(RNS) — Just-retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is an apologist for an adaptive style of leadership. It’s what has helped her succeed as the first woman to hold many roles in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s a style of leadership she said was needed during the pandemic.
“Adaptive leadership means that you are faced with situations but do not have a solution or answer that comes from past experiences, so you have to adapt,” she said in an interview on Thursday (July 15), a week after her retirement began at the close of her denomination’s General Conference in Orlando, Florida.
“You have to know how to pivot, you have to step back, get on the balcony, survey the scene, throw out what you know or what you think you know and then find the answer that’s going to fit this issue right here.”
McKenzie, who remains the national chaplain of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, acknowledged this approach appeals to her because that’s the way she’s lived her life as a female trailblazer in her 205-year-old denomination. In 2000, McKenzie was the first woman elected bishop and later the first to serve as president of its Council of Bishops and chair of the General Conference Commission, which organizes the denomination’s quadrennial meeting.
Now one of five women bishops elected in the AME Church, McKenzie remains ready to answer anyone who questions their ability to lead.
“Do I think women can do this? Yes,” she said. “Do I think women are called to this? Yes. Do I think the women that have been elected in my denomination have done an exceptional job? Absolutely.”
As she led AME regional districts in Africa, Tennessee and Texas, McKenzie said she focused on her work rather than her title, letting the results speak for themselves. She modeled holding babies with AIDS to show it was safe and proved it was worthwhile to develop church websites to help attract new members and it was practical to use golf tournaments as fundraisers for church projects and seminary scholarships.
As she spoke at the conclusion of the General Conference bishops’ retirement service on July 9, she thanked her husband, former NBA guard Stan McKenzie (the first male episcopal supervisor of missionary work in the AME Church), her denomination and God for their support.
“What God did for me is evidence of what God can do for you,” she said. “For if God could do this, God can do what God promises you. That can be done no matter who says it can’t be.”
McKenzie, 74, talked with Religion News Service about her journey as a female bishop, those who paved the way for her to reach that role, and what’s next for her and for her denomination.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, center, outgoing pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, bids longtime member Helen Thorton farewell on her last Sunday at the church in Sept. 2000. At left is her husband, Stan McKenzie. Photo by Carl Bower
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking back as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is there a way you would sum up your experience since 2000?
Being the first of anything, there is no book. There is no DVD. There’s no movie. There’s nobody in front of you, to be able to share back experiences of what it’s going to look like and feel like and be like and so you’re charting your own way. And as people receive you — not only as you are in your position but also receive you as a human being — and begin to see you have something to bring to the table and be able to embrace the uniqueness of my femininity. I do what bishops have to do, but I don’t do them in the same way because I’m Vashti.
Your family has long been in the journalism business, running the Afro American newspaper chain. You wrote newspaper articles starting at age 16 and as bishop you oversaw denominational publications including The Christian Recorder. What was it like to move from being in the news business to becoming a newsmaker?
It was a little bit different being on the other side of the microphone, the other side of the camera and on the other side of the notepad, really, because I grew up telling some other people’s stories. And then the shift comes where then you become the story. And so, my intention was not to have my episcopal career be about me. That my episcopal career would be about the people I serve. So I was intentional, to focus on the work, rather than the first. God didn’t just call me to be first. God called me to do the work. And so that’s what I focused on in each of the districts I served.
You mentioned in the “Echoes from the General Conference” documentary that, though 2000 was a turning point for women bishops, it was preceded by earlier actions. What and/or who paved the way?
Well, many, many women. Many women whose names were not written, who did not get a footnote, who were in the margins. Faces and names people have forgotten a long time ago. Beginning with Jarena Lee. Jarena Lee stood at her time, when Bishop Richard Allen says he’s not going to license women. But God created an opportunity and she stood, and so then off she goes to walking and preaching hundreds of miles.
Elizabeth Scott ran for the episcopacy for many, many, many years. The women who were appointed presiding elders, the women who were appointed pastors, and did fabulous work because if they didn’t, then they would never give another woman a chance.
The 2021 episcopal address, the message of the bishops to the denomination during the General Conference, spoke of longtime struggles for women to gain ordination, and the rank of bishop. What action do you think is needed still?
