Black and Purple: A Better Way Forward

I don’t remember how old I was when my dad took me to see the Honorable Louis Farrakhan when the Nation of Islam’s controversial leader visited Jackson. I was much younger, probably in elementary school, and very unaware of the significance of attending the event. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall anything about it, including Min. Farrakhan’s message. What has remained with me was the shock I experienced when security searched me and my brother for weapons. I can still see that table weighed down with glocks, rifles, and other arsenal. Following the event, or maybe before we gained entrance, I asked dad why did they have to search children. He replied by sharing with me that many persons attempting to kill Farrakhan would put weapons on their children to conceal their murderous intentions. My younger mind was blown.

Though I remember nothing about the event itself, I would hear the Minister’s messages several times thereafter. A local public access channel aired his sermons. One of my high school English classes let us watch the Million Man March live. Though I understand that Farrakhan is much reviled by many Americans, including blacks, I have resonated with much of (though not everything) he has shared in the messages, interviews, and articles I’ve been able to watch and read.

My latest viewing came while watching the Empowerment Encounter on The Word Network. The live show is hosted by Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant, founder/pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple. Bryant is both a neo-Pentecostal African Methodist Episcopal (AME) televangelist and a rising leader in justice movements. He has been on the frontlines of rallies for justice for Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. In his interview with Farrakhan he shared that during the Baltimore uprising he, along with other pastors, helped forge a peace treaty between warring gangs. He was thereafter convicted by the division between churches and the chasm between Christians and Muslims. In order for there to be a sustainable peace and justice movement in Baltimore, Bryant affirmed, both the church and the mosque would have to overcome legitimate disagreements in order to demonstrate greater solidarity. That is why Pastor Bryant invited the Nation of Islam minister and promoted the Justice or Else March on Washington, a follow up to the Million Man March which will embrace our sisters in the struggle.

There are deep theological and cultural differences between many black churches and the Nation of Islam. That fissure is well known and we shouldn’t ignore what distinctly defines each institutions. What may be less known is how much we share in common, especially in our progressive conservatism. To be sure, Farrakhan offered a vision for family, education, and spiritual maturity that was truly prophetic and reminded us of the collective strength blacks had in de jure Jim Crow America. Many would dismiss his views on parenting, cultural competent education, and the like as archaic and conservative. I see them as the latter, but not in a negative sense. Let me go on the record and say there are many things we as a people need to conserve. All progress ain’t progress if we’re going in the wrong direction. Though I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he said, the overall shape of his thought articulated things I’ve been feeling for a long time. The “socially engineered savagery” (his words) that plagues so many urban and rural places with violence and moral decay is the result of sophisticated and calculated mental wars waged against the dignity of black flesh. And we are buying into it, accepting it as the new normal, and not resisting in ways we did decades ago, he avers. There are notable exceptions, of course. The Black Lives Matter movement, and related movements of Millennials, are signs of hope, signs desperately needed today.

If Farrakhan left his message there, FOX News would draft him as a regular pundit to speak about black pathology. But there is more. He talked about the failures of the GOP to radically address racial justice and their betrayal of the Party’s founding principles. Though he celebrated Donald Trump for being the only unbought candidate in the race (because he’s got his own wealth), he was shy of endorsing him for President, stating that Trump is wrong on race and poverty. This seething critique of the nearly twenty folks vying for the Republican nomination distinguishes the conservatism of the Nation of Islam from the post-racial conservatism of someone like Dr. Ben Carson.

And if the Minister left his critique there MSNBC would have him on every night. But there was more. He talked about how the Democratic Party has persistently betrayed black America behind. He went as far as saying that our people vote overwhelmingly Democratic but we are by-and-large still a servile constituency. Railing against the Clintons, he further lamented how liberal policies have created co-dependency rather than liberation in black communities throughout our nation. Blacks remain the good and faithful servants of the Democratic Party to our disregard, Farrakhan warned.

