James Fortune has won three Stellar awards and has been nominated twice for a Grammy award. In 2004, his hit single “You Survived” was the second most played gospel song in the country; even now, 12 years later, it remains in the top seven of most-played gospel songs.
In 2001, three years before Mr. Fortune lit up the gospel music scene with “You Survived” and other popular tracks, he stripped his then-four-year-old stepson naked, beat him with a switch, ran a tub full of scalding hot water, forced the already-battered child into that tub, and held him there. When speaking to the 911 emergency dispatcher about the incident, he lied, saying the child burned himself by running the water at a too-hot temperature and getting into the tub. He pleaded guilty to the charge of felony injury of a child, but in a statement after the trial, stressed that he was never convicted of any felony charge. His trouble with the law didn’t end there.
On October 24, 2014, Mr. Fortune was arrested for aggravated assault of a family member with a deadly weapon. The family member turned out to be his wife, and the weapon was revealed to have been a bar stool. In 2016, through a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charge—a third-degree felony—and received five days in jail plus five years of probation. Other than some irate women commenters on websites that have covered the incidents, the response from the Christian community seems to have been a collective “So what?”
The “so what” factor isn’t entirely surprising but is nonetheless disappointing. A four-year-old child was burned on over 40% of his body and permanently disfigured, and a woman suffered broken bones and internal injuries. Certainly that child and that woman deserved more from the Christian community than they received. In fact, James Fortune in interviews has thanked fans for their love and support during those times, but where was the love and support for his stepson and wife? Don’t their lives matter?
This isn’t the first time a high-profile Black Christian has become entangled with the law or transgressed the law of God. Contemporary Christian music mega-star Israel Houghton admitted to committing adultery and causing the breakup of his 20-year marriage; World Changers Ministries leader Creflo Dollar was investigated for allegedly choking his teenage daughter during a verbal conflict at their home; Bishop Eddie Long was outed for allegedly having multiple sexual relationships with young men; Minister Thomas Weeks stomped then-wife and popular evangelist Juanita Bynum in an Atlanta hotel parking lot.
Grammy Award Winner Israel Houghton performs for a sold out audience. Houghton is one of many gospel greats that has publicly admitted to infidelity in his marriage.
Because of sin, potential scandal resides within the bosom of every follower of Christ, so the question becomes, “What say we to these things?” because more definitely needs to be said and done.
First, acknowledge that sin is real, and the struggle to overcome it is real. It causes real damage and suffering. Here language makes a difference and often reveals hesitation to call a thing a thing. Too often the “all” in “all have sinned” only includes others, and the “sinned” gets labeled as episodes of misspeaking, misconduct, mistake, and other non-culpable acts.
If sin is named and claimed by the perpetrators, true healing and restoration can begin. Which leads to the second necessary adjustment: change the objective of accountability. The legitimate reasons to hold James Fortune and others in similar positions accountable are to restore them to right fellowship with God and with their fellow believers and to heal the heart of susceptibility toward that sin.
Humiliation, disgrace, and revenge or vindication are not acceptable motives for calling anyone to account for sin. If violence, non-marital sex, lying, manipulation, and such are treated as sin, the connection between the problem and the remedy becomes much more apparent.
Third, restore biblical church discipline. Talk to almost any Black churchgoer, and you’re liable to hear a story of someone in a leadership position being “sat down” for some wrongdoing. But just sitting a person down doesn’t necessarily produce restoration for the guilty party, nor healing for the victims.
Authentic church discipline scares people because it violates two long-held and sacrosanct views of addressing problems and trouble in the Black community—keep it quiet and don’t judge. Moreover, secular ideas of shame have crept into the thinking of many church leaders and congregants alike, resulting in a laissez-faire approach to dealing with sin and its consequences.
Finally, remember the victims. Seeing James Fortune’s plight play out in the media is an opportunity to re-examine compassion and grace but also to reconsider justice and healing. There are many James Fortunes, Cheryl Fortunes, sons, and daughters living through similar circumstances.
They need justice for the sin committed against them and healing for the devastation wrought within them. Their pain needs to be acknowledged and addressed within the context of meaningful accountability and action, and we must be able to depend on Christian leaders to shepherd people through these processes.
Have you witnessed instances of authentic, effective church discipline in your congregation?
Have you ever been part of an accountability group or reconciliation process?
If the church isn’t addressing these issues effectively, what legitimate role does the state play in getting justice for victims?
Israel reinvented his sound for his new solo album, The Power of One. But he brings it strong, with the same passion for praise and worship.
From the moment he says hello, I can tell Israel Houghton’s probably wearing his trademark (PRODUCT) RED Converse sneakers. There’s that unmistakable twinkle in his voice. He sounds like a man wearing red shoes — a little too happy, like he’s up to something. But maybe he’s just giddy — after all he does have a lot to be happy about these days. Since his new album, The Power of One, debuted at number one on March 24th, he’s been in demand by everyone from TBN to Ebony. People are saying it’s Israel’s moment.
And they’re probably right. After a string of live albums with his gospel ensemble New Breed, this new solo studio venture from Israel isn’t just a good Christian album; it’s a good album. People have long praised the ability of Israel & New Breed to push contemporary Christian music forward into a multicultural sound. But this latest effort is more aggressive than those albums. Whereas New Breed projects have a distinct sound that appeal to a multi-ethnic audience of worshipers, The Power of One is itself multi-sonic, rolling from rock to reggae to urban and traditional gospel on hit after hit (check out the Blues Brothers–inspired video for the single “Just Wanna Say” below to hear what I’m talking about). In that sense, The Power of One is almost a better illustration of diversity. Each song is so uncompromisingly niche that there’s no loss of the unique sonic identities of each track, and yet each song complements the next. I tell Israel I’m proud, like I’m his mother and he just brought home all A’s.
