Dear Mr. Speaker: An Open Letter to Brother Philip Gunn, Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives

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Dear Mr. Speaker,

I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. My name is CJ Rhodes and I am a resident of our Capital City. I also pastor Mt Helm Baptist Church, Jackson’s oldest historically black congregation, which is situated within Downtown’s Farish Street Historic District. We are in the shadow of the State Capitol and this year we’re celebrating 180 years of ministry. Our establishment dates back to 1835 when our enslaved ancestors worshiped under watchful eyes in the basement of First Baptist Church, Jackson. We remained a part of First Baptist’s congregation until 1865. At that time we were delivered from bondage by the Almighty’s outstretched arm. With the benevolence of Thomas and Mary Helm, members of Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church, Mt Helm (named in their honor) was founded as an autonomous Baptist congregation and has played a vital role in religion and racial uplift ever since.

Brother Gunn, it was with great joy that I read your Facebook status about how your Christian convictions caused you to reconsider the Confederate flag following the tragic massacre that occurred at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. I salute your courage and thank you for publicly sharing your change of heart. I know that you are a Southern Baptist elder and I assume that has something to do with your pastoral and political concerns for that flag’s offense to my people. I am blessed to see how the SBC is having a great awakening regarding race in the country. To God be the glory!

In recent days several members of your denomination have taken prophetic stands against the idolatry of white superiority and have called for the removal of the Confederate flag. Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where you serve as a Trustee), wrote, “Racial superiority is a sin as old as Genesis and as contemporary as the killings in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The ideology of racial superiority is not only sinful, it is deadly.”[1] Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd prophesied at the 2015 Convention that now is the time to lead racial justice and reconciliation, decrying all racism as sin.[2] Dr. Russell Moore, Mississippi Gulf Coast native and President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, powerfully avers:

White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the aftermath of yet another act of white supremacist terrorism against them. The gospel frees us from scrapping for our “heritage” at the expense of others. As those in Christ, this descendant of Confederate veterans has more in common with a Nigerian Christian than I do with a non-Christian white Mississippian who knows the right use of “y’all” and how to make sweet tea.[3]

Before these public proclamations another great Southern Baptist was led of the Holy Spirit to respond once again to racial reconciliation. Dan Jones, the former Chancellor of our alma mater, went to great lengths to make the University of Mississippi the flagship university of our State’s global future.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another Baptist (though not Southern Baptist), said:

Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.

Trusting God means doing the right thing.

I dare not claim to know all the reasons why some brothers and sisters cling to the Confederate flag the way we are to cling to the old rugged cross. I do not believe that every one of those Mississippians are prejudiced or white supremacists. But as a descendant of enslaved Africans and the grandson and son of Jim Crow generation black Mississippians, I know all too well what that flag has meant to my family and to so many others. To my knowledge, at no time since Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession have Confederates or their progeny forcefully repented of the pseudo-scientific and religious assumptions of black sub-humanity that underlined our State’s defense of slavery. During and after the Civil Rights revival, led in large measure by fellow Christ followers, that flag in the hands and hearts of segregationists was an emblem of black suffering and shame and was flown is opposition to the full equality of fellow Mississippians. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, the Confederacy and its battle flag have meant horror, not heritage, to African Americans in Mississippi. That it remains a pronounced part of our State flag should grieve every saint of God.

I therefore commend you, a brother in Christ, for your conversion in this matter. Your stand for Christ and his Church is worthy of support and there are countless others standing with you. Brother Gunn, please know that I am personally praying for you, your wife Lisa, and your four children. I also pray that the Spirit of God convicts your colleagues in the House, Senate, and Governor’s mansion as well. This is a moment, the first of many, whereby the GOP can once again be the Party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. So in words that mirror former President Ronald Reagan, tear down this flag so that a more unifying symbol of Mississippi’s reconciled future might prevail.

May the blessings of the Lord overtake you, and may God shine His face on the Great State of Mississippi.

Still amazed by God’s grace,

CJ Rhodes

[1] Al Mohler, The Heresy of Racial Superiority—Confronting the Past, and Confronting the Truth. http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/06/23/the-heresy-of-racial-superiority-confronting-the-past-and-confronting-the-truth/

[2] Ronnie Floyd. “Now is the Time to Lead.” Southern Baptist Convention 2015 Presidential Address. http://player.piksel.com/player.php?video_uuid=h6shv45h&categoryId=73209

[3] Russell Moore. The Cross and the Confederate Flag. http://www.russellmoore.com/2015/06/19/the-cross-and-the-confederate-flag/

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On Fatherhood

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Me with Duke and Jozy.

One of the overlooked fruits of the 1960s Civil Rights and Black Power movements was the explosive success of the black sitcom. The politics of media representation gave us classics that later generations will know only through reruns. As a child of the 1980s I grew up watching the Cosby Show, Good Times, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matters. A common theme in all of these sitcoms was the role of strong, committed black fathers. Cliff Huxtable was thoroughly black middle class; he and his wife, Claire, were graduates of a fictional HBCU and professionals living the good life as they reared well behaved children. James Evans was the hard working, blue collar prince of the ghetto sticking with his wife and kids though everything around him looked hand-me-down. Judge/Uncle Phil Banks was the gentle giant who was somehow always there for his children and “adopted” nephew Will though he was a successful litigator in ritzy Bel-Air. And Carl Winslow was a hard working police officer who was nevertheless present for his kids and even for his annoying neighbor, Steve Urkel.

These images of committed black fathers made a point between the laughs. They were intentionally shifting the cultural narrative away from the “deadbeat daddy” stereotype of black men. I’m not sure if they achieved this goal. Much of popular television today paints a very different picture. Sure, a few sitcoms still show great black dads (mostly from the late 1990s and early 2000s eras) but more and more sitcoms and reality TV display pathological relationships between men and women. Though this celebration of pathology is racially inclusive, one cannot help but to be sensitive to the ways in which every day black men and women are burdened by such images.

Maybe that’s why I’ve greatly appreciated Golden Gate Warrior Stephen Curry and the ways his daughter Riley frustrates reporters during her postgame interview interruptions. Curry, an unapologetic Christian and proud husband, displays before a skeptical world that black men can be great fathers too. Recent data released by the Center for Disease Control confirms that black fathers are more likely to be involved in our children’s lives when compared to other ethnic/racial demographics. But myths die slow deaths. It will be a while before the cultural narrative shifts from conjecture to truth. And it won’t be an easy transition as long as numerous black boys and girls grow up without their dads in the homes. I lament every time I meet a young person who tells me that they never knew their father, or the father they know wasn’t worth knowing. We have to do better. We can do that by celebrating those who are disciplined and vigilant enough to be in their children’s lives, no matter what the costs.

This Father’s Day is my first as a dad. Every day I’m thankful for the joy my twin sons bring to my life. With God’s help, I endeavor to love, protect, provide for, and discipline them in the admonition of the Lord. I want to be a Christ-like husband and father before them, modeling what manhood baptized into Jesus Christ should look like. No one gives us dads a manual on how to raise our kids. There’s a lot of trial and error, seasoned with a ton of grace and mercy. But there is a revolution in how we imagine black fatherhood. I’m certainly glad to be in that number.

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