Remembering “The Pulpit King”

Remembering “The Pulpit King”

The following story was published in 2009, but we here at UrbanFaith.com still believe it captures the essence of Gardner C. Taylor. Dr. Melvin Banks, founder of Urban Ministries, Inc., had the privilege of hearing Taylor preach to the masses and counsel other ministers, making him a minister’s minister. Of this, Dr. Banks shared:

“It was my privilege to have heard Dr Taylor speak on several occasions, not only as a preacher but also as a counselor to ministers.  I fully agree with the assessment that he was “the prince of preachers.” Not only was he always sound in his exegesis of the text, relevant in applying Scripture to the current social situation and personal needs of people; he had a pulpit demeanor that showed that he had been with Jesus. I learned that he always began on Monday morning preparing his sermon for the following Sunday. He studied each day of the week through Friday. He would take no appointments on Saturday, choosing rather to pray and reflect all day in preparation for his delivery on Sunday. Would to God that every minister of the Gospel follow his model. The world has lost a great spokesperson for the Gospel.” 

The Urban Ministries, Inc. and UrbanFaith.com extends our condolences to the Taylor family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and more. We have certainly lost a great in our community.

 

Rev Gardner C Taylor on Urban Faith

Rev. Gardner C. Taylor

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” summed up his philosophy of preaching this way: “Above all, [the preacher] must put heart work into his preaching. He must feel what he preaches. It must never be with him an easy thing to deliver a sermon. He must feel as if he could preach his very life away before the sermon is done.” Gardner C. Taylor knows something about this kind of preaching. For more than 50 years he has “preached his life away.” In 1979, Time named him “the dean of the nation’s black preachers,” and in a recent issue of the Christian Century, he was dubbed the “poet laureate of American Protestantism.”

“Gardner Taylor is a consummate communicator,” says William Pannell, professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California. Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, concurs: “More than anybody else I have heard in my life, Gardner Taylor combines eloquence and passion in the endeavor of preaching.”

As pastor of the 14,000-member Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Taylor, 77, labored as shepherd and prophet in Brooklyn’s rugged Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for 42 years until his retirement in 1990. Today, as Concord’s pastor emeritus, Taylor is called upon to fill pulpits, give lectures, and provide keynote addresses at churches and educational institutions throughout the country. Though the legend of Gardner Taylor is great, those who know him readily admit the actual man is even greater.

Taylor is a grand, stately figure, so it is odd to see him behind the wheel of his late-model Ford rather than perched behind a pulpit. As he drives by Concord Baptist Church, I call out the street name on the corner sign: “Rev. Gardner C. Taylor Boulevard.”

“Yes, it’s a great honor,” he chimes in. “But I come from Louisiana, where they named the state law school for former governor Richard Leche. His name was placed high up on the building, engraved in stone. However, when he was sent to the penitentiary, they took it down.”

Such wry, self-deprecating humor is customary with Taylor, who regularly uses anecdotes and personal remembrances to deflect attention away from himself and toward the business of preaching the gospel.

Baptist Genes and a Defining Moment

Born on June 18, 1918, to the Reverend Washington and Selina Taylor, Gardner Calvin Taylor inherited “Baptist genes” that many assumed would lead him to pastoral ministry. But he recalls, “I recoiled from the thought of being a preacher. I wanted to go to law school and become a criminal lawyer. My boyhood friends in Louisiana tried to discourage me from that idea, though; at that time, no black person had ever been admitted to the Louisiana bar.”

Taylor, nevertheless, continued his plans and gained admission to the University of Michigan Law School. But in 1937, prior to leaving for Michigan, Taylor was involved in a tragic car accident. As he drove one night in rural Louisiana, a Model T Ford suddenly cut across his path. “I tried to avoid them, but I couldn’t,” he recalls. Both of the passengers in the other car died. And, though Taylor survived, he was left “shaken at my roots.” Not only were two men dead, but they were two white men. And the only witnesses to the accident were a white farmer and a white oil refinery worker.

“In that day, for a white person to tell the truth about a black person in that situation was incredible; but those men told the truth. I would not be here today if they had not.”

Through that jarring event, Taylor received his call to the ministry. “I was surprised by God’s grace. I had been brooding about my future for a long time, but that was the defining moment.”

