Redefining ‘Urban’

Urban Faith Redefining Urban with Regent University religion scholar Antipas HarrisThe 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 HarrisANTIPAS 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.

The Prodigal Daughter

The Prodigal Daughter for Urban FaithAs Black movies go, Preacher’s Kid is a refreshing change of pace — a contemporary parable that presents a balanced portrayal of African American manhood and an authentic view of Black church life that confronts the stereotypes head-on. PLUS: Find out how to receive a FREE copy of the DVD.

The movie begins with a church scene — a pastor who can whoop, church mothers wearing elaborate hats, and a gospel choir that can sho’nuff saaang.

The lead character is the pastor’s daughter, a soloist in the church choir whose voice is soulfully angelic. Only problem is that the good girl likes devilish guys. So she spurns the good guy on the way to finding her dream love. Or so she thought.

Church girl meets bad boy, bad boy physically abuses church girl and church girl nearly loses her soul. Bad boy is, of course, handsome, muscular and dark complexioned. Church girl is, of course, pretty with “good hair” and light skin. And yes, there’s a heavyset Black man dressed as a “big momma” wearing a gray wig who, with left hand on his hip, dangles a gun in his right hand like a chicken leg.

It might sound like a typical Black film or play on the Chitlin’ Circuit, but Preacher’s Kid, written and directed by Hollywood actor and producer, Stan Foster, is actually a refreshing and even inspiring take on the genre.

Foster screened Preacher’s Kid last month at Regent University’s School of Communication and Arts in Virginia Beach. The movie stars LeToya Luckett (Angie), former member of the R&B group Destiny’s Child, and R&B artist Durrell “Tank” Babbs (Devlin).

Preacher’s Kid, which opened in theaters this past weekend, is about a 20-something church girl who grows bored with the routine of worship services and looking after her widowed father. Angie wants to explore the world and follow her dream to be a star, so she runs off and tours with a gospel play. Along the way, she gets severely burned by Devlin. Eventually she comes to her senses, gaining a greater appreciation for what she has at home. It’s the modern female version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.

As the Regent audience yelled, “Lord, don’t do it,” and “Girl, don’t believe him” at the screen, I watched Foster sitting in the front row. He was fixed on the screen, seemingly studying every frame.

“Every time I watch it, I’m thinking about what I could’ve done differently,” Foster told me afterward. “I’m wondering if the audience is catching some flaws.”

Only Foster saw the flaws. The audience loved the film.

Black films tend to follow stereotypical formulas. Foster, who began his unconventional career (he didn’t attend acting or film school) in the 1980s as an actor in the Emmy-winning CBS television drama Tour of Duty, aims to diversify the mix. Preacher’s Kid, actually criticizes the genre’s flaws. Foster consciously rejects stereotypes such as skin color, where, the lighter women are slim and more lady-like than their darker, heavier and sassier sisters. For example, he originally wrote the lead for darker complexioned R&B singers Fantasia Barrino and then fellow American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson, both of whom had to back out. This opened the way for Luckett’s first acting role. She is wonderful at playing a character that is authentic, like the sister who lives next door or your daughter.

As a Black husband and father, I often find it difficult to watch Black films because of the negative ways men are over portrayed — violent, irresponsible, lazy or absent. Preacher’s Kid enabled me to exhale. In the characters of Bishop King (Gregory Alan Williams), Wynton (Sharif Atkins), and Ike (Clifton Powell) there is a balance of well-rounded Black men who are like most of us in the real world — positive, though flawed. And, unlike typical Hollywood love stories, the hero is not the most handsome guy.

“I intentionally didn’t want a pretty boy to be my good guy,” Foster told me. “Instead, I wanted a guy with a pretty heart.”

Preacher’s Kid is a pretty good movie.

Preacher’s Kid is now available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

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‘Go Play Golf, and Sin No More’

'Go Play Golf, and Sin No More' for urban faithBefore they called it an “addiction,” plenty of biblical figures fell victim to the same snare that took down Tiger. But where was their rehab?

Now that Tiger Woods is returning to golf next week to play in the Masters, does this mean he’s cured of sex addiction?

By now you know Woods was caught cheating on his wife, Elin, with multiple women, so he checked into sex rehab. Other high-profile people have done the same. Just today, it was announced that Sandra Bullock’s allegedly unfaithful husband, Jesse James, is taking his turn.

So I guess the biblical King David, who had multiple wives but just had to have one more who was already married, should’ve cried “sex addiction made me do it” too.

Face it. People cheat. Men do it. Women do it. Celebrities, politicians, executives, homemakers, and ministers do it. Crying sex addiction is not about seeking help, but saving face. It’s a weak excuse that does a disservice to people who truly have hypersexual disorders because of childhood abuse or other sexual trauma. It can also deceive the rest of us into thinking we’re immune from adultery.

There’s a debate among psychiatrists as to whether sex addiction actually exists. The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t list it in its mental disorders manual, but may add it to the 2013 edition. Experts say hypersexual activity is so difficult to manage that it interrupts everyday life functions. Like an alcoholic, gambler, or crack addict craving the next fix, it’s difficult for someone who craves sex to focus on anything else. I doubt Woods could’ve dominated golf while battling a major addiction.

During his televised confession and apology, Woods reaffirmed his commitment to his Buddhist faith. He wisely identified the problem dead on.

“The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior,” he said. “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.”

Right. Not sex addiction. Sin.

The thing we are all susceptible to.

