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  • New Year’s Eve Celebrations in the Black Church

    by Carolyn Cardwell | Dec 31, 2013
    By the Rev. Dr. Lewis Brogdon

    Well it is that time again, the end of one year and the beginning of a new year. While many will celebrate the New Year at a party of some kind, many African Americans will bring in the New Year at church. I have spent most of my new year’s mornings in church listening to the saints testify about God’s goodness, singing songs to celebrate how we got over, and hearing the preacher set the tone for a New Year with a sermon that gave meaning to the last year and hope for the new one. I remember my friends often asking me, “What did you do on New Year’s Eve?” I responded, “I went to church.” I can still remember the puzzled looks I received. What my friends didn’t understand was the importance of attending church on New Year’s Eve in the African American community. So I thought I’d blog about this for a few weeks.
    Watch Night Services is a practice that goes back to 1862. On that New Year’s Eve, many African Americans gathered in churches to give thanks for the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln that would take effect on January 1, 1863. And for one hundred and fifty one years, African Americans have brought in the New Year in church. However, this practice is not observed because it goes back to the days of slavery. African Americans attending church on New Year’s Eve speaks to the continuing importance of the church as one of the central institutions of the African American community.
    The Black Church is still one of the places African Americans go to find meaning and hope as they collectively and individually navigate the challenges of life, many of which are a product of the continuing presence of systemic racism. So when African Americans come to church one of the tasks of the church and particularly preaching is to instill a sense of hope in spite of continuing challenges and hardships. Many blacks repeatedly turn to the church and look to the church to serve as a beacon of light in the darkness and hope amidst a sea of despair. That is one reason watch night services are important because what better time to instill hope than on the night that holds together the difficulties of the past year and promises of the new one. Watch night services place hope, not meaningless suffering, at the center of what we aspire to be and do as a people. Next week I will share insights I have gleaned from pastors in the city of Louisville and wider region about why this is an important practice in the Black Church.
    Go comment!
  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Legacy of Rev. Dr. James I. Davis

    by Lewis Brogdon | Nov 18, 2013
    Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. (1 Corinthians 3:1-10a).

    One of the many problems Paul addressed in his first letter to the Corinthians was divisions. People in the church had become fond of a particular teacher and decided to name them as their favorite teacher and affirmed their allegiance by telling others they followed them. Paul considered this kind of thinking to be a sign of spiritual immaturity. He sought to correct their misplaced devotion and allegiance to their teachers by instructing the Corinthians that all teachers were servants. Paul may have planted and Apollos may have watered the seed but God made it grow. Instead of the teachers God uses, Paul directed their attention to God who gives the church teachers and blesses the work they do in the church. This passage is important for churches because it helps the church not to become overly infatuated or reliant on teachers who plant and water the seeds of the gospel. It is also particularly important for ministers because of the ever present temptation to give into what I term “ministerial rivalry.” Too many ministers view our sacred work as a competition and feel the need to outperform or worse yet, to criticize or to diminish the work of other ministers. Such practices encourage disrespect that is far too widespread in the ministry today. There is no room in the church for jealous ministers. Instead, like Paul taught the Corinthians, we should appreciate all the teachers and preachers who plant and water seeds and recognize that in different ways God uses us all to bless the church and the world. This text is important not just for corrective reasons but also because it teaches us three valuable lessons. First, it highlights the importance of having a proper perspective about the work of ministers. We teach but God makes it grow. Second, it encourages us to have an appreciation and respect for ministers. Planting and watering seeds is important work worthy of appreciation and respect. Third, it encourages ministers to recognize the mutual nature of our work. Christian ministry means building on the foundation of others. We need each other and God for effective ministry to happen. After all, we can only water seeds that someone else planted. And some of the seeds that yield a rich harvest today were actually planted years ago by someone else. This text has come alive in my life in a profound way. Let me explain.

    Two years ago I was contacted by Virginia Hill, one of the members of the Worship Committee about preaching at Trinity one Sunday in October. I gladly accepted the invitation and had a wonderful experience. This was second visit to Trinity and so I knew they were in the process of calling a pastor. After preaching the fall revival and World Communion Sunday, I felt compelled by the Lord to make myself available until they called a pastor. I thought the process would last a month or two but God had other plans. I ended up staying for two years. In fact, my time at Trinity as interim pastor ended becoming one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in twenty-one years of ministry. Trinity was a kind and loving congregation to me, my four kids, and my new wife. In fact, we grew so fond of them that the two and a half hour drive to Dayton and back did not seem that bad. But more importantly, I found this church to be a theologically and socially educated congregation. I was able to preach a broad range of sermons because this church had a history of hearing theological, social, pastoral, congregational, and political sermons. It was a real joy preaching in a church that could appreciate the full range of issues addressed in Scripture. I knew that this was a testament to the commitment this church has to education but also I knew that this commitment was rooted in the legacy of a pastor who labored for years before me. 

    I began to realize that a major reason I had such a transformative and empowering experience serving as interim pastor was because of the ministry and legacy of Rev. Dr. James I. Davis. For two years, I stood on his shoulders and preached the gospel and ministered to God’s people at Trinity. I built on a foundation already laid by someone else. And so, I thought that it is only fitting to honor his legacy with this blog. I want the partners and friends of the Black Church Studies Program at Louisville Seminary to know who has made contributions to the church that opened doors for us today. I want you to know about Rev. Davis. And the real beauty and power of this is that I have never personally met him yet he has enriched my life and ministry. I believe this kind of grace is what Paul was trying to help the Corinthians to understand.  

