Speak Life

Speak LifeJust STOP IT!  Right now … whatever it is … whatever you are doing … whatever you are saying … whatever you are thinking about … in your own life or anyone else’s life that isn’t positive or life affirming … STOP IT!

Here’s why:  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof. “  (Proverbs 18:21)

 Those of us who believe in a God believe that when God breathed life into us there was some divinity in that breath. Hence, there is some of God in all of us. That is what I define as one’s spirit. And It is that spirit that connects us all to everything else and vice versa … plants, animals, trees, earth, water, stars … and yes, even and especially, each other.

I recently learned of the death of someone I didn’t know but knew of.  We weren’t close at all. I didn’t know if she was married or if she had children or any of that … our “conversations” consisted of nothing more than the pleasantries exchanged in passing. I seem to remember meeting her once and shaking hands as I was exiting an elevator she was preparing to enter.  Suffice it to say, our day- to- day interactions were limited. She worked on her part of the puzzle and I worked on mine. We, together with everyone else we worked with were helping to create the “big picture”.

There is no “big” job or “small” job … there is only “our” job.  In the case of higher education, all of “our” jobs are about creating a safe, healthy, life affirming and capable space for future leaders to be groomed and released to change the world. For those of you in another field, you have your “big picture” and whatever that picture is, be certain discord, chaos, “mean speak” or anything that isn’t life affirming is NOT part of it. But I digress.

With the exception of what I felt to be her spirit when we met, I really hadn’t learned this person well enough to remember anything most would consider substantive. However, I DO remember what helped short circuit my learning was the residue … the remnants of “mean speak” and skepticism concerning the extended period of leave she had taken. But I have come to learn much more about her.

I learned she was strong … much stronger than the mean spirited words spoken about her or those who spoke them. I learned she was a fighter. I learned she had already survived at least one bout with cancer before she came to us and, after a brief respite, she was in the throes of yet another battle with what had become stage 4 cancer. I learned she must have known the type of environment she needed to be in to heal and knew she knew she wasn’t in it … and it was while fighting this battle she found need for an extended period of leave. I learned on the tail end of that leave she suffered a brain hemorrhage and some paralyzation as a result.  She survived all of that and now, little more three years after our meeting at the elevator, I learned she is gone. No more pain … no more fighting … only Glory.

Though I didn’t know her, I felt I had met her spirit. I believe our spirits connected in that brief clasping of hands at the elevator. There was something about her countenance … something that conveyed the divinity that God deposits in us all with that breath. No, it doesn’t always translate as jovial or what many would consider “approachable”; at times, it may be pious or stoic … but however God’s spirit shows up, its energy is unmistakably sure and true.

I believe we all are in possession of that energy. In some, it bursts forth almost daily and you can feel it. You see them and you begin to feel better. In others, the vicissitudes of life seem to have been piled high atop that energy by feeding doubt, sowing seeds of cynicism and speaking words that are indicative of where they are in life or how they feel.  Whether the energy is good or bad, we project that – sometimes knowingly but most times not – onto those we share life with … in our homes … in our places of work … in all of our interactions, we put that energy out into the world.

All that I am saying is, words matter. Be aware. Speak life. Choose to be blessed!

Those for Whom Life is Lit by Some Large Vision

I believe in the training of Black children even as white;

the leading out of little souls into the green pastures

and beside the still waters, not for pelf or peace,

but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth;

lest we forget, and the sons of our fathers, like Esau, for mere meat

barter their birthright in a mighty nation.

-W.E.B. Du Bois-

I have always loved that quote by Du Bois and I am obviously not alone. The late Ossie Davis must have liked the quote so much that part of it was chosen as the title for the posthumously released book of his selected speeches and writings. Along with so many other blessings in my life, I count meeting him and his lovely wife, Ruby Dee, an honor; not because they are entertainers and I was starstruck but because of my appreciation for their unwavering sacrifices during the civil rights movement; for their unquenchable thirst for freedom and equality the world over.