This conservativism with radical critique of Empire, or progressive conservatism, as I see it, is much more aligned to most of black Mississippi than what is popularly noted in the press and academy. Yes, we have for about 50 years voted overwhelmingly Democratic, but we share many GOP social values. But we are also born behind the veil of racial terror and therefore resist the race neutrality and dog whistle Confederate sympathies of Lincoln’s Party and its Tea Party offspring. Many of us, especially those of us who are Christian and aware of our blackness in this nation, are more purple than we are red or blue. We are black and purple.

As a Christian black man I sit back and ponder where we are and where do we go from here. Minister Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam gave me a lot to think about. I hope we in the Church will ruminate over these things, have a more united voice, and by the help of God redeem our churches, families, schools, and cities right here in Mississippi. When we move beyond pulpit cliché and partisan talking points then we will be prophetic enough to call ourselves back from idolatry, immorality, and injustice. May Jesus, the resurrected and living Lord of all, give us the courage to speak the truth in love and act justly as we walk humbly with our God.

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Mississippi Christians Respond to State Flag Issue UPDATED

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South Carolina, the first state to secede from our Union in 1860, voted through its General Assembly Thursday night to remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol grounds. After the tragic murder of nine African American Christians studying God’s word in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, South Carolina is leading the nation to come to terms with the legacy of the Confederacy and what it means for millions of our fellow Southerners. This noble and symbolic gesture is good for both business and politics. Moreover, it is a glorious moment for those of us who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. What a testimony of justice and racial reconciliation, motivated by Gospel imperatives.

We, the undersigned, represent an interracial and interdenominational coalition of Christians here in Mississippi. We beseech Governor Phil Bryant, our brother in Christ, to do the right thing: lead our State in changing our flag. As Senator Roger Wicker wonderfully noted, now is our I Corinthians 8 moment: “The lesson from this passage leads me to conclude that the flag should be removed since it causes offense to so many of my brothers and sisters, creating dissension rather than unity.”

Mississippi followed South Carolina in seceding from the Union. As Christians in the Hospitality State, boldly exemplifying the love of Christ, we too can lead the nation in the moral courage to remove the Confederate symbol from our state flag. We are proud to be Americans, we love Mississippi, and as Christians we are also blessed to be citizens of the heavenly Kingdom of God. May we now raise a flag that represents the best of our shared future. We trust that our Lord, by the Holy Spirit, will lead you in making the righteous decision.

Amazed by God’s grace,

Rev. Dr. Isiac Jackson, Jr.

President

General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi

Canton, MS

Russell Moore

President

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

Southern Baptist Convention

Washington, DC

Rev. Dr. Joey Shelton

United Methodist

Jackson, MS

C J Rhodes

Pastor

Mount Helm Baptist Church

Jackson, MS

C M Lewis

Trustee

Mount Helm Baptist Church

Jackson, MS

Marvin J Johnson
Pastor
Abounding Grace World Healing Church
Jackson, MS

Kimberly L. Campbell, Esq.
State Legislator/Mississippi House of Representatives
Member/Pearl Street African Methodist Episcopal Church
Jackson, MS

Rev. Loye B. Ashton, PhD (United Methodist)

Associate Professor of Religious Studies

Director of the Center for International Studies and Global Change

Honors Program Director

Tougaloo College

Tougaloo, MS

Reginald M. Buckley

Pastor

Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church

Jackson, MS

Jefforey A. Stafford

Pastor

Pleasant Green Baptist Church

Vicksburg, MS

Janice Taylor Ellis

Choir Director/High School Sunday School Teacher

Greater Mt. Calvary MB Church

Jackson, MS

Rev. Dr. Wesley Bridges
CEO/ Bridges To Cross Outreach Ministries
Silver Creek, MS

Maria Bridges

Co-founder

Bridges To Cross Outreach Ministries

Silver Creek, MS

Rev. Kenneth M. Thrasher
1st Vice President
Hazlehurst Branch NAACP
Hazlehurst, MS

Horace McMillon
Pastor
Open Door Mennonite Church
Jackson, MS

Jesse Jackson

President

National Convocation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

Erica Holloway, Pastor
New Zion Baptist Church/Ministry
Jackson, MS

Rev. Michelle Shrader
United Methodist Mississippi Annual Conference
Central Methodist Mission Cape Town, SA
Missionary Pastor

Audrey Hall
Pastor
Holy Temple Baptist Church
Jackson MS

  1. Artie Stuckey

Pastor

Restoration Baptist Church

Jackson MS

Willie J. Mott, Jr.