What seems to be difficult for the church at large — and I’m talking about the universal church, denominations at large — is the inability of embracing inclusivity, as far as women is concerned. Just because you’re at the table, doesn’t mean it’s success for all women. Just because there’s one presiding elder, one woman who is a bishop, doesn’t mean the playing field is level for all women. And so in order for that to happen, we have to be intentional, and intentional means you don’t promote or assign just because a woman is a woman. You recognize her gifts. When I ran, I didn’t run on a platform saying elect me because I’m a woman. I ran on a platform that says elect me because I’m qualified.
Was there something you’re particularly proud of achieving in ecumenical or interfaith circles?
Most of my ministry is focused within the AME Church but I preach everywhere. I have preached for the Presbyterian women, the Baptist women. I preached for the Hampton (University) Ministers’ Conference with denominations from all over, for the United Methodist Church, for the United Methodist annual conferences. And in that way, sharing prophetically also helps to shape people’s embracing women. I have preached at Catholic churches. I have spoken in Jewish communities.
I have preached in seminaries, and it’s so important for the female seminarians to be able to see someone who is their same gender, who has the same kind of uniqueness, as an encouragement to see the broader picture, to see ministry beyond your own front door.
The AME Church has voted to start an ad hoc committee on LGBTQ matters. Do you think it may be turning a corner about acceptance of LGBTQ people, just as the denomination turned a corner on women bishops 21 years ago?
I think dialogue is going to be good for the church because there are different people in different places having different kinds of conversations and to be able to have open conversation, which an ad hoc committee would provide, where the church is gathered, will be healthy and may be helpful.
Do you see an end to the ban on same-sex marriage?
I think we’re going to have to wait and see the conversation, the power of the conversation. I just think it’s just too hard to predict at this moment. We have to remember the church, the broader church, has a hard time dealing with racism. Church, period, had a hard time dealing with sexism. They have a hard time dealing with agism, classism. And now, this is the next wrestle. And after this wrestle, there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another.
So now that you have reached retirement as an AME bishop, what’s next for you?
I’m going to continue with Selah (Leadership Encounters for Women, her professional women’s empowerment organization) because I have a passion for leadership. I plan to write. This is a good time to sit down and put some thoughts down on paper. And then, as they say, we’ll look into the horizon to see what also is next.
This story has been corrected to clarify that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a ban on same-sex marriage. It does not have a ban on ordination of LGBTQ persons.
Black preachers holding press conferences about gay marriage and churchgoers boycotting Election Day? I wonder if our squabbling about gay rights amid so many greater problems plaguing the black community is a symptom of a bigger issue for the church — impotence in the community. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells of the power believers would receive to have a wide community impact. Yet, we waste energy on what is ultimately a private personal matter between a person and who they choose to live their life with. Perhaps gay marriage is that low-hanging fruit that’s easier for the church to pick at.
Amid all the talk about gay marriage rights and the black church at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference last week, I was intrigued by a panel discussion among some of the nation’s leading black preachers that actually targeted a more critical community concern. Ironically, the panel was moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton (my Brownsville, Brooklyn homeboy), who the same day was prominent at a press conference where preachers correctly urged churchgoers to NOT sit home on Election Day in protest of President Obama’s support of gay marriage rights.
The panel dealt with the church engaging the public policymaking process. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, pointed out that during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, most black church leaders sat back or criticized as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists risked their lives out on the limb reaching for more important community fruit. Sharpton began by asking each panelist what the church should focus on to improve the black community.
PREACHING TO THE PREACHERS: Rev. Al Sharpton moderated a panel discussion with black clergy at the Congressional Black Caucus. (Photo: Michael Holahan/Newscom)
The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of Detroit’s National Action Network chapter, stressed church involvement in economic development. “The only institution that we still own is the black church. It may not be perfect, it has faults, but it’s the best thing that we’ve got going,” he said.
Juan Thomas from Chicago said that historically black preachers and lawyers (for example, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall) have worked closely together to affect public policy. This must continue. “After this cycle we need to do our part to changes these voter ID laws and suppression laws,” added Thomas, who is also an attorney and the secretary of the National Bar Association.
The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that churches had abandoned discussions about “the sin of poverty” in favor of the prosperity gospel.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, noted the AME’s history of political engagement dating back to Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black person sworn into the U.S. Congress. “We need to sit at the table while you’re (elected officials) making the decisions because we’re right there in the trenches … We can tell you what’s working and not working.”
The Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, targeted health care disparities such as, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “The church refuses to move from the pulpit to the pavement … We’re sleeping with each other on Saturday, shouting on Sunday, and dying on Monday.” He also mentioned the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately targets African Americans.
The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Johnson Cook, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged black clergy to get involved in policymaking, including at the international level. “We have to be local, but we have to go big, go global.” She added there needs to be more alliances with other communities, such as Hispanics, to address common concerns.
The Rev. Lennox Abrigo, of Seventh Day New Covenant in Hyattsville, Maryland, also emphasized the need for community partnerships. He mentioned his church’s relationship with the American Cancer Society to bring early diagnosis to black men who may be suffering from cancer. “I’ve promised God that I’m not going to restate the problem anymore. I’m just going to go out and make things happen,” he said.
The Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, also targeted economic development, noting that 50 percent of black households in Detroit make under $25,000 per year. He said the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 53 percent. “It’s not just Detroit; it’s your city,” he said. “… As a pastor, I have to speak to that on a daily basis.” There needs to be a “social gospel ministry” that speaks to public policy, he said. “We have so many issues, we can’t deal with them all, but we can deal with those issues and policies that lift people up every day.”
So what do you think? Is the church doing enough with its power to uplift the community? And, before you answer, remember that WE believers ARE the church.
SHREWDLY CELEBRATING: President Barack Obama shrewdly let his wife Michelle shine at the Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/Newscom)
Democrats nominated President Barack Obama for a second term at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, but the consensus among pundits was that his wife Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton outshone him in their speeches. Was his by design a more modest speech than those he delivered in 2008 to reflect the chastening of the economic crisis that has defined his tenure? It sure seemed so, as he compared himself to Depression-era president Franklin D. Roosevelt and quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go”?
Speaking of nowhere to go but God, there was a tussle Wednesday afternoon over the fact that the word God initially didn’t appear in the Democratic platform this year. A line about Jerusalem being the perpetual capital of Israel disappeared as well. Just before Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie prayed the invocation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to ask three times for a floor vote to amend the platform to reinsert these references. Then, Villaraigosa clearly overrode a divided final vote to affirm the changes, which gave the Democrats their own Clint Eastwood moment.
Plenty of speakers talked about God, however, including United Methodist pastor and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missiouri), who went off-script Wednesday and began preaching a passionate mini-sermon. “Hope is the motivation that empowers the unemployed. … It is our hope and faith that moves us to action,” Cleaver shouted. “As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, Mr. President, hope on!”
Speaking of shouting, the convention opened with a lot of that Tuesday, most notably from Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker. “It is our most fundamental national aspiration – that no matter who you are, no matter what your color, creed, how you choose to pray or whom you choose to love, that if you are an American — first generation or fifth– one who is willing to work hard, play by the rules, and apply your God-given talents, that you should be able to find a job that pays the bills,” Booker yelled as he introduced the party platform.
As to the platform itself, support for same-sex marriage was included for the first time and language about keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare” is gone. The drumbeat championing “choice” over Republican oppression of women’s bodies resounded from the first speaker to the last. Juliet Lapidos of The New York Times noticed and so did Michael Sean Winters, a blogger for The National Catholic Reporter. In a column at CNN, Winters said the Obama campaign has given up on courting moderate, white, working class voters who are primarily concerned about the economy. Instead he is “re-litigating the culture wars he promised to salve.” Even Comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show produced a bit about the party of inclusion not being so inclusive when it comes to gun-toting, God-fearing, anti-science Evangelicals.
New York City pastor and councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) told CBN News that he was at the convention to debate the platform change regarding same-sex marriage. “I see myself as a reformer, and I’m hoping that we can put enough pressure (on the party),” Cabrera said. Other Christians were there to offer non-partisan prayers. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Rev. Gabriel Salguero, and Blood:Water Mission founder Jena Lee Nardella were among those offering a sweet aroma of prayer amidst the partisan preaching. And Sister Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus delivered a short but impassioned speech about the potential dangers of Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s “immoral budget” and why “our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”
As to those stunning speeches delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, Obama’s was notable for its passion and clarity and for the heart-warming story of the Obamas’ humble beginnings, but also for the fact that Mrs. Obama’s autobiography excluded any mention of her ever having held a job. Instead she described herself as “Mom-in-Chief.” Clinton’s was widely regarded as being so far above others in its rhetorical skill and specificity that even right-leaning pundits conceded he gave Obama the boost he needed, which brings me back to my original point, and that is that the president may not be Bill Clinton, but he is a shrewd politician nonetheless. Just ask Hillary.