Ossie Davis who emceed the March on Washnigton, eulogized Malcolm X and spoke at one of the first gatherings of the Congressional Black Caucus in the early 1970s was not afraid to take a stand. Where social activism and acts of consciousness in the world of celebrity were concerned, Dee and Davis took their cue from Paul Robeson. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee shared a willingness to fight for what was right even if it meant there would be roles for which they would never be considered let alone cast. I reserve an unconditional love and respect for those who use their gifts for something more meaningful than self-sustenance.

Ossie n Ruby Collage

Some twenty or twenty-five years ago I got to introduce the pair as emcees for an event for some organization; I believe it was a TransAfrica event when Randall Robinson was still at the helm but my memory is sketchy around that fact. However, it is clear the person who was supposed to handle the introduction could not be found … and there I was … able to speak clearly and distinctly … at the intersection of Opportunity and Preparation streets. There is something to be said for just being “there” at the “right time”.

Just before I was to go deliver my line I spied Ossie Davis and moved in his direction. I, a relatively shy, twenty-something thrust myself in the path of this acting icon and stuck out my hand.

“Mr. Davis”, I said interrupting his leisurely stroll to the other side of the room to meet his wife, “it is a pleasure and an honor to meet you”. I continued, “Thanks so much for all you have done for us”.

“Young man, the honor is all mine” he replied, as his hand met mine firmly and with great purpose.

Somehow that was all I needed that day. I immediately reported backstage to deliver my line with no time to rehearse.

“Good evening ladies and gentleman. Please welcome your hosts for the evening, Mr. Ossie Davis and Ms. Ruby Dee”.

That was it. That was my line; delivered in my best radio disc jockey voice, a voice that I had practiced no less than a million times in the comfort of my bedroom and, at times, in the shower.

God afforded me an opportunity that and I made the best of it. I had acted on what felt right in my spirit without knowing how those few moments would linger for years in my mind that I may share them with you … at this moment.

I learned how to discern when it was my spirit or God speaking at a relatively young age. My father used to tell me whenever you find yourself saying, “I knew I should of …” that was God’s way of letting you know that you had just ignored His option. It makes itself known to us with “that feeling in our gut … and it’s not gas”. Dad would often punctuate his comments on heavier subjects with humor thereby making them easier to digest and impossible to forget.

God always gives us the right answer but most of us seldom listen. Many of us are either too weak or self-absorbed to follow God’s directives at the first request. And it wasn’t just Dad but the majority of those with whom he encircled himself reinforced the same sentiment; living proof that iron does indeed sharpen iron.

God has a way of taking the ordinary and ordaining it thus making it extraordinary. Throughout all scripture God used ordinary folk to affect His kingdom in extraordinary ways. And as disparate as these folk may have been they had two things in common … a willing ear to hear God’s voice and a responsive heart ready to respond to God’s call. That day, with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, started out as an ordinary day for an ordinary young man yet something quietly extraordinary happened. Though unbeknownst to anyone in the room, a spark had ignited a flame that still burns today.

We have all met men and women who have heard and responded to that voice in their gut; that voice that lets them know when something isn’t quite right; that voice that whispers charity and justice are not synonymic; that voice that recognizes even though we may be “preachin’ to the choir” the choir must not be singing… or at least not loud enough.

It has become cliché to speak of the passing of the baton from one generation or one person to another but rarely does it happen that way. Usually that baton is carried for as long as one can maintain his or her grasp, for, like power, the baton is never passed or given it can only be taken or perhaps, in this desensitized world of indifference, one need only bend down and pick it up. But for God’s sake let it be from a pool of those for whom life is lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth; lest we forget …

On Maryland’s Question 6

Though Marylanders will be spared the barrage of presidential campaign commercials those in “battleground” states are forced to endure, they do have to deal with commercials and media campaigns on a different battleground. Question 6, a referendum to vote FOR or AGAINST same sex marriage, will be on the ballot for Maryland voters this November and it is causing divisions within political parties, ethnic groups and religious affiliations throughout the entire state.

