Grammy-winning gospel performer Kirk Franklin can’t be onstage these days but he’s featured virtually in an upcoming benefit to draw attention to poor children across the globe who are affected by COVID-19.
Franklin is joining World Vision, Food for the Hungry and Compassion International in the “Unite to Fight Poverty” virtual concert set to be televised and streamed online on Friday (Aug. 28) at 8:30 p.m. EDT on Daystar Television Network, Facebook, YouTube and PureFlix. It is also scheduled to air at 3 p.m. EDT Saturday on Fox Business.
Franklin, who won six Stellar Gospel Music Award trophies on Sunday, joins 20 other Christian artists for the two-hour fundraiser to aid the three Christian humanitarian organizations. Those groups are working to help families experiencing extreme poverty in the wake of the pandemic and natural disasters by providing hygiene supplies and clean water.
Franklin, who has traveled across the world, also recorded a new video of his song “Strong God” for Compassion to raise awareness about the crisis. Even as he’s drawing attention to the pandemic, he acknowledged it’s hard for him to not know when he’ll be able to perform in person again.
“I miss people,” said the host of the “Sunday Best” televised singing competition. “And I’m looking forward to getting back in front of people.”
Musician Kirk Franklin in 2019. Courtesy photo
Franklin, 50, talked to Religion News Service about the global effects of the coronavirus and his calls for the church to respond to racial inequities, but he declined to comment on whether his related boycott of Trinity Broadcasting Network and the Dove Awards continues.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Oh, no, no, not at all. Not at all. Not at all. And I’m really appreciative and grateful for everything I get. ’Cause I know nothing is owed to me.
This is the first time that World Vision, Compassion International and Food for the Hungry have worked together on an effort like this benefit. Why did you decide to join this joint effort?
It’s because I believe in the ideals of what they stand for. And I know that even though there are many disparities and deficiencies in America, we are still a blessed country. I’ve been blessed to travel the globe and I can totally understand how, even in the middle of this global pandemic, there are many countries and many individuals that are not able to just pivot and to diversify to survive. I can totally see why this would be such a great moment to come together because we’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime. And it makes me so proud of them to see them unify for the same cause.
What song or songs did you perform and why did you choose those selections?
Well, my song selection was not really based on the mood or the cause of the event. I just wanted to do music I thought would make people feel good. I performed “Love Theory” and “Just for Me.” I’ve been blessed by God’s guidance to have a whole bunch of songs and at this stage of my career, whatever I pick is going to be something that just feels good. But sometimes it’s hard to pick. And so you just deal with what you’re feeling at the moment.
You went to the Dominican Republic with Compassion International. How recently did you go and how long were you there?
Believe it or not, it was right before the world shut down. It was in January. And I was there almost a week.
What is it that struck you particularly about the trip?
How many people in the world still live marginalized lives, that still live under the poverty line, and how many people are forgotten by the 1%. That is just a mystery to me. And it can make me even, at times, question God’s bigger divine plan, even though I have to choose to believe, when it’s hard to believe. But that is something that has always fascinated me.
A recording set for the “Unite to Fight Poverty” virtual concert. Courtesy photo
How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
We’ve had people we know, family members have died, people in the churches we’ve been members of have died or people have been hospitalized. So we’ve seen it firsthand, we’ve seen it up close. And then also I’m in the people business. And so many artists and churches and ministers and pastors, we’re in the job of touching people and there’s something very healing and therapeutic for the soul when we do. And we have not had the opportunity to do that for almost six months.
Has the death of George Floyd and other people, Black people in particular, in police-related incidents affected you personally?
Yes, yes, of course. I’ve been very outspoken. I’ve been very engaged. I’ve been very consistent in my conversations about the disparity of how these actions are in the legal system, in the systems there to protect people, but they don’t protect all people. And also been very vocal about the lack of the church’s voice in social issues that affect people that go to these churches, that sit in these pews. And the lack of information or the lack of conversation has been really deafening.
