By / Feb 23

There are many reasons Frances Ellen Watkins Harper might have gone from humble schoolteacher to renowned lecturer, but the one that tugs at me most has to do with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The tipping point 

The Fugitive Slave Act endangered not only runaway enslaved people seeking sanctuary in northern free states, but also free Black men and women who matched the descriptions of their enslaved counterparts. Maryland furthered this legislation by enacting a law that put any free Black person who entered the state in jeopardy of imprisonment or enslavement.1 A free man in Frances’s own city of Baltimore was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and eventually died before he could regain his freedom.2

One theory is that this is the knowledge that galvanized Frances and moved her private support of the Underground Railroad into the public spotlight.

Rather than recoil from the Fugitive Slave Act in fear, Frances spoke all over America—both in the North and the South—offering a rallying cry for change. She did not shrink or shirk but rose to the occasion with everything she could muster. In a letter to William Still, a fellow Black abolitionist, she wrote, “I have a right to do my share of the work. The humblest and feeblest of us can do something; and though I may be deficient in many of the conventionalisms of city life, and be considered as a person of good impulses, but unfinished, yet if there is common rough work to be done, call on me.”3

Frances’s tipping point might have looked a lot like one of mine.

My firstborn son was born the summer of 2016. My husband, Phillip, and I were in the middle of a cross-country move from Minnesota to Mississippi. The lease was up on our cute suburban duplex, and we were staying in a hotel until it was time to set off. Phillip had run out to grab us some food, and I was sitting in bed nursing Wynn and scrolling Facebook.

Philando Castile was killed that same day.

I scrolled in horror, processing the details of what had happened. He was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in the very suburb Phillip and I had been living in for the past year. I immediately called Phillip to check on him, heart hammering in my ears, postpartum hormones rushing through my veins.

Philando Castile’s death was not the first such shooting of a Black man that I had ever heard of. It wasn’t the first one I had ever mourned. It wasn’t even the first one that had happened in a state where I resided.

But it was the first one that felt close. And I remember sitting on that bed, holding my brand-new baby boy, and thinking of how much everything had changed for me. I was now a mother of a little brown-skinned boy. My heart was not only out and about on the streets of Minneapolis in search of takeout, but in my arms.

I do not pretend to know the mind of Frances Harper (would that I did!), but I know what it feels like for something to hit closer to home than ever before. I know what it’s like for passion to spark and bleed out onto the page, and for the writing on the page to move one into the lectern. Bronze muse though I may never be, I have mused on so many of the words that Frances shared in myriad speeches, and I have felt the conviction of them deep in my own heart and life.

Frances did not work for fame and renown, but from a deep conviction that the work she was applying herself to was a worthwhile endeavor.

What Frances teaches us

Like more than one woman profiled in these pages, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was raised by a reverend and a teacher. She started working at fourteen and did not stop working until the day she died. She was married only four years before going back to supporting herself and her young daughter. And yet, if single motherhood was a challenge to the calling God placed on her life, Frances kept it to herself. She doggedly pursued her passions—lecturing, writing, and imagining.

Her poise, rhetorical skill, and passion earned her the nickname The Bronze Muse, a title that pointed to the fact that Frances was a master of the English language in speech, poetry, and prose. She realized that she was an ambassador for her entire ethnicity every time she mounted the stage, and she did her people proud, her own ability for intelligent and articulate arguments proof of her claims of equality. 

What I love about Frances is how thoroughly her poetic ability seeped into her rhetorical moments. She was every bit a poet in the lectern and every bit a principled orator in her poetry. Frances had a knack for uniting all parts of her skill in service for her cause.

I teach at a classical Christian school in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m excited to introduce Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to my students. We are very picky about the classical canon at my school, but we also realize that so many Black voices have been barred from that canon throughout history. Phillis Wheatley is the one Black poet the kids know—maybe Paul Laurence Dunbar, if they’re lucky, and later, Langston Hughes. But the canon should be full to bursting with a wide array of Black voices and a huge cross section of the Black experience.

Frances was not just a phenomenal speaker—she was a phenomenal writer. Her poetry and her storytelling abilities have stood the test of time, even when it seemed that time had forgotten them. In fact, just a few years ago, her first published book of poetry, Forest Leaves, was rediscovered. For one hundred and fifty years, we assumed that her words were lost forever. . . and yet they were found by a pesky PhD candidate who knew exactly where to look.

As much as I love playing hide-and-seek with the treasure trove of the influential Black women who have shaped us, it is my earnest hope that fifty years from now, a little Black girl who wants to grow up to be a writer doesn’t have to look far to find the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Perhaps she will have had to memorize Bible Defense of Slavery or The Slave Mother. Maybe her teacher will have assigned The Two Offers in a short story unit. Perhaps in a class that focuses on nineteenth-century literature, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy—the first novel published by a Black woman—will be found in its rightful chronology after Austen and the Brontës.

I do know that my own children and my own students will know her name. And perhaps, now that you’ve read her words, you can share her brilliance as well.

However, if I have learned anything from Frances, it is that no matter how quiet the record of her brilliance has been kept, it cannot remain silent forever. I did not know about her . . . until I did. And now that I do, I know to be incredibly grateful for her example and influence. And I know that there are myriad women like her, just waiting to be discovered. They are hidden gems and diamonds in the rough now, but they were outspoken dynamos while they lived. And their lives shine as examples to us all.

Footnotes

  1. Elizabeth Ammons and Frances Ellen Watkins [Harper], “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)” Legacy 2, no. 2 (1985): 61-66. Accessed June 24, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25678939.
  2. Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper, 1825–1911 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 40.
  3. Harper, A Brighter Coming Day, 47.

Excerpt from Carved in Ebony by Jasmine Holmes provided by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2021. Used by permission.

“Chapter 4: Inspired by the Bronze Muse | Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” from Carved in Ebony by Jasmine Holmes. pp. 70-71, 74-76, 79-80; 1,255 words (edited)

By / Feb 21

As a new seminary graduate in 2000, I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, with my young family to serve as a Southern Baptist pastor. And, though I was a native of the South and grew up in Mississippi, I quickly realized I had a lot to learn about Montgomery’s past — and how that past influenced the present. Montgomery was still largely a racially divided city, particularly in its churches. Black and white churches coexisted and sometimes worked together, but mostly dwelt in separate worlds. I wanted to know why this division persisted and what could be done to heal it. So, I began to dig into the complex history of the city related to race.

Questions began to emerge for me regarding why the church in my area failed on race for so long. Why did people who claimed to follow Jesus support slavery so fervently that Montgomery became the first capitol of the Confederacy with the largest slave market in America by 1860? Why, with so many churches, was Montgomery later a stronghold of Jim Crow segregation with a substantial reputation for the oppression of its Black citizenry through violence? With all of its history of injustice, why did it become the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement following the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 and activism by leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fred Gray, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy? Montgomery seemed like a collision of worlds.

As time went on and I sought answers, I realized that William Faulkner’s line from Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead, it is not even past,” applied to Montgomery as much as any place in the nation. Why did so much division, pain, violence, oppression, and injustice happen in a city full of churches who are supposed to proclaim the gospel of peace? I began to think that if I could find the answer, then maybe it could bring healing to others as well. So I researched, walked the streets, dug through archives, and talked to people who lived through much of what happened. 

