WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. still remembers clearly the moment as a teenager he thought he was going to die.
Parker was 16 years old, visiting family in Mississippi, when he woke in the early morning hours to the sound of voices in the house. Moments later, the door to his bedroom opened and a man pointed a flashlight and a pistol in his face.
He shut his eyes tight, but the shot never came.
The man moved on to the next bedroom and the next before finding and kidnapping his cousin — Emmett Till.
It was the last time he saw his best friend alive, Parker, now in his 80s, told a packed concert hall Tuesday night (Oct. 25) at Wheaton College, the evangelical flagship school in the Chicago suburbs.
What happened next — Till’s brutal murder, his mother’s decision to allow an open casket at the 14-year-old victim’s funeral, so the country could see what had been done to her son — shone a light on racial violence in the United States and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)
“A picture’s worth a thousand words. That picture made a statement. It went throughout the world, all over the world, and it still speaks,” Parker said of the photographs of Till in his casket, taken by David Jackson and first published in Jet magazine.
The story of Till continues to resonate because it “provides us with a lens to understand racial conflict in our own moment,” said Theon Hill, associate professor of communications at Wheaton College and primary organizer and moderator of Tuesday’s event, “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith.”
“When we see George Floyd killed right in front of us due to the officer’s knee,” said Hill, “when we see Breonna Taylor’s death, when we see Ahmaud Arbery, we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and Till’s death, as tragic as it will always be, provides us with a grammar to understand this is what’s happening and this is how you might respond in your moment.”
The enduring relevance of Till’s death is apparent in the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime and signed in March by President Joe Biden, nearly 70 years after Till’s murder.
“A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till” by the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. and Christopher Benson. Courtesy image
It was 30 years before anybody asked Parker his account of what had happened over the handful of days in 1955 he and his cousin, who lived in Chicago, spent in Mississippi visiting family, according to Parker, the last surviving witness to Till’s abduction.
In Parker’s account, Till is a jokester, the boy next door he accompanied fishing, picnicking and on other trips. When his cousin found out he was planning to take the train down South to visit his grandfather, he insisted on going too.
“If you didn’t live in Mississippi at that time or experience what it was like, you have no idea what it was like,” Parker said.
He had lived in the South until he was 7 and knew “what you had to do to stay alive and what could happen to you,” he said.
When the younger boy whistled in the presence of a white woman outside a store, Parker said, the cousins left in a hurry. He worried what could happen in a place and time when a Black man couldn’t so much as look at a white woman, he said.
But days passed, and they’d nearly forgotten about the incident. Then came the moment Parker heard voices in his grandfather’s home at about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, asking about the boys from Chicago.
“Sunday morning should be the safest place on earth for a young man in his house — on Sunday morning, waiting to go to church,” he said.
Shaking and sure he was about to die, he prayed, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to get my life together.”
That Monday, he returned to Chicago alone, his life changed “completely,” said Parker, now pastor and district superintendent of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Summit, Illinois.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks during the “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith” event at Wheaton College, Oct. 25, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
What happened to Till changed the country, too.
Dave Tell, author of the 2019 book “Remembering Emmett Till,” told the audience Tuesday night that he had become invested in civil rights because of Till’s story.
“The Till story prompted a new generation to stand up for justice, and I think the good news of the night is that the Till story — Rev. Parker’s story — is still motivating a new generation,” Tell said.
It’s a story, he said, the U.S. needs to hear today more than ever. Considering the stories of Floyd and others against the backdrop of Till’s murder, it’s hard to minimize their killings as “a problem of a bad apple or bad cop,” he said.
And the church has a role to play in sharing that story, both Tell and Parker agreed.
The biblical Book of Genesis tells the story of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, Tell pointed out. In the story, God says Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, where Cain has tried to bury what he did.
If God demands that voices that have been buried be brought to light as part of the work of justice and healing, shouldn’t the church? Tell asked.
“We’ve got to keep the legacy going — got to keep the story going — and not with animosity,” Parker added.
“Just tell the story. It’s history. It’s real. Tell what happened,” he said.
Dr. Thema Bryant is a psychologist and minister who has become one of the most influential voices addressing mental health and spiritual health. UrbanFaith sat down to interview her about her new book Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self. The interview is above, more information about the book is below.
In the aftermath of stress, disappointment, and trauma, people often fall into survival mode, even while a part of them longs for more. Juggling multiple demands and responsibilities keeps them busy, but not healed. As a survivor of sexual assault, racism, and evacuation from a civil war in Liberia, Dr. Thema Bryant knows intimately the work involved in healing. Having made the journey herself, in addition to guiding others as a clinical psychologist and ordained minister, Dr. Thema shows you how to reconnect with your authentic self and reclaim your time, your voice, your life.