As Election Day draws nearer my inbox seems to get fuller! Lately, emails about Question 6 and my thoughts on the issue appear most often. While the temptation to offer a knee-jerk response is, for me, ever present I have learned over the years it is better to start with investigation before prognostication. I am sure we all have “feelings” about the issue; many of us feel something about this issue yet one fact remains; I have neither seen or heard any legal basis for denying anyone anything this referendum attempts to address.

Question 6: Civil Marriage Protection Act

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

A few of the commercials I have been able to find online feature some of the biggest names in today’s Black church with a few local Maryland pastors sprinkled in.  Most of the email I have received has been from those who would consider themselves Christians – mad Christians. Their disgust is aimed at the commercials but some are clearly conflicted as to why they are harboring so much anger; is it because many well-known and heretofore well respected ministers are speaking up in support of Question 6? Or are they bothered by the silence of others in the local faith community they feel should have something to say? At the end of the day, the responsibility of how we vote on this, or any other issue, ought not to be dependent upon what celebrity dictates.

There are those in the faith community who are choosing to support this referendum for one of two reasons. First and foremost, many in the faith community see this as a “civil rights issue” – declaring the struggle of the LGBT community “the same as” the struggle of Blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  While I believe wholeheartedly it is an issue of civil rights I do not believe it is the same as the struggle of Blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  People can’t always see that one is gay but they can certainly see if you are Black and that, for some, was all that was necessary to determine how you would be treated (pardon my digression, we can argue about that later).

Secondly, this referendum protects churches and other places of faith from having to perform these services should they choose not to. Further more it protects them from fines and prosecution for making the choice to say “no, not here” though it may not protect them from persecution for the same. Is this new? No. Don’t believe me? Is buying alcohol legal? Yes. Can you buy a drink in your church? No. I don’t care how “jiggy” your pastor is or how many buttons his suit has or how fly her hairdo may be! Those are choices that churches make based on their religious beliefs and they have a legal right to practice those beliefs as long as no one is harmed.

Still others in the faith community are arguing against this referendum and doing so solely on the basis of “what it says in the Bible”. Am I belittling that? No. Does the Bible have any legal standing? No, and those who support a wide distance between matters of Church and State should be ecstatic regardless of what side of this issue they find themselves sitting. But let’s flip it for a moment. Let us, for a moment,  suppose we were going to consult the Bible as the basis to make laws. If we stick with this argument of doing “what it says in the Bible” – that marriage is between a man and a woman – would we also allow a man to take multiple wives? Should we be happy if our daughters settle for being concubines? I mean, why not?! That, too, is “what it says in the Bible”. And let’s not even talk about “what it says in the Bible” about divorce and the acceptable reasons for getting one. We all know a lot of divorced folk and I am willing to bet not all have divorced for reasons the Bible deems acceptable.

At the end of the day I have heard no legal argument against this referendum. In fact, all that I have heard against this referendum has come from self-proclaimed Christians, based on  biblical interpretation, emotion and judgment. Should that be enough? For some, perhaps but if memory serves me correctly, Christians are not supposed to judge others, right? At least that’s “what it says in (my) bible” … how ‘bout yours?

 

In Memoriam: Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

If we have to die (and contrary to the belief of some, we all must) odds show that more people will do so in January than any other month of the year. While three of the most significant and life altering deaths of my existence thus far happened in January – two of them mere days apart in the same year –here lately the month of May has given January a run for its money. My dear friend and “Brother” Michael V. Dobson died in May 29, 2010. On May 9, 2012 another very close friend, campaign manager and “Brother”, Terry W. Taylor died and days later, on May 17, 2012 the Reverend Doctor (“Uncle”) Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr. made the transition and joined with six fellow Goon Squad members who crossed over years before.