    The Rev. Dr. James I. Davis was born on October 27, 1921 in Henderson, North Carolina. He graduated from high school in 1939 and from Knoxville College in 1943 and many of his sermons contained the spiritual experiences that he had while attending there. He received a B.D. Degree from the Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary in 1946; Master of Divinity Degree, Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary in 1968, and a Doctor of Divinity from the Mary Holmes College in 1977. He also continued his education at McCormick Theological Seminary during the early seventies. Dr. Davis’ pastoral service started in 1947 as the pastor of Chase City United Presbyterian Church in Chase City, Virginia. In 1948 the Rev. Clinton Marsh of Indianapolis, Indiana was summoned to Dayton, Ohio to survey the community for an outreach Presbyterian Ministry. Rev. Davis was sent to organize Trinity United Presbyterian Church in 1948 with a founding that included 15 members which grew to a membership of five hundred. During his tenure at Trinity, Rev. Davis provided leadership in the purchase of a parsonage in 1952 at 2600 Lakeview; land at Fleetfoot and Lakeview, the site of the original church building and a second unit on the same grounds dedicated in 1969 with a cost that exceeded a quarter of a million dollars. Through his leadership, the church members’ benevolences paved the way for the mortgage burning on November 21, 1982. He happily announced to the congregation we are here to do God’s will and he paved the way seeking God’s will as the primary focus of his life. In addition, he served as Moderator of the Miami Presbytery, Member of Cabinet of Ethnic Affairs, Trustee of the Synod of the Covenant, Member of the Mission Council of the Miami Presbytery and the Synod where he served as Treasurer, Member of the Staff Service Division of the Synod, Local, State, Regional and member of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus. He was honored by the General Assembly at the annual gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, being bestowed the Spiritual Award given by the Martin Luther King Holiday Celebration and the Miley O. Williamson Award, a coveted honor given by the NAACP. 

    Reverend Dr. Davis also performed a commendable list of community service activities and was a recipient of many honors and awards, however, too many to list and innumerate. After 45 years, Rev. Davis retired from Trinity Presbyterian Church on February 1, 1993. Frequently, he would say, “Real joy comes from doing something worthwhile and thanking God every day by remembering great works are performed by perseverance.” Dr. Davis was married to Mrs. Katherine LeMoss Crowder Davis for 60 years. Mrs. Davis was a noted retired Administrator and Educator who recently became the first African-American woman to serve as Moderator of the Miami Presbytery’s Presbyterian Women. She has been as asset to the church, sharing her time and talents. Her credits include the successful implementation of a former annual event, the “Potpourri,” which generated many dollars that helped to undergird special projects with the life of the church. Rev. and Mrs. Davis are the parents of Mrs. Wanda Davis Hoag and the late Mr. JeVern Davis. Rev. Davis retired from Trinity on February 1, 1993 and went home to be with the Lord on December 29, 2008. Rev. Davis left a legacy of faithful ministry and opened doors for people like me to walk through.

    I stand on the shoulders of giants and wanted to recognize this fellow laborer and most importantly, God for allowing us to work in the ministry together. In the coming decades before me in ministry, Lord willing, I hope to leave a legacy of change in the church like Rev. Dr. James I. Davis. I hope that God does something through me that impacts the lives of others, even after I am gone.
    Go comment!
  • Thinking about the Trayvon Martin Verdict and Black Ambivalence

    by Carolyn Cardwell | Oct 03, 2013

    (Excerpt from recent lecture)

    There is a real cause for concern because of what happened on February 26, 2012 (the Sunday night Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman) and July 13, 2013 (the night the “not guilty” verdict was given). I believe we'll be talking about Trayvon Martin for years and how his tragic death affected this country, the black community in particular, and became a symbol for a lot of things that are wrong in the African American community.

    • His death was a painful reminder of similar acts of violence done in past years like the death of Emmett Till in 1955 and called into the question how much progress has been made with race relations
    • Trayvon’s death was a reminder of a broken criminal justice system that provided legal sanctuary for George Zimmerman at every juncture of the process while criminalizing and demonizing Trayvon Martin who was the victim in this case.
    • His death and the acquittal of George Zimmerman is a reminder of the vulnerable position many African American boys are in today who have little legal protection from aggressive, gun carrying men who believe they are a menace to society.

    This morning I am interested in talking about the ripple effect of these tragic events in the African American community. I have been struck both by the grief and outrage about this case in the black community as well as the apathy, ambivalence, silence, and inactivity by many African Americans since the verdict was given.

    There was considerable grief across this nation after Zimmerman was acquitted. I witnessed this grief firsthand in a church in Dayton Ohio. The grief was palpable. People were very upset throughout the early part of the worship service and right up to the time I was supposed to preach. The grief was so dense that I felt I could not preach the sermon until we spent some time in prayer naming our many feelings and confessing the raw emotions and pain we were feeling. Heads nodded. Tears were shed. Then I took up the difficult task of preaching a sermon that brought some semblance of meaning and hope to the people assembled. I also witnessed the grief of my friends and through social media. I’ve had multiple conversations with friends and read countless posts on Facebook by friends, colleagues, and community leaders who were deeply saddened by these events and what they symbolize for blacks. I may be wrong but I have not witnessed grief like this in a long time. 

    There was a considerable degree of moral outrage in the black community. For example, some black churches spoke out about this issue in their sermons the weeks after the verdict. Prophetic and justice-minded pastors gave their congregations a history lesson about legalized violence against African Americans that goes back to centuries of slavery and decades of segregation, (a vicious system that we are only four decades removed from). Important community leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Marc Morial, and Marian Wright Edelman and organizations like the NAACP immediately began to petition the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, to re-open the case on the grounds that Trayvon Martin’s death was a civil rights violation. Petitions went out across the nation. Not only this, but millions of African Americans marched and protested in cities across the country, calling attention to stand your ground laws, racial profiling, and the continuing problem of gun violence. I have been struck by the way this tragedy has galvanized a new level of energy to challenge laws that disproportionately affect African Americans. Many people understand that this tragedy can easily be repeated in states all across this country. And it has been good to see black leaders, especially African American pastors, ministers, and members of congregations talking about laws and issues affecting various segments of the black community.