Taylor went on to three “bright years” at the Oberlin School of Theology, where he developed a scholarly appreciation for a wide range of subjects. While at Oberlin, Taylor met his wife and pastored a church in Elyria, Ohio. Following Oberlin, he served pastorates in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finally at Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church. Taylor was only 30 years old when he arrived on the scene at Concord, which in 1948 was already a flourishing congregation of over 5,000.

Taylor deepened Concord’s now 148-year tradition as a prestigious and vital presence in the heart of New York’s inner city. He not only filled pews on Sunday morning, but he took faith out onto the streets. “One must get out of life and into the Bible,” he says. “But there are also times when one must get out of the Bible and into people’s lives.”

In Spite of the Preacher

Taylor’s holistic grasp of the gospel has resulted in a church that serves as a model for urban congregations across the nation with its commitment to community outreach and development. With Taylor at the helm, Concord established a senior citizens’ home, a fully accredited Christian grade school, a professionally staffed nursing home, and an economic-development program that draws on a $1 million endowment to provide grants to various social projects in the Brooklyn area.

But despite his tireless work in the roles of pastor and community activist, the wider world will always see his oratorical gifts as his defining quality. And understandably so.

“Often, in spite of the preacher, the people are ministered to,” he says. “The Word of God breaks through the preacher by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Taylor recounts a story from his days as a fledgling minister in Baton Rouge. In that Depression-ravaged era, he was in the midst of a sermon one Sunday evening when suddenly the electricity in his small church building flickered out. Encased in darkness, the young Taylor stood motionless, not knowing what to do. Finally, an elder deacon yelled out from the congregation, “Preach on, preacher, we can still see Jesus in the dark.” And that’s what the preacher has been doing ever since: proclaiming the Word into and amid the darkness.

Listening to Gardner Taylor preach is like “hearing the voice of God,” a colleague of Taylor’s has said. As quoted in Time, Richard John Neuhaus, now editor-in-chief of First Things, expressed amazement at Taylor’s ability to “[play] with a single word. … He whispers it, and then he shouts it; he pats, pinches and probes it.”

Listening to Taylor speak over an informal meal, like our lunchtime meeting, or under any circumstance is akin to hearing him on a Sunday morning. Even his common language is colored with rich poetic rhythm and imagery. He is not a preacher by profession but by nature; it’s who he is.

Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at the Duke Divinity School, says Taylor can draw applause from his listeners by simply reading a text. In his book The Preacher King, Lischer writes, “On one occasion as [Taylor] read some of the proper names in Luke 3 (Tiberius, Ituraiea, Trachonitis), members of the congregation began responding, ‘My Lord, My Lord!’ ”

Noted preaching scholar James Earl Massey believes Taylor has “one of the best working vocabularies of any minister alive.” Massey, who recently retired as dean of the Anderson (Ind.) School of Theology, has been a friend of Taylor’s for more than 20 years. He says Taylor’s command lies in his breadth of cultural knowledge. “He has a firm understanding of the best of both African-American and Anglo-Saxon culture,” he explains. “The best preaching is that which can go beyond one’s self and one’s own culture to touch others who are from different backgrounds — and that’s what Dr. Taylor does.”

“Dr. Taylor is a person who is able to move effortlessly across denominational and social boundaries to touch people’s lives,” adds Timothy George, who was introduced to Taylor as a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early seventies when the school flew Taylor in once a week to teach a homiletics course. But George remembers it being more of a course on life. “He has such great wisdom and tremendous theological depth and insight.”

Indeed, “wisdom,” “depth,” and “insight” are woven through all of Taylor’s preaching. The force of his sermons exercise both mind and soul. Like many traditional African-American pulpiteers, Taylor applies a meandering introduction that is as much a mental warm-up for the preacher as it is a preface for the sermon topic. But once Taylor launches into the body of the message, the congregation is transfixed by his skillful handling of the scriptural text. Both sound and content combine to propel the sermon to its roaring climax.

One is immediately gripped by Taylor’s flair for cunning exposition. He is at once storyteller and theologian. Thus the apostle Paul is presented as “a deformed wanderer with the label of Tarsus on his baggage.” And familiar passages are reenvisioned with profound implication: “Paul was filled with competence and commitment, on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem. … But on that road where he was, Somebody else was on that road. Because Somebody else is on every road. I don’t know what road you’re traveling today — it may be a road of great joy, it may be a road of sorrow — but Somebody else is on it.”