After Uncle Marion’s Memorial service Saturday, May 26, 2012, I had the honor, pleasure and self-appointed duty to chauffer around two of the four remaining Goon Squad members, O. Patrick “Pat” Scott and the ever dapper Dr. “Uncle” Homer E. Favor. Lalit “Lal” Gadhia had to get back home for another engagement. Rev. (“Uncle”) Vernon Dobson had already endured a draining week of emotional extremes. The high was a celebration of his life in the ministry and the low was the overpowering fact that Uncle Marion – who certainly would have been physically present for that celebration – had left this earth just three days prior. Understandably overwhelmed, Uncle Vernon was not in attendance. After spending a considerable amount of time that morning wrestling with a bowtie dawned for the first time in my effort to pay respect to Uncle Marion’s signature style, Pat and I rode together to the church. When it was over I had hoped to connect with at least some of the others. Uncle Homer did not disappoint.

“Pooh, you goin’ to the cemetery”, asked Uncle Homer.

“If you want to go…”

“No …” Uncle Homer interrupted, “… had you planned to go to the cemetery?”

“Not unless you wanted to” I replied in a tone reassuring him I was at his disposal.

“Hell no! I saw the funeral director looking at me sideways …”, he bends and leans to demonstrate, “… sizing me up! I told him, ‘Man, stand up and look me in my eye! I’m ain’t plannin’ on goin’ anywhere any time soon”, he jokes playfully.

With that the three of us left the Douglas Memorial Community Church where Uncle Marion had pastored from 1949-1995 and headed downtown to break bread at McCormick & Schmick’s, one of Uncle Homer’s favorite restaurants. The stories and political, socio-economic discussion began almost as soon as I shifted our “chariot” into drive. It seemed as though every block we traveled held memories of both joy and pain. We talked and laughed through our late lunch and then on to Uncle Homer’s home. The conversation never stopped.

Funerals and Memorial Services are bittersweet occasions but, for me, Uncle Marion’s service was much more sweet than bitter. I saw many old friends, heard and retold stories that will never lose their splendor and most importantly remembered the life of one of God’s servants so well lived. Some asked if I were going to write something solely about Uncle Marion as a supplement to The Goons (Take: 1) piece I authored about a year ago. While I knew Uncle Marion’s life was colorful, robust and clearly worthy of its own literary treatment I had yet to process Terry’s death and what his loss meant for my life. So once again, a member of the Goon Squad comes to our rescue. I am publishing Uncle Homer’s unedited words about his dear friend and brother, Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

(W.F. Phillips)

 

 

 

Marion Curtis Bascom, My Friend and Brother

Members of Marion’s family asked me to pen a few lines about him that might capture the essence of his being from the view point of one of his many close friends. Reflecting upon the matter proved to be challenging, if not daunting. How can the highlights of one so accomplished be treated adequately in just a few words? I was reminded of my feelings when queried about him by Tosha, our physical therapist. Among the many superlatives that I used in describing him to her, irascible provided the three of us considerable amusement.

I arrived in Baltimore in 1956 to begin a long career in teaching and administration at Morgan State College. The Reverend Gus Roman, Pastor of the First Baptist Church on the east side, took me to meet Marion, whom he held in highest regards. I found him to be imbued with concern about the abject denial of his people, at the time. For instance, there was not a single person of color serving in any capacity above the most menial category in department stores, supermarkets, banks, print/broad-cast media, or any major sphere of economic activity. In fact, there was only one black in the City Council and only a single one in the legislature. Persons of color were not accorded gainful employment in either municipal or state governing bodies. Those with the Federal government were relegated to positions below Grade 5. My colleagues at the Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland and the other exclusively white institutions were welcomed to break bread with me and my faculty at Morgan State. The reverse situation was a no-no. Suffice it to say, this absence of fair play exasperated the economic well-being of Charm City’s black population.