You appeared in March on Trinity Broadcasting Network, and you discussed these very issues you just spoke of. Has anything new come of that time with TBN or any new steps since then?
I can just say that my heart and my passion won’t stop in any conversation I have that has to do with social injustice or the injustices of any group of people the Bible calls Christians to be engaged in. And, until we are more visible, more visual, more outspoken and more committed to these causes, I will continue to have conversations.
So did that appearance in some way mark an end of your boycott of TBN and the Dove Awards, or is that continuing?
Musician Kirk Franklin in 2019. Courtesy photo
I will just say I will continue to have conversations until the conversations are not needed.
I’m just going to ask one more time: In October, do you expect to be on the Dove Awards?
In October, I continue to keep the narrative of God’s heart and social injustice, and the church’s lack of engagement. We should be the ones leading the narrative and until we do, I will continue to speak up and speak loud and humble and with love until there’s tangible change.
But it sounds like you’re not ready to answer the question about whether you’re going to be there or not.
I will be where I’m supposed to be with this message. I will be at whatever platform I’m called to be able to talk about how God’s love should include everybody. And, until that happens, I will continue to preach love, truth, justice and grace.
Since you are an artist of faith who performs about faith, how do you have faith as you go through this time of the coronavirus pandemic and not being able to perform the way you’d like?
I started going back to therapy and that’s been very, very good for me. I’m a Black man that goes to therapy. I talk, I pray, and they are synonymous. It has been really, really good to be able to have somebody to be able to help you as you help other people. That’s something that can be very, very encouraging. For the first time in history, we had so many pandemics that were contemporaneous: You have racial pandemics, you have political pandemics, you have economic pandemics. So those things can be very daunting for someone that is looked at to be able to try to have all the answers.
Alexis Mann’s life story is a case study in beating the odds. She grew up poor, dropped out of school, had a baby at 16, and ran away from home.
“I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face,” said Mann, who went on to graduate from high school and college and earn her master’s degree in special education.
Today, she teaches at Harrison Education Center, a Minneapolis high school for students with emotional and behavioral challenges, many of whom have experienced trauma. Mann’s story of emerging from desperate circumstances and thriving “provides students with hope, and helps them not give up on themselves.”
Her job can be challenging in the best of times. The work is even more demanding now, in light of the coronavirus, which has forced classes online, and the recent police killing of George Floyd, which happened just a few miles from the high school. In recent weeks, Mann has had to facilitate some difficult conversations, like when her 8-year-old grandson asked her if what happened to Floyd was going to happen to him.
“We say we don’t don’t know,” she said, “that we hope not.”
Mann spoke recently with Chalkbeat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Minneapolis has garnered international attention in recent weeks, following the police killing there of George Floyd and the protest movement that followed. How are your students processing the tragedy?
Most or all of my students have had encounters with the police. Many of them are on probation, and some have served time. They have a genuine lack of trust with the so-called criminal justice system. This is a time when students are asking themselves: What are my priorities? What are my needs? And for some of them school has not been a priority right now. With the protests, they are wanting to be part of that and showing up in large numbers to have their voices heard.
The biggest takeaway for them is to rise up and use their voices, to practice their civic participation and to vote, and to show up in spaces where policies are being made and decisions are affecting them. We do a lot of community engagement work in class; I take them to the state capitol to teach them about the power of their voices and the importance of fighting for equal protection, as is promised under the law.
Were you surprised by what happened to George Floyd?
What took me by surprise was the grim smirk on [the officer’s] face. He had this look like so what. It reminds me of how teachers sometimes treat their students, knowing that they’ll be protected regardless of job performance. Some teachers create a racist environment, a hostile learning environment, where some students get preferential treatment and others are over-punished. If Johnny asks to go to the bathroom, fine; if Tyrone asks, they don’t believe him.
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it impacts your work today.
I grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, a historically black community of St. Paul. When I was in elementary school, my parents bused us out to St. Anthony Park, which was a primarily white school. I remember Miss Buttler, the only black teacher in the school. I always hoped I would be lucky enough to be assigned to her classroom, but I got another teacher. Looking back, having teachers who I did not connect with caused me to lose interest in school.