    But sadly, this was not the only response by African American people, organizations, and its churches. The truth is a lot of African Americans and churches were silent the day after the verdict and they continue to be silent and inactive about these issues. For too many black Americans and black churches, it has been business as usual. Instead of encouraging congregants to march or to challenge unjust laws, too many people in churches were singing and praying about getting blessings from God for themselves. Too many pulpits were silent the day after the verdict and the silence continues.

    There was and continues to be quite a bit of outrage that so many people are apathetic, silent, and inactive. From social media posts to articles in online journals, there was a groundswell of frustration and resentment over the high number of African Americans who chose, in the face of this tragedy, to close it eyes and do nothing. Surely the apathy, inactivity, and silence are not signs that they do not care about the death of black boys and unjust laws. What’s up with the apathy? Why the silence? Why do many choose to do nothing? What are we to make of this?

    This morning we have to begin to understand what I call black ambivalence. There is a lot of ambivalence in our communities. To be ambivalent is to be uncertain and to be conflicted about something, to have mixed feelings. There is ambivalence in that many blacks believed that what happened to Trayvon was tragic and the system failed him but they are uncertain about our complicity in our plight and whether protests and activism will change anything. Not knowing what to do, many chose to do nothing. Though I am saddened by this, I am not surprised by the apathy and the ambivalence that causes our people to remain silent and inactive while our communities continue to suffer. I am, however, startled by this apathy and ambivalence. Our well being and Civil Rights are daily threatened by racist people and racist laws yet we lack the will to do anything about it. I wonder how we expect things to get better or if we even believe they can get better if we sit down and do nothing.   

    Go comment!
  • The Trayvon Martin Verdict Part 2

    by Lewis Brogdon | Jul 31, 2013

    Shannon Craigo-Snell, Professor of Theology, Louisville Seminary

    The Price Is Too High

    I enjoy the benefits of white privilege.  It is a pleasure to be well educated and economically stable. It is a delight to walk in the cool of the evening in my neighborhood. These joys are more readily available to me because of my identity as a white person. My ethnic heritage and my pale skin mean that I have had more opportunities, that doors open more easily for me, that the world is more lenient with my mistakes, and that no one ever thinks I look suspicious.

    Yet the privilege I enjoy comes with a price. White privilege is the flip side of racial discrimination. The price of my privilege includes impoverished inner-city schools, rampant unemployment among African-Americans, and mass incarceration. It includes the daily degradation of black Americans who are followed by anxious clerks in department stores, stop-and-frisk policies in New York City, and Stand Your Ground laws in thirty states. Occasionally, the price includes the death of a child, such as Trayvon Martin.

    The elegance of American racism is that, as a white person, I reap the rewards but someone else pays the price.

    Of course, I should reject the high price even if someone else is footing the bill. But let’s be honest: I am a selfish person. Even with white privilege, life is still really hard and my days are full. My kids’ schools assign so much homework, my house needs repainting, and I’m trying to get more exercise.

    But I am not only a white person. I am also a mother, a teacher, and a Christian. Accepting the structures of racism and the benefits of white privilege causes me personal harm in regards to these aspects of myself. I cannot be a good mother, a responsible teacher, or a faithful Christian while tacitly accepting racism in the United States.

    It damages who I am as a mother for me to accept a system in which any child can be legally gunned down. I must betray myself to acquiesce to this. I cannot pretend to be a decent mother to my own children if I do not work to protect all children from harm.

    To truly enjoy white privilege, I would have to ignore the mechanisms by which it functions. I would have to pretend that we live in a post-racial world with a level playing field, and the differences in outcomes for white and black Americans are based on merit. I would have to ignore the history of slavery and Jim Crow, the statistics regarding disparities in how laws are applied, the blunt realities of economic and educational inequality. While there appear to be members of the Supreme Court who can manage these intellectual gymnastics, I think my brain would split apart from the sheer incoherence of it all. Accepting the structures of racism in the United States would require me to sacrifice my own identity as a teacher, a scholar, and a logical person.

    Finally, accepting white privilege does damage to who I am as a Christian. I believe that the meaning and value of my life stems from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If I agree that my well-being actually requires the ongoing suffering and sacrifice of African-Americans, then I am saying Jesus is not enough. To imagine that Trayvon Martin’s death is an acceptable price to pay for my privilege as a white person is to slap Jesus in the face. Jesus already died for me. I don’t need anybody else to.

    African-Americans pay a high price for white privilege, but white people pay a price, too. It is a price of self-deception and self-distortion. The identities we choose for ourselves—in my case, those of mother, teacher, and Christian—are broken and betrayed. The price is too high.

    Amy Plantinga Pauw, Henry P. Mobley Jr. Professor of Doctrinal Theology, Louisville Seminary

    Through Her Eyes

    My childhood friend Muslima has never taken her eye off the Trayvon Martin case. She is an African-American A.C.L.U. lawyer living in Florida. From the time of Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting to the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, this case has been on her radar screen. The failure of the justice system in responding to Trayvon Martin’s death hits close to home for her in multiple ways. As a white theologian living in Kentucky, I’d been following this tragic case at a distance. I knew I needed to get closer, and I did that by trying to see the case through my friend’s eyes. Not her eyes alone, of course. In the days following the verdict, I read numerous editorials by African-American journalists, paid attention to what African-American friends posted on Facebook, listened to the President’s thoughtful reflections. What they saw has shaped what I am able to see, and I am grateful for that.

