I am a changed man.
Before there was Black Lives Matter and cancel culture; before a Black President or a Black Vice-President, or a Black senator from Georgia; before I knew about Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Fisk, Morehouse, and Simmons College of Kentucky; before Ahmaud Arbery was murdered a few miles from my home; before all of these public and important things, God was working in my mind and imagination, in my soul and in my spirit to make me a different person.
This is how it happened.
I trace the beginnings of my conversion to the Sunday morning in 1982 when Dwayne and Joy Woodruff walked the aisle at North Park Baptist Church in Pittsburgh and asked to become members of the church where I served as pastor. It was year three of his 12-year career with the Steelers but year one of my almost 40-year friendship with two of the most wonderful people I have known. They were the first of several Black families to affiliate with the church.
That slightly integrated congregation gave way to a lily-white church in Owensboro followed by a white college in Georgetown. But while I was dean of the chapel at the latter, I read of one small book, in 2003: the centennial edition of the famous and influential book by W.E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk. I don’t know what possessed me to read it, but I did; and then I wrote a 700-word review and included it in my book On the Other Side of Oddville.
About the same time, I was supervising Robbi Barber, who had begun her Georgetown College employment as my secretary. She organized a gospel choir, launched the diversity initiatives of the college (hello J. C. Campbell and others), and directed the Bishop Scholars Program, earning both her baccalaureate and master degrees along the way (and any day now will become Dr. Barber!).
Then came the Academy of Preachers, a Lilly-Endowment-funded initiative which I designed and led; its mission was (and is) to “identify, network, support, and inspire young people in the call to gospel work.” In pursuit of that new assignment, I walked into the ground floor of Fisk Memorial Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee and met a student named Winterbourne Jones. It took me several tries to understand and pronounce that unusual name but not nearly as long to love and treasure this unusual man—now the senior pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. (note the picture!)
Finally, and powerfully, Morehouse College.
Based only upon a telephone cold call, dean of the chapel Lawrence Carter invited me into the inner sanctum to speak to his gathered Chapel Assistants. Little did I know what converting power sat in the chairs around that table; and little did they dream of the impact those students would have on me.
Dean Carter brought eight students to the inaugural Festival of Young Preachers in Louisville, Kentucky, in January of 2010. Those students—such as Reginald Sharpe, Nickolas Richards, David McGruder, and Tyron McGowan—said things, wrote things, and asked things that took my imagination to where it had never been. For almost six decades I had been locked into white churches, white religion, white theology, and yes, a white Jesus. Now, God was at work in my innermost being, and I could feel it. It made me glad and nervous all at once.
Everett McCorvey came next, with his American Spiritual Ensemble. They sang at the 2012 National Festival, at the Seelbach Hotel and the Cathedral of the Assumption. “You have inspired us all,” I said to him after their performance of African American spirituals. “No,” he countered. “Your young preachers have touched us; and I want to be the music director of the Academy of Preachers.”
I was stunned, but not enough to decline his surprising invitation; and for the next seven years he and his troupe of world-class vocalists gathered from all over the nation to lead the music at our national festivals: Atlanta, Indianapolis, Dallas, and Lexington. I will never forget when ASE baritone Nathaniel Thompson climbed into the pulpit at the august Highland Park Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, on cotton bowl Sunday, no less, and sang—as parishioners knelt to receive communion—”No More Auction Block for Me.” I don’t remember my own walk to the kneeling rail or anything else that happened in that service.
In the fall of 2016, I served as interim president of the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky; and in that role, I came into that wide circle of influence of the mighty preacher of St. Stephens Baptist Church of Louisville, Dr. Kevin Cosby. It was he who handed me the book, The Half Has Never Been Told, and later From Here to Equality. They prepared me, first, for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, that hometown crime that lit the fuse that travel through Louisville to Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, and second, for the reading of White Too Long, by Robert P. Jones.
Along the way, I was nurtured in my conversion by the steady stream of posts and protests, of sermons and silliness that still today fill my Facebook feed: such as Richard Martin, Dominque Robinson, Joseph Howard, Brandon Perkins, Julia McCorvey, Paul Booth, Racquel Gill, Richard Hughes, Rodney Carter, Jr., Kenny Chaison, Winford Rice, Jr., Terrell Crudup, Lyvonne Briggs, Darrell Hall, David Telfort, Dexter Hedgepeth, Matthew Quainoo, Mark Jefferson, Kyle Stevenson, Elizabeth Pollard, J C Campbell, and especially Ernest Brooks.
I heard the preaching and teaching of Brad Braxton, Teresa Fry Brown, H. Beecher Hicks, Aaron Parker, Brenda Iglehart, (the late) Dale Andrews, Marvin McMickle, Frank Thomas, Valerie Bridgeman, Kenyatta Gilbert, and Martha Simmons. I’ll never forget Safiyah Fousa walking the aisles of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville exhorting those young preachers (and this old preacher) to live the gospel and preach the gospel. Even I stood up!
I am a changed man, and I am grateful; but I see all around me white men and white women who are unchanged and who think my conversion is misguided, self-serving, or just plain stupid. They live in a white world, even a white Christian world, and are puzzled by the color that flows all around me.
But for me—I give thanks, to all these people that have made me a more understanding minister. As I have said to Dean Carter several times, “I wish I had met you 40 years ago. I would have been a better minister of the gospel these past four decades.” But you know the old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
I have some time left, and I am making the most of it. Finally, I am ready.