterness in the face of unholy discrimination did not come without cost,” Williams wrote. “She is one of several pioneering black sisters in white congregations who died young — in their forties and fifties due to stressed-related diseases like cancer.”
Smith said Bowman must be “getting a big kick” out of the canonization process.
“She said, ‘I just always try to let my little light shine,'” Smith said. “And she did.”