    To switch the metaphor, what we as Christians need to seek in situations of suffering and injustice is what King Solomon sought from God: a listening heart (1 Kings 3:9). Most of the suffering and injustice in the world will not be in our own family, our own neighborhood, or even our own country. It will not naturally hit “close to home.” What will move us to understand, to pray, and to act, will be listening to voices and seeing through eyes that are not our own.

    Debra J. Mumford

    Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics and Associate Dean, Louisville Seminary

    Trayvon Martin: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

    It was God who formed Trayvon’s inward parts.

    God knit him together in Sybrina Fulton’s womb.

    We praise God, for he was fearfully and wonderfully made.

    Wonderful was God’s work.

    Lamentable is society’s view that he was a social menace who needed to be eliminated.

    When George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking through The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida  on the night of February 26, 2012, he did not see him as a person who was fearfully and wonderfully made by God – like himself.  He saw Trayvon as a problem in need of a solution. Murder was his solution. A jury of six of Zimmerman’s peers agreed and exonerated him any guilt for his actions.

    When the psalmist composed this passage, he did not intend it to be a witness to his own personal greatness. He was writing on behalf of a community of faith who truly believed that God was the creator of them all. They were all fearfully and wonderfully made and therefore were each wonderful works of God.

    When I think of the Trayvon Martin’s murder and the injustice of a not guilty verdict, I can’t help but think of this Psalm. We live in a nation which many contend was founded on Judeo-Christian values. At least, many make this claim when they oppose such issues as abortion rights, women’s rights and gay rights. Yet, when it comes to guns laws and stand your ground laws, the right to bear arms trumps the right of every fearfully and wonderfully made person to pursue life without fear of being assaulted with a deadly weapon. 

    In our Declaration of Independence we find echoes of this Psalm when we read that all are created equal, are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. This was the ideal. Yet even as this ideal was written, people of African descent were in chains, believed by the majority to be less than human. The Trayvon Martin case highlighted the fact that there are some people who still believe African Americans, in particular African American males, are less than human.

    Stand Your Ground Laws give people who are looking for a reason to use their guns – permission to do so by eliminating the need to retreat in the face of what they perceive is in unlawful threat. For those who perceive African American males as the personification of “unlawful threat” these laws become a means to an end – to kill African American males. Unfortunately, with our current gun laws, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is contingent on the whims of those who use their right to bear arms to take life, steal liberty, and instill fear and hopelessness where happiness should be.

    These laws should be repealed. As people of faith we should work to make sure our laws protect all of our citizens. We should contact our state and national representatives to have these laws repealed. We should also pressure them to institute stricter gun laws in general.

    How different would our nation be if we actually treated everyone like the fearfully and wonderfully made persons they are? How different would the outcome of the encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman have been, if Zimmerman actually believed that all people are fearfully and wonderfully made, even an African American kid, walking in a gated community at night carrying iced tea and Skittles? How different would the outcome have been if Zimmerman had watched the neighborhood to protect it from all threats of harm in general versus just threats he perceived from African American males in particular?

    Let us not rest until justice is served for Trayvon Martin and laws are in place to protect us all from senseless gun violence. La luta continua!

    Go comment!
  • The Trayvon Martin Verdict Part 1

    by Lewis Brogdon | Jul 19, 2013

    I believe this is a seminal moment in the African American community and I didn’t want to let it pass without saying something. One of my colleagues in the Black Church Studies Program, Scott Williamson, suggested that members of the BCS program write a group blog on the Trayvon Martin verdict. I think it’s a good idea. So this week and next week we are going to offer our thoughts on this decision and what it possibly signifies for this nation and the church. We believe that some wisdom and reflection will help folks as they seek ways to fight for justice and work for change. Here are three responses to the following twofold question.

    Where were you when the verdict was read and how did it impact you, your family, friends, and or your church?

    Debra J. Mumford, Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics and Associate Dean, Louisville Seminary

    When I heard the verdict, I had taught a course in Hopkinsville for the Commissioned Lay Pastor program and had just finished rehearsing the sermon I was going to preach the next day in Central City. I looked at Africa. She had this disgusted look on her face. I asked her what was wrong. She told me they found Zimmerman not guilty. I was not surprised. I was disappointed. But I was not surprised. The reality that in 2013, African Americans, in particular young men and boys, can be killed without consequence is unconscionable. We both have been watching the news daily to see what the reaction has been. The denial by many about the inherent racism at work in the current laws and judicial process is the most egregious aspect of the case. We decided we will contact our state representatives and encourage them to revisit (hopefully to repeal) Kentucky’s stand your ground law. We realize that is a long shot. But that is an action we can take. We should all do something. In addition we have been signing petitions such as those circulated by MoveOn.org requesting that the Justice Department open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman.

    Kilen Gray, Dean of Students, Louisville Seminary and Pastor of New Mt. Zion Baptist Church

    I was in Memphis, TN at a family member’s home with a host of family members and friends gathered as part of a weekend celebration for my mother’s 93rd birthday. All while we were partying and enjoying our time with each other, the television was turned on to CNN. Several of our family members were glued to the television awaiting the verdict. When the verdict was announced, it did not curtail our celebration, but it put a palpable damper in the atmosphere. There was a brief period of family members expressing their emotions about the verdict which ranged from slight disappointment to vociferous anger. As I checked my social network newsfeeds, the stream was alive with deep emotion, frustration, anger, resignation, depression and voicing the determination to become more civically engaged in the continued fight for justice for all. Since I was away from my church this past Sunday, I was not able to gauge the impact upon my congregation. I plan to assess their sentiments this coming Sunday.