What do you think?
What were the high points and low points of the Democrats’ big party?
UrbanFaith contributing writer Jacqueline J. Holness’s first book grabbed our attention right away. Yes, in part because we’re proud of the personal and professional achievement of one of our own (her first book!), but even more because the title, After the Altar Call, is where many of us spend our daily lives as Christians. The joy, freedom, and zeal that we experience in that initial moment of salvation at the altar is gradually replaced by the boredom, temptation, and disappointment of everyday life, and we’re soon left wondering, “How do I get that fire back?” As a preacher’s kid who has spent her entire life in the church, Jacqueline knows that feeling well, and she set out to create a book that could help her and other women (heck, I’ll say men too) recapture and maintain their sense of hope, passion, and mission.
After the Altar Call:The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship with God includes first-person accounts of 24 women who share stories of inspiration as they recount what happened after their altar-call experiences. Interviews with a variety of women, including The View‘s Sherri Shepherd, A.M.E. trailblazer Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and author and life coach Valorie Burton, make the book a fresh and relevant how-to manual for Christian women who want a serious relationship with God. Jacqueline, who is also a correspondent for the Courthouse News Service in Atlanta, says After the Altar Call is the handbook she wishes she’d had after her own salvation experience.
What I like most about the book is that Jacqueline avoids trite formulas and goes after answers to real-life questions that will eventually wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. So, among other things, we read about women who have faced divorce, religious conflict, breast cancer, the loss of a family member in the war, and chronic illness. We spoke with Jacqueline about her book and the lessons she learned from writing it.
URBAN FAITH: The title of your book, After the Altar Call, suggests a sort of post-conversion emphasis. This is for people who’ve had that salvation experience and are in the “Now what?” stage. What led you to write about this?
JACQUELINE HOLNESS: The Christian life traditionally begins for many of us at an altar at the front of a church. After that, your life changes because you now live based on what God wants for you instead of what you want for you. I wrote this book because when I decided to follow Christ in my early 20s, I wanted to know what it was like “for real” to live as a Christian. My father had been a pastor, so I grew up as a “PK” [Preacher’s Kid], but I wanted to get beyond the “rules” I had been taught at home and at my home church. Also, I have always been a person with a certain joie de vi·vre for life. I wanted to be sure that wouldn’t end because I decided to be a Christian.
So you went on a quest.
As a budding journalist at the time, the only way I knew to get my questions answered was asking numerous black women whom I met along the way about what it was like to be a Christian. I asked about really personal stuff. I also looked for books in which women shared their testimonies. I kept hoping I would come across one book that contained life stories from diverse black women and their faith in God, but I did not. This book is the answer to my earnest search for “realness” at the time. I have interviewed women of varied walks and stations of life, from their 20s to their 80s. I looked for inquisitive women like myself who needed to “count the cost” before making that all-important decision to be a follower of Christ.
CHRONICLING WOMEN'S STORIES OF FAITH: Journalist and author Jacqueline J. Holness.
You spoke to a variety women who are either famous or accomplished in their particular fields. What was the most common recurring theme that you heard from each of them?
Regardless of age, socioeconomic background, or career path, it was obvious that each woman was intentional about having a personal relationship with God, and that was inspiring to me. I was inspired that someone like Sherri Shepherd, who has a nationwide if not worldwide platform on The View and a glamorous life, not only knows but acknowledges her utter dependence on the Lord. And it was the same with Betty Prophete of the Haitian Christian Mission. In Haiti, where voodoo is prevalent, she has been able to demonstrate to thousands if not more that knowing Jesus is more powerful than knowing voodoo.
Who surprised you the most with something she said?
The most surprising statement came from Melissa Summers, who was once a prominent radio personality in Atlanta. She was so popular, she was known as “Atlanta’s Girlfriend.” She decided to leave her radio position, in which she earned a six-figure salary not including endorsement deals, to become a missionary in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Today, she does not even have a regular salary and is truly dependent on the Lord to meet all of her needs. Not too many people, even Christians, would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice.