Marion, like Jesus, literally wept. It was at this juncture in 1967 when eleven of us from disparate walks of life were brought together to ponder these disconnects. We become known pejoratively as the Goon Squad. Subsequently, we welcomed the designation as being meritorious. Marion moved us into roles of supporting the development of Camp Farthest Out. This is where Inner City children were enabled to escape the summer’s heat by spending a few weeks in this pristine setting. This facilitated the broadening of their appreciation of nature and improvement of their academic prowess. In another vein, Marion’s then new position as Fire Department Commissioner allowed him to press several of us into service when the city began to burn in 1968. We went into the hot spots in order to ensure the safety of the residents.

I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ favorite passage in Proverbs, “Seeth thou a man diligent in business. He shall stand with Kings.”  With this fervor we further integrated the Congress by seating Parren J. Mitchell, one of us, as the holder of the 7th Congressional district seat. Additionally, another one of us, Joseph C. Howard, broke the longstanding “Sitting Judge Principle” by winning a seat on the lofty Supreme Bench of Baltimore. Ironically, this is the same body that suspended him for daring to air the racist practices and procedures utilized in the administration of rape cases by Maryland’s judicial system. Subsequently, he was appointed to the Federal judiciary with the endorsement of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Another accomplishment of Marion’s was the opening up of television and radio in keeping with the laws that should have been avoided, assiduously. Two of our members, Vernon N. Dobson and myself, along with Samuel T. Daniels of the Masonic family, served nearly 20 years on a weekly television program, “Look at It This Way.”

There was a lasting bond of brotherhood developed between Marion and me which embraced the highest values of human endeavor. We grew to be such friends and brothers that we were often facetiously referred to as the odd couple. To me he became “Macuba” and to him, I became “Hoelfa.” The endless hours we spent fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, along with bowling well after midnight in our younger days, provided us with fond memories. Initially, there were eleven of us but with Marion’s passing, only four remain. The spirits of the departed, fortunately, transcend the distance between earth and bright glory.

In ending the discourse I must acknowledge the ecumenical reach insisted upon by Marion and the rest of us. We interacted constantly with others. Persons typifying them would be Sam Daniels, James Rouse, Henry Parks, Chester Wickwire, Peter Angelos, Robert Embery, Martin Jenkins and a host of others too numerous to mention. Curtis, as his grandmother called him, had multifaceted interests and capabilities in many genres. For example, he loved gardening, raising beautiful roses, other flowers, and some vegetables. In another vein, he established a competitive office supply business to demonstrate further that people of color harbored such talents. On many occasions, Marion had me join him in visiting those hospitalized or recovering from illness at home. Parren was not always hospitable, at times, wishing to be left alone. The minister’s persuasive power, however, always prevailed. It was a joy to share the podium each year during Black History Month by addressing the residents at Broadmeade Retirement Community. Spencer Hammond always accompanied us with a musical ensemble. The evening, conceptualized by Chester Wickwire was highly regarded by all and sundry. John Dunn was right, … “Any man’s death diminishes me”. Marion takes a portion of me with him but leaves an even greater share of himself with me.

Thanks for the journey, dear Friend.

Homer E. Favor

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 2 of 4)

(Continued from January 3, 2012)

I was introduced to private school without ever having to concern myself with the differences between public and private. My father was bought on to teach a Black History class in the upper school. If he wasn’t the first Black teacher he was among the first. Dad really had a love for young folk and their energy. He had started and maintained a viable and noteworthy Youth ministry at the Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland where he was the founding pastor, so working with or teaching teenagers was not foreign to him, especially not on that subject, and he loved it. What was new to Dad was working with upper middle to upper class white teenagers. The trouble was rarely with the youngster though navigating through the garbage they had been fed at home proved to be more than a slight impediment to the academic learning process.