I started high school in a suburb outside of Atlanta. I skipped class, refused to do my work, flunked, and ran away — back to Minnesota. I decided that my only way out was to become a teen mom, and three months after my daughter was born I struck out on my own at the age of 16, and I never looked back. I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face. Ultimately, I graduated from Central High School in St. Paul with my class in 1993, and went on to college and graduate school.
My story gives me a heightened ability to relate to my students and puts me in a place where I can be more considerate of their needs. I did not grow up with opportunities for success readily available, but through all that — what I encountered coming out of poverty — I’m able to provide students with a blueprint.
What’s one thing you’ve read that’s helped you become a better educator?
In recent months, you’ve been teaching your classes remotely and also facilitating at-home learning for your children and grandchildren. What advice would you give to parents who are trying to help their own children during the pandemic?
Try to keep your kids on a consistent schedule, and make sure they are going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time. Create a distance learning space (or spaces) where your kids can focus and work quietly. It may also be a good idea to establish agreements with your children. For example, no pajamas in the distance learning space or no video games during the distance learning day. Lastly, create incentives for meeting milestones that you establish.
Speaking of advice, what’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?
My dad once told me, “The ones who know the most say the least, so hear more than you say and think before you speak.” Being a good listener is paramount to establishing respect, building rapport, and cultivating healthy relationships, which has been extremely helpful in building strong connections with my students and preventing and de-escalating behaviors.
What gives you hope at this moment?
Distance learning is giving our students access to learning 21st-century technology skills that they were not getting before, and they will need these skills to compete in the future job market. I hope that we can continue to provide distance learning as an option for students who are uncomfortable in the classroom environment, or who skip school because of safety reasons, or who need to earn extra credit to graduate. I support using distance learning to create more equitable access to education and technology skills.
Fighting through a dark season in your life where you find yourself depressed and at times filled with debilitating sadness is challenging enough for the average person. But it’s hard to imagine what that’s like for those in the public eye, living under social media scrutiny. In his latest book, I am Restored: How I Lost My Religion, but Found My Faith, Lecrae reveals a maturity in his faith after navigating through the uglier side of politics and Christianity, being a celebrity, a Black man, and a believer.
It’s part of a series of initiatives in 2020 focused on his personal restoration as well as serving as a catalyst for others in his faith, the music industry, and within popular culture. In May 2020, he released “Set me Free” featuring YK Osiris, the first track from his forthcoming ninth album, “Restoration.” A documentary about his life also will be coming out this summer.
Lecrae’s journey toward restoration began in his first book, Unashamed, where he didn’t hold back in talking about what he’s been through on his road to salvation—from drugs and abuse to rehab and even suicide.
I recently spoke to Lecrae about restoration issues of race, practical steps for dealing with depression and dark seasons, and how he’ll raise his kids in the faith.
Shari Noland: The full title of your book is I am Restored: How I Lost My Religion But Found My Faith. It’s a provocative title. Can you explain the distinction you’re making between religion and faith?
Lecrae: I would define religion as working to earn God’s love and God’s affirmation, and faith being operating out of already having God’s love and affirmation. So, for me, it was understanding the difference between my devotion to God and God’s devotion to me.
Shari Noland: You spent some time traveling to Biblical places and being rebaptized. How did your travel to those biblical places influence your perspective on your faith?
Lecrae: Yeah, it was pretty intense. I think it’s almost like when my wife was pregnant, I knew there was a child coming, but I hadn’t seen the child. So, there’s a belief—there’s even ultrasounds—which is like I’m reading the Bible. I can get an idea, but it was just different once I saw the actual child. Similarly, it was like I knew these places existed, I knew God was real, but then just being there and then you see the evidence and you see the places that are written about was really mind blowing and just reinvigorated my faith on a different level.
Shari Noland: Do you have any thoughts about Black Jesus vs. White Jesus?