Signs of disconnection from self can take many forms, including people-pleasing, depression, anxiety, and resentment. Healing starts with recognizing and expressing emotions in an honest way and reconnecting with the neglected parts of yourself, but it can’t be done in a vacuum. Dr. Thema gives you the tools to meaningfully connect with your larger community, even if you face racism and sexism, heartbreak, grief, and trauma. Rather than shrinking in the face of life’s difficulties, you will discover in Homecoming the therapeutic approaches and spiritual practices to live a more expansive life characterized by empowerment, healthier relationships, gratitude, and a deeper sense of purpose.
The school year is about to go into full swing, which means that many are back to studying and showing themselves approved in the academic sense. Among that group are thousands of first-time and returning seminarians, people from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t just bound to be pastors, fill pulpits, and preach. But all of this is unbeknownst because most people have only known seminaries and theology schools to be the training ground for the future pastors and spiritual leaders of America. Today we will tackle some of the misconceptions that follow the seminarian. This list is by no means exhaustive but it will help shed some light on the fact that seminarians are not just holier than thou students. So without further ado, here are seven things that seminarians aren’t.
Maybe there are a few saints roaming the halls of your local seminary—doubtful considering the criteria for sainthood–but for the most part seminaries are full of everyday people who struggle with sin and salvation–especially when they are sitting in a class called “Sin and Salvation.” Their prayers don’t get to God any faster. They don’t walk around quoting the Bible—well not all of them and sometimes it’s necessary to quote and memorize scripture if you are about to walk into the Old or New Testament exam. They may not always be compelled to acts of charity and service—because the reality is their schedules might not permit for it. They are not always nice…Long story short, if there was a process for canonization available during a seminarian’s time in school, not many would make it. Blame it on the seminary or the seminarian, either way, saints are few and far between.
It is not uncommon for someone to step into seminary and step out of the prayer closet, this happens for a variety of reasons not limited to the fact that seminarian schedules are hectic. Between coursework, internships/residency, work, family, and life, prayer can become the last thing on anyone’s mind. I say this from firsthand experience, as someone who came to seminary as a fervent and frequent pray-er, and left as a periodic pray-er because my schedule and the rigor of my courses made prayer difficult–and lest I be remiss what I learned brought my previous understanding of the spiritual of discipline into question. To this latter point, the other thing about prayer in seminary is the practice is sometimes challenged by what is learned in class. How does one pray when they think about predestination, triple pre-destination, providence, reign of God, and all of those other big theological concepts? Why pray if everything was preordained at the beginning of creation? Does prayer change God or does it change us? Prayer can be complicated in seminary both theoretically and practically speaking.
Pastors in Training
It used to be that people came to seminary because they were called to pastor a church or go into another ministerial capacity but now only 4 in 10 MDiv—Master of Divinity—students plan to go into pastoral ministry full-time. More are considering a bi-vocational path and many more aren’t considering ministry, in the traditional sense, at all. Hundreds of thousands of people go to seminary as part of vocational discernment and then discover that they want to be professors, lawyers, marriage and family therapist and counselors, non-profit leaders, hospital or corporate business chaplains, and more. Or they just want to learn and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they took the seminary detour. And lest I be remiss, because I’ve spent some time around such people, some may want to reconsider who they heard calling them to pastoral ministry. Not all seminarians should be pastors and not all seminarians want to be pastors.
Saved…or even Christian
During my time in seminary I discovered that “saved” was not a term many people liked. This went for both students and faculty. The term reminded people of some factions of conservative Christianity whose primary goal is to save people and condemn the rest to hell. “Saved” language seemed exclusive and didn’t allow for a more open understanding of what life in the faith is. My Systematic Theology professor helped open some of us up to a different understanding of the term encouraging us to reflect on being “saved from something and saved for something.” But semantics aside, a popular misconception is that everyone who goes to seminary is “saved” in the same sense. Not to say that people don’t share a common salvific experience but they don’t use the same language—and sometimes not the same narrative of “coming to Christ”—to speak of the experience. It doesn’t make them any less “saved” as it may be popular known and constructed in Christian circles, there is just a difference in how people articulate their understanding of salvation personally and communally. Furthermore, not all seminarians are Christians. In a survey done by the Association of Theological Schools of 7,075 students across 174 schools, 0.5% were Buddhist, 0.2% were Muslim, 0.8% were Muslim and 4.5% were other. These may be small percentages but they still represent the fact that theology schools across the country are not just full of Christians but people from other traditions as well.
All White Men
According to the same survey referenced above, seminaries aren’t full of white men. In fact, African Americans are the second largest enrolled group representing 16.9% of enrolled persons in MDiv programs with Asian students right behind them at 10.2%. The existence and thriving of historically black theological institutes such as the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio also attests to the racial diversity present in theological institutions. In terms of gender diversity, women account for 34.7% of MDiv students, and, as we have bore witness to, they are also part of the burgeoning population of women preachers, spiritual leaders and leaders in the workforce in general.