Taylor himself is less certain about the mechanics of his preaching. “Black preachers used to have a formula for delivering a sermon,” he told Leadership journal in 1981. “Start low, go slow, get high, strike fire, retire. But I can’t offer a formula for how I deliver a sermon; it depends on the sermon, on the mood of the preacher, on the mood of the congregation.”

Taylor insists that, whatever a sermon does, it must bring humanity in touch with its Creator. “There’s no excuse for the preacher if he or she is not speaking to people for God,” he says. “Preaching that does not bring in the vertical aspect of the sermon — the impact of God upon human life — cannot be called a sermon.”

Preaching in the Real World

Preaching “the impact of God upon human life” is an admirable aim. But often the human life becomes so complex, so messy that pat theological answers seem inadequate for speaking to a congregation’s concerns.

Taylor remembers countless instances when he was called upon to minister against the backdrop of both personal and national crises, such as World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil-rights revolution. “As I preached during those difficult days, I wanted people to know that God is still on the throne,” he says. “I couldn’t predict the future; I could only give them the assertion made by my old theology dean, Thomas Graham: ‘Faith is reason gone courageous.’ ”

Taylor’s own darkest night came earlier this year when his wife of 52 years, Laura Scott Taylor, an accomplished intellectual and community leader in her own right, was tragically killed by a city vehicle while crossing a Brooklyn street.

Laura Taylor was the founder of the Concord Baptist Elementary School, where she served as principal for 32 years without pay. “She was a very fine scholar and intellectual herself,” says William Pannell. “She was the one who exposed him to the theater and a much broader cultural and artistic pallet.”

“She was a very sharp and classy woman,” Taylor says of his wife. “At one point, I had gotten too involved in Brooklyn politics because of the size of the church. After a while, my wife said to me, ‘Your preaching is getting very thin.’ It was one of the most scathing things I’ve ever heard. I soon got out of preaching too much about politics.”

Taylor has now lived through the pain and grief about which he has consoled so many others. “They told me, ‘You have to listen to what you told us now, Pastor,’ ” he says. “The assurances that I passed out to people before — I thought I was sincere, and I thought I understood what they were going through. But I did not.”

In a recent address to his former parishioners at Concord, Taylor’s sorrow was visibly evident. “We are grateful to you [for your kindness during our loss],” he prefaced his message. “But I must not dwell on that now, because sometimes the heart is so sore — incurably so — that it cannot stand the touch of memory. So I will go forward.”

Through his forward journey, Taylor has gained an even greater appreciation of his faith. “When you come to personal crises in your life, as I have, I don’t know what people do without faith,” he observes. “I don’t always have a calm assurance about it, but I believe in all my heart that God will not do us evil. And when I understand what he is doing, I will appreciate it.”

Lately, Taylor speaks often of “the illusion of permanence.” He says, “I don’t think the young could live very well without that illusion. But as one gets older, this life begins to show its true quality of impermanence and unreliability. I believe God has ordained it so that as we must leave this world, it becomes less attractive.”

Besides being recognized as the senior statesman of African-American preachers, Taylor was a close friend and ally of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he supported during a particularly tense period in black Baptist circles. During that chaotic time 35 years ago, Taylor, King, and other ministers were involved in a controversial split from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (NBC, currently the largest black denomination in the U.S.) after a fierce debate over King’s civil-rights agenda. Some within the NBC felt it was too politically liberal. As a result, Taylor and others, led by the important work of Cincinnati pastor L. Venchael Booth, went on to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which today has a membership of 2.5 million.

Taylor is one of the few surviving Baptists who were involved in that ugly dispute. “Younger Baptists don’t talk about it much anymore,” he says, “but it was a very difficult time in my life. I lost many friends.”

A Classical Evangelical

Despite being so intimately tied to modern African-American history and despite his stature as a gifted orator, Taylor remains largely unknown within the evangelical community today. “It’s just another sign,” says Timothy George, “of the ghettoization of the church.”

Perhaps Taylor’s ability to move in and out of diverse Protestant circles — both mainline and conservative — has contributed to his lack of recognition among evangelicals. But, as Lischer notes, while Taylor “infuses his sermons with principles drawn from the liberal view of human nature and history,” he “holds to an explicitly evangelical doctrine of salvation centered in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.”