Lecrae: I actually do. If I’m being completely honest, that’s what a large portion of what my book talks about. I ended up in a dark season because of a lot of issues with race in the church. I had to wrestle with how my faith and my Blackness work together. And it wasn’t until I went to Egypt and I realized that we in America have a very Western perspective on the Bible and on God, and that’s okay. I mean, we’re from the West, so we should. However, it’s not always accurate. And I think because in the West, we’ve seen so many depictions of angels as white of Jesus as white, of the disciples as white, sometimes when you see the issues with race in America, that can help create problems within your faith. So, because you’re seeing issues of race or issues with your white brothers and sisters that are frustrating to you, you now begin to wrestle with your faith because it’s like, “Well, God, is this how you are?”
The only other example I can give is that I didn’t grow up with my father in my life. Older men were very abusive, and so for me to consider God being a father was just strange to me. I just couldn’t reconcile it in my mind for a long time. And long story short, I had to understand that. Yes, Jesus came to this earth and He dwelt in a human body, but He does transcend race.
But at the end of the day, your race and your ethnicity matters. There’s beauty in our diversity, and we should embrace that and accept that. Obviously, Jesus is not a white man. He isn’t from Europe, He’s a Palestinian Jew. He’s not an African American. He’s not an African man, but he’s a Palestinian Jew. He’s a person of color. And if that makes a difference to you, awesome. But ultimately, what should make a difference is what He did for you on the cross and how He lived. And that’s what we should pledge allegiance to more than His ethnic identity.
Shari Noland: You’ve mentioned that your grandmother took you to church at an early age. Given what you’ve been through in your life, how will you raise your children in the faith?
Lecrae: My grandmother was very traditional—so there wasn’t quite the children’s ministry. I didn’t really participate in any kind of youth programs or anything like that. It was just sitting in there and hearing her and some of her congregation on the organ. That was my church experience.
A lot of my grandmother’s children walked away from the faith because there were just way too many rules. They weren’t allowed to wear pants or lipstick. There’s so many rules in order to earn God’s love, so to speak. And she’s since changed a lot.
But I think, for me, I want to make sure my kids understand that there’s nothing they can do to make God love them any more or any less and that you live in light of love instead of trying to earn love. I wouldn’t want them to try to earn my love. I’d want them to just understand that daddy loves you and you don’t have to earn it. But because daddy loves you, that may change some of the decisions you make and change some of the actions that you take in life. And I hope they treat God the same way.
Shari Noland: What are your conversations like with God when you’re going through the creative process?
Lecrae: A practical step that I think for me, in my time of prayer or meditation, is that I remind myself that He’s present. The Psalms say that He’s the shade at your right hand. So I’m reminded He’s as close to me as my right hand is from me. So, I can talk to Him like a father. I can talk to Him in a way that my kids would talk to me. I don’t have to come to Him with these verbose wordings. If my kids came up to me and said, “Oh, mighty father, may I please go outside?” I’d say, “Well, why are you talking to me like that?” So, I just talk with God, and I say, “Dad, I’m struggling, and I’m wrestling with some of these things. Can you help me with this or with that?” And that changes the dynamic. He becomes close and present, versus being far and unapproachable.
Shari Noland: With the book, album, and documentary, how are you hoping to impact people? What messages do you want them to take from your initiatives?
Lecrae: For me, it’s being very transparent, very vulnerable. So, I show a lot of my scars, and hopefully, by showing off my scars, other people can realize that their wounds can be healed. So, I go in depth, I talk about my marital struggles, my career struggles, personality struggles, identity, politics, race, all those things that feed into our regular lives. I think sometimes people just say, “I’ll just pray, and it’ll be okay.” And prayer’s definitely a part of it, but there’s some action steps and there’s some struggles that people just don’t want to talk about. I want folks to find freedom by seeing how I’ve struggled through those things.
Shari Noland: In Unashamed you wrote, “If you live for people’s acceptance, you’ll die from their rejection.” and you often have said that these are words by which you live. Why?
