The term “urban” once described people, places, and things related to the city. Then it became code for anything related to modern “black” culture. Now, according to Regent University religion scholar Antipas Harris, the word needs to be fine-tuned once again.
What is urban? Is it a category of music heard on the radio? Is it a lifestyle or category of clothing? Or is it simply a codeword for black people? Antipas Harris has been working this question out since he was a child growing up in Georgia. He began playing piano at age 2 and knew he was going to preach and teach by age 7. He’s currently best known as a musician and songwriter with the urban soul group A7, which he formed with his five brothers. The group blends R&B and gospel to deliver inspiring songs. But as a professor of practical ministry at the Regent University School of Divinity, with degrees from Emory, Boston University, LaGrange College, and Yale Divinity School, Harris has focused his attention on the changing definition of urban and its implications for the church.
This year Regent announced Harris would lead its Divinity’s School’s new Youth and Urban Renewal Center, which will provide opportunities for students, scholars, and ministers to learn and collaborate. UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist met with Harris at his Virginia Beach office to discuss the Center and Harris’s passion for “urban” ministry.
URBANFAITH: When did you begin to focus on being an educator?
ANTIPAS HARRIS: I’ve been knowing since I was very young that I was called to teach, but I was also on the music scene. I was a choir director and music director for my dad’s church. By the time I was 15, I was preaching. I had spent a lot of time working with youth, so that was a focus. By the time I began my graduate work, I knew I was going to do it in theology rather than music. But I didn’t know for sure if it would be biblical studies or theology.
How did urban ministry become a focus?
While I was at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, I had the opportunity to experience contextual education — a required practical course. I chose to do it at a random place, Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta. I got there and loved it. I would say that was the beginning of my urban ministry interests. I saw it not as a shift, but an expansion of my theological interests.
What did you discover at the prison?
I grew up with a “You live by the sword, you die by the sword” mindset. I had a very strict idea about people in prison, but when I went there I said, “Wow, God is in prison because there are a lot of people who don’t belong there who are suffering.” It changed my world view. I went from being pro-capital punishment to anti-capital punishment. Even if the principle is sound, the practice is corrupted. The justice system becomes a mechanism of injustice among the powerless.
I observed that some of the women in prison had been victims of abuse. Some of them landed in prison as they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. There were even women there since age 16 who had been there all of their adult lives. Behind prison bars were people with situations that were way more complex than my conservative Pentecostal mindset was prepared to consider with compassion at the time.
So how did this change your direction?
Through prayer and study, I came to terms with my own theological limitations. Influenced by Liberation Theologians and Mujerista Theologians such as James Cone and Ada Maria Issasi-Diaz, I have come to terms with the fact that God works through the body of Christ. Our purpose is to participate in God’s suffering by helping to alleviate the problems of people. I discovered a whole new paradigm of church. It’s not some social club that we join or some building. I am convinced that the church that Jesus founded is the living organism of Christ that has the responsibility to continue the work of Christ in the world. The institutional churches are challenged to conform to the primary image of the body of Christ — an organism and not organization.
How will Regent’s Youth and Urban Renewal Center address this?
The center I’m developing brings together the church in the urban communities. What is the responsibility of the church in light of the depravation of urban communities? It ranges from issues of immigration like in Arizona, to poverty, to sexual crimes like pedophilia, to sex trafficking, to gangs and violence — just to name a few. What about the issue of health care, HIV/AIDS? The Center poses those questions to the church, and attempts to identify the divine responsibility of the church in light of our increasingly urbanized word. We want to prepare present and future pastors to think theologically about the role of the church. Furthermore, we want to promote the value of holistic education — mind, body and spirit — that, I believe, is key to dealing with many of the urban problems. Next February, for example, we’re scheduling the first Urban Family Conference. I’m calling Christian leaders together to think about the problems of the urban family and what churches can do to respond to them.
The word urban has gone from meaning “city,” to “Black,” to anything related to hip-hop culture. You have a new definition?
My new definition of urban springs primarily from the issue of gentrification. The inner-city, or urban, problems were such because originally it was the result of a dense population squeezed together — more concrete than trees, more people than jobs. But the point of gentrification was to reclaim the inner city, but it didn’t do anything about the people who lived there and the problems they faced. Instead, it basically ran them out. Atlanta, New York, LA, Chicago — whatever city it is, the people displaced from those places are now in the suburbs with the same problems.
So then, I proffer a definition of “urban” that refers to a suffering people in and beyond the metropolis, infiltrated and surrounded by violence, pollution, diversity, and a high concentration of poverty and need. This situation-centered definition of urban includes but has mushroomed beyond the inner city. Urban areas now include many areas just outside of the inner city and are quickly advancing to the rural areas as well.
So urban is less about culture and more about a particular socioeconomic condition and its related problems?
There’s an increasing influx of other ethnicities that muddies the idea that urban is African American. What I’m trying to articulate at Regent is that this is not a Black studies program or Hispanic studies program, but we cannot ignore the fact that the folks who primarily are the victims of urbanization are blacks and Latinos.
What does this mean for black churches in cities?
We need an urban church that both addresses issues that are lingering with African Americans, but includes other groups, like Hispanics, that are now being racially profiled. In the same way that the black church responded to racism in the South, with boycotts and advocating for people to vote, now the problem is broader. The paradigm has shifted a bit. It still includes issues of particular concern to African Americans, but we need to expand that to include the collective urban problems.
What does an effective urban church look like?
Everybody should consider the existential situations that are surrounding their church. For example, in Southern California, the urban church may look different than Bankhead in Atlanta. The churches need to think theologically about the issues that are immediately surrounding them.
How should churches embrace various cultures within their congregations?
The church has the opportunity to re-imagine what worship is like. Traditionally, it’s been so black or white. Music is one of the key expressions to culture. But even in church leadership and leadership style, we have the opportunity to share culturally and glean from the strengths of different cultures. Issues like family bonds. What can blacks learn from the Asian or Native American cultures that we might glean for sacred worship? What can be learned from Hispanics? And I’m not talking about a separate Spanish service, for example, but a multicultural service that incorporates Latino culture.
In my travels, what I’m observing is a black church where there are many Hispanics, but they have to buy into an African American way of doing church. Or, here in Virginia Beach, a church with a white pastor and white leadership but a large number of African American congregants. It looks diverse, but it’s a white church with a lot of black people in it. A truly urban church takes seriously and equalizes all of the cultures that are present. There needs to be more corporate koinonia where people fellowship and learn from each other. Diversify the senior-level leadership. Include more diverse cultural expression in the music. These aren’t the only things we should be doing, but they are key.
Sounds like what hip-hop culture has done, particularly in its music.
All throughout history cultural adaptation has been part of the church. Charles Wesley and Martin Luther, they took songs from the taverns and gave them Christian lyrics. There’s a difference between affirmation and critique. The gospel critiques the materialism and the love of money you see in a lot of rap music, but it also affirms its musical expression. Unfortunately, many in the black church reject hip-hop altogether because of its materialism, while at the same time accepting that materialism, such as what you see glorified in the prosperity gospel. Hip-hop celebrates the body way too much. It does not promote modesty. It promotes exploitation of women. The gospel critiques that, but it affirms the musical expression. That’s why it’s very important to look theologically at culture. Culture doesn’t drive the church, but it does participate in the reality of the church.