Elder

Agape Christian Fellowship

Jackson, MS

Lexie Elmore

Minister

New Zion Baptist Church

Magnolia, MS

Je’Tua Amos

Evangelist

Macedonia Ministries

Byram, MS

Maxine Evans Gray
Pastor
The Exodus Assembly
Jackson, MS

Tasha Dillon
Location Pastor
New Life Fellowship Church
McComb, MS

Derek T. Harris

Bishop

New Life In Christ / Embassy International Fellowship

Jackson, MS

Kimberly Hilliard, Ph.D.

Member

Faith4Life Church

Jackson, MS

Matt McGue

Pastor

One Church

Ridgeland, MS

Donavon Thigpen

Associate Pastor

One Church

Ridgeland, MS

Susan H Lunardini

Member

Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church

Madison, MS

John A. Wicks, Jr.

Pastor

Mount Nebo Baptist Church

Jackson, MS

Joyce Handy

Pastor

New Destiny Christian Center Church

Jackson, MS

Willie Tobias, Jr.

Pastor

Progressive Morningstar Baptist Church

Jackson, MS

Zachary Thaggard

Minister/Youth Leader

Lighthouse Ministries

Jackson, MS

Rev. Dr. Connie Mitchell Shelton

United Methodist

Jackson, MS

Cedric Morgan

Member

Cade Chapel M. B. Church

Jackson, MS

Chauncy L Jordan, Sr.

Pastor

Hill of Zion M.B. Church

Bolton, MS

  1. F. Robertson

Pastor

Asia Baptist Church

Lexington, MS

Carlyn Hicks

Christian

Jackson, MS

Larry W. Ware

Pastor

Bethlehem MB Church

Coffeeville, MS

On-line signatures as of 11 a.m. 7/10 Paul Brent Church of God in Christ
Billy Knight Catholic
Ozie Thomas baptist
Vera Bassett AMEZION
Shelia Handy A.M.E
Charles Williams None
Mohamed Jah Baptist
Willie Mannie Baptist
MaryJordan Smith Baptist
Benny Garraway United Methodist
Frederick Haskin Non-Denomination
Helen Govan Voie of Calvary Fellowship
Qualyshee’ Leggette Baptist
Felicia Scott Full gospel
Dorothy Stennis baptist
Waurene Roberson Methodist
Mackey Wright NonDenomination
Addie Jones bapist
Edgar Powell Non-Denomination
Claude Simpson Episcopal
James Powers Episcopal
James Simmons Baptist
William Gullette Baptist
Lawanda Bry Bapti
Betty Robinsob Methodist
Monica Miller Methodist
Otha Robinson Baptist
Henry Stewart Methodist
Phyllis Louie AME
Mary LeBlanc Baptist
Liza Rodgers Baptist
Willie Baker Baptist
Marha Walker Baptist
Fredrick Summers Baptist
Edna Forch Baptist
Brittany M Robbins Non-Denomination
Ray Wozniak Non-denominational
Clara Dancer United Methodist
Shelia Watson Baptist
Edward Whitfield A.M.E.
Marcia Weaver Lutheran
Oliver Ruff Baptist
Tracy Beals Methodist
Glenell Lee African Methodist Episcopal
Sylvia Blake Baptist
Clifton Marvel Sr. Baptist
Alonzo Lewis II Pentacostal
Jimmy Pruitt Baptist
Lottie Leaks Baptist
Mildred Hall Baptist
Jessie Pamplin Baptist
Charles Latham AME
Willie Porter Baptist
Jessie King Baptist
Florence Gaines Baptist
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#BlackChurchesMatter

 

June was a tragicomic month for black churches. The racially motivated terrorist attack at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine saints dead and countless others in mourning. Soon thereafter reports of church arsons throughout the South flooded social media. Though some of these church burnings were allegedly ignited by electrical fires, there is still the eerie sense that black churches are under attack. Then, again in South Carolina, women pastors of AME churches received death threat letters. All of these events happened within days of each other. The last two weeks of June were tragic for black churches.