    Lewis Brogdon, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Black Church Studies, Louisville Seminary 

    I was picking up my 16-year old daughter from work when I got the notice on my phone that a verdict had been reached and would be announced shortly. I rushed to get her and when I arrived she got in the car and told me the verdict was “not guilty.” She said they were watching it on TV. A flood of emotions flowed through me. She told me how upset everybody was at work and she could tell how upset I was. The first words that came out of my mouth were “I can’t believe this! He killed that boy and got away with it.” There was a lot of silence in the car as we drove home. Occasionally I would break the silence repeating the phrase “I can’t believe this.” We got home and I immediately rushed to my bedroom to watch the news coverage for the next two plus hours.

    After the shock began to subside, our first was response was a combination of awe and anger. There was an incredible amount of sheer disbelief that a boy who had just turned 17 can be profiled as a criminal because he was black, followed and possibly stalked by an adult male, forced to confront this man, shot through the chest, and the person who perpetrated such a crime would be found NOT GUILTY of any crime. I would say that my daughters who are 17 and 16, and I were the most upset. The anger that we felt was not an anger that makes you want to hurt somebody but rather what I call righteous indignation. It’s the kind of anger you feel when injustice is the order of the day. It’s the kind of anger you feel when you have feel you or your people have been wronged. We felt that there was something deeply wrong with what had just transpired and it made us mad. By the end of the night the anger began to subside and a profound sense of sadness set in. I can’t speak for my kids or my wife but I went to bed sad, too sad for tears. I was sad for the Martin family who were left with another devastating layer of grief to process. I was sad for all those who supported the Martin family and called for justice to be done in this situation. I was sad for the African American community as we were left with another example of America’s failure to reckon with the presence and power of racism. And I was sad because I have two sons. I don’t know what to say to them and am not confident that this country gives a damn about them.

    I have been struck by the level and magnitude of grief I’ve witnessed in the African American community this week. The grief I felt in church this past Sunday was palpable. I could not even preach until we spent some time in prayer naming our many feelings and confessing the raw emotions and pain we were feeling. Heads nodded. Tears were shed. Then I took up the difficult task of preaching a sermon that brought some semblance of meaning and hope to the people assembled. I’ve also had multiple conversations with friends and read countless posts on Facebook by friends, colleagues, and community leaders who are deeply saddened by these events and what they signify for blacks. I may be wrong but I have not witnessed grief like this in a long time. There is something different and profound about this event and chapter in our history. I believe we’ll be talking about Trayvon Martin for years.

    Go comment!
  • Bishops in the Black Church Part 6

    by Lewis Brogdon | Jul 11, 2013

    At this point, I wanted to invite various leaders in African American churches to comment on this issue and its relevance for the Black Church today. Here is what two ministerial colleagues of mine have to say.

    Rev. Norman Williams
    Pastor of Cane Run Missionary Baptist Church, Louisville KY
    3rd Year M.Div. Student at Louisville Seminary

    Traditionally Baptist Congregations have been known for their autonomy and Congregationalist style of Church government. We have taken pride in the fact that the "power is in the pew." Most Baptist churches are stand alone organisms that are loosely connected to other churches through voluntary associations. Sadly, this has left some pastors and churches to deal with the pressures and struggles of ministry alone. This has also left them struggling with feelings of helplessness and isolation.

    In 1994 a new paradigm emerged under the leadership of Reverend Paul Sylvester Morton of the Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church, in New Orleans, LA. This new paradigm offered Baptists new choices that have provided some churches the support system that the Episcopal form of church government and fellowship can provide. What we have begun to witness is that many black Baptist churches are seeking out fellowships like Bishop Morton's Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship International that foster a closer relationship between churches and accountability amongst Pastors, while allowing the churches to remain autonomous.

    I have met pastors both young and old that recognize the benefits of a closer alliance with other like minded churches. These types of relationships can provide a greater more organized atmosphere of sharing, support, fellowship, and encouragement. It also provides pastors with a much needed system of accountability and brotherhood that in some cases has been missed. 

    Many have said that the new phenomena of Baptist Bishops are just a fad and that it is against everything that Baptist stand for. However I think this discounts the move of the Holy Spirit on the heart of those churches and pastors, and it denies the essence of what Baptists are about. Baptist has traditionally been champions of the freedom of every congregation to choose its own destiny according to the word of God.

    An embracing of the Bishopric also provides black Baptists another very important benefit that has been missing in some cases. It provides Baptists with a connection to ancient church traditions and liturgies that can enrich our worship and connect us to our brothers and sisters throughout Christendom.

    I think it is vital to understand that the emerging paradigm in no way will replace the traditional existing organizations and methods employed by so many Baptists. It will however provide options and alternatives for churches that desire a break from the previous method of "doing church."

    Bishop Frederick M. Brown
    Faith Center Church, Bluefield WV and Charlotte NC
    Presiding Bishop of Communion of Covenant Ministries International 

    Titles have always been a major component of African culture which ultimately defined African American Culture. From Kings to tribal leaders on to house Negroes and field Negroes, status was established by titles. Early on we were taught to honor, respect and reverence, titles such as Mother, Father, Mr., Miss, Reverend, etc. In our fraternities, sororities, and religious affiliations alike, we were taught rank and order by Titles. Now we have this emergence in our religious institutions of titles such as Bishop that through the thoughts of novice brings higher level of authority, prestige, and rank. The challenge we are facing in our culture with this emergence is the lack of understanding through title holders that do not meet the qualifications, responsibility or accountability of the Episcopacy. The Holy Bible is not completely clear on the appointment to the office of Bishop which means it is more of an appointed office than a calling. To properly understand this office a proper research of early church history and Catholicism is required. The biblical office according to five fold ministry would be that of the early Apostles and establishes Apostolic succession. We are challenged in the scriptures to identify "trees by the fruit they bear" not by people with flashy titles but no works to substantiate (see Matthew 7:16-20). In my opinion, our lack of interest and involvement in religious educational systems and "itching ears to hear" without qualifications and requirements have created this monster. There is nothing worse than doing it right but being destroyed by those who are doing it wrong. It is not until the true Fathers of our faith, spiritual and religious leaders coupled with a forum of educators stand and require accountability, credibility, and integrity that we will see change in this senseless trend. 