Sexual sin has been around since the beginning of time. It’s documented throughout the Bible. Mainly it’s us guys who have had trouble keeping our tunics and zippers up, but women cheat too. Take, for example, the desperate housewife that hit on Joseph (Gen. 39:13-16). Joseph, at twentysomething-years-old, displayed the character and discipline that few men of any faith would have. He jumped up and fled. I wouldn’t dare deceive myself by guaranteeing that I would’ve chosen the same.

Anyone who has been married for a while knows the journey has rocky turns and hills. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And without God at the center, the covenant can become a labor without love. So as a married man in the middle of a 17-plus year marathon, I feel for Woods and his wife, Elin. Things go wrong. Sin makes justification appealing. Mistakes are made. Feelings are hurt and ripped. But a couple, even a celebrity couple, ought to be able to work things out before God without cameras rolling and flashing.

That’s the advantage King David had. After impregnating Bathsheba and having her husband killed to cover it up, he eventually confessed his sin to God. He suffered the consequences — the lost of their newborn son. He mourned and moved on. No sex addiction excuse to save face. God’s grace was sufficient rehab.

When a person falls, hypocrites gather stones. Then later it’s often unveiled that they were hiding their own rocks. For example, former Sen. John Edwards condemned President Clinton during his impeachment tied to Monica Lewinsky, though Edwards voted to acquit.

Now he has a love child and is in divorce court after his affair during his own presidential run. The next time you hear someone who is adamant toward a particular sin, realize they’re probably a closet sinner.

Jesus counsels on the matter in John 8 where accusers brought an adulteress before him.

“He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” Jesus told the accusers, before offering forgiveness to the woman. “Go and sin no more,” he said to her.

“Go play golf and sin no more,” is the cure for Woods.

Tiger Woods photo by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.

Mo’Nique’s Victory Grew Out of Tragedy

Mo'Nique's Victory Grew Out of Tragedy for urban faithMo’Nique’s Oscar-winning performance in Precious came from a dark place in her family history. Say what you will about the actress and the movie, her Academy Award victory caps the unlikely rise of a black woman who turned personal tragedy into professional triumph.

Well, Mo’Nique did it.

The movie, Precious, for which she won the Academy Award for supporting actress, may have made us uncomfortable, but doggonit, Mo’Nique did it.

The sadistic way in which she’d make Precious, played by fellow Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, wait on her like a slave and tell her that she wouldn’t amount anything. The pain and rage in her bloodshot eyes as her chapped lips sipped a cigarette bud revealing yellowed teeth. Mo’Nique, who broke through showbiz as a foul-mouth standup comedian, was absolutely believable as a dramatic actor.

And I’m sure she believed the Oscar would come.

By now you know Precious, based on the novel Push, is about an illiterate teen mom who triumphs after having been abused by just about everyone. She’s ridiculed at school and in her neighborhood. Family life is even worse. Her young child and newborn are from her father, who raped her. Her mother is arguably the most abusive and least sympathetic character in the movie. This is the role Mo’Nique worked into an award-winning performance.

The movie caused a stir, even anger, because it, yet again, put on display a highly dysfunctional black family. Even C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UrbanFaith’s parent company, chimed in about what many viewed as the movie’s lopsided portrayal of African American life. During the Oscar Night edition of The Barbara Walters Special, which aired before the 82nd Academy Awards, Mo’Nique addressed this. Abuse is “colorless” and that the actors just happened to be black, she said.

True, abuse and other dysfunctions exist in families of all ethnicities and races, but black dysfunction is too common in movies and throughout the media. This gives the impression that dysfunction is the only state of the black family. I realize family hell sells better at the box office, so I’d settle for more positive black characters in these same movies. Write in a black doctor who has it together, or an honest black business owner.

Truthfully, there are few families that are not dysfunctional and this is what many of us spend our careers — our lives — trying to overcome.

Mo’Nique’s Oscar winning-performance came from a dark place within her family. She was abused as a child. During the Walters interview, Mo’Nique discussed the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of an older brother beginning around age 7. Fear kept her from telling their parents until about age 15. Her brother went on to abuse someone else, and served prison time.

Mo’Nique modeled her Precious character after him. She told Walters that the last time they spoke and were together was as adults while she was in the hospital after birthing twins. Visiting, her brother picked up and held one of the babies in his arms. Bad move. I can only imagine the rage the welled inside Mo’Nique. She wasn’t specific about the encounter, but must’ve torn into him. With therapy, and the help of her husband, Mo’Nique released the burden, she said.

Faith is about believing deeply in what you can’t see despite the reasons to doubt that are before you. You can’t please God without it. As Mo’Nique’s name was announced as the winner, she paused and then stood and composed herself before heading to the stage. In her acceptance speech, she invoked the late Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar back in 1940, and alluded to the politics that typically go along with being nominated for an Academy Award — politics that Mo’Nique boldly refused to partake in. It was at once clear that this Oscar victory — and her involvement in Precious — was much bigger than just playing a role in a movie. As I watched, I thought about all those rough times she must’ve endured, and perhaps, like Precious, how she might’ve wanted to give up. How Mo’Nique must’ve willed herself to focus not on the immediate trials in her personal life and career, but on the future rewards she envisioned.

You may not like her opinions or lifestyle choices, but Mo’Nique did it. She kept the faith.

“To every last person that celebrates a victory of being abused, and you can stand baby, congratulations,” she said backstage to the thank you cam. “…To the whole world I simply say I thank you and let’s start loving again, unconditionally.”

Now that’s a storyline we ought to be comfortable with.