But these tragic moments have renewed interests in defining and defending the history and contemporary significance of churches predominated by black Christians. For one, the fact that so much attention has been placed on AME churches should remind us of how that denomination was established. Free blacks praying at the altar of St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were thrown out of the sanctuary because of the color of their skin. Prior to that experience these freed blacks engaged with religious zeal in helping their people with spiritual, social, and material welfare through the Free African Society. That zeal was greatly emboldened after the loveless scene that occurred at St George’s. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born praying on its knees and called Christian Africans to stand up for “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit our Comforter, humankind our  family” in the face of idol of racism.

The AME tradition wasn’t alone in reforming the Church in America. Movements like the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., and the Church of God in Christ contributed to protests against racism and religious drift. Sometimes these movements were formed to address missionary and educational needs for Africans in America and in the Motherland. Others came into being as protests within the black church tradition, calling churches to holiness of life even as they fought for justice in the nation.

To be sure, the term “black church” is grossly misleading. Though it’s shorthand for those churches and collection of churches led, founded by and largely serving black communities, the term can obscure the intrinsic, inherent, and dynamic theological, cultural, and social diversity within and between churches so called. For instance, a Church of God in Christ in rural Mississippi may be very different from an urbane AME church in Connecticut. Together these churches exist in creative tension, offering the Body of Christ accents and distinctives that nourish the global Church’s identity and mission.

Usually these debates happen within the holy nation within the nation. The black church is often seen as a subculture maybe relevant during Black History Month. But since running for and being elected to the office of President, Barack Obama has brought the black church debate into the mainstream at least twice. During his 2008 campaign then Senator Obama had to respond to a soundbite from his now former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. The black church and black liberation theology were taken up in discourse around the dinner table and in front of the TV scene following Wright’s 15 minutes of defamation and Obama’s initial defense of and later distancing from Pastor Wright. The uninitiated questioned the theological integrity of black churches and the validity of their Christianity. Others still defended the black church’s social and political witness during the Civil Rights movement, giving little attention to the pastoral and spiritual dimensions of the church that are seemingly irrelevant for those who don’t have time for old time religion. Though fruitful in many ways, the national debate around the black church that extended from 2008 to about 2010 was reactionary, stereotyped, and in many ways unhelpful.

Most recently President Obama has again stepped into the conversation about black churches with his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The funeral itself and the President’s garce message (along with his extemporaneous singing of “Amazing Grace”) were seen voyeuristically by cable news pundits and black academics alike. Everyone tried to interpret the moment without actually asking the people present, especially the bereaved family, how they received that moment in time. Nevertheless, once again the nation tried to sort out the unique liturgical and theological content and context of a black church and its slain. I’m not sure if we did any better in 2015 than we did in 2008. But I am glad that through the tragedies of June has come a brighter sun shining light on black churches and why they matter still.

Hopefully the ensuing months will reinvigorate our appreciation and challenge of the black church tradition, in all its diversity, so that present and future generations can know the God of our weary years through it. We indeed need revival and reform so that God may be glorified through us and that the nation receive again, as always, our prophetic witness. And as we check the nation, let’s also call ourselves to repentance.

We cannot miss this moment to remind ourselves and to tell the world that #BlackChurchesMatter.

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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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Jackson, Our Jerusalem

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In 2006 the Lord called me to return to Mississippi and move to Jackson—my mission field, my Jerusalem— after graduating from Duke Divinity School. This word came to me at the end of a silent retreat I was required to attend. For nearly 19 hours I prayed, walked, and read Scripture and spiritual books without saying a word out loud, wondering when or how God would speak to me. In that twentieth hour God gloriously spoke to my Spirit, flooding me with illumination into how He had ordered my life up until that very hour.