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  • Bishops in the Black Church Part 5

    by Lewis Brogdon | Jun 03, 2013

    The other day a colleague of mine and I were discussing last month’s blog and she asked me if pastors and churches are dissatisfied with some of the practices, like paying reports to the bishop, “why don’t African American pastors and churches abandon the Episcopacy altogether?” I believe the answer is that the function and roles bishops play in the Black Church are too important to abandon. And so I want to explore the role of bishops in black churches and why it is important, the issue that I will take up first.

    The Scriptural Precedent for Bishops 

    The office of bishop has been in the church for almost two thousand years. Not only has it been in the church for all this time, it is attested to in the Bible. For these reasons, it is an office of great importance. African American Churches generally take Scripture very seriously, and so, follow leadership models that are mentioned in texts such as 1 Corinthians 12: 27-28, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Ephesians 4:11. From texts like these, African American churches appoint pastors to teach and lead congregations and bishops or overseers who do these same functions and other functions that sometimes were fulfilled by apostles who appear to usurp pastors in authority and importance in the New Testament. For example, Paul was a prominent apostle in the New Testament who supervised churches in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, Philippi and pastors like Timothy and Titus. This twofold model of a local congregational leader and a supervising leader of churches and pastors is very prominent in black churches. The only difference is that they appoint bishops to do the work previously done by apostles in New Testament times. In fact, I would maintain that the two major offices held by black church leaders are pastor and bishop. Pastors and bishops are respected and sometimes revered in the Black Church. But the respect is not solely due to the fact that these offices are mentioned in Scripture. It has more to do with the function and work that they take up in the church. Since people are aware of the work that pastors do in congregations, I will not discuss it any further but rather focus on the work of bishops, which is a very illuminating feature of any study of this phenomenon.

    The Functions of African American Bishops

    What are some of the functions of bishops in African American churches? I will briefly mention three. First, bishops care for and oversee local and regional congregations. Sometimes they work with congregations across the nation. Bishops care for pastors and supervise their ministry activities. For example, in Methodist denominations, bishops place pastors in congregations and decide which pastor is an appropriate and good fit for a congregation and also when it is time to relocate a pastor to another congregation. They also handle the delicate and difficult issues that arise in churches when pastoral abuse and misconduct has occurred. I know of one such bishop who had to go into a congregation where a pastor accidentally murdered his secretary (who was his lover) in the church office. It was an incredibly difficult situation for him to handle. Yet he did it with grace and strength. And today, that congregation is still going. This kind of work seems to go beyond the local responsibilities of a pastor.

    Second, bishops serve as denominational and or organizational administrators. They facilitate programs and initiatives among the churches they oversee. They educate pastors, ministers, and church leaders. And they work as fund development officers who raise the necessary funds to support the work of the denomination and or organization, a portion of that going directly to them, which is why salaries for bishops are much higher than congregational pastors and why the office is so coveted by pastors and ministers.

    Third, and in some cases, bishops serve as community leaders and even a national spokesperson on important issues affecting African Americans. For example, Bishop Henry M. Turner was a leader that addressed major issues affecting blacks and not just issues affecting his denomination. This function is not prominent today. Popular African American bishops are not outspoken leaders on important national issues like education, incarceration, healthcare, and unemployment. Most black bishops are also not theologians or religious scholars. In contrast to African bishops in the early church who were major theologians, African American bishops are rarely theologically trained and are not experts on doctrinal and or religious matters. Instead of serving as leading voices on social issues or theologians, many bishops spend an inordinate amount of their energy and time in church preaching sermons. Bishops are gifted preachers and are called upon to preach in local congregations and at a host of regional and national conferences, which have taken on a life of their own in black churches. It is rare to find an influential African American bishop who is not a gifted preacher and even rarer to find black churches who do not place a heavy demand on their preaching talents.

    The Importance of Accessible Bishops

    The episcopacy has been and continues to be reconfigured because these newer models are meeting needs in ways the traditional model is not. Pastors and leaders of various kinds are searching for an increased level of accountability, especially among independent, nondenominational churches, and mentoring (think leadership development).  There is an increased level of scrutiny (think scandals) and heightened expectations placed upon clergy. Churches expect them to produce results like the church down the street or the mega-church on television. As a result, more pastors are searching for mature and successful leaders, many of whom are bishops, to provide some structure and guidance for them and their ministries. Bishops are accessible and willing to lead pastors in navigating the tumultuous waters of modern ministry. As a result, church structures are changing as more pastors gravitate to bishops and organizations, many times while remaining within their traditional denomination. This is a part of why I believe the episcopacy is so prominent today but there is so much more to this. Stay tuned.  

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  • Bishops in the Black Church Part 4

    by Lewis Brogdon | May 13, 2013

    Our guiding question has been “Why is there a need for bishops in churches without an Episcopal structure or bishops in nondenominational churches?” It is apparent that the Black Church is changing, especially due to the influence of Pentecostalism. However, the increasing interest in the episcopacy and the increasing numbers of bishops in African American churches is not just because of the influence of Pentecostalism. The changes in worship style, spiritual practices, and church polity are only part of the story. There is a functional dimension to this that popular critiques of this trend miss. There are more bishops in black churches because of the increased demand for new or different bishops from African American congregants and clergy. The real question is “What is driving the demand?”