“Well thank you for that,” he laughs. Twinkle, twinkle. “That’s kind of you to say. I’ve really enjoyed the creative process of this record. I have to be honest, I expected a little more ‘we don’t understand why you didn’t do a live record’ response, or, ‘how come a few of these songs don’t feel like the typical thing?’ Instead it’s been met with an overwhelming sense of freshness; the response has been kind of scary positive.”
Israel’s referring to the fact that The Power of One has remained on the Billboard charts for six weeks, peaking at number one on the Top Christian & Gospel Albums chart. Fueled by a genius marketing program, complete with a custom iPhone application, and the residual momentum from his involvement in the CompassionArt charity project, The Power of One isn’t going anywhere soon. Israel seems okay with that. He’s been itching to lengthen his leash on New Breed for a while now.
“I felt like we did three records in a row that were very similar: Another Level, Alive in South Africa, and A Deeper Level. They were good, and I really loved that there were a lot of songs between those three records that have become a part of church culture and helping worship teams,” he explains. “However, I didn’t want to get stuck in that particular wheelhouse and say this is what I always, always, always do. I felt that I needed to challenge myself a bit–still lyrically and conceptually putting in songs that help people sing along, declare their faith and connect with God. But at the same time I wanted a different vehicle. It’s sort of like I’ve been driving a certain car for a while, and I wanted to try something different.”
In other words, it’s time to grow. And though he’s trying out new sounds, Israel is keeping his heart focused on ministry. When you speak with him, you can tell why; loving people is his gift. After ten minutes on the phone, I can’t help but start confessing my own issues, launching into a rant about my passion for racial reconciliation. He listens patiently and offers a few tips on building a diverse church.
“First of all it can’t just be a passion that you want to be cross-cultural. There has to be something in you that says not only do we want to be cross-cultural, but also we want to be cross-cultural because we know that’s the kingdom of God. We understand that when we get to heaven, there’s not a white section or black section,” he laughs. “There is heaven, and there is all the earth with every tribe, nation, tongue, skin tone and background coming together. And so if we’re saying let it be on earth as it is in heaven right now, then we’re essentially saying let’s figure out what the heart of God is all about.”
Israel knows a thing or two about racial reconciliation. He’s not just waxing poetic. For years he’s been the worship leader for America’s largest mega church at Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. Plus, Israel is biracial, and having been raised in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood of San Diego, he’s been a cultural bridge-builder since his childhood. Through the years of his ministry, he’s witnessed practical steps to creating a diverse congregation. Naturally, he begins with music.
“I think you have to look at that [worship music] and ask can we mix it up,” he challenges. “New Breed is all about that. We’ve been together 10 years now, and we are very intentional about putting something in it for everyone. Every record we do, we make sure everybody — regardless of their background — can find themselves involved.”
Power Source: As an artist and a worship leader, Israel believes it’s important to “mix it up” as far as musical styles go. “We are very intentional about putting something in it for everyone. We make sure everybody–regardless of their background–can find themselves involved.”
But it’s not just a matter of Steven Curtis Chapman versus Fred Hammond. Diversity has to start at the top. “The other thing I’ve seen work really well is to have a staff pastor who looks different than you, who comes from a different background than you and who is very visible to what’s going on. That’s a very practical but very powerful way to say, ‘Hey, we’re walking this out from the top down.’ I’m sure there are many more, but I’m not an authority on it. I think there really just has to be a love for people regardless of where they’re from.”
It’s these kinds of small structural changes that Israel is discovering lead to powerful results. That’s why he loves the (PRODUCT) RED campaign, which utilizes the consumerism of our culture to enable people to support charities through everyday purchases. He appreciates justice built into the foundation. Similarly, Israel’s involvement with CompassionArt emanated from that same desire to go beyond one-off donations of money to a good cause and build charity into the core of a project from the start.
“We agreed up front that all proceeds — every last dime of whatever songs we wrote in that particular timeframe — would go to this charity trust that would last forever. For the life of the songs, whatever ancillary things come out of the project will all go to this cause,” he explained. Essentially he and the other artists are seeding their income for years to come.
“We’ve come to find out that it’s completely unprecedented in the music business; not just the Christian music business, but the music business period. The idea has never been done and never been accomplished on that grand of a scale.” But moving into uncharted territories is the M.O. for Israel’s life right now. As the bubble of opulence and plenty bursts in America, causing many people to give less and focus inward, Israel feels more compelled than ever to turn outward and love others. Thankfully, the weight of the world’s need hasn’t left him discouraged.
“One of the things that keep me from getting discouraged is realizing that in my scaled down state because of the economy, I am still so excessive. Even if it came down to I had one pair of shoes and one change of clothes, but I had a roof over my head and I had a way to drive to where I needed to go, I’m considered one of the wealthiest people in the world based on that. When you can go to Haiti, Honduras, Botswana, Zimbabwe or Jakarta and see real poverty, it’s like, ‘Oh wait, I don’t know why I’m complaining.’ It’s a bit of a sliding scale when you get it.”
And perhaps that’s the secret to the twinkle of joy in Israel’s voice — he gets it.
Behind the calm demeanor and raspy voice that sounds like silk on wax is a strength that can only come from knowing he’s blessed beyond measure. And with the overflow of provision in his life, Israel is doing what he can to bless others. It’s the power of one who understands that God is the source of his success.