What does faith in God look like today for ambitious, successful women?
I think God deals with each one of us differently according to His purposes for our lives, and success for one person may not be success for another. For instance, Sherri Shepherd is probably the most famous woman that I interviewed, and her success and faith are very public. But for someone like Tracy King, who struggled with infertility, faith and success are defined differently. Tracy King’s success is found in being a wife and mother. And while she does not hide her faith, it does not look like Sherri’s faith. Both are equally ambitious, successful, and faithful women in God. Stephanie Bronner, who is married to the youngest of the Bronner Brothers [who created the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show] is a mother to seven children. She toyed with idea of working as she started to have children but realized that success for her meant being a full-time wife and mother. Obviously, being a mother to seven children is very ambitious and requires lots of faith.
What were some of the different views about the church that you found among your subjects?
I did not ask the women about any of the polarizing issues in the church, because I wanted as many women as possible to be drawn into the book rather than be put off by various opinions and debates. Also, I tried to include as many denominations as possible. However, a few topics came up that may be conversation starters. For instance, Cee Cee Michaela Floyd, a minister and actress probably best known for starring on Girlfriends, talked about courtship versus dating, and I know that many people have debated this topic. Fiction author Monica McKayhan has been divorced twice and is married again. I know some Christians don’t believe in divorce, so that may be controversial for some people.
The topic of love and relationships is, of course, the source of never-ending discussion, debate, and anxiety for women in general, but there are obviously unique challenges for black women. What new light does your book shed on the subject?
I did not get into the gloom-and-doom of the present day when it comes to marriage and black women. And in fact, of the two dozen women in the book only three are not married (and one of them is me!), so we are not all “man-less!” Instead of focusing on negative statistics, I interviewed them about how their faith came into play in their romantic relationships. Erica Mountain, who is in her 20s and was probably the youngest woman in the book, shares an incredible story of meeting the man who would become her husband when she was a teenager but not realizing it until years later when they were both engaged to other people. After Cee Cee Michaela Floyd became a Christian, she was celibate for close to 11 years before she got married. Lisa McClendon confessed that the views of a church she attended at the time persuaded her and her first husband to get married less than a year after knowing each other, when in fact they should have never married. She has an interesting perspective on the 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 passage that says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried …”
In speaking to these women for your interviews, what did you recognize as the greatest challenges facing them on their faith journeys?
I think it is difficult for all Christians to develop a personal relationship with a Being whom we can’t see. I think their greatest challenge was to learn how God speaks to each of them and how He directs them in their daily lives. I hoped to demystify some of that process in my book.
You write about your own experience of having grown up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, being a PK, yet you didn’t really begin to embrace the faith as your own until later. Can you talk about that?
I’m a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid, and a preacher’s niece, so faith is our family business so to speak. Like most people, I just wanted to fit in as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I actually do fit in because we all, to some extent, are the products of our family background. And as I’ve met more people, I realize that it was a blessing to be raised in a Christian household with clear rules. It has spared me a lot of drama, being the adventurer that I naturally am.
You spoke to a lot of successful, professional women? What about women who aren’t there yet — women who have experienced setbacks, made poor choices, or who just can’t seem to catch a break? What kind of encouragement does your book offer them?
Many of the women in my book have experienced setbacks or made poor choices, but through their relationship with God, they are being redeemed. Susie Doswell, executive director emeritus of the Annual Christian Women’s Retreat, talked about her history of teenage pregnancy and marrying abusive men and how she has been able to make better choices. Lola Uter, the oldest woman in my book, talked about hearing about the Lord as a teenager but not responding to what she heard and how that poor choice affected the rest of her life. These, as well as other stories, encourage women to acknowledge poor choices and make better ones in the future.
When readers are finished with your book, what do you hope they’ll do with the stories and information?
This quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, applies here: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” I hope my readers develop an inspiring and adventurous personal relationship with God that sustains and propels them from season to season in their lives. And I hope the book shows them that it’s entirely possible, regardless of their inevitable mistakes and missteps.
For more information about Jacqueline Holness and her book, visit her website: AftertheAltarCall.com.
A professor, a policeman, and the President offered all of us an opportunity to reconsider issues of race, class, and justice in America. But are we able to grasp the deeper lessons? Seven leaders reflect on the real message of the Henry Louis Gates controversy.
