I spent six months leading the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (BSK) while they were searching for a new president. It was a tough gig, but something very good came out of it: I met the Reverend Doctor Kevin Cosby.
I already knew Cosby by reputation and position: the pastor of the St. Stephens Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky, the largest black church in the Commonwealth. He is also the president of Simmons College of Kentucky, one of 107 historically black colleges and universities in the country.
More than both of these combined, Cosby is the gospel-preaching, community-organizing, degree-earning, book-reading, people-mobilizing, soul-stirring, phrase-turning, hand-shaking intellectual-turned-preacher that makes him worthy of adulation and imitation.
I once shared a platform with Cosby and that other luminary of the African American community in Kentucky: Dr. Everett McCorvey (leader of the UK Opera Program, American Spiritual Ensemble, and National Chorale). It was my role to introduce them; and I described them both as the two most accomplished and influential African Americans in the Commonwealth.” Now I would drop the racial reference and simply say, “Cosby is the most influential minister and McCorvey is the most influential musician” and would get hardly a protest.
Because BSK is a partner organization with Simmons College, my six months of leadership at the seminary pulled me into the full range of encounters with Cosby: Sunday preaching, for sure, and Wednesday mid-day gatherings in the church for his Empower West rallies—I once sat between Secretary of State Alice Lundergan and featured speaker Jesse Jackson (on his 75th birthday).
There were press conferences at the college, planning sessions in his office, and public conversations with notable people: like the day he brought to Louisville from Union Seminary/Columbia University in New York City world-class scholar Gary Dorrien after Dorrien had published his award-winning book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel.
That was the third book I read because of Cosby. The first was The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. Few books have had such an immediate intellectual and emotional impact on me as this one: The Seven Storey Mountain, perhaps, almost 50 years ago, and 25 years later, a gift from a sociology professor about white collar crime (received and read just as my own son began a 73-month prison term for bank robbery).
These books completely shifted my perception of things, and, in the case of the slavery book, opened my imagination to the rationale for reparations, something Cosby talked about often, in public and in private.
The Never Been Told book opens with a description of the coffle, that line of chained-together African Americans walking, day after day, week after week, from their original place of slave labor in the East Coast states, across the mountains to where they would once again be displayed, auctioned, and bondaged to a new place of slavery in the emerging and more lucrative cotton-picking business in the Gulf Coast states. I could not get out of my mind the sight of these forced marches passing right by the Baptist and Methodist churches full of white folk singing about the salvation of God. It rattled by ecclesial cages. What kind of religion could tolerate such dissonant scenes?
The second book was the older (but soon to be back in print) book of sermons by the black preacher from Kentucky, the Reverend William A. Jones, for 42 years pastor of Bethany Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York. Jones I knew about because he hails from the most distinguished African American family in Kentucky, several of whose members now appear in my cell phone directory. His book is entitled God in the Ghetto.
All of this Cosby-caused advocacy came on the heels of a decade of exposure to the ideas and emotions of young African American preachers associated with the Academy of Preachers. My Facebook feed is now full of their postings, their protestations, their prophetic preaching about how the biblical religion in whose service I have been for more than fifty years has not shown mercy, practiced justice, or walked with God alongside the modern-day coffles.
I would have been a much better minister if, forty years ago, I had read these books, heard this pastor, and preached with these aspiring black ministers. It would have helped me better understand the Bible, embody the gospel, and fulfill my own calling as a preacher.