Honoring Legacies and Changing Lives: Twenty-five Year Celebration of Vanderbilt’s Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies
Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ministry
Director, Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies
January 20, 2011
During the first community breakfast of spring semester, the Rev. Dr. Forrest E. Harris Sr., assistant professor of the practice of ministry and director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies (KMSI), marked the beginning of a celebration to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Institute. His lecture recapped the evolution of KMSI, commented on its prophetic work and examined the Institute’s future in context of the challenges of the black church.
First, I must acknowledge that with support from former deans Jack Forstman and Joseph Hough and our current dean of the Divinity School, James Hudnut-Beumler, and with the scholarly support and encouragement of a great group of faculty colleagues, the dedication of superb past administrative coordinators, especially Sha’Tika Brown who now serves the institute in that capacity, it has been my professional honor and privilege to direct the work of Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies for 23 of the past 25 years. For the first two years, Professors Lewis Baldwin and Walter Harrelson coordinated the programs of the institute. As I stated in a Spire article several years ago, over these two and half decades, it has been, to say the least, an adventure of “honoring and changing legacies” through a cadre of theological activities and programs to bridge the resources of the academy with the prophetic Christianity and ministry of black churches.
At the institute’s inaugural event in 1985, then-Vanderbilt Divinity School Professor Peter Paris, who later joined the faculty at Princeton University, summed up the mission of the institute as that of not only perpetuating Smith’s pastoral and prophetic legacy as a civil rights activist and as a master craftsmen of the black preaching tradition but to join his kind of prophetic imagination with the theological resources of the academy to affect students preparing for congregational leadership and to engage black churches through dialogue about the contextual challenges of prophetic ministry. In doing so, as director of the institute, I have stood upon the shoulders of Kelly Miller Smith Sr., whose theological justice vision, prophetic preaching and commitment to the black church and his outstanding delivery of the Yale Lyman Beecher Lecture on Social Crisis Preaching inspired the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to establish the Institute on Black Church Studies in his honor. In the process of implementing a vision of theological education for prophetic ministry, the lives of laity and church leaders, KMS scholarship recipients and black church studies students participating in certificate programs, national conferences, dialogues and forums have been significantly changed.
As the institute has evolved over these years, the dynamism of creative tension which is always necessary for change to occur created a climate within the Divinity School to make strategic decisions that led to the establishment of the first endowment for a university-based black church institute and the surrounding of the institute’s work with the scholarship of a nationally recognized faculty of black scholars.
Of the numerous public forums, seminars and conferences on a range of topics (the religious leadership and legacy of Kelly Miller Smith Sr., the black church’s agenda for sound health, economics and education, the black church and public policy, the black church and sexuality, to name only a few) the signature events of the KMSI over the past 25 years, in my view, have been the national dialogue on “What Does It Mean To Be Black and Christian in America?” and the most recent conference, the African American Lectionary national forum on Culture, Worship and Preaching. These events, the former having do with issues of identity politics in the theological and prophetic expressions of black Christianity and the latter event dealing with praxis dimensions of prophetic preaching and worship provide appropriate bookends for my remaining comments on the future work of the KMSI as it relates to the state of black churches today and the theological and prophetic discourse the KMSI has attempted to inspire.
R. Drew Smith in his essay, “Black Churches Within a Changing Civic Culture in America,” notes how questions of identity politics and prophetic praxis have throughout its history challenged the theological and sociopolitical relevance of the black churches. The most prominent in recent memory of this challenge is the sociopolitical tension of the 1960s when “a significant portion of the American population was supporting racial discrimination as a matter of law and practice.” It was during this period that the courage and prophetic genius of persons like Kelly Miller Smith Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. creatively combined the struggle for racial justice with the need for revolutionary democracy in America.
“What was required to change this patently nondemocratic feature in the world’s largest democracy,” R. Drew Smith states, “was a democratic reform movement emanating from an unlikely standard-bearer of democratic ideals—namely, African American churches. And at least with respect to an emphasis on civil rights, this vanguard of activist black churches embodied a political culture more consistent with democracy than many within the context of American.”