A seed of hope planted in the Black church 

I later realized that my question about why the church failed was all wrong. Yes, the historic white church that promoted and defended slavery, segregation, and racism in Montgomery and Alabama as a means of protecting and promoting its “way of life” over and above others failed in its fidelity to Christ and gospel mission. But, I realized that I was looking at this failure through a lens of my own perspective. That caused me to miss a redemptive thread. I discovered that the Black church didn’t fail during this time. Its seed was planted in the harsh and bitter soil of slavery, put out roots in the era of racial segregation, and later bore the fruit of justice that witnessed to the hope of healing for the nations found in reliance upon Jesus.

I wanted to know when this seed was planted so I could trace how it grew. So, I went back to Montgomery’s early days in the 1820s and encountered two figures in Baptist life that helped plant the seeds that would later grow into a Jesus and Justice movement. One was an English missionary named Lee Compere (1790-1871). Compere came to the Montgomery area in 1822 after being sent to Jamaica from the Baptist Missionary Society in England in 1815. The second was a Black slave preacher named Caesar Blackwell (1769-1845).

The ministry of Lee Compere 

Lee Compere had been baptized in 1812 by English Baptist leader, John Ryland, who had a close relationship with the former captain of a slave ship, who later became an Anglican priest and the writer of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton. Ryland was also friends with William Wilberforce and was associated with the abolitionist movement. Compere and his wife, Susannah, went to work among the slaves in Jamaica with the Ethiopian Baptist churches founded by George Liele (1750-1828), a freed slave, the first ordained Black Baptist preacher, and the first missionary sent from America to a foreign land. 

Compere was under strict orders to not get involved in matters related to slavery or politics, but he apparently rejected that instruction. While preaching the gospel, he and his wife opposed slavery and used her inheritance to buy the freedom of slaves. This work allegedly led to no small amount of controversy. As opposition grew and their health deteriorated, Compere and his wife left Jamaica in 1817 and went to Charleston, South Carolina. 

Compere’s work among Liele’s churches was fruitful, but also ahead of its time. These same Baptist churches full of slaves would rise up against slavery in 1831-32 in The Baptist War, leading to slavery’s abolition in the British Empire in 1833. Another Baptist Missionary Society missionary to Jamaica named William Knibb (also baptized by Ryland) would help lead those efforts, following in Compere’s footsteps, but ultimately being more successful.  

In 1822, the Comperes moved to East Alabama to minister among the indigenous Creek people and the Black slaves that were being brought into the area. They formed Withington Station and in the 1820s saw an interracial church develop made up of Creek Indians, Black slaves, and white people. Facing opposition for his abolitionist views from other Creek who owned slaves and opposition from the building encroachment of whites upon native lands, Compere moved to Montgomery in 1829 to found the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, which ultimately became one of the leading Baptist churches in Alabama. Compere’s influence among Baptists in the Montgomery area and Central Alabama was strong, but he would soon encounter more opposition in his church and the community and leave Alabama in 1833 to go minister to the Creek who were being forced to migrate west to Indian Territory.

Caesar Blackwell, the slave preacher 

Right before Compere traveled from Charleston to found Withington Station about 30 miles east of Montgomery, Caesar Blackwell came to faith in Jesus and was baptized as a slave in 1821. He soon began to preach the gospel and became a powerful evangelist, preacher, and discipler among the slave population that was brought into Central Alabama by white people hoping to become wealthy from growing cotton in the rich soil of the Black Belt region. My friend, Rev. Gary Burton, pastor of Pintlala Baptist Church in Pintlala, Alabama, is the chief curator of information about Blackwell’s life and says, “Caesar Blackwell lived as a slave and died as a slave. No one, however, was as influential within the slave population in central Alabama as Caesar.”

Blackwell was later purchased by the Alabama Baptist Association in 1828 for $625 and given freedom to preach and travel around to proclaim the gospel and disciple the slaves being brought in to the region for several years. Of course, it’s unfathomable to us that a Baptist Association would purchase a human being for any reason, but, it was becoming almost impossible for free Blacks to function as such in Alabama at this time. Alabama made it illegal to do so by 1833-34. Wayne Flynt, in his seminal work Alabama Baptists, says, 

Caesar preached freely (keeping the money he received) until 1835, when rising tensions over abolitionism caused the association to restrict his activities and require him to return all funds above his actual expenses. By this time the slave preacher had an extensive library, had imbibed Calvinist theology, and enjoyed debating the doctrines of election, grace, and the perseverance of the saints. So popular a preacher was Blackwell, that churches clamored for his services, and, when he preached at the annual associational meeting, standing room-only crowds of whites and blacks thronged to hear him (45).

Flynt goes on to say that part of what made Blackwell popular among white Baptists in Alabama was that he opposed the African spiritualism that was present among the slaves and that gave credence to dreams, visions, and voices. A case could be made that white Baptists found Blackwell useful in helping the slaves conform to their new environs and masters as they were sold in the markets in Montgomery to surrounding plantations. But, I don’t see evidence that Blackwell preached a truncated gospel shaped to produce subservience. Instead, he sought to ground the converted slaves in the depth of Christian doctrine from the Reformation. This is what Compere was also doing at the same time in the same area with the Creek as well as slaves. Just as the gospel provoked missionaries like Compere to confront the injustices of slavery and mistreatment of Native Americans in Jamaica and Alabama in the 1810s–1830s, it led Blackwell to minister a deep hope and reliance upon Jesus as deliverer in the growing slave population of Central Alabama. 

Nathan Ashby, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Movement

Before his death in 1845, Blackwell led a slave named Nathan Ashby, who had had been able to purchase his own freedom for $900 (Flynt, 104), to faith in Jesus and instructed him in Christian teaching. Ashby later became the pastor of the slave congregation at the white-led First Baptist Montgomery in the 1850s. This was the same church that Compere founded in 1829 as an abolitionist, though by the 1840s it had fully succumbed to the pro-slavery position, as had almost all of Alabama. Still, Ashby, ministered to hundreds of slaves in this church and would lead 700 emancipated former slaves out of that church in 1867 to found what became First Baptist Church (Colored) on Columbus Street — the first “free negro” institution in Montgomery. This church would become the mother Black Baptist church for the Montgomery and Central Alabama region.

By 1868, Ashby helped found the Colored Baptist Convention of Alabama in his church. One hundred fifty-one delegates from 11 states met in Montgomery to form the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention with “a yearning to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached on the Mother Soil of Africa.” In 1880 it would merge with two other organizations to form the National Baptist Convention, the largest Black Baptist denomination in America. In 1877, a few hundred former slaves and freedmen would leave First Baptist and found what became Dexter Avenue Baptist Church with pastor Charles Octavius Boothe. In 1879, they would pay $270 for a lot on Dexter Avenue one block from the Alabama State Capitol where a former slave pen once stood. This church would later be pastored by Vernon Johns (1947-52) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1954-60).

By the 1880s, the Black population of Montgomery and the surrounding area was growing and starting businesses, churches, and colleges — and work was organized to proclaim the gospel around the world. Blackwell’s ministry, calling slaves to hope in and reliance upon Jesus by planting the seeds of the gospel deep in their lives, was bearing fruit. And, from those seeds would grow a strong church that looked to Jesus and called for justice in the face of great opposition.

This strength was seen over one hundred years after Blackwell’s death in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On Dec.1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery. She was a strong Christian and was a product of the Black church in Montgomery that was birthed with hope in and reliance upon Jesus in the midst of the oppression of slavery and that grew up under the injustice, daily humiliations, and forced segregation of Jim Crow. On Dec. 5, 1955, King proclaimed before the first mass meeting of several thousand Black Montgomerians assembling at the beginning of the Bus Boycott at Holt Street Baptist Church, “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.”