    The increased demand for different or new bishops is an indication of something wrong in denominational churches with an Episcopal structure, like the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME), or Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW). I believe that one major reason African American Christians are doing this is because of the abuses some pastors, ministers, and other church members have experienced by denominational bishops.

    These Episcopal denominational churches are structured in a way that requires pastors and churches, many of which are small, struggling churches, to pay reports (think money) to the bishop. In some of these churches, those monies are for the bishop to use at his or her discretion, many of which choose to keep those monies for themselves and the larger churches they serve. I spent years in a denomination like this as a pastor. I witnessed firsthand the abuse of bishops over pastors and churches. A bishop would come into small churches and take as much money as he could and the monies given to the bishop rarely trickled back down to churches and pastors that may need them or local communities. In the cases when pastors and churches could not pay a report to the bishop they were embarrassed, many times publicly. So there is an incredible amount of pressure to not be the pastor or church that cannot make a report to the bishop. Possibly the worst aspect of this kind of relationship is if pastors needed counsel from the bishop, they found that bishops were unavailable and some bishops discourage their pastors from contacting them. Experiences like these are very much a part of the demand for something different.  

    The Black Church, for the most part, has been an institution committed to serving the needs of a marginalized and oppressed people, not the maintenance of structures that exist to serve religious leaders. Today there is a clear disconnect with this system that offers few benefits for pastors and local communities. And so I am not surprise that there are a number of pastors, ministers, and congregants who leave these churches and find bishops and church structures where these practices are not replicated. What we see today are a number of pastors who are no longer willing to serve in churches where there is an oppressive tax system that does not benefit local churches or to follow bishops who are inaccessible to the pastors and ministers who serve congregations. Pastors in nondenominational churches and fellowships with bishops have access to them in ways pastors in denominational churches do not. This is an important factor in the emergence of the episcopacy in the new black church.

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  • Bishops in the Black Church Part 3

    by Lewis Brogdon | Apr 05, 2013

    There is no doubt that there are an increasing number of bishops in African American churches, even among churches with no ties to denominations with an Episcopal polity. There are also churches that historically had a congregational polity, who now have adopted facets of the episcopacy. Because of this, many wonder why this is happening. A common answer given or one way to narrate this trend is to conclude that these men and women are glory-seeking leaders who love this honorific title. Simply stated, “They love the title ‘bishop.’” While I am sure this is true of some leaders, I believe that it is a gross oversimplification of what is happening in African American churches. There is more to the emergence of the episcopacy in the Black Church than opportunistic leaders who love to hear the prefix “bishop” before their last name.

    Such simplistic answers are indicative of a tendency by too many people to over-simplify religious phenomena among African Americans. Significant and complex religious phenomena are often dumbed-down and minimized. And sadly, too many religious and ministry professionals accept anecdotal evidence and over-simplified analysis to explore the religious beliefs, values, practices and institutions of African Americans. Trends and developments in the Black Church are not as simplistic as many assume. In the remainder of this blog post and in the next post, I will explore some reasons why bishops have become so prominent today. This is not a development that happened overnight.

    The Black Church Has Changed

    The truth is the Black Church has been changing in dramatic ways over the past two decades. One of the causes for much of the change we see is linked to the influence of the spirituality, theology and polity of Pentecostalism. Elements from Pentecostalism have transformed the landscape of the black church in the areas of worship, with emphasis on the varied gifts of Spirit, the importance of an “anointed” preacher-pastor and the prevalence of bishops.

    Beginning in the late 70s, Pentecostalism made significant inroads into mainline black denominations such as the AME church and National Baptist Convention. These traditions were historically antagonistic to some extent of Pentecostalism but over time became more accepting of certain aspects. Pastors and congregations that responded to and adapted aspects of Pentecostalism without leaving their respective denominations were known as Neo-Pentecostals or Charismatics. This is a very important development because the seeds of Pentecostalism will continue to grow and transform the traditional polity, theology and liturgy of black denominational churches. The seeds of the episcopacy were planted when these churches blended aspects of Pentecostalism into their churches. This is what gave rise to movements like the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship.

    Furthermore, in the 80s, the growth of African American Word of Faith churches and nondenominational churches, as well as the prominence of televangelism paved the way for new configurations of ministry.  Traditional denominational structures, congregational-based preaching and smaller family churches were radically challenged by different forms of church and ministry. These different models of ministry gained significant traction in African-American communities. Today more African Americans attend nondenominationally affiliated churches, mega-churches and watch pastors on television or via the internet than they did in the previous decades, while fewer African Americans are tied to traditional mainline denominations, many of which seem resistant to these changes. I would commend two studies on the contemporary Black Church to interested readers: Larry Mamiya, “River of Struggle, River of Freedom: Trends Among Black Churches and Black Pastoral Leadership” Pulpit and Pew. (Durham N. C., 2006) and a chapter on the new Black Church in Shayne Lee’s book T. D. Jakes: American’s New Preacher (New York: 2005).

    Today, we are in the third decade of what some studies call the “new Black Church” and in this new church, leadership, worship and polity have been reconfigured. The emergence of the episcopacy has become an important part of the new Black Church.

    I am not saying the “newer” is better but I am doing two things. First, as a historian, I am chronicling this development in the Black Church, so that we can better understand the phenomena of bishops in black churches. As a religious scholar, I am also trying to ascertain what this development signifies and says to us. Beyond the criticisms of this development or those who support this trend, we need to give attention to some of the issues informing this trend. I aim to take up a few of these issues next time.    

