Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
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
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.’ ”
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
Every week, millions of people all over the world attend some form of church service — whether it be at a historic inner-city building, a sparkling suburban structure, or a secret underground location. For many Christians, Sunday morning marks a time of reflection and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s also a time to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of other believers. Among many African Americans in the inner city, “remembering the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) is a prerequisite to starting the week off correctly.
It’s true that many of us attend church out of tradition or a sense of obligation. However, anything worth practicing — and anything valued enough to perform repetitively — is worth understanding. Which leads me to a question that may seem unnecessary on the surface but that is fraught with meaning for the living of our faith: Why do we attend church?
For many, the question is superfluous — the Bible commands we go to church, so we do it. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” meaning that we should often afford ourselves the opportunity to join with other Christian men and women. Some Christians agree with that notion and some do not; however, it is relatively easy to conclude that many of us attend church because it is a part of our family upbringing or because of what the church represents to our society and our communities.
Our Heritage of Faith
I believe the truth about our theology as churchgoers is deeply rooted in our upbringing. It is apart of our cultural matrix.
We attend church because our parents attended or because our families have been members of a particular church for years. It represents a place where we all come together in fellowship and worship. One could survey any given church and interview countless parishioners capable of testifying about the positive experiences afforded to their families because of their commitment to attending service.
Ultimately we can, throughout history, point to the church as a place that has allowed all of God’s children to be a family. Even during slavery, the church represented the one place where the slave family might be allowed to go together. Slaves attended the church of their masters, and as long as the family worked on the same plantation, they could generally be assured that Sundays represented a small space in time where they could be with their families and be encouraged through the singing of spirituals and the presentation of God’s Word, and particularly what it had to say about true freedom and justice.
Middle-Class Flight and Return
In the book Preaching to the African American Middle Class, pastor and homiletics professor Marvin McMickle writes: “What better way is there to view the ministry of churches in inner-city areas than as agents that both prolong life and help to avoid decay in communities where almost every other business and institution has abandoned the area?”
McMickle goes on to observe how in the wake of middle-class flight from cities, churches survive as some of the few institutions left in blighted communities, often next to barbershops, beauty salons, currency exchange centers, and liquor stores. “Almost everything that inner city residents need in order to have a meaningful life is located outside of their community,” he continues, “ranging from medical care to adequate shopping facilities to employment beyond minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
But, for the most part, the church remains.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis the African American church is often the only legacy institution that has not uprooted itself from the inner city. While the quality of life for many of the parishioners has increased — allowing them to relocate to suburban areas — the church has not relocated. I believe many African Americans continue to attend churches in our cities for that reason. The church has always been there as a part of the community, and it is viewed as an entity that will remain. It is a prototype of the nature of Christ in the community; its presence will remain steadfast and unmovable.
As we have changed and grown, so have our churches. The emergence of the African American middle class brought with it the emergence of the African American megachurch. Chicago, for instance, is home to several megachurches located in predominately African American urban neighborhoods. Congregations like Rev. James Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which boasts some 15,000 members, sits in the heart of the Roseland community (largely African American and partially Latino). The Apostolic Church of God, pastored by Dr. Byron Brazier, and the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, are both situated on the Southside and are predominantly African American.
Many scholars committed to the study of church growth and trends would argue that the birth of the American megachurch came as the result of suburban sprawl, social disconnectedness, and a rejection of traditional Protestant denominations and church models. However, I would argue that in the African American community the expansion of the middle-class and its members’ ability to participate as valuable consumers in society (meaning that we could now shop at the megamalls) also gave Black people the resources to support and become a part of larger church ministries.
We continue to attend church because it has managed to adapt to a changing culture, becoming more contemporary in its worship and diverse in its membership to reflect the surrounding society. But we also attend church to be rescued emotionally and spiritually from that very same society.
Jesus Is the Answer
Any number of sociological arguments about the church’s role in society can be made. Certainly the economic incline of the parishioners and the rise of mega-entities have caused the church to change, and we can relate to the fluctuation. But because these arguments are easily debated, they do not carry as much weight as this argument: We attend church because of our love for Jesus Christ.
Countless scholars have harvested mounds of information regarding church membership, trends in church growth, and the theology of churchgoers, but none can easily refute the idea that many Christians simply love the Lord and desire to experience His Spirit in the presence of other faithful and desirous believers.