The boycott lasted for 381 days before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court order striking down the segregated bussing laws. Approximately 40,000 Black bus riders in Montgomery banded together to say “no” to the injustice of segregation and to demand to be treated as full and equal human beings before God and this nation. This was the first large scale mass demonstration against segregation, and it launched the Civil Rights Movement. 

I want to suggest that the ministry of Blackwell (which began alongside Compere) and Ashby, as well as other Black Christians such as Cyrus Hale in the years following, be considered driving factors in the formation of the Black church of Montgomery that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement — a Christian-influenced movement seeking to apply the teachings of Jesus and the implications of the gospel related to human dignity and justice. I believe Compere, Blackwell, and other like-minded co-laborers planted gospel seeds in the Black community of Central Alabama that would see many come to faith in Christ for salvation and would then call for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

I want to be clear that I vehemently reject the idea that any of these conditions in the antebellum South were in any way good or beneficial just because many slaves came to Christ. The whole system was evil. It is of great historic shame that many white Baptists did not fight with all they had to abolish the whole hellish system. What I do want to say, however, is that God still worked, even in the worst of conditions, through Black preachers like Blackwell, Ashby, and Liele, and through all who believed their message. As these gospel seeds were planted, I believe that God was faithful to rescue and redeem out of the oppression and injustice, not because of it. 

So, let us remember Blackwell and Ashby and so many other Black church leaders who laid the gospel groundwork that led to the Black church in the South upholding its witness even as it was persecuted and suffered. And, let us praise God and draw strength from the memory of our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffered and yet faithfully produced gospel fruit that would last and bear another harvest of justice a century later. 

By / Feb 26

The church is central to the story of black history in the United States. In Reading While Black, Dr. Esau McCaulley unpacks the many ways Scripture has been a resource for hope, perseverance, and justice in the African American experience. In spite of the dynamic role the black church has played in American history, its theological and historical significance is often understated. That is why this month we are taking a look at Dr. McCaulley’s book to further explore how the method of interpretation and reading Scripture has been an act of hope grounded in scriptural authority and the hope of the gospel

Here are select quotes from Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

I am referring to the struggle between Black nihilism and Black hope. I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair. I contend that a key element in this fight for hope in our community has been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation coming out of the Black church. p. 3

I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition—its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith—can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope. p. 6 

My professors had a point. One does not have to dig very far into history to see that fundamentalist Christians in the South (and the North) have indeed inflicted untold harm on Black people. They have used the Bible as justification for their sins, personal and corporate. But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in that same Bible the basis for their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christian of the rock on which they stood. p. 8. 

I learned that too often alongside the four pillars of evangelicalism outlined above there were unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentlemen’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice. p. 11

While I was at home with much of the theology in evangelicalism, there were real disconnects. First, there was the portrayal of the Black church in these circles. I was told that the social gospel had corrupted Black Christianity. Rather than placing my hope there, I should look to the golden age of theology, either at the early years of this country or during the postwar boom of American Protestantism. But the historian in me couldn’t help but realize that these apexes of theological faithfulness coincided with the nadirs of Black freedom. p. 11

The first ray of hope came from Frederick Douglass, whose words came to be something of a Balm in Gilead. He said, 

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference. . . . I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Frederick then posits a distinction, not so much between Black Christianity and white, but between slaveholder religion and the Christianity of Jesus and the Bible.

Black Christianity historically, I would come to understand, has claimed that white slave master readings of the Bible used to undergird white degradation of Black bodies were not merely one manifestation of Christianity to be contrasted with another. Instead they said that such a reading was wrong. p. 16-17

Therefore, I contend that the enslaved person’s biblical interpretation, which gave birth to early Black biblical interpretation, was canonical from its inception. It placed Scripture’s dominant themes in conversation with the hopes and dreams of Black folks. It was also unabashedly theological, in that particular texts were read in light of their doctrine of God, their beliefs about humanity (anthropology) and their understanding of salvation (soteriology). p. 19

My claim then is that Black biblical interpretation has been and can be 

  • unapologetically canonical and theological. 
  • socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans. 
  • willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns. 
  • willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing. 
  • willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text. p. 21

Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of righteousness. p. 68

The question isn’t always which account of Christianity uses the Bible. The question is which does justice to as much of the biblical witness as possible. There are uses of Scripture that utter a false testimony about God. This is what we see in Satan’s use of Scripture in the wilderness. The problem isn’t that the Scriptures that Satan quoted were untrue, but when made to do the work that he wanted them to do, they distorted the biblical witness. This is my claim about the slave master exegesis of the antebellum South. The slave master arrangement of biblical material bore false witness about God. This remains true of quotations of the Bible in our own day that challenge our commitment to the refugee, the poor, and the disinherited. p. 91

The Black Christian is often beset from the left and the right. Those on the right too often contend that the Bible speaks to their souls and not the liberation of their bodies. Those on the left maintain that those on the right are correct. The Bible doesn’t clearly address the needs of Black and Brown folks. Therefore, it must either be supplemented or replaced. I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic. I am saying that it outlines the basic principles and critiques of power that equip Black Christians for their life and work in these United States. p. 94-95

God’s vision for his people is not for the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God. p. 106

There are two groups that want to separate us from the Christian story. One group claims that Christianity is fundamentally a white religion. This is simply historically false. The center of early Christianity was in the Middle East and North Africa. But deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon? I have contended that Christianity is ultimately a story about God and his purposes. That is good news. God has always intended to gather a diverse group of people to worship him. p. 117

It is difficult for the African American believer to look deeply into the history of Christianity and not be profoundly shaken. Insomuch as it arises in response to the church’s historic mistreatment of African Americans, the Black secular protest against religion is one of the most understandable developments in the history of the West. If they are wrong (and they are), it is a wrongness born out of considerable pain. I too am frustrated with the way that Scripture has been used to justify the continual assault on Black bodies and souls. If we come to different conclusions about the solutions to those problems, it is not because Black Christians deny the past. It is simply that we found different solutions within the biblical witness to Black suffering and anger. We do not find fault with the broad center of the great Christian tradition. We lament its distortion by others and the ways in which we have failed to live up to the truths we hold dear. Nonetheless, we are not ashamed of finding hope and forgiveness in and through the cross of Christ. In the end, we plead and have confidence in the blood. p. 136

I argued that the Old and New Testaments, even the letters of Paul, provide us with the theological resources to dismantle slavery. It is simply false to claim that the Old and New Testaments simply baptize the institutions as they find them. Instead, the Scriptures raise tensions between the central themes of the Bible and slavery. p. 162

Alongside the vibrancy of evangelicalism, there was, in spirit if not always in practice, an emphasis on the equality of all people due to the belief that all were sinners in need of God’s grace. The equal need for grace spoke to the equal worth of Black bodies and souls, making conversion to this form of Christianity a realistic possibility. Furthermore, the flexible polities of Baptist and later Methodist churches made it easier for African Americans to form their own independent churches and denominations when racism forced them out of white churches. Here in these newly formed Black churches and denominations we have our first extensive record of the Black encounter with the Bible. p. 169

The emphasis on the Bible in evangelical circles spurred on the Black desire for literacy. Learning to read the Bible helped expand the world and imagination of slaves, making them more difficult to control. This led to attempts to limit Bible reading among slaves out of fear it might cause rebellion. Slave masters’ fear of the Bible must bear some indirect testimony to what the slave masters thought it said. Part of them knew that their exegetical conclusions could only be maintained if the enslaved were denied firsthand experience of the text. This is evidence to my mind that Bible reading was itself an act against despair and for hope. p. 170

Most Black writers from this period saw in the texts of the Old and New Testament a message calling for liberation from actual slavery. This call for the end of slavery did not mean that they neglected personal salvation from sin. This call for individual and societal transformation within the context of the historic confessions of Christianity is what I came to think of as the mainstream or at least a significant strand of the Black ecclesial tradition. p. 171

The witness of the traditional black church in the United States testifies to the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture. Reading While Black is an excellent resource to better understand how the black church has utilized Scripture to make sense of the many joys and challenges of the African American experience. 