A special forum featuring William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston.
People wanted to make the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and subsequent brouhaha a parable about a lot of things — the prevalence of racial profiling, Ivy League elitism, disrespect for law enforcement, racism, classism, black rage, white privilege. The episode may have had shades of all those things. But the truth is always more complicated and multilayered than the pre-wrapped boxes in which we’re inclined to deposit racial events. And in the end, nobody’s mind really seemed to change about any of the issues at stake. Even Gates and Sergeant Crowley, the arresting officer, said they would simply “agree to disagree” after their much-heralded reunion at President Obama’s so-called “Beer Summit.”
Now, a few weeks removed from the drama of the moment, and with the advantage of hindsight and cooler emotions, perhaps there’s a better chance of drawing some meaningful lessons from what has been glibly labeled by the media as “Gates-gate.” We asked seven Christian scholars, pastors, and urban leaders to give us their perspectives on the real message of the Gates-Crowley-Obama “teachable moment.”
WILLIAM PANNELL: I was listening to President Obama’s press conference, and when I heard the answer he gave about Gates and the cop, I knew he had made a serious mistake. I said out loud, “Oh, no. Don’t do that.” He was out of line not knowing all the facts, and he responded out of his experience of being black in a nation run by white cops. His answer was understandable, given this history. And this history is still very much alive all across this nation. But he is the President of this country; of all people in this country, including those who have never been in the back of a bus. No president should rush to judgment and speak off the cuff as he did. I don’t know what he said to Crowley during their meeting in Washington, but I think he owes him an apology.
The other mistake he made was to be much too laudatory of Professor Gates. Gates is a hot-dog professor at Harvard who loves the spotlight and enjoys a reputation of being superior in human relations. At Harvard he is virtually untouchable, in part because he is black. He is a fine scholar of course, but this isn’t about scholarship. Further complicating this event is the fact that Mr. Obama is an honored graduate of Harvard. Too much baggage for a president to carry on this one.
What have we learned? Not much, probably, for those whose experience on either side of this issue precludes the possibility of seeing both sides of this event. Black people are still being mistreated by white cops — black ones, too, for that matter. A cop is a cop; they represent the army of occupation in all our cities. Civilians beware!
On the other hand, policing is much more complicated an enterprise today than in the more recent past. And most departments have made strong efforts at preparing their officers to respect civilians of all colors in the line of their duties. But it is still true that racism is alive and well in this country. If I were I still a father of teenage boys, I would warn them about any encounter with police. I did this when my boys were in their teens, and I’d still do it today.
The way forward in this arena of mistrust requires that we open discussions between “civilians” and the “army.” When such conversations do occur, they are most often heated because they have been triggered by some encounter between the police and a civilian. Riots have been set off this way. Ask Rodney King.
What we need is a series of regular backyard conversations between police and neighborhoods in an attempt to develop “communities of discourse,” climates where trust can be developed. The most promising centers for such discourse could be local congregations, but better in someone’s backyard. The barbecue tastes better there.
Then this: One of these days the executives of major news outlets need to get converted from their corporate greed and realize that free speech is really not free. It carries with it serious responsibilities for the general welfare of a people. Spreading hate on CNN, Fox, or any other outlet ill serves the nation. We are very badly divided in this country. Under intense pressures owing to the economic crisis, nerves become frayed and the natives get restless. If we cannot talk about our differences, we are in serious trouble. And our differences are anchored in fear. So let’s talk about what makes us afraid.
Dr. William E. Pannell is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the past he has served as a professor of evangelism and as director of the African American Studies Program. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit. He currently serves on the board of Taylor University in Indiana and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (1993), Evangelism from the Bottom Up (1992), and My Friend, the Enemy (1968).
CHERYL SANDERS: I think the real message of the Gates affair is that white privilege does not readily convey to affluent and influential people of color. As a next step, beyond meeting over beers, perhaps President Obama should consider convening town meetings around the nation to discuss these issues, if he can garner the political courage and moral authority to do so.
At Third Street Church of God, we have incorporated the ministry of reconciliation into our mission statement and ministry priorities. One reason why race relations remains problematic in the United States is the failure of Christians to acknowledge that all persons are made in the image of God and that God is no respecter of persons. Therefore we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the racism, sexism, and elitism practiced in many of our churches reflect the will and Word of God.