I remember Dad telling the story of the young white student who stepped reluctantly into his classroom, head down and clearly bothered he slumped in his seat and was silent for the entire Black History class. Sensing something was obviously wrong Dad approached the boy and asked what was wrong. The youngster said that he liked learning about Black history and loved having Dad as a teacher but he would no longer be able to continue with the class. When Dad asked why, the boy replied, “I can’t … well I don’t want to say it”. After Dad reassured him that he was free to say whatever he needed to say, the boy said, “My dad says a nigger can’t teach me anything”. By this time the boy’s eyes were filled with tears. In full pastoral mode, Dad consoled him and told him not to worry. Headmaster Finney’s office was the next stop for Dad.

Redmond C.S. Finney was a warm, likeable and fair minded guy. He was visible, accessible and genuinely concerned about the well-being of each boy on that campus. It was not uncommon for Mr. Finney to show up on the playground at recess and toss a ball, or borrow some kid’s lacrosse stick to play catch with another. He may even pop up in your classroom and perform his legendary headstand. I remember being less impressed that he could do it and more impressed that he, as Headmaster of the entire school, would do it!

Finney was comfortable with a lacrosse stick or football in his hand. After all, he was an athlete’s athlete with a bowlegged, heel-to-toe gait that allowed him to be identified a mile away. His head rolled from side to side when he spoke in much the same way as any John Wayne impersonator. Putting all that together made it look as if he moved on wobbly wheels rather than feet. But none of that seemed to get in the way of his academic or athletic prowess. In fact, to this day there are only two people in the history of the NCAA to be first team All – American in two sports in the same academic year – Redmond C.S. Finney and James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown – yeah, that Jim Brown.

Mr. Finney and my father had a great relationship replete with a tremendous mutual respect. Finney was a change agent for Gilman. He and Dad had many conversations and Dad recognized that “Reddy” Finney “got” it. If that were not the case … if Dad did not believe in Finney’s willingness to do the heavy lifting that all institutionalized culture change requires, he would never have agreed to teach there and I, with absolute certainty, would not have been enrolled in the school.

Finney cared about all of the boys in that school and his concern was both genuine and palpable. He was a great internal and external ambassador for the school. Having graduated in 1947, Finney was a product of the school and had been raised with the exclusionary traditions he was now seeking to broaden to include those who were never meant to be there at the school’s inception. Yet, there was no question that Reddy bled “Blue & Gray”. Stalwart alumni and supporters knew this and where they may have hurled pejoratives at someone else in the face of perceived threats to tradition, they believed in Finney even if they didn’t necessarily believe in the change he was championing.

In spite of the mutual respect, Dad knew his primary responsibility was to the God he was called to serve and the congregation of the young church he pastored. He viewed the instance with the young student as more of a preview of coming attractions and, in all honesty, didn’t have the patience to wage these small battles when he was already engaged in the war for equality and justice on a much larger scale that impacted many more people. Both men knew and expected to muddle through uncomfortable moments, for all parties involved were in unchartered waters: administration, faculty, student and parent.

Dad knew that fighting the proverbial good fight , while important, was no more important than knowing when the fight isn’t yours – doesn’t mean the fight is not worthy … it’s just not yours. Fighting with those who would fight against Gilman’s culture change was both a good and worthy fight but it wasn’t Dad’s fight. More poignantly, it was Finney’s fight and with the tenacity of an All-American football center, he was up to the challenge. He was passionate about the changes he was ushering in but that doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks and hiccups – like the situation Dad endured – along the way.

Dad left Gilman’s faculty around ’71 or ’72, when I was in the second grade. Because he taught in the upper school and the schedules were so different from the lower school schedules, our paths never crossed so I never missed the fact that Dad wasn’t there. I continued through lower and middle school without ever knowing that incident with the young white student ever occurred. It was never brought up or discussed around me. While I was one of only two Blacks through the first, second and third grades (with no more than five or six in the entire lower school at that time) life in the lower school, for the most part, was pretty cool. Things didn’t begin to become “different” until the fourth grade.