Today, black churches as vanguards of political and prophetic activism known in the past have significantly declined. Through the cultural and contextual cycles of identity politics and neoconservative theological definitions of the black churches, the prophetic voice of black churches has been severely deradicalized. Historically, black churches have been “free spaces”—environments in which people were served by prophetic leadership against destructive elements of what W.E.B. Dubois called “the 20th century problem of the color line.” We have just completed the first decade of the 21st century and many are eager to suggest that social progress we’ve seem result in “the significance of race declining” and the racial conditions, ideologies and practices that provided the context for the birth of activist politics in black churches on American soil are being ameliorated. However, what has alternatively developed is that “the problems of the color line” are not fixed, they have been transformed, mutated, recycled and have taken on new and in many instances more covert modes of expression in the polity of America governance. As my colleague Juan Floyd Thomas, who is the Divinity School’s black church studies professor and researcher for the KMSI suggests, “As we move into the new millennium, the politics of the color line and representations of race have become far more subtle and complicated than they were in the Jane and Jim Crow era when Dubois made his famous pronouncement.” In part, what this observation implies is that if black churches are to reclaim their place of historic leadership as activist and prophetic institutions how it interprets democracy in the future will depend on how they name, think about, experience and confront the interrelated modalities of white supremacist values in the configurations of race and gender, racism and sexism, and sexual identity in the body politics of America. Thus, one of the great challenges facing future black church generations is not only the need to engage the complex structural and institutional legacy of racial oppression but also to take note of the mutations, the plethora of forms in which race, gender, class, and sexual-based oppression is expressed and experienced in everyday life of black folk.
Since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a curious blend of Christian fundamentalism, prosperity appeals of capitalism and conservative politics characterize what is being described as “the new black church movement” or as I would describe it, the social mutation of black churches in the designs of new forms of neoconservative and theocratic conservatisms. In other words, this movement, far removed from the activist and prophetic ideology of the civil rights and social justice movements, advances a public discourse that refuses “to translate private sufferings into public issues; a kind of identity reference that works hard to remove issues of power and equity from broader social concerns.” This signals a crisis within black churches as they struggle to reinvent themselves in and against the crucible of new American racism and seek to avoid becoming social mutations of neoconservative and theocratic conservatism, enterprises of market-driven capitalism and consumerism wherein black church leaders become salesmen/women not prophets, therapeutic peddlers of hope not advocates for divine and social justice, spiritually redemptive without being socially responsible. Ultimately, this imagines the human agency of black churches as simply a matter of individual choices, the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility; a socioeconomic mutation of American individualism that seeks to negate the continuing institutional and public policy effects of past social histories and injustices of American oppression and racism.
Perhaps, the greatest institutional miring for many black churches is that they no longer give black people the courage to be black or help them embody the religious heritage of their ancestors’ faith. Thus, black churches have gradually shifted back toward what Gayraud Wilmore calls “a reactionary traditionalism” and by others as “the disillusionment of a “post-civil rights malaise.” The social justice activism ascribed to leaders like Kelly Miller Smith Sr. has largely faded into politics of denial and a culture of privatization and increasingly turned to a gospel of prosperity positivism. Thus as one scholar puts it, “Increasingly, a concern with either the past or the future is replaced by uncertainty, and traditional human bonds rooted in compassion, justice and a respect for [civility] are now replaced by a revitalized social Darwinism, played out in popular nightly reality-based television, megachurch theology, media and comic depictions of blackness in which middle class self-interest becomes the organizing principle for a winner-take-all society.”