Lecrae: Because that’s something I struggle with. Sometimes we get caught in this mindset of living for the acceptance of other people, and that’ll carry you into your ideas about God, as well. You get so wrapped up in trying to be what other people want you to be instead of being who you were created to be. And for myself, I’ve done that for a large portion of my life and my career. Oftentimes, people build you up in order to tear you down. So if you’re just trying to earn everyone else’s approval, at some point in time when they don’t approve of you or when they don’t agree with you, then you’ll be devastated. I want to free people from that thought process.
Shari Noland: Yeah, it’s hard sometimes not to crave acceptance from people. And I see what you’re saying about being true to yourself. But, practically speaking, how can people keep strong and do that?
Lecrae: We live in a comparison culture, so it’s fighting the temptation to compare yourself to other people. We all have our own races to run, so run your race as best as you can. I believe that success isn’t what I do compared to other people, success is what I do compared to what I was created to do. If I’m constantly looking over my shoulder at how everyone else is running and their success or their form, their stride, then I will not pay attention to my own self and my own abilities. So, that’s what I want people to just try to do as much as possible. It’s going to be a lifelong battle. It won’t happen overnight.
Shari Noland: Can you share a few pieces of advice with us? Maybe give a little tidbit of what’s in your book?
Lecrae: I think one is being vulnerable and transparent as far as your mistakes are concerned, as far as your shortcomings are concerned, with a close circle of friends. That’s been one of my steps in terms of getting past things. In terms of wrestling through issues of race or politics, I understand that I don’t have to find a tribe. The tribe that I belong to is God. So, there’s going to be moments in your life where you’re not going to fit in or you’re not going to agree, and that’s okay. It’s accepting that it’s okay and learning how to disagree with people but love them in the process and being okay with other people not agreeing with you and your decisions. So, I think those are some practical pieces of advice or proverbial wisdom that I try to give people.
Shari Noland: You’ve talked about the bouts of depression you’ve had and how God restored you from them. What advice might you give people who are going through similar struggles?
Lecrae: I think one is helping people understand that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to be in seasons of blue and seasons of darkness. The Bible says, “We walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” So one, you’re walking through it, you’re not living in it. And then, it’s the valley of the shadow of death. So shadows are only cast when there’s light present. So, there’s always going to be light in the midst of the shadows.
I want people to know that it’s okay, to feel lesser than or feel strange or not feel like you’ve got to perk up. Embrace that moment. Sometimes we need to grieve.
And then, also there are some mental health or brain health components that are different. Some of what I experienced was different. It wasn’t just a sadness or a grief. It was a serious bout with depression. And when it comes to that, I’m a big advocate of medication, meditation, and mediation. Those three things shouldn’t be frowned upon. If you need medication, then take it. If you need mediation, which is a counselor, then take it. And meditation—spending time clearing your mind and spending time with being present and around Godly presence.
Shari Noland: What was the turning point that made you realize that you needed help beyond what you were doing on your own?
Lecrae: I mean, the basic analogy that I think people use all the time is the guy who’s praying. He’s drowning and he’s like, “God send me some help.” And a helicopter passes, and he says, “No, I’m waiting on God.” And a boat passes, he says, “No, I’m waiting on God.” And then, someone throws him a rope, he says, “No, I’m waiting on God.” And he ends up dying and he goes to heaven and he says, “God, where were you?” And God says, “Man, I sent you a boat, a plane, and a rope, you didn’t take it.”
Similarly, I think oftentimes we think, “Oh, I’m just going to pray it away, I’m going to pray it away,” and we don’t realize, “No, no, no, no, no. God is furnishing you with these options to give you the help that you need.” And so, that is a means of God’s grace and His goodness, and that’s what I felt about Him and how other people should feel. The goal is to be healthy. That’s it. That’s the goal. And if God is giving you a means to be healthy, then take it.
Photo on UrbanFaith.com home page courtesy of Alex Harper