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  • Bishops in the Black Church Part 2

    by Lewis Brogdon | Mar 13, 2013

    African-American bishops are not new. They have been around since the 1800s. Richard Allen became the first presiding bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816 and later Daniel Alexander Payne was consecrated as bishop in 1852. James Varick was ordained bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822. William Henry Miles and Richard Vanderhost were the first bishops in the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church in 1870. In the early part of the twentieth century, Charles H. Mason became the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, Charles Price Jones presided as bishop over the Church of Christ (Holiness) and Garfield Haywood was bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Ida Robinson, a bishop in the Mt. Sinai Holy Church, was an exception to what was an early norm among African American churches, that only men could be bishops. Today, some African-American denominations have made small steps toward including women in the bishopric with capable leaders such as Vashti McKenzie in the AME Church and Teresa Snorton in the CME Church while others like the Church of God in Christ do not ordain women as bishops (or even as pastors for that matter).

    As you can see, these people are all bishops in churches with an Episcopal structure, meaning churches that are governed by select individuals called ‘bishops.’ Bishops preside over churches in jurisdictions, regions or districts within a single state and sometimes preside over churches in multiple states. From a historical standpoint, the episcopacy in the contemporary Black Church is linked to the large number of African-Americans in the Methodist churches since the early nineteenth century, which later give rise to Holiness, Pentecostal and later nondenominational churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, all of which have bishops. Becoming a bishop takes time in these churches. It requires one to begin as a local pastor and advance to positions such as ruling elder or district supervisor for years overseeing pastors and congregations while working with a presiding bishop. Afterwards, one is appointed or elected as a bishop, which is a qualitatively different process than the one adopted by some African American churches today.

    So, what’s the big deal? What is happening today that is causing so much controversy and debate? Two things are happening. First, there are an increasing number of bishops in churches that have not historically been governed by bishops. This is particularly true in African-American Baptist churches, which typically have a congregational polity. The Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, for example, is a clear deviation from congregational governance. Paul Morton serves as the presiding bishop of a fellowship of Baptist churches that have adopted an Episcopal structure. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of bishops in the National Baptist Convention. This trend is causing quite a stir as more traditional Baptist pastors question the validity of the office of bishop in the Baptist Church.  

    Second, there are an increasing number of predominantly African-American nondenominational churches. These churches are not affiliated with historic black denominations like the AME Church, CME Church, National Baptist Convention, the Church of God in Christ, or the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Yet they have adopted the Episcopal structure. Among these nondenominational churches, many pastors call themselves bishops. What is particularly ironic about this practice is that many of these bishops do not exercise oversight of a jurisdiction, region or district of churches with a host of pastors to oversee. They are mostly pastors of a single congregation and in some cases may participate in a fellowship of nondenominational churches. Today there are bishops who serve as pastors of churches with membership as large as ten thousand to memberships of 10 or 20 people. This too, has caused a quite a stir. And so I ask the following questions. First, what caused this shift within historic denominations and the emergence of nondenominationalism among African-American churches? Second, why has the episcopacy become so popular? Is it the love of an honorific title or is it a signal of important issues emerging in African-American churches. Tell me what you think, and I’ll explain my thoughts next time.

  • Bishops in the Black Church Part 1

    by Lewis Brogdon | Mar 11, 2013

    Last month, a friend of mine shared a link on his Facebook page. The link led to an interesting interview show discussing the popular trend of bishops in an increasing number of black churches. I clicked the link and watched an episode of the Lexi Show, provocatively titled Illegitimate Bishops. As the show began, the host expressed her amazement by the number of people who call themselves ‘bishop’ and ‘doctor’ without going through the proper channels. In other words, some pastors become bishops without credible educational training and outside an ecclesial structure with guidelines as to who can become a bishop, how one can become a bishop, and when one can become a bishop.
    To demonstrate this, she went online and found an organization to give an ordination certificate and credentials as a bishop. In order to get to the bottom of this, she interviewed three bishops: Paul Morton, Jerry Hutchins and Lester Love. These men are ordained bishops in the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, a fellowship of churches that originated in 1994 among African American Baptist churches that adopted charismatic spirituality and an Episcopal structure. These bishops discussed the trend among pastors who are becoming bishops and discussed the irony of how many of these pastors have had unsuccessful ministries in the first place. Bishop Morton asked “How can these questionably appointed bishops lead other pastors?” Lexi exposed the startling lack of educational and ecclesial standards governing the ordination, appointment, and consecration of bishops. The panel of bishops discussed the standards to which Full Gospel Fellowship Baptist bishops are held. They seem to suggest that this should be standard in more ecclesial circles.

     Needless to say, this video generated a good amount of comments on my friend’s Facebook page that day. For me, it also raised a host of questions that have since been on my mind. Lexi and many other influential figures have begun to take note of what has become a growing trend and significant development in African-American churches today. Martha Simmons, president and publisher of the African-American Pulpit, mentioned the rise in the use of titles as one of the 21 trends in the Black Church.[1] It seems that more pastors value and want important titles like ‘bishop’ and ‘doctor.’
    Bishops in black churches are not new. What is new and significant are the increasing number of church leaders who call themselves bishops and the congregational and organizational reconfigurations that this has brought about. For example, there are an increasing number of Baptist pastors who are forming fellowships among other Baptist Churches or connecting with nondenominational or Pentecostal churches and becoming bishops. This is a trend worthy of further exploration.

     Much more to come on this issue, which is a good ‘jumping-off point’ to introduce the new blog of the Black Church Studies program at Louisville Seminary. This blog will offer reflections on various issues in African- American churches. I invite you to read and comment on this blog post and other blogs as they go up. For now, I invite you to watch the Illegitimate Bishops episode of the Lexi Show for yourself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17vylp75FW0.

    [1] Martha Simmons, “Trends in the African American Church,” African American Pulpit: Vol 10 No. 2 (Spring 2007), 15.

Lewis Brogdon

          Lewis Brogdon is the
          Director of the Black
          Church Studies
          program at
          Louisville Seminary
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