(Continued January 16, 2012)

Preparing for the 1st Pilgrimage

If memory serves me correctly Dad went on three (possibly four) pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The first was in February of 1977. He had crammed a lot into his nearly 17 years of pastoring (3.5yrs at Second Baptist Church in Mumford, NY and closing in on 13yrs at Heritage United Church of Christ [HUCC] in Baltimore, MD).

Aside from tasks associated with any pastorate, Dad was working on buying another building to house more ministries that would expand the spiritual footprint of HUCC in Baltimore; he had run an extremely successful campaign (“Crusade” he would call them) but lost the election in 1974. As a child, I did not understand how success and loss could coexist. Thank God for the wisdom that comes with age! His was running on empty. His faith needed refueling. And what better place than the Holy Land?

This journal entry was on the eve of his departure for the first pilgrimage. The reader can’t help but feel his excitement.  At the same time, though never stated, one gets the feeling that he is keenly aware this could be the last time anyone he loves will see him again or vice versa  … making “good-byes” all the more imperative and difficult.

All we knew in 1977 was that the Middle East conflict was constantly in the conflict. Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat were names that appeared in the newspapers daily. It seemed that stories of bombings and assassinations littered the headlines.

As selfish as children can be, I remember not being nearly as worried about Dad’s safe return as I was bothered by the fact that this “pilgrimage” was going to cause him to miss my 13th birthday! I am sure mom was worried enough for the both of us but, true to her characteristic strength, she didn’t let on. She managed a sleepover with four preteen boys and it went off without a hitch … or much in the way of a thank you … so … Thanks, Mom! Oh yeah, the other highlight was a call from Dad – who just happened to be about 7,000 miles away – to wish me Happy Birthday on February 21, 1977. Thanks, Dad!

Peace,

WFP

 

Sunday, February 13, 1977

I’m really excited about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I’m as anxious as a five or six year old on Christmas Eve. I really get spaced out when I contemplate the thought that in a couple of days I actually will walk where Jesus walked! That is fantastic. Though I’ve been wanting to get to Africa, the Holy Land has always been my first preference. Those roots far transcend any other roots I may ever discover. The tracing of one’s roots is great if in that discovering process, one becomes more secure in his “wholeness” and therefore is able to move outside of self into others. If, on the other hand, the process sends on further into self to live, then one need not trace their roots. My pilgrimage to the Holy Land will undoubtedly send me inside self, but only that I might regroup and come out that much more together to serve. This undoubtedly will be the climax experience of my life.

It’s amazing! Thirty years ago, 1947, Dad made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and now I go. The thought gives me peculiar vibes – good vibes however!

As I lay around the day before I left, I became acutely aware of the enormous of love my members and others have for me –I could actually feel the pulling inside when it came time for me to say “good-bye”! I really love those folk – intensely! I guess one never really knows how much others have become a part of him until one withdraws from the scene!

This is also the longest time I’ve been away from Dee and Pooh. It was hard saying goodbye. Pooh is becoming such a fantastically sensitive young man. Dee seemed much more sensitive and caring the last couple of days also.

I touched base with Chan and “J”(ane) – Mom and Dad – Al. Couldn’t locate Tread – Marie was out when I called. I’ll call her from New York City. Porter rode out to the airport with me. We’ve really gotten close since his move to Baltimore. I’ve really developed a great appreciation for Porter. It’s good to see him as happy as he is. He’s been through a helluva lot. I admire his patience and ability to deal with shit from folk who would seek to destroy him. His sensitivity to others is most unusual and seldom seen!

This pilgrimage comes at a most crucial time. I was just beginning to realize how drained I was becoming. Last year was a good but terribly draining year – a real mile marker for me. Chan’s bout with cancer took me through more changes then I’ve ever been through in my life. The thought and dealing with Chan’s death – or the great possibility of it –was scary as hell. I always had a strong desire to want to take his place. I really love that dude, as crazy as he is. It’s strange how Chan’s fight with cancer took me to the lowest part of the valley I’ve ever been -when he passed the six month death date that put me up on top of the mountain.  Everytime I see him, I just quietly thank God for intervening!