It was humbling. And it was the confirmation I needed because I never wanted to move back to Mississippi. Growing up here I had dreams of making a life in New England. And during my first few months in Durham, NC, I fell in love with the area, thinking Raleigh or Charlotte would be great places to call home. But with each passing year in divinity school God made it clear that all roads were leading me back to the Magnolia State. I reluctantly obeyed.

It has been six years since I returned home in 2009. God has blessed me to be a blessing in myriad ways. I am filled with gratitude for the great things He has done and continues to do. It has not been easy; I’ve experienced disappointments and setbacks while here. But who doesn’t? Indeed Jackson is my Jerusalem. Through it all I trust that God is still up to something. I feel it in my bones.

One thing that burdens me is that, by God’s grace, Jackson will be an epicenter of statewide and national revival, as it once was more than a century ago. Since coming back I’ve heard mayors and everyday people talk about Jackson’s potential: what we are and can be. We’ve been called a City with Soul, the Best of the New South, a Destination City, One City with One Aim and Destiny, the Bold New City. City with Soul stays with me even though there have been two mayors since him. City with Soul was what we were being called when I moved here in ’09 and I believe it speaks to the “big idea” of what we are and we can become. Becoming a bold, new, destination city has a lot to do with the Soul that pulsates in our capital city.

What stands out to me more than anything else is the way the black church in Jackson has particularly contributed so richly to religion around the world. I have the honor of pastoring Mt Helm Baptist Church. As Jackson’s oldest historically African American congregation, we are celebrating 180 years this year. During a recent lecture at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Calvin White Jr., assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of The Rise of Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ, autographed his book for me with a note that contended I “now hold one of the most historic pulpits in the history of African American religion.” Wow!

About 120 years ago Charles Price Jones, Mt Helm’s fifth pastor, partnered with Charles Harrison Mason and other Baptist ministers to host a Holiness Convention at our historic church. Many were delivered, healed, and sanctified at Mt Helm over the course of many days. A Spirit-filled revival broke out there. The Lord was glorified. After some turbulent tensions, first between Mt Helm and Jones and later between Jones and Mason, the Church of God in Christ and the Church of Christ (Holiness) USA (headquartered in Jackson) were born. Jones, known as the father of black Holiness, was an accomplished hymnist and many of his songs are sung in black and white churches across denominations (including the National Baptist Convention USA, from which he was expelled for his “strange” doctrine). Of course, the Church of God in Christ is one of America’s largest denominations and has churches around the world. All of this began in Jackson, MS.

Dr. Jerry Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church (Watkins Drive), is now the 18th President of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. He is the first native Mississippian still residing in Mississippi to lead America’s largest black Christian denomination. By God’s grace, he will prove to be one of NBCUSA’s greatest reformers. He, his family, and the church he loves are all here in Jackson.

The Mississippi Mass Choir, whose soulful Gospel music has blessed saints around the nation and the world, is headquartered in Jackson. They are a Mississippi and national treasure.

Regional headquarters for the Seventh Day Adventist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Christian Methodist Church are here in Jackson.

The state headquarters for the Mississippi Southern Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church of Mississippi, the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, and the Mississippi Church of God are here too. And we have a Catholic diocese and a state jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ.

Educationally, there are two accredited seminaries in Jackson: Reformed Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. The Mississippi Baptist Seminary and Bible College has long served underprivileged black clergy and lay leaders and continues to offer biblical and theological education for churches through our state. Jackson State University, once housed at Mt Helm Baptist Church and College Hill Missionary Baptist Church, respectively, has roots in the Baptist church. Tougaloo College, Millsaps College, Belhaven University, and the Mississippi College School of Law, all housed in Jackson, are religiously rooted institutions of higher learning expanding minds and serving local and global communities.

Mission Mississippi and the John M. Perkins Center are here. Perkins, now in his 80s, is the well beloved grandfather of Christian community development and has led white and black believers from around the world to justice and reconciliation ministry right from his Jackson living room.