My colleagues here at the Divinity School believe the future focus of the work of Kelly Miller Smith Institute should galvanize “black faith in public life” that takes seriously what Victor Anderson understands as an opportunity for “creative exchange that keeps life open to the event of beloved community.” Traditionally, Anderson says, “civil rights get cast in a narrow interpretive prism that focuses on preventing injuries and injustices from recurring supremacist practices of racism. But America’s continuing dilemma of rectifying racial injustices calls for restorative justice… the construction, innovative deployment of concepts of race, God, and world to do the work of interpretation, criticism and directing possibilities toward openness, particularly for justice in the social world of poverty as well as in the social spheres of difference.” Time will not permit a full discussion of the broad outline the KMSI proposes to promote as a deeper understanding of matters of race, gender, faith, and social justice issues. Suffice it to say that what is crucial for the theological and praxis work of the institute is to be a countervailing theological resource for the qualitative development and healthy growth of prophetic Christianity known in the past as it should be known in black church life today.
The visionary way forward for the KMSI is as the prophetic poetics of James Baldwin who argues, “The American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, [is not] likely to resolve itself soon. An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the new born: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill.” As steward of the work of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute for these many years, my concern has been and continues to be with the “necessary evolving skills,” theologically and ethically which is necessary for the continuous birth and rebirth of love, justice and freedom in and through the agency of liberating leadership, both lay and clergy in black churches. At best when it comes to birth and rebirth, we have been “exceedingly clumsy midwives” especially in regards to a radical inclusivity of all of God’s children. The sensitivities for lament are numb, nearly dead to the suffering and oppression around us in the world. We should grieve that the so called new black church movement appears to be stillborn with middle class cultures and institutions that have no interest in the value of revolutionary democracy as they are seemly bound by what Cornel West calls market-driven capitalism and consumerism.
As a product of the black Christian faith story, the motherlode of my spirit resonates with the dream of “beloved community,” with the faith yet kicking in the belly of a black womanism, the creative rage and anger in hip-hop culture, and to those committed to staying in the labor room of holistic love until justice and healing is born for the total community. My own scholarly interest and leadership praxis has been shaped by that unseen power that animated the genius and intellect, spirit and faith of some 4 million slaves left virtually homeless, penniless and illiterate after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Through all of the hegemony of white supremacist values, scientific phrenology to prove black inferiority, illusion to heavenly salvation that left earthly oppression untouched and unchanged, redemptive individualism, patriotic theism of God and country, through it all, generation after generation of black faith persevered.
“For then there is Jesus,” Dr. Julius R. Scruggs recently preached, whose life and love was “a shaft of holy light” renewing their faith in the God they met in Jesus who joined them in their ultimate concern. It was the clinging faith to the spirit of the God of John Brown at Harper Ferry, Nat Turner’s slave revolt, Frederick Douglass’ freedom discourse, Harriet Tubman’s tenacity for freedom, the brilliant preaching and ethical discourse of Maria Stewart, Anna Julia Cooper, Regina Lee, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. and the wisdom and spiritual character of my own deceased father, W.T. Harris, that never abandoned the hopes and aspirations of the struggle for freedom.
The mysterious sustaining power hidden in the lyrics of that long-meter hymn of the black churches, “I love the Lord, he heard my cry, and pitted ever groan, long as I live while trouble rise, I will hasten unto his throne,” is yet to be mined by the scholars of black religion and perhaps will never be completely be understood by majority institutions that cannot fathom how black people have shown up on the other side of suffering, pain and oppression. This is the black church at its best—activist preaching, social action, hymns and songs of hope, justice and freedom, infused with courageous protest movements against systemic and structural injustice.
As womanist scholar Annie Powell puts it: “I dream of a church that loves God, welcomes the poor, promotes justice for all, combines prayer and compassion with social and political action to eliminate poverty… a church where inclusive language about God is not considered too much to ask and where difference is honored and not diminished.” If this kind of black church is to evolve, my colleague Lewis Baldwin suggests that black churches must “remain relevant to virtually every aspect of African American life, not surrendering many of its traditional functions to other religious and so-called secular institutions; if it does not, the black church will soon outlive its usefulness, stillborn, as a liberating all-comprehensive institution.”
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