Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The state of black, progressive Christianity

“Reverend, there’s no such thing as a progressive black church,” my friend Johnny Ray Youngblood told me during a recent conversation.  “You have to make them progressive.”
Youngblood’s, pastor of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NC, analysis of the state of black faith came after I asked for guidance in finding a progressive black church to lead.  My journey in finding a new home to house my gifts has been a difficult one.  I’m discovering how rare it is to walk in these radical shoes.
“I’m dealing with the same struggle,” Melissa Harris-Perry told me after I asked her the same question.  Harris-Perry, host of the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, used me as the subject of her book Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.  Her book concludes that my struggles in Durham, NC are about my views related to human sexuality within the context of a conservative, black, Christian culture.
Harris-Perry and I share the mentoring of Jeremiah Wright.  Harris-Perry was a member at Trinity United Church of Christ while she taught at the University of Chicago.  Wright prayed with me and led me through the pain of two divorces and being terminated as pastor at the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church due to my radical views.  Wright’s approach to ministry was the model for transformative work before his message that damned America was released for the world to hear.
When Jeremiah Wright faced attacks for being too black and unpatriotic, people like me were forced to address the assumptions of our faith claims.  In one broad stroke, the assumptions of black, progressive thought dealt a blow for taking too seriously all that talk about social change.  Progressive ministers were harassed for upholding views that, in the minds of critics, failed to consider the meaning of the Bible.  We were forced to make adjustments that gave us a more conservative agenda, or face the possibility of being irrelevant due to our progressive views.
The shift away from a progressive, black faith agenda happened over night.  The blame for the change can be placed on the rise of the mega movement and television pulpits.  The driving force behind many ministries is to grow at all cost, rather than to make change for those left out.  The changing dynamics of black faith leave me bewildered with how, for the first time ever, the theology of the black church is driven by the views inherent in white, evangelical Christianity. 
It’s safe for me to acknowledge that my decision to end my work in Durham, NC is rooted in frustration with how black faith plays out in the Bull City.  The power and witness of black faith has been diluted by the need for those in leadership to both maintain their position and build a work that draws others to the church they lead.  Progressive views aren’t attractive among those who desire a faith that justifies their greed and endorses decisions to do whatever it takes to build personal success.
So, where is that place that affirms and needs progressive ministry ?  According to my friends, it doesn’t exist within the black church.  It takes people like me to make it happen, despite the desire to defeat efforts to communicate the faith in a way that challenges all systems that hinder freedom.  Sometimes the Church becomes that system that needs to be confronted.  Where are the ministers willing to place their own necks on the chopping block to defy those systems?
The conclusions can be frightening for a person like me.  Where do you go when no one wants to listen?  Is there a place for a voice like mine?  If not, what happens to those prophets who can’t find the valley filled with dry bones?  Where are the broken that need a word of comfort?  Where is the community with faith enough to stand against all forces of evil?
These are questions I’m addressing in the new book I’m writing.  Twisted Hope examines my own journey in becoming a progressive, black minister within a conservative culture.  It tells the stories of gay and lesbians who grapple with living their  faith among those who call them sinners.  It’s a book of stories – both theirs and my own – that hopes to shed light on the need for progressive leadership in the black church.
My hope is to complete this work as I seek a place to house my work in ministry.  The Rev-elution is on a new journey.  Hopefully, others will be inspired by the journey I take.  My commitment is to the work of God in me. The call can’t be compromised.  This is God’s work.  It doesn’t belong to me.
If not me, who? If not now, when?


  1. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this reflection.I find it is hard to find kindred spirits myself and thus reluctant to join a church. I am asked to plant 4 times a month but have not the desire to do the run of mill church that does not address justice. I have applied for more than 100 positions with no avail, so I understand the place you are in.

    I find that the city of Memphis is one of the few places where this progressiveness is not frown upon. Thanks for the piece once again and may both of our journeys lead us to the right place and decision.

  2. You have outlined a divide between people and the organized religions that has existed for centuries. Organized religions use hierarchy and canonized thought, with specifics (to each religious sect) designed to enforce the organization. On the one hand, for people who need certainty in their lives, those strict rules provide a modicum of solace ("If I just follow the rules I will be a better person than the rest") while allowing the church hierarchy to continue control by defining those rules. The church organization means more than anything else. "You're either with us or against us," with church exclusion often the price of dissent. This is not always due to a nefarious bureaucracy, but to a religious division that truly thinks it, and it alone, has divined the deity's (God, Allah, karma) relayed truth.

    Those who question the place of each religion's rules and canon in the real world are rarely welcomed. They make people think. Remember that Jesus was a rabble rouser. For those who like certainty in their religion, they make people uncomfortable, because the thinking process raises doubt. And doubt is not what makes religion work for most.

    So, people seek out religious divisions where they feel comfortable, and woe to those who seek to replace that comfort with doubt.

    Carl, your situation is not just the product of Durham's churches, but is seen world-wide. You will just have to fit your square peg into some church's square hole. But, of course, then you'll just be speaking to like-minded people and having no effect on those you really wish to change. Quite a dilemma, I would say.

  3. As in every other aspect of an African Americans life, the question will always be, the question of the color line. The struggle for Civil Rights included the reaching out to our white brothers and sister to be able to sit at the table of brotherhood together 7days a week for and assurance of equity, justice. The formula or thought of a Black Progressive Faith is an oxymoron. Take note of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King in his Autobiogra phy numerous time appealling to black brothers and sisters to understand that the strive towards freedoom cannot be won by blacks alone. It demanded the brothers and sisters of all communities to look injustice in the eye and demand freedom and equity. Progressive Christianity's perspective is one of inclusion and not one of exclusion. Until the "Black Church" reaches out to all ostrisized segments of society, it will never fully understand the totality of Jesus' message. Like its reciprical churches in the white community,they both will meet a similiar fate of a slow death unless it changes to a progressive and inclusive understanding that all come from the same G_D and the same spirit dwells in us all. We cannot get outside of this love. The Black Christian Church must return to love by open,ing up not closing down or die.