Focus Scripture – Amos 5:24
If you exit the Dan Ryan Expressway at 59th Street and head north on State, you will pass no fewer than a dozen storefront churches before you reach Garfield Boulevard. Liquor stores and Lottery vendors are also in abundance along the route. For poor Black people inhabiting this stretch of Chicago’s south side ghetto, one has to ask which of these institutions furnishes the most hope for those who claim hopelessness as a usual way of life. If the truth is told, all three of these dubiously venerable institutions contribute to numbing the reality of those who are entrenched in poverty and imprisoned by despair. They take turns dispensing the opiates. The liquor stores and lottery vendors do most of their business between Monday and Saturday. While churches along this stretch are packed on Sunday as preachers remind the people that Jesus had an earthly mission to bring good news to the poor, and proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). The people leave the premises with instant optimism for the next several days. Mission accomplished!
Never mind that the problems which engendered hopelessness in the first place are ubiquitous and trenchant and endure like persistent organic pollutants in the lifeblood of the Black community and in the collective (un) consciousness of the people whose invisible scars still itch from time to time. Every Sunday Black preachers put a Band-Aid on the people’s disfigured spirits, sure enough. But, as in the days of Amos and Micah of the Old Testament, it will take more than a priest or a preacher to put a dent in the problem. It will take a prophet to tease out the real social carcinogens and shame the oppressors until they dare to make structural changes that make a difference. In the meantime apathy and sometimes despair represent the orders of the day.
This week’s readings highlight the persistence of despair in the Black community and offer prescriptions for change as part of the proceedings of the first annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference held in 2004. That conference and this week’s assignment both focus on the intersection between preacher and prophet. Tragically, in the Black church, there is not enough overlap in the functions of church leadership. In too many cases Black church leaders fail to do justice for people who merely want their brokenness to be bound up in some way. I submit to you that justice does not “roll down like waters nor righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), at least not in the black churches I described in the opening of this reflection, and certainly not in many middle-class churches that serve the more affluent Black community. To impact the plight of Black people who are oppressed, both preacher and prophet are needed. James H. Cone makes this point cogently in his chapter on “Loving God with Our Heart, Soul, and Mind.”
Cone argues that “ministers are both priest and prophet …The Black community has survived both spiritually and physically because we have had prophetic ministers who have stood before courageous crowds facing a hostile government” (60). He claimed that Black intellectuals must develop theological paradigms for the Black community and promulgated in Black churches. He notes: “If the Black church is not careful, it will become a church with a borrowed theology that is used to tame rather and liberate” (60). When an authentically Black theology is in place, he argues, pastors will become prophets who “make the gospel understandable for the time and situation in which we are living today” (61). Cone says that ministers need to be able to do more than reading and interpreting the Bible in historical context; they also need to be able to deploy biblical principles to counteract the destructive forces in our society. I suggest to you that conversations such as those initiated at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor (SDP) conferences represent one way to counteract destructive forces. In February 2011, I participated in the SDP conference that was held in Chicago, and I was encouraged by the experience.
Hope in the Black church, succinctly, has been the pivotal issue for me. Over the years, the Black church has been a source of comfort; it has also been a source of great pain. For me, the Black church has represented hypocrisy, bigotry, subservience, and stratification. Paradoxically, it has also been a place of sanctuary, community, and peace. My issues with the Black church have nothing to do with God, for I believe that the God of the Black church is still faithful. Sometimes I wonder, however, if the Black church is acquainted with the same God I have come to know and trust, a God of love, peace, compassion, and affirmation. Often my perplexity can be attributed to the fact that the God I have come to know is so much bigger than the God of the Black churches with which I am familiar. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18). On the first day of the 2011 Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference, the seminarian program opened with the ceremonial act of “seeing” and “speaking” me into the sacred conversation. This simple gesture gave me a new way of looking at the welcoming possibilities of the Black church. These acts of validation made me realize that I, too, could be the keeper of the vision. For the first time, I began to believe that I, also, could be a priest and a prophet.
As a wounded Black woman of faith, I came to the conference hoping to find inspiration, clarity, and motivation. On all three of these counts, hope did not disappoint. By the end of the gathering, I imagined myself as the bent woman in Luke 13 whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath. After she had been struggling for some time, Jesus saw her, spoke to her, and set her free. I, too, attained a certain amount of freedom during the conference. For example, I felt emancipated enough to grapple with this burden of compassion God had laid on my heart, compassion for people who have been through circumstances similar to mine. I felt at liberty to speak a prophetic word to people who have been abandoned by the brick-and-mortar church in the Black community. I felt determined to work side by side with other wounded Black women of faith to facilitate their empowerment, promote ongoing critical reflection, cultivate well-being, and nurture resilience. Finally, as a result of participating in the 2011 Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, I felt a sense of freedom to pursue the leadership vision God had given me through the examples spoken of by prophets in the watchtower and modeled by Jesus. And, as any formerly enslaved prophet can tell you, those whom the Son sets free are free indeed!