By / Feb 10

“Daddy, he looks like me!” My young black son pointed to the only black basketball player on the court that night at my overwhelmingly white seminary. Even at a young age, he immediately felt represented by the one man on the court who shared his appearance. Without knowing it, my son was experiencing “representation.”

What is representation?

Representation can describe either the way different kinds of people are portrayed or the presence of someone who represents something about us. The way different kinds of people are portrayed is important, because it shapes both the perception and self-perception of their group. Similarly, the absence or presence of people like ourselves can send a powerful message about how we might be received in a group we’ve encountered.

It was good for my son to see a man who represented him on the court that night. But if he grows up seeing black men portrayed only as athletes or entertainers or criminals, he’s being told that athleticism or entertainment are requirements for his success… and that criminality is a way society might view his manhood. In the same way, if my black daughters grow up with only classic American dolls, they’re subtly learning that light peachy skin and straight blonde hair and baby blue eyes are the standard — a mono-cultural image they can never replicate, and one that discounts their own striking features.

If you want to understand representation, look no further than the outpouring of love, honor, and grief over the recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who became an international hero for people of African descent through his portrayal of King T’Challa in Black Panther. Playing an African king, Boseman displayed goodness, dignity, humility, and strength — especially when the world learned that he was silently battling cancer during the later stages of his rigorous career. Many testified that T’Challa represented blackness with nobility and honor, challenging many of the less noble portrayals of blackness in our world.

Always representing

It’s helpful to remember that we’re always representing and being represented. This isn’t wrong; it’s just reality. Because human beings are God’s image-bearers, we represent his rule in the world (Gen. 1:26–28). Adam represents humanity as our first father (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 47–49). Children also represent their parents, employees represent their companies, athletes represent their teams, and bands represent their labels. When a pastoral scandal is exposed, I can’t pretend like it doesn’t relate to me. I’m a pastor, too, so I grieve over the deep pain of the survivors and the fresh shame on the profession.

Because of how we’re wired, we consistently portray both ourselves and others in specific ways, whether we realize it or not. I was once working with an all-white team on a missions event. We were looking for videos to communicate our message, and someone played an example. Its verbal message was biblical, but its visual message was disturbing: the people doing good were virtually all white, while those who were dirty, desperate, and hurting were all black and brown. In the world of this video, which exposed the worldview of its creators, one race does the saving, while all the others need saving. Black and brown people were nothing but the mission field, and apparently, whiteness was a sign of holistic health.

Even well-meaning Christian communities are not immune to internalized attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority. The implications are far-reaching if we’re willing to search our souls.

So why did I notice, and why did I care? Because I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching over the years — a happy and humbling journey of discovery that will continue for the rest of my life.

A seat at the table

Many years ago, Cindi and I attended a traditional black church during our senior year of college. We were some of the only non-black believers there (I’m half-Japanese; she’s white). We were loved well, and gained some lifelong friends. But we also learned what it felt like to be different at church. Over time, our perspective kept widening as we adopted four African children, traveled to different countries, talked candidly with black friends, saw racial themes surging through Scripture, embraced racial matters as lifelong issues, and recently moved to a global city where we hope to live this out in community. God’s vision of a new humanity redeemed from all nations and gathered before his throne is now very personal to us (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 148:11–13; Dan. 7:14; Acts 2:5–11; Eph. 3:6; Rev. 5:9).

But the most practical reason why that missions video stood out to me is this: four beautiful black faces have a permanent seat at our table, so their perspectives and concerns are permanently represented in our hearts. As a family, we instinctively notice the ethnic makeup of every space we enter — a church, a school, a restaurant, even a video. We also notice how black and brown people are portrayed — especially when they’re denigrated. So after the video played, I was compelled to point out its biased portrayal of the kind of people who need the hope and help of Christ. I shared my perspective with our team, challenged us toward a more biblical worldview, and urged us to create promotional materials with a variety of people both hurting and helping.

Potential pitfalls

Cultivating appropriate representation is a worthy pursuit, but it’s not simple. The path is rocky, and there are pitfalls. For starters, it’s tempting to content ourselves with visual diversity alone. But welcoming someone’s color while sidelining their culture isn’t much of a welcome. Selfish or shallow pursuits of diversity can produce tokenism, where somehow all three black students at the small Christian school end up in the admissions brochure each year, without the school ever growing in its ethnic reach. Or the way photo selections from the mission field can expose that we’re more concerned about sharing our exploits than helping those in need. Tokenism exposes that we’re more concerned about perceived diversity than true community.

Even in a mixed community, we often settle for clumpy diversity, each of us magnetized to our own groups. Or we flatten people’s unique features by viewing them only as interchangeable symbols of their “kind.” Our passion for inclusion can even lead us to ignore or condemn certain groups simply for their demographic clout, falling into a second ditch as we flee the first.

Wisdom calls us away from seeking diversity for its own sake, a twisted path that always ends in some form of favoritism. Instead, our pursuits should follow the flow of God’s own redemptive storyline: his creation design, his Abrahamic promise, his reconciling gospel, his integrated church, his unifying Spirit, and his promise of a new risen humanity, international heirs of a new creation (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 96:1–3; Isa. 19:23–25; Rom. 15:5–7; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:14–16; 3:14; 4:1–6; Rev. 5:9–10). On these firm foundations, a diverse Christian community can rise, bonded with a shared faith and a common love.

Intentionality will always be required, because left to ourselves, most of us gravitate toward those we deem similar and easy. But intentionality must never become partiality, because Christ calls us to love all kinds of people. Along the way, we must stay thoughtful and reasonable, patiently considering the nuanced dynamics of each situation, the makeup of our own groups and communities, and the pointed guidance of God’s Spirit.

Representation in Scripture

On the surface, it’s easy to claim that biblical impartiality should make us blind to color, culture, and class, and if we’re consistent, gender and age, too. But Scripture tells a different story, a story filled with eye-opening concern for every kind of person. It’s true that every human being bears God’s image, making us equal in dignity, value, and purpose (Gen. 1:27; 5:1–2; 9:6). Yet our distinctions are often highlighted, not downplayed, to show God’s fatherly care for the full spectrum of humanity.

Abel, the first victim in the Bible, is clearly righteous, not tarnished (Gen. 4:3–10; Heb. 11:4). Rahab’s gutsy faith brings Israelite spies into her home and a Jericho prostitute into God’s family (Josh. 6:25; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). Mephibosheth, handicapped by a childhood accident, is sought out and restored by David as a representative of Saul’s fallen family (2 Sam. 9).

A nameless little slave girl introduces her Syrian captor Naaman to the healing ministry of Elisha (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). The same Syrian general is later used to illustrate God’s border-crossing grace (Luke 4:27). A Ninevite king bows before Jonah’s God in a citywide revival that angers the prejudiced prophet (Jonah 3:5–10; Matt. 12:41). Esther’s courageous representation in the Persian court keeps her adoptive father from execution and her Jewish people from genocide (Esth. 4:13–16).