The special role churches could play to bring healing to our racial rifts would require recollection, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation, in that order. Reconciliation requires more than beer-bottle diplomacy — there must be transparency and truth-telling with the intention of actually changing the way we relate to each other.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders has been senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., since 1997, and is Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity where she has taught since 1984. She has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).
GLENN LOURY: The real message? I think it’s that the president must do a better job managing the “race” issue. I recognize that this issue is pretty far down the list of things he has to worry about, and rightly so. But, as the principal public official now in the position of framing the national discourse on race-related matters, he has an awesome responsibility to get it right. And, he’s been revealed by his handling of this incident to be not nearly as sure-footed as conventional wisdom would have it. This is likely to cost him politically over the long run, which cannot be good for African Americans or progressives in this country.
We have to find a way to talk honestly about our problems, which lie at the intersection of race and class. It’s not blackness in general, or in the abstract, that is the issue. The racial profiling of successful black Americans is not the deep problem here. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a problem. I’m saying if that were all that was going on, it wouldn’t be a fundamental blemish on our democracy. What is a fundamental stain on our democracy, and what gives rise to a great hypocrisy in the way our country presents itself to the rest of the world, is the virtual police state that is being run in our midst, with its great weight falling on the backs of the black and brown, urban, low-income, poorly educated, socially marginal populations who have fallen between the cracks. This incident, and the way in which it has been handled, including by the President of the United States, reveals just how far we are from being able to confront our true racial demons.
What role should the church play? No more or less than in any other central area of American life (the environment; economic justice; war and peace, etc.). I don’t believe that this is a “why can’t we all get along?” kind of spiritual battle. It is a political and economic battle, which of course has a spiritual and moral dimension. But, it is not a question of personal morality (how should black and white individuals deal with encounters like the one in Cambridge last month?). Rather, it is a question of public morality — that is, how should we as a nation deal with those who are being left behind?
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He taught previously at Boston University, Harvard, and Northwestern. In addition to his scholarly work, Loury is a prominent social critic and public intellectual, a frequent commentator on national radio and television, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award) and The Anatomy of Racial Equality.
CURTISS PAUL DEYOUNG: The confusing details surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department demonstrate once again the challenge of healing the open wound of racism in the United States. The incident reveals the often unseen depth of generational scars and raw fears experienced by persons of color, even those who sit in elite positions in the country. It also shows how those serving within institutions in our country fail, despite their best efforts, to recognize these effects and order their behaviors accordingly.
Until our best minds and most committed healers focus on the deeper levels of bigotry and systemic injustice, and implement a process for transformation, we will continue to experience the symptoms of this entrenched reality.
Curtiss Paul DeYoung is Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has experience in urban multicultural ministry in the United States and South Africa, and his research interests include multicultural interpretations of the Bible and interfaith dialogue. DeYoung is the author of several books, including Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.
ARTURO LUCERO: I think one of the main lessons from the Gates incident is that frustrating circumstances can be a seedbed for misunderstandings and unfortunate consequences. Proverbs says, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” And it later says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”
The Civil Rights Act protects all Americans from discrimination. But it does not change the heart of man. The only real answer to matters of race and class is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Government legislation may impact our actions, but the Word of God transforms our lives. It teaches us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35), to put the interests of others above our own (Phil. 2:3-4), and to forgive (Eph. 4:32b). Although the Word of God is clear in its teachings on this matter, some preachers of the Word are not.
The role of the church is to bring people to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). Paul goes on to describe how we are to reflect that maturity, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
As long as people of all ethnicities perpetuate the injustices of the past and their grievances toward other ethnicities, the wound will never heal. The only biblical solution is for pastors to teach their flocks to forgive those who hurt us (Eph. 4:32b), love our enemies, and to pray and do good to those who hate us (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27).
Arturo Lucero is the president and founder of Multi Cultural Ministry and also serves as an adult ministry pastor at Sunrise Church in Rialto, California, a multiethnic congregation of 4,000. As the former director of Bible Church Mission, a church planting agency, he developed a strategy for ministering to the growing Hispanic community through an established non-Hispanic church. As a conference speaker and consultant to churches, his focus is on equipping churches for reaching the immigrant community. He has contributed chapters to the books Reuniting the Family of God, edited by A. Charles Ware and Eugene Seals, and Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting, edited by George and Sherelyn Yancey.