But does Taylor consider himself an evangelical? Only in “the European sense,” he says. “European evangelicalism had a commitment to the gospel in its outreach toward human beings and the sufficient work of Jesus Christ,” Taylor explains. “But it was not a rigid kind of doctrinaire position, as it has been among many evangelicals in America.”

He adds, “I think evangelicals need a social conscience about the people who are least defended and most vulnerable in the society. If Christianity is not that, forget about it.”

Still, Taylor is encouraged by the hopeful signs of racial reconciliation that are emerging in the church today. Although he regrets that Concord Baptist Church never achieved a greater level of racial diversity during his tenure there, he appreciates the new sensitivity among Christians to the issue. “It is impossible, I think, to estimate the enormous impact that the whole evangelical community could have on this nation if it would free itself of its bias of race.”

Coming Back Empty

When Taylor volunteers his ideas on what makes a “great preacher,” the discussion turns to his list of personal heroes — a multiracial aggregate of pulpiteers. He speaks fondly of what he considers a golden age of preaching in New York during his early days in Brooklyn, when preachers like George Buttrick, Robert McCracken, Sandy Ray, Paul Sherer, and Adam Clayton Powell filled local pulpits.

That great tradition of preaching, fostered by Taylor and others, reverberates from today’s pulpits in one form or another. The call-and-response liturgy, rhythmic pacing and intonations, and holistic scriptural exposition are very much in evidence within contemporary black churches. Younger ministers such as James A. Forbes Jr., of the Riverside Church of New York and Gary V. Simpson, who succeeded Taylor as pastor of Concord Baptist, carry on the tradition of passionate black preaching. Yet some fear that there may be more flash than substance among many preachers in the younger set.

Taylor has no worries about the future of African-American preaching but does offer one cautionary note: “There is not too much emotion in the African-American church, but there is too much emotionalism. If what one is dealing with is so great, so gripping that it defies expression, then, yes, I can understand the emotional praise and preaching; but when it is done as a device, I think it’s reprehensible.”

He admits that he, too, had an obsession with emotion and calculated eloquence in his younger days. “At one point, I wanted to take elocution to train my voice,” he told Leadership. “My wife discouraged me from it, so I never did it. Her reasoning was that preaching never ought to be a finished thing, a polished performance. She was right.”

In these, his twilight years, Taylor speaks openly about the reality of old age: “You have only to look on my countenance to know that my years have faded into the light of the common day,” he said in a recent address. “But I can say this to you: Every time I have felt at the end of my tether, the old promise has come true. There has been restoration; there has been renewal; there has been revival.”

What makes a great preacher? “In the Book of Ruth, Naomi says, ‘I went out full, and I’ve come back empty,’ ” Taylor says. “That’s the story of life. It’s also the story of preaching; we must keep ourselves full so we can empty ourselves in the pulpit.”

At the end of Taylor’s sermon “A Promise for Life’s Long Pull,” he offers a word on his life’s ministry, drawing from his favorite black spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”:

” ‘Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain’ … But then, just at the end of my tether; but then, when all of my strength seems spent and gone; then, when I come almost to the borders of despair; then, when I feel frustrated and confused and out of it; ‘Then … the Holy Spirit’ comes and ‘revives my soul again.’ ”

Reprinted and adapted from Christianity Today, Dec. 11, 1995. Used by permission. 

Remember When Spike Lee Made Movies?

Remember When Spike Lee Made Movies?

HE STILL GOT GAME?: Spike Lee’s new film, ‘Red Hook Summer,’ which explores religion and urban life in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is his first movie to be released during Barack Obama’s presidency. (Photo: David Lee/Newscom)

Director Spike Lee had not released a film during the Obama presidency until this week’s release of Red Hook Summer, just a couple months before the next presidential election.

Remember Spike Lee? This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing. When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s Inside Man, a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years — since Obama has been president — he has not released a movie, period.

During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.

But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.

Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:

[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.

In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?

The Mainstreaming of Racial Transcendence

Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African Americans — like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson — but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:

The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.

Jordan, the NBA icon, similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”

The generation that grew up on The Cosby Show and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that they were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game of basketball. Of course Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.”

Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thought of when he thought of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.

Ultimately, there is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with crossover demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side.

Lord, Help Our Blind Sides

The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, The Blind Side and The Help, were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Blind Side and The Help connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign — that America had done something important to help African Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved — in each case by a white, affluent character.