The presence of Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary in Jesus’ genealogy is a symbol of God’s equalizing grace that includes abused, foreign, or culturally scandalized women in the messianic line (Matt. 1:1–17). Jesus’ own ministry to the marginalized shouts a joyful welcome to broken people of all kinds, and his magnetic ministry to children puts the littlest among us front and center (Matt. 4:23–24; 19:13–15).

The Gospels often highlight the rejected and powerless both to dignify them and to confront the proud and presumptuous (Mark 3:1–6; Luke 16:19–31; John 9). The paragon of virtue in Jesus’ most famous parable is a “half-breed” Samaritan, while a prominent priest and a pure Levite are condemned as cold-hearted contrasts (Luke 10:30–37). The Gospels also tell how Zacchaeus the tax collector is transformed, a Roman centurion is enlightened, and two Pharisees honor the crucified body of Jesus, so that even the rich can know that God can fit them through the needle’s eye (Matt. 19:23–24; Matt. 27:54; Luke 19:1–10; John 19:38–42).

As the gospel spreads, the terrorist Saul is dramatically saved on his way to persecute Christians so that no one can doubt God’s mercy (1 Tim. 1:12–16). The Jewish Paul then takes on apprentices like Timothy and Titus as he plants racially mixed churches throughout the Gentile world (Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3). When God’s kingdom dawns in Philippi, it liberates a high-end fashion dealer, a demonized slave girl, and a Roman jailer who is likely a military veteran (Acts 16:11–40). And when Paul writes to the Roman church, he goes to great lengths to greet his wildly diverse network, a mosaic of ethnicities and personalities showing off the gospel’s reconciling grace surging through the empire’s capital city (Rom. 16:1–16).

Whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, rich or poor, civilian or soldier, powerful or powerless, prince or prodigal, every kind of person is represented in the redeemed church of Jesus Christ. Keeping in step with the Spirit’s work, Christian movements should humbly desire the same dynamic.

Inclusion and influence

For those on the fringes, being represented signals two main possibilities. The first is inclusion. When a Chinese man walks into an American church and sees people from his culture already present, belonging looks possible. When an elderly woman sees grey hair on the worship team, she can feel the possibility of participating. When the youth group sees a fellow teenager baptized, they can sense that grace and change are possible for someone their age. Representation embodies the possibility of belonging, participating, and being included.

But inclusion alone is not enough. Representation is needed at a higher level — the level of influence. All believers are a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28). And the body of Christ needs every part fully operational in order to mature (Eph. 4:15–16). Therefore, a healthy church or organization will always be identifying and removing barriers to biblical forms of influence.

We can start by initiating conversations and hearing people’s perspectives. If we don’t pursue that family with special needs, who will tell us how our ignorance might be keeping them from full participation? If the elderly have no voice in our churches, who will let us know when we’ve skewed so contemporary that we’re unhinged from our own heritage? If a multiethnic group is led by monoethnic leadership, who will point out cultural idols, blind spots, missteps, needs, and opportunities? Most importantly, if our churches and movements and organizations remain homogenous, how will we make up for all the virtue, knowledge, talent, experience, and vision that our varied brothers and sisters are ready to bring to the table?

A masterclass

In Acts 6, when the gospel is spreading and the church is becoming more diverse, racial tensions ignite. The Greek-culture Christians lodge a legitimate complaint because their widows aren’t being cared for like the Jewish-culture widows (Acts 6:1). The church’s response is a masterclass in humble, strategic, unified representation. The apostles admit there’s a problem, they involve the whole church, and the church appoints seven Spirit-filled leaders to expand the care ministry across racial lines (Acts 6:2–3). Strikingly, all seven appointees have Greek names (Acts 6:5).

The Jerusalem church recognized that Hellenistic believers would be most effective at serving the widows from their own culture. Racial inequity was acknowledged, a homogenous team was diversified, “and the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7).

Leaders who learn

Our family once toured a Christian school that was almost exclusively white. We asked about racial diversity, but rather than recognizing its absence, the principal emphasized their handful of black students — by name. She had fallen into a common trap that sees token representation as meaningful diversity. We would’ve been more encouraged if she’d acknowledged the lack of representation and explained how her team would be thoughtful learners and leaders. Yet this same administrator would later disallow our black daughter from having a typical black hairstyle because of a monocultural policy ignorant about the intricacies of black hair. We appealed as winsomely as we could, but it didn’t matter. Only one kind of accessory was allowed: “Just put a ribbon in it like all the other girls!” she told my wife. Black women everywhere know how naïve this sounds. But there was no one else to help this leader see what she didn’t know — or to help her team reevaluate the deeper assumptions keeping their school an ethnocentric community.

In contrast, I have a black friend who took an internship at a white church. The dress code for the program would have required that he purchase a whole new wardrobe—because the “equivalent” dress in his culture was unacceptable. Thankfully, he was courageous enough to speak up, and the leaders were humble enough to hear his perspective. They adjusted their culture-bound requirements — and no doubt grew in their own perspective. Later, my friend told me he would often wear his jeans and Timberlands to church, not out of disrespect, but to show any visitors from his culture that they too could belong.

As a pastor, I want to be a leader who listens. I want to know when people are being left out. An empty-nester recently told me that one of his adult sons said he wouldn’t fit at our church because he has a big beard and tattoos. I’d like to think he’d be welcomed, but there’s a reason he feels like an outsider, so I’ve kept his comments in mind. 

I was recently talking with a Japanese family new to the States and growing in their English. They were attending a Christian church — our church — for only the second time in their lives. As I talked with them after the service, I wondered: Had I preached clearly enough for them to understand? Was I thinking about people like them in our international city? Or had I gotten caught up in the moment, maximizing my vocabulary to engage only a certain kind of person here in west Houston? There’s always a balance, but had I considered second-language souls like this new couple when calibrating my approach? In the global city where I serve, I should.

Jesus our representative

As God’s divine Son, Jesus represents God to us, and as our human high priest, he represents us before God (John 1:18; Heb. 1:3; 2:14–15). To represent us, “he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way” (Heb. 2:17).

When we look to Jesus, from incarnation to ascension, we see a full human being. Jesus is human, like us, but lived righteously. Jesus was tempted, like us, but never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Now that we’re united with him by faith, we share in all that belongs to him: his righteousness, his sonship, his ministry, his family, and his future.

The message is clear: Our salvation and service, our redemption and participation, our inclusion and influence, are all possible not only because Christ is God, but because he came as the God-man — because, in my little boy’s words, “He looks like me!”

By / Feb 8

In 1964, painter Norman Rockwell was given his first assignment for Look magazine. The assignment, itself a result of the 10-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision which desegregated schools, culminated in his producing the painting entitled “The Problem We All Live With.” In the painting, a young Ruby Bridges is escorted to school by federal marshals, with racial slurs painted on the wall behind her and crushed tomatoes smashed against the wall, thrown by a crowd of onlookers outside the frame. She looks ahead, stoic, as she follows the marshals to school. What is absent from the image are all the others who had to courageously fight and defend her right to be educated and treated as a full member of society: her mother, her father, a watching country, and members of her church. The story of Ruby Bridges is not just the story of her courage, though it is that, but also the courage of her family and community as they fought for equal protection and justice.

The courage of a child

To see the image painted by Norman Rockwell is to be confronted with the courage of such a small child. Bridges is dwarfed in size by the men in the photo (their upper bodies existing outside the frame), and yet she looms just as large in the way it is presented. The focus is on her, with her back straight and her eyes set toward her goal. As one federal marshal there reported: “She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her. As the painting, and multiple accounts have shown, this little girl faced a constant stream of threats and physical violence. Once she was enrolled, some white parents pulled their children from the school rather than let them be in the same classroom. Even the teachers, with the exception of one, refused to teach her. Thus, Ruby Bridges was left in a classroom by herself with only her teacher each day at school. 