Sane, Naïve, Sure, Ready…:
I posed the question of what seminarians aren’t to my fellow seminarians past and present and the responses were many and varied. Among those responses were one-word answers such as “Sane. Naïve. Sure. Ready.” There is a measure of truth to all of these. Practically speaking, the sanity level of some people is questioned when they leave a secure career, significant others, or a hometown to pursue a theological education that will, at one point or another, drain them of everything. Yet very few seminarians are naïve about the space they have walked into, recognizing that it is going to require much of them—and possibly “steal their Jesus” as the urban legends in seminary goes. Surety and readiness are also part of the seminarian’s struggle because answering a “call” to go to seminary doesn’t mean that the called individual is sure or ready for any particular role in ministry or elsewhere. But, that is the beauty of the seminary space, that individuals who answer and engage themselves in the work of theological education are also in a space to continue to discern their call and find surety and readiness.
One respondent to my question pointed out that seminarians aren’t just seminarians. Of this she said, “…because many of our fellow students were scientists, authors, talent agents, and business professionals, in addition to being parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.” Among some of my classmates were doctors still on call, pilots, business owners, and writers just to name a few. This was in addition to the pastors and preachers who were serving congregations and traveling out of state to preach every Sunday only to get back home late Sunday night and tackle hundreds of pages of reading and dozens of pages of writing. And, lest I be remiss, there are the seminarians who are also parents—single, married, committed partnership, or other—whose other major task, aside from being a student, is raising a child or family and attending to their needs almost as much as they must attend to the seminary work.
In conclusion, while there are many things seminarians, or better put after this article, “people who attend seminary” aren’t, the argument can also be made that they are all of these things. And yet we know that they are more than can be lumped into these seven categories. They are saints and sinners, prayer warriors and prayer cowards, pastors in training and people still discerning, mostly white men and a rainbow of cultures, insane, sane, unsure, sure, ready, unprepared, etc. The moral of the story is that people who choose to go to seminary can’t be lumped into simple categories, aren’t easily defined, and do live lives similar to most everyday people. They are people who choose to make a theological institution their home for one or more years, and may use that education as a launching pad for their life in ministry or a point of departure for other endeavors, but that decision doesn’t make them unlike anyone else outside of a seminary context. Long story short—too late—people who go to seminary aren’t any one thing you think they are.
Dr. James Earl Massey worked through seven decades with joy and faithfulness. What was his secret?
“Spiritual reality is a key to a serene and happy life; we must not look at the things that are seen. We must live by the things that are unseen, which calls for true faith in God. As long as a person has that, there’s a steadiness and a surety by which they can live. After all, in the beginning — God. And in the end — God. And in-between — God,” Massey explained in an interview with Faith & Leadership back in 2010.
The distinguished pastor, theologian, musician, and author known the world over went home to be with Jesus on Sunday, June 24, 2018. Massey will be laid to rest on Saturday, July 7, 2018, at the Metropolitan Church of God in Detroit, MI, where he served as senior and founding pastor for more than 20 years (1954-1976). He was 88.
Affectionately called the “Prince of Preachers,” Massey was spiritually formed by Wesleyan theology, the Holiness movement, and African American tradition. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a colleague and friend, shaped and influenced him, along with mentor Howard Thurman. Massey authored several articles and 18 books, including Aspects of My Pilgrimage, The Responsible Pulpit,Designing the Sermon, The Burdensome Joy of Preaching, and Sundays in the Tuskegee Chapel. He was the on-air voice of the Church of God broadcast, “The Christian Brotherhood Hour” (1977-1982), dean of the Tuskegee University Chapel (1984-1989), dean emeritus and distinguished professor of the Anderson School of Theology (1989-1995), and senior editor for Christianity Today magazine in 1995. Massey earned a bachelor’s degree at William Tyndale College, a master’s from Oberlin Graduate School of Theology, and a doctorate from Ashbury Theological Seminary. He is survived by his wife, Gwendolyn.
Social Media Tributes
Across social media, heartfelt tributes show the impact Massey had on so many — he preached and lectured at more than 100 colleges, universities, and seminaries in the United States and on four continents.
The Church of God (and many others) mourn the passing (late yesterday) of one of our greatest voices, James Earl Massey. He walked through this world with exceptional grace, strength, and wisdom. Jesus was his preoccupation, the church was his friend, the world was his stage.
Heard this morning of the passing of Dr. James Earl Massey. One of the great leaders and men I’ve had the honor to grow under. His Impact and influence on God’s Kingdom and people are substantial: his work in the civil rights movement, his preaching, teaching, leading and example
Dr. James Earl Massey will be remembered by me as a profound teacher, scholar, mentor, and friend. Most important he was a follower of The Christ. We will see you again. Until then your voice here will be missed.