The local Trinity Broadcasting Network airs from Jackson. Our churches, hotels, Convention Complex, and Coliseum host regional, national, and global Gospel artists and religious conferences, conventions, convocations, and strategy meetings.

I’m sure there is more to be said. The half has not been told. I’m looking forward to seeing how this City with Soul will be the kind of spiritual epicenter where everyone wants to come and no one wants to leave. By being the best of who we are called to be spiritually, we will indeed be the best of the New South.

It can be done because Jackson is our Jerusalem. Lord, revive us again!

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Gardner’s Gospel: Why Dr. Taylor’s Christ-Centered Ministry Matters Still

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It almost feels sacrilegious to call the dean and prince of preachers by his first name. But this alliteration—Gardner’s Gospel— calls me to remember the greatest gift Dr. Gardner C. Taylor shared with the Church and the world. Above all else, Taylor dramatized with his life and ministry that Jesus was not only the center of our joy; Jesus is the center of the message and ministry of the Church and her servant leaders. In his book How Shall They Preach, he offers the following:

How we approach our preaching responsibility depends upon whether we consider proclamation of the gospel to be a matter of life and death. […] If we look upon ourselves as heralds of the great King […] to the hearts of human beings of that upon which turns the eternal health or the fatal sickness of people their private and corporate lives, then we shall see our work as preachers as something else again.

Preaching, Taylor urges, is a matter of life and death. All else in Taylor’s preaching and pastoral vocation flowed from his deep devotion to the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of the Lord of the universe. He took his work seriously because he did it under the light of eternity in reverent love of the One to whom he was graciously bound. His feet always swiftly carried the Gospel of Christ and His kingdom, glorifying Christ and not himself or his denomination or his race or his nation. As one preacher noted, to take Christ out of Taylor’s preaching would kill it. Christ alone had the preeminence. Hallelujah!

How befitting that Taylor would slip from his mortal coil on Resurrection Sunday 2015, that high and holy day when the saints celebrate Christ’s victory over death, hell, and the grave.

I have come to the sobering truth that though the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is rightly the most celebrated “authentic spiritual genius” produced on American soil (Taylor’s words of his friend), it is Dr. Taylor who may be our greatest Gospel herald. With poetic and prophetic imagination he always pointed us back to the Jesus of the Gospels. The historical Jesus of Nazareth whose incarnation, miracles, parables, and neighbor-love as recalled on the pages of the New Testament is the Christ of faith who came alive in Taylor’s faithful exposition of Scripture. This Jesus, Mary’s baby and God’s only begotten Son, saves sinners and calls out the falsehood of religious and political structures vying for God’s throne. Taylor surely said with Paul, “Him we proclaim.” (Col. 1:28) Nothing else mattered without its revolution around the eternal Word, the Light of the world. Dr. Taylor’s passion for prophetic justice, academic training, and the meeting of human needs found definition and purpose in his deep love of the Christ who first loved him.

Dean Taylor was almost a centenarian when he died at the age of 96. Though I never met him, I imagine that he was wealthy in wise interpretations of the times and seasons in which he was blessed to live, struggle, and triumph. But I get the sense that he interpreted his history, and the history of the world in which he sojourned, through the prism of the Gospel. With eyes illumined by the Holy Spirit he saw the Triune God at work and was driven to commit his all to a kingdom that is not of this world. He died the way he lived: enraptured in the just love of Jesus. There is something attractive about this humble, Christ-shaped vision for life and ministry, one that is needed, I believe, so much more in our times when extremes on the Left and the Right dismiss the full portrait of the biblical Jesus. Much of our preaching today majors on minors and no longer anchors its hopes in the Lord Christ.

But the One who knew Gardner by name, called him to Himself, radiates still in the Church among her fallible proclaimers. The Gospel that came alive on Gardner’s golden tongue is that same timeless Word of hope for times like these. And it is this Gospel, the whole counsel of God mediated through biblical revelation, that still offers the world the best way out of isolation, depression, injustice, and purposelessness.

The Gospel is still the power of God unto salvation to those who believe.

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