Bridges’ courage, even as a young child, is a testimony of the way that individuals must stand on the strength of their convictions and fight for justice and equality. That anyone should face such treatment is abhorrent, but for it to happen to a child even more so. However, the courage of this little girl, and the others like her, was essential in ending segregation and furthering the cause of Civil Rights. It was an immense burden to lay on one so young, but it was one that Bridges was carried with the strength and dignity of one who is on the side of justice. 

The courage of a family

The courage of the Civil Rights Movement is not just the story of individuals, but often of families. This is especially true in the case of Ruby Bridges. Absent from Rockwell’s painting is the person who walked with her every day that first year: her mother. Ruby’s mother, Lucille Bridges, was described as one of the “Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement” at the time of her death. Ruby, reflecting on her mother at that time, said that it was her mother who set her on the path that led to her enrollment in the white school. And that was a courageous event because little Ruby would be enrolling by herself. Though there were six African-American students who were eligible to enroll (because the school district required that the African American students pass a test proving their academic ability), two chose to remain at their current school, and three were sent to another all-white school. When Ruby’s parents made the decision to send her to William-Frantz Elementary School, they were making the decision to trust the federal marshals, as well as their community, to protect their little girl from what they knew would be a barrage of hate, racism, and threats to her safety. 

Though Ruby would face constant threats and harassment, she was not the only one to suffer. Lucille faced it when she escorted her daughter to school. Lucille’s parents, sharecroppers in Mississippi, would be evicted from their farm because of Ruby. Stores refused to sell to Lucille. And Ruby’s father lost his job. All this as a result of their desire to see their daughter, and others like her, receive the same education as their white counterparts. It is right and proper to recognize the role that individuals played, but it is also true that so often that was the result of a family and community who were facing adversity with them. Lucille Bridges, and the rest of Ruby Bridges family, are representative of the power that a community has in calling for justice, and that the courageous actions of one individual, one parent, one spouse, can have for generations to come. 

A day when no one will make them afraid

Rockwell’s painting is a reminder of just how far we have come, but also so much that is left to do. Though school segregation seems like a relic of the distant past, in reality American schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s. Acknowledging that this is not the result of de facto segregation, but rather a number of factors, some that are problematic (such as redlining and housing contracts) and others that are beneficial (developing African-American communities and communities), the separation is not an ideal. As Rockwell’s painting reminds us, this is a problem that we continue to live with. However, as we are reminded in the scriptures, the walls of hostility have been brought down (Eph. 2:14), and we will one day all stand before a throne with the redeemed of history from every nation, tribe, and tongue in praise of our savior (Rev. 7:9). As we work to make the world more just, we should be encouraged by the bravery of Ruby Bridges and her family, and the countless others whose names are lost to history, who were working for a future, to use the language of the prophets, where each person could sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:4).

By / Feb 27

It is impossible to separate the story of Christianity from the history of Africa. The early theologians of the church were from Africa, and some of the oldest communities of Christianity began in Africa. In honor of African-American history month, I am highlighting some individuals that you may not know who have been influential in the story of Christianity. These include men, women, theologians, monks, preachers, poets, and political activists.

The work that African-Americans have done to shape Christianity and remind their white counterparts of the truths of Christianity are powerful reminders that this is not a white religion, but rather a religion of a Middle Eastern man crucified as a criminal. And it spread throughout Africa, the far east, and Europe. Multiethnic from the beginning, it is indebted to the lives listed below.

The early church and Africa

Tertullian: Tertullian was born in Carthage in northern Africa during the second century and became one of the most influential of the early church leaders. He is noted for his immense writing on theology and his apologetic works against the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Also, he is the first to use the term “New Testament.” Perhaps most important were his early attempts to defend the doctrine of the Trinity (a term which he was the first to use in writing) by arguing that God exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae).

Origen of Alexandria: Living at roughly the same time as Tertullian, Origen was an early Church Father whose writings would set the parameters of much of later theological works. His work On the First Principles was an early systematic approach to Christian theology. Like Tertullian, he is noted for his writings against ancient heresies. He also produced the Hexapla, which placed the Hebrew text of the Bible next to five different Greek translations for comparison. He was persecuted under the emperor Decian and died several years later from the effects of the torture.

Athanasius of Alexandria: As the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius served as a leader in the Christian church during some of its most contentious times. He contended against the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was a created being, rather than the eternal son of God. In his most famous work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius argued that if Jesus was not fully the son of God, then he could not redeem humanity. Athanasius would hold to this position no matter the cost. He was exiled a number of times and endured persecution under different Roman emperors who favored the teaching of Arius. However, Athanasius’ teaching would eventually be stated as Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Augustine of Hippo: Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most important theologian in the history of Christianity. Augustine, like Tertullian, was a native Berber of Carthage in northern Africa. His defense of Christianity after the fall of Rome in The City of God has shaped Christian theology throughout history. His autobiography, The Confessions, give us a glimpse of his conversion and his teachings on the life of the Christian and ordering of the soul toward its ultimate goal, God. His influence is not limited to the early church, though; it was an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who was a key influence in the start of the Protestant Reformation.

African-Americans and Christianity

Phyllis Wheatley: Phyllis Wheatley was the first African-American female poet to be published. Born in West Africa and sold as a slave at a young age, she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston. They taught her to read and write. Her poetry is filled with Christian themes, and her most famous poem was her elegy of George Whitefield, the great evangelist, in 1770. Her writings reflect one who understood the truths of the gospel and looked forward to the day when she and all other Africans would be freed: “Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you; Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due; If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road, You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.”

George Liele: George Liele was the first African-American to be ordained as a Baptist minister in America. He was also the first missionary to come from America, leaving for Jamaica in 1782 (several decades before Adoniram Judson). Recognized as a gifted preacher and also a founder of several all-black churches, his master freed him. Liele chose to go to Jamaica rather than remain in America after the Revolutionary War because he feared being enslaved again. There, he continued the work of planting churches among enslaved persons and preaching the gospel.

Richard Allen: Born into slavery, Richard Allen would go on to found the first independent black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). As a result of his success in founding the Bethel AME church and its impressive growth, he was ordained as the first African-American Methodist minister by Francis Asbury in 1799. He would later unite with other all-black congregations to form the AME denomination in 1816. He also served as the denomination’s first bishop.

Jarena Lee: Jarena Lee was the first woman recognized by Richard Allen formally as an evangelist. Though she was initially rebuffed because she was a woman, she refused and evangelized outside the formal church often speaking in town squares or open fields. Eventually, Allen would grant her the ability to speak inside the structure of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). She is an example of the ways that the Second Great Awakening had changed the nature of America Christianity. As a woman and African-American, she was doubly stigmatized. Her autobiography of her faith was the first to be published by an African-American woman in the United States.

Martin Luther King Jr.: No list of influential African-American preachers would be complete without Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., King would go on to be the most visible face of the Civil Rights Movement. He and other pastors would found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which worked through nonviolent protest to end racial segregation. At a time when much of (white) American Christianity saw no problem between their faith and the horrors of Jim Crow, King confronted them with the teachings of justice and equality from the Scriptures.