Church represents the one place in society where we can worship and praise God in our own way and with few inhibitions. While we might acknowledge the role of our families in our relationship with God, and might identify with the consistent and conversely changing roles of the church, it is beyond debate that Jesus is the number one reason that Christians continue to gather on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to demonstrate our need for spiritual renewal and our commitment to God’s Word as the guidebook for our daily lives.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:8-14
This holiday season, we’ll once again listen to preachers in pulpits, children in angel and shepherd costumes, and animated characters on TV recite those words from Luke 2 proclaiming the miracle of Christmas. And the Bible translation we’ll most likely be hearing will be the King James Version, which marks its 400th anniversary this year.
Out of the countless modern translations of the Bible now available to readers, none of them has surpassed the popularity of the King James Version. In fact, a recent survey by the American Bible Society found that 45 percent of regular Bible readers still use the King James Version.
Commissioned by England’s King James I in 1604 and finally published in 1611, the KJV is still recognized as “the authorized version.” A conference of churchmen in 1604 had proposed the new translation on the basis that existing translations “were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original [Hebrew and Greek text].”
That same year, the Protestant king approved a list of 54 prospective revisers, from which 47 translators were selected to work. They were divided into six committees, working separately at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Committees are typically accused of compromising their products. In this case, the joint translation was superior to the work of any previous translator.
By the time the King James Version appeared, there were vernacular translations of the Bible circulating in Protestant and Catholic Europe. But in England, King Henry VIII, styling himself as head of the church, banned and burned copies of the Bible translated by William Tyndale, fearing that an accessible Bible would make England “a nation of priests,” according to William Tyndale: A Biography by David Daniell.
For his trouble, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
Eventually Henry softened his objections, allowing one Bible in each of England’s churches. Later, King James believed that an accessible Bible might reconcile citizens of different religious persuasions, so he authorized the translation that bears his name. Ironically, its translators incorporated Tyndale’s scholarship.
The new translation appeared during the lifetime of William Shakespeare and John Donne, enhancing not only Christian revelation but English culture and expression. To this day its text is considered poetic. Familiar English expressions come from the King James Version, including “lamb to the slaughter,” “skin of our teeth” and “chariots of fire.” It is widely credited with providing Protestant churches with a unified sacred text.
The King James Version of the Bible also remains the translation of choice among African American Christians. “Because so many people are familiar with the language and poetic elegance of the KJV Bible, I tend to use it in situations calling for pastoral comfort and consolation,” says Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., and professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University. “The KJV is not merely quoted in the prayers, songs, and sermons of the African American churches — this biblical language and imagery flows from the hearts and lives of believers at prayer, in praise, and in prophetic ministry.”
William Pannell, senior professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, believes the KJV provides a type of spiritual and social anchor for black churches today. “The staying power of the King James Version may be understood by the ongoing need for security and certainty, especially among older church members. In a society where change seems to be constant, and worship styles move further away from recognizable sights and sounds, the language of the KJV is a welcome reminder that not everything is up for grabs.”
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, associate professor of biblical studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, says the KJV’s prophetic importance cannot be underestimated, even though it may no longer be the most accurate of translations. “As a 17th century translation, the King James Version does not have the benefit of having relied upon the most significant manuscript finds of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century,” he explains. “This, however, does not diminish or deter the brilliance and power of the Holy Spirit in its effective use over the last 400 years. The KJV has played a part in the conversion of souls, the healing of the afflicted, the liberating of the oppressed, and has been a testament to God’s unwavering truth.”
Hopkins thinks the KJV’s enduring popularity with black Christians also reflects the African American tradition’s affinity for colorful and dynamic forms of expression. “In a positive way, we as a people are enamored with the theatrical. Theatrical forms, as a genre of cultural expression, permeate throughout the African Diaspora; this plays itself out in our music, our dialog, our literature, and our fashion — and these subsequently take center stage within many of our churches. The poetic 17th-century lingua franca of the KJV rhythmically resonates with our experience. Its language and phrasing are anything but dull.”
What translation of the Bible will you be reading this Christmas?
After 400 years, for many of us those King James angels will still be bringing “good tidings of great joy,” as they tell us exactly where to find that “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.”
Portions of this article were reprinted from a Scripps Howard News Service column by David Yount, used through arrangement with the Newscom wire service.
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