In The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unbashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today — represented in this modern woman — have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.

It is a similar story in The Blind Side, which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes Michael Oher, a poor black young man, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university.

We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing. But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the nickname he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.

In both films, the central African American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide — due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.

In the final scene of The Help, Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.

Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on “the War on Drugs.”

Of course most of these are not racial issues, per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.

Where Art Thou, Spike?

And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (She Hate Me and Bamboozled) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.

So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed When the Levees Broke, a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.

That brings us to Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, in which he reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even Red Hook Summer has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.

And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking Oldboy, a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.

This article originally appeared at Noah Gittell’s Reel Change blog.

Welcome to My Borough

borough friends

Teen life is an inherently tumultuous time. Bodies change and hormones start raging, even as teens begin to confront life's big questions -- the very same questions many adults have yet to figure out, like: "Who am I?" "Why am I here?" "Where do I belong?"

Greetings from Brooklyn, the most populous borough in New York City. Birthplace of Jay-Z. Home of the integration of Major League Baseball. And site of the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth largest in America.

My name is Jeremy Del Rio, and I’m an addict — if you can call ministry to young people an addiction. Or if you can call city life addicting. Either way, I’m hooked.

I’ve lived more of my life in Brooklyn than anywhere else, with pit stops in Manhattan (the glitzy borough), Staten Island (the forgotten borough), and the greatest of NYC suburbs, New Jersey (sometimes called the Sixth Borough). My wife has lived nowhere else. Nor have our sons, both of whom were born here.

Our boys will soon discover the ABC’s of City Living. Multifaceted and textured, Brooklyn is:

• Altruistic, artistic, and adventurous.
• Boisterous and beautiful.
• Cosmopolitan, creative, curious, conflicted, communal, and even cliquish.
• Diverse and occasionally dangerous.
• Energetic.
• Fun.
• Grandiose.
• Hyper.
• Inspired and invigorating.
• Jubilant and joyful.
• Kind.
• Loud.
• Maturing and sometimes mean.
• Neighborly or nasty.
• “Over it.”
• Passionate.
• Quite charming.
• Restless, rowdy, and relevant.
• Smart, sophisticated, and sometimes sullen.
• Typecast.
• Unbuttoned.
• Vulnerable.
• Wide-eyed and occasionally wild.
Xenos friendly but sometimes xenophobic.
• Yours to love (or not).
• Zestful.

So, too, are young people.

You may quibble with my list, and its applicability to youth ministry, but that’s part of the allure of cities. It’s OK if you disagree. We can still get along. We can still build community despite our differences.

Like many urban neighborhoods, mine is in perpetual flux, transformed for generations by successive waves of immigrants. For the last decade or so, Bay Ridge has evolved into one of the largest Arab communities in New York, with Halal meat markets and Hookah shops now lining the streets. Sometimes the newer arrivals make the long-timers uncomfortable. And vice versa.

So, too, our youth ministries.

Youth ministry is an inherently transitory time. No matter how we define the youth in our ministries, they are bound by age, grade, or some other time constraint that ensures that they will move on, leaving empty spaces or replenished pews. How we build community with them while we can determines, in part, whether they leave behind a vacuum or a legacy.

Do we attempt to conform them to our standards of decorum and decency, or do we empower them to flourish in the uniqueness endowed to them by their Creator? Does our community celebrate their differences by loving them sincerely, without an agenda?

Teen life is an inherently tumultuous time. Bodies change and hormones start raging, even as teens begin to confront life’s big questions — the very same questions many adults have yet to figure out, like: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where do I belong?” But the uncertainty, curiosity, and ambiguity bring with them opportunity for exploration, adventure, and discovery. Do we embrace the unknowns that faith requires, or chase after the safety of what’s familiar?

When the transience and change feel overwhelming, I take comfort that Jesus gives youth workers an extra year with high school students than he had with his disciples. Even more comforting: his prize student, Peter, still needed anger management after three years by his side. Jesus’ ragtag collection of unlikely followers included a political terrorist (the Zealot), a crooked bureaucrat (the tax collector), and a prostitute — among other “ignorant and unlearned” devotees notable only for their least likely to succeed credentials. Each of these people had to be at least as conflicted and petty as the teens in my youth group.

They were certainly (almost) as diverse as my neighborhood.