For further reading

These men and women are only a few of the figures from Africa or of African descent who have shaped the story of Christianity. There is not space to write here of others such as the kingdom of Aksum (the first Christian nation), Moses the Black (an early ascetic leader), Clement of Alexandria, the Coptic church, the National Baptist Convention, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, or gospel singer Aretha Franklin. These men, women, and organizations are evidence of the diversity and importance of Africa on the story of Christianity. Here are some works that you may find informative:

  • For an examination of the religion among enslaved persons and its changes over time see Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South.
  • For a study of the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement see Charles Marsh’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith & Civil Rights.
  • Any of the narratives of enslaved persons such as Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrop, and Olaudah Equiano
  • Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years does an excellent job of showing the importance of Africans in the life of the early church.
By / Feb 10

I grew up in one of those families that hands a child a musical instrument shortly after they learn to walk. I spent a few tortured years falling asleep in violin lessons, followed by a few more spent crying in piano lessons. Finally, in about the fourth grade, I was convinced (compelled?) to begin playing the trumpet, and I was—for a while—taken with the instrument.

That is, until I hit about 14 years old. My trumpet teacher and my parents were dreaming of college scholarships, challenging me with more and more difficult classical pieces. I recall one particularly torturing piece called “Mount St. Michel,” which caused the veins on my forehead to pop out and left me seeing stars. I wanted to quit. There was a brief scramble over what to do, and I found myself with a new teacher, a hip older guy named “Butch” that wore polyester golf pants and polo shirts from the seventies. He taught in his basement, where a pool table was stacked high with books of music and records, and where a gloriously ancient hi-fi sat, ever-glowing, against wall.

Music unlike any other

At my first lesson, we talked for a little while about trumpet. He had me sight-read a few things, and soon, I confessed that I hated the instrument. I didn’t want to play anything faster or higher. I was done. The thing felt dead to me.

He nodded and crossed the room to his hi-fi. He pulled out an album, slipped the record out of its acetate sleeve and dropped it onto the platter. “What about this?” he said. “Listen.” He waved to one of the moth-eaten chairs that sat between the speakers. A long note trilled on a guitar and a piano, cymbals sizzled. I sat down just as the horns started to play a slow, mournful phrase. A pause. A punchy bass line, a beat, and the song took off. I looked at Butch for an explanation. He offered none. Just poured himself coffee and sat down nearby. “Just listen,” he said.

I now know it was Lee Morgan’s The Search for the New Land. This album featured giants: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Reggie Workman, Billy Higgins—names that meant nothing to me at the time. It’s classic Blue Note jazz, recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder in 1964 and released in 1966.

Of course, I’d heard jazz. I’d heard it in snippets separating clips on the radio. I’d heard it on TV and in movies. My dad would play Ella Fitzgerald at Christmas. But I’d never really listened. It was background music. Music that played while something else was happening. Polite stuff.

But that day, I sat and really listened for the first time. Butch sent me home with that LP, along with Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland. “Just listen,” he said.  

And I did. I listened, and it drew me in. I wanted to know more. And while the trumpet did eventually fade from my life (a few years later, I sold it and bought my first guitar), jazz has stayed with me ever since. In the next few years, I’d make my way through the catalogue of giants: Miles, Coltrane and Monk. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Jack McDuff. Hank Mobley. Freddie Hubbard.  

It came from a different world

I came to realize that this music’s energy—it’s soul—came from a world that was very different from my own. Jazz invited me to peek into that world and its personalities. Their stories, often tragic (Lee Morgan himself was shot to death by his wife outside Slug’s Saloon in the East Village), revealed that the music sounded like a different world because it came from a different world.

It came from a world shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, a world where the Negro Spiritual and the Blues provided a lifeline of hope, a world whose musical language would shape-shift into the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker, that would evolve again through Miles and Coltrane, and then again in the wild freedom of Ornette Coleman and others. Like the Blues and Rock, Jazz would cross the boundaries of race and class—there would be the Chet Bakers and the Dave Brubecks of the world—but at its core, it can’t be severed from its roots as the sounds of a people who inherited a legacy of injustice. It is not the music of a cozy brunch on a Saturday morning. It’s the sound of profound mourning and profound hope, protest and praise, love and death.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of Blue Note Records, Verve, ECM and other jazz labels, I also found myself searching for a view into the culture that gave birth to it. At some point, I stumbled upon Langston Hughes.

Hughes was a poet during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s—a time when jazz was finding its feet and African Americans were making their voice heard in the broader culture. His poems capture the tempo and rhythms of the music that was filling Harlem at the time, and they made explicit the sentiments behind them. Slavery and the civil war were not-too-distant memories during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a haven of hopeful creativity and flourishing, even while Jim Crow and segregation still held their stranglehold in the American south. The art of the Harlem Renaissance lived in that tension—the promise of freedom, the burden of racism, the burden of history. Hughes wrote often about that tension, referring to the hopes of equality and dignity as a “dream deferred.”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Where Charlie Parker (and later, Monk, Miles and Coltrane) were the sound of a dream deferred, Hughes (and Zora Neale Hurston, and later, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison) gave it words. And Hughes’ poetry managed to express it in rhythms and language that are shaped by the same cultural forces as jazz. You can hear it, both in the rhythms and in the sentiment.

In “Still Here,” he writes:

I’ve been scarred and battered.

My hopes the wind done scattered.

Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.

    Looks like between ‘em

    They done tried to make me

Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’ –

    But I don’t care!

    I’m still here!

Hughes understood the way that music served as both witness and catharsis. In his poem, “The Weary Blues,” he wrote:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

    I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

    He did a lazy sway . . .

    He did a lazy sway . . .

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

    O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

    Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

    O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—

    “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

    “I got the Weary Blues

      And I can’t be satisfied.

      Got the Weary Blues

      And can’t be satisfied—

      I ain’t happy no mo’

      And I wish that I had died.”

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

The old bluesman sings, “Ain’t got nobody in the world . . . ” and “I can’t be satisfied.” But then he goes home and sleeps like a rock. The song itself satisfies—or at least satisfies enough to keep the old man going.

It’s tempting to separate art from the world that gave birth to it, to let jazz and blues be nostalgic “Americana” and to ignore its power as prophet and protest. It’s tempting to sanitize our musical history and ignore the way many great musicians were discriminated against, or to ignore the deep bitterness that formed as a result. B.B. King supposedly carried a pistol to every show he played after being stiffed one too many times. In 1985, during an interview with JET magazine, Miles Davis—who had as successful a career in music as any jazz musician could hope for—said, “If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man. I’d do it nice and slow.” Please, let’s never pretend that this music is light listening ever again.

An invitation to listen

What it is, however, is an invitation; a chance to listen to the sorrows and hopes of our African American brothers and sisters. Their joy and their righteous pride, their pain and anger, their pleading for justice and equality, their declarations of beauty and dignity. Where political dialogue grows stale and ideological, the arts can cut through, whether it’s painting or music or literature, bypassing our rational defenses and letting us see and—more importantly—feel the experiences of someone else. The stunning and beautiful legacy of African American music, literature and art stands as an invitation to people like me—a white, middle-class, Southern Baptist—to glimpse inside a world that is not my own and to walk away a little more understanding and empathetic.

It is, of course, true that what we can learn through the arts is not the sum and total of another’s experience. It is also true that you can experience the arts and not learn a thing. That happens when we engage without curiosity, without expecting that we have something to learn. But patience, humility and curiosity will be rewarded. The world will reveal itself to be larger than you thought, more perplexing, more sad and more beautiful.