VASHTI MURPHY MCKENZIE: I think a big lesson from the Gates incident is that stereotypes persist in our world. Stereoptypical attitudes will meet you in the boardroom, classroom, locker room, on the street, or even at your front door.
Stereotypical attitudes, unfortunately, are a part of our everyday lives. We’d like to think they’re dead and gone, but often they just depart for a season. We stereotype each other all the time. Just when you think it’s safe, it will happen to you or to someone you know. And whenever it happens, it hurts.
When I read the news account that Professor Gates was arrested in his own home, it suddenly didn’t seem like 2009. Instead, it felt more like 1959. Racial profiling was alleged, but law enforcement officials also felt unfairly judged for trying to carry out their jobs. Stereotypes can affect all sides of a conflict.
A stereotype paints men and women a color that they have not earned and do not deserve. There are stereotypes in every person’s closet, and they come out at the most inconvenient times. Stereotypes are a group fixed notions about a person or group of persons or the conceptioins that surround a position or occupation. There are stereotypes about certain ethnic, cultural, or religious groups. There are stereotypes surrounding Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. There are stereotypes surrounding men and women. There are stereotypes surrounding people of African, Irish, Polish, or Hispanic descent. One person may be viewed as confident, while another doing the same thing is considered arrogant. One person’s action is called “survival,” while another doing the same thing is “looting.” One person running down the street may be considered jogging, but another person doing the same thing must be running away from something because they must have done something.
Even Jesus experienced stereotyping. In the Gospel of John, chapter one, Philip found Nathanael and told him that they’d found the One that Moses had written about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote — “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” What was Nathaniel’s response? “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael hadn’t even met Jesus, hadn’t shaken his hand, didn’t Googled him, hadn’t read his résumé. He just figured that he wasn’t any good because he came from Nazareth. We all dream of a better world where character is elevated over color and class. But if you want a better world, you have to work for it. It won’t come by wishing.
John wrote about a beloved community; Martin Luther King Jr. preached about it; Donny Hathaway sang about it, “Someday we’ll all be free.” But it won’t come by wishing; it will only come by seeking God and working for a change. We need to work on getting rid of these stereotypes today.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first female bishop in its history — and serves in the 13th Episcopal District, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky. She is a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her latest book is Swapping Housewives: Rachel & Jacob & Leah. Her teaching, inspirational meditations, and commentaries are available as a podcast at ThisIsYourWakeupCallOnline.com.
TALI HAIRSTON: The conclusions drawn from racial incidence in America come quickly and often with undeniable passion. The rarer moments within racial matters is when someone creates a moment of pause that alters the mental landscape of how many imagined or consider race.
President Obama recently created such a pause when he sought to reframe the Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley situation as a “teachable moment.” This triggered a litany of reflections on one of America’s oldest closet skeletons. What is inferred by the President is that his election did not signal an end to all things racial. Rather, America is at best more racially conscious and less resistant to new paradigms related to race.
What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options which were regularly demonstrated in this situation. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself. Or, we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone’s mind or at best give them a piece of ours.
For the Christian community, I argue both these reactions are not in line with Christian mission and witness. From the perspective of an African American male with an Irish family name; living in an Asian community; working alongside Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and Gentile for reconciliation and community development; the issue of race has grown more complex by our lack of missional intentionality. We engage race like a couple in a struggling marriage. Problems are only addressed while emotions and sensitivities are running high. But when the current issue de-escalates, we go back to our churches, neighborhoods, TV shows, and hobbies. This assures we will not be equipped as a nation or as Christians to properly engage “the other” when it most matters.
How much money has been invested in turning the racial tide? What institutions produce marketplace materials that counteract the million-dollar radio and TV personalities that so easily fan the flames of racial ignorance? Christian mission and witness has always demanded intentionality, resources, planning, time, leadership, collaboration, prayer, and hope. If the church could be a witness at this level, maybe change wouldn’t feel so much like a pipe dream.
Tali Hairston is Special Assistant to the President at Seattle Pacific University and director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. At the helm of the Perkins Center, he is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins. Hairston is passionate about seeing SPU contribute to the reconciliation movement in Seattle and the nation.