So turn on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and hear his soaring longing for God, his deep sense of the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of his own cancer-addled body. Listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” and hear both the sense of sorrow and possibility that Morgan felt in the midst of a growing civil rights movement and a growing African consciousness. Read The Bluest Eye and feel the discomfort of a child who learns to dislike her own eyes and skin. Read Brian Keith Jackson’s The Queen of Harlem and feel the pressures of stereotypes that accompany being young, black and male. Or listen to Henry Louis Gates. Or Maya Angelou.

The point is to listen. To open your heart. To tap into your empathy and—just as important—your curiosity about the world and about the way our African American brothers and sisters experience it. Ask where their stories, jokes and strokes of genius come from. Remember that they are image bearers like you, whose feel for the world is very different because their place in it is very different. Curiosity will bring understanding, understanding will bring empathy and empathy, love. By making space to simply pay attention, what is foreign becomes familiar, and a stranger becomes a neighbor. And it’s our neighbors, most of all, that we can learn to love, to lock arms with and to suffer with.

So, as we celebrate African American History month, let me urge you as someone once urged me: Listen. Just listen.

By / Feb 19

NOTE: The 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit will address "The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation" to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26-27, 2015. To learn more go here.

Every February Americans observe Black History Month, a time set aside to celebrate the contributions that African Americans have made to American history. Here are five facts about the history of the observance:

1. The precursor to Black History Month was created in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be "Negro History Week." Woodsen chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and of Frederick Douglass, an early African-American abolitionist.

2. Woodsen, the son of a slave, began high school at the age of 20 and then proceeded to study at Berea College, the University of Chicago, the Sorbonne, and Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1912. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 to train black historians and to collect, preserve, and publish documents on black life and black people. He also founded the Journal of Negro History (1916), Associated Publishers (1922), and the Negro Bulletin (1937). Woodson spent his life working to educate all people about the vast contributions made by black men and women throughout history.

3. The reason Woodsen started Negro History Week was to ensure the legacy of black Americans would not be lost. He used the Jewish people as a model for black Americans:

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.

4. The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970. In 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial, the informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government. President Gerald Ford spoke in regards to this, urging Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

5. In 1986 Congress passed Public Law 99-244 which designated February 1986 as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month." This law noted that February 1, 1986 would "mark the beginning of the sixtieth annual public and private salute to Black History." Since 1975, every U.S. President has issued a proclamation for the observance, though the names have often changed: Black History Week (1975), Black History Month (1976), National Afro-American (Black) History Month (1978), African-American History Month (1992), and National African-American History Month (1993).

By / Feb 11

NOTE: The 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26-27, 2015. To learn more go here.

Something I sometimes hear from my white brothers and sisters when it gets around to Black History Month each year is, “Tony, tell me again … why we have to have Black History Month? And shouldn’t we have White History Month, too?” That statement is usually followed up by a chuckle in an attempt to take the edge off of what has the potential of turning into an awkward conversation.

But I welcome discussions like these because they provide an opportunity to place a subject front and center that often only lurks in the shadows of Christendom. That may sound like a strong statement—that black/white relations or racial reconciliation across any racial barrier needs to be a “front and center” subject—but I say that in light of the emphasis God himself places on his body living, acting, moving, communing and serving in oneness and unity in his Word.

What does unity really mean?

God does his best work in the midst of unity. In fact, so essential is the issue of oneness in the church that we are told to be on guard against those who try to destroy it (Rom. 16:17). God has intentionally reconciled racially divided groups into one new man, (Eph. 2:14-15) uniting them into a new body, (Eph. 2:16) in order that the church can function as one (Eph. 2:13). When the church functions as one, we boldly brag on God to a world in desperate need of experiencing him.

But how do we as a Church function as one? We don’t. He does—both in us and through us.

When we got saved, we were baptized into the body of Christ. No matter what our race, gender, or class is, when each of us came to faith in Jesus, we entered into a new family. We didn’t create God’s family. We became a part of it.

That is so important to realize because far too often we are trying to force unity when authentic unity cannot be mandated or manufactured. Instead, God says we are to “preserve the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). The Holy Spirit has created our unity. It is our job to preserve it.

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess. The result of both of these situations has been, and will continue to be, disastrous for our nation. Let alone disastrous for the witness of Christ to our nation.

So what does this have to do with Black History Month? Everything.

Unity through working together

I read an eye-opening paragraph in a popular book the other day that will help explain my answer. It highlighted the reality that we still don’t get it about race. It said, “I know many of my white friends and colleagues, both past and present, have at times grown irritated by the black community’s incessant blabbering about race and racism and racial reconciliation. They don’t understand what’s left for them to do or say. ‘We have African Americans and other people of color on our staff. We listen to Tony Evans’s broadcast every day. We even send our youth group into the city to do urban ministry. Can we get on with it already? Haven’t we done enough?’”

To be fair, we have come lightyears away from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other overt displays of racial hatred. But tolerance is still a far cry from reconciliation. The mere fact that we remain relationally separated most of the time, only coming together for an event or cross-cultural seminar, shows how far we need to go. The proof of this is that we do not have a collective restoring effect in our society. We have limited the degree to which God’s presence will flow in us and through us because if what we call unity is not transforming individuals, churches and communities, than it is simply sociology with a little Jesus sprinkled on top.

Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal. Unity is not achieved through seminars, but rather through service—together. Unity is not uniformity either. Just like God is made up of three distinct Persons—each unique and diverse—unity does not negate individuality. Unity embraces diversity to create a stronger whole.

My son Jonathan got called to practice with the Arizona Cardinals a few years ago. As a fullback, he’s had success in college and was trying his game out for a few years in the NFL. But if Jonathan would have showed up at practice and started playing like the quarterback, or the center, or even the wide receiver, he’d have been kicked off the team before practice was even over. Jonathan is a fullback, and if he doesn’t play like a fullback then the team is worse off because of it.

A football team is eleven unique players working together to reach the same goal. The body of Christ is no different. We are each gifted with certain strengths and skills, but unless we intentionally (and with race in America, we must be intentional) bring these together under the over-arching purpose of God, we will continue to run in circles on the field and never cross the goal line together. We’ll have programs, without power.

Know who your teammates really are

A problem would also occur if Jonathan didn’t know what the quarterback did, or could do. Or if the wide receiver didn’t know who the quarterback was, or what he was supposed to do. A successful football team is made up of players who not only know who they are, but who also know who everyone else is.

Growing up in urban America during the Civil Rights Era in a Christian context of racism, segregation and an incomplete historical education didn’t give me an opportunity to know who I really was. In my all-black classrooms, I learned about white culture and white history. I read about Paul Revere and his midnight ride. But what my teachers failed to mention was that on the night of Paul Revere’s ride, another man—a black man—Wentworth Cheswell also rode on behalf of our nation’s security. He rode north with the same exact message.

Reading my Scofield Bible each week at church, I was reminded that we as blacks were under a curse of slavery. After all, it wrongly referenced it in the notes in my Bible. What I didn’t learn was the rich heritage of blacks in the Bible, and even that there were black men and women in the lineage of Jesus Christ.

Without an authentic self-awareness, African-Americans often struggle as we seek to play on the same team toward the same goal in the body of Christ. But just as relevant is the need for awareness among my white brothers and sisters concerning who we are, and who God has created and positioned us to be at this critical time in our world.

Black History Month gives us an opportunity to intentionally familiarize ourselves in such a way that will enable us to embrace our diversity to its fullest, putting unity to use for good. When we do that—when we knowledgeably serve side by side—there will be no stopping what we can do in the name of Jesus Christ.

This article first appeared in Relevant magazine, February 2011. This article was also published here.