I didn’t get the chance to spend time with John and Diane (Eckholdt) as much as I wanted to! Probably it’s because I feel too deeply for them and its difficult saying “goodbye”. I’m as close to them as I am to my family – I really love them. Their love and caring for me since I’ve been to Baltimore has meant much to me and my ministry. Diane’s sensitivity and love for people – her unorthodox life style and her love for me has added great depth to my ministry and, at many times, in my most cynical moments. It’s been her insight and caring that really raised me out of my pit of cynicism. John is to me as a brother. I’d trust either of them with my life. He’s a fantastic person who has grown in his sensitivities by leaps and bounds. It’s not often that one is blessed to encounter those who are consistent in their caring. I thank God for their love!

-WHP-

How’s Your Vertical?

As a child growing up in Baltimore City, Maryland, my friends and I used to engage in something that many kids today wouldn’t even think of doing … we actually played OUTSIDE! I loved to play pretty much everything but if I’m honest, most of the time my game of choice was basketball. The older I got the more organized my game became. I, like most of my friends through high school who could dribble a ball, began to focus on the same things.

There were two factors that for the most part were outside of our control: 1) height – standing 6’3 ½ “, I was blessed to be beyond average by that measure and 2) speed – which I had as well. Today some will argue that you can “make” someone fast but I contend that you can only teach folk how to remove barriers to coordination thus allowing them to run faster which is a completely different issue. Then there were the things we could work on –things to help level the playing field for those who weren’t recipients of the God given gifts of height and speed: 1) “handles” – the dribbling and handling the basketball – not a strong suit of mine 2) shooting – I was average and 3) one’s “vertical” – ability to jump and how high – here again, I was beyond average.

It was a fact that one of the most important factors along with height, weight, shooting and free throw percentage was the strength of your leap … your vertical. “What’s your vertical?” was the question asked among ballplayers on all courts throughout the city. “How’s his vertical?” was one of the most important questions running through the mind of college recruiters and NBA scouts alike -looking to bring the next “Moses” to lead their team to the “Promised Land”.

One of the most recognizable symbols of Christianity is and has been the cross. The cross, with its two intersecting beams, one horizontal and the other vertical when analyzed further can represent two different relationships. The horizontal beam, the shorter of the two, represents our earthly relationship with all things human: our families, friends, organizational affiliations, co-workers and I would argue even our religious affiliations. The vertical beam, running through the horizontal beam and much longer, symbolizes that which is not of this world or more poignantly our individual relationship with our God. It is this symbol that is synonymous with matters of faith and the church – especially the Black church.

Through the institution of slavery and all other machinations of separation that followed (Jim Crow, desegregation) Black Christians have maintained a strong love for the church and an unyielding devotion to a God that can “make a way out of no way”. During slavery the only white-collar profession open to Blacks was the ministry as it was against the law in the Southern states to teach then “Negroes” to read. For much the same reason, places where Blacks could gather were just as limited as the professions from which they could choose. The church became the logical place to assemble for reasons including but not limited to a service on Sunday morning.

Over the course of their history, Black churches have served as stations on the Underground Railroad during slavery, prep-rooms for sit-ins and other demonstrations during the Civil Rights Era, polling places for elections and meeting venues for various community organizations still today. In fact, as I write these words some community group is meeting in some church, somewhere. People have learned everything from reading, writing and arithmetic to computer literacy and the proper way to approach or prepare for the SAT in the hallowed halls of the Black church. Some churches even have basketball leauges and bowling teams – bringing a whole new meaning to the term “holy rollers”.

Taking care of the spiritual needs was the obvious but addressing the social needs of many who would be considered “the least of these” was just as common for the Black church. The pastor made sure these services were offered to “all God’s children” – not just its members but also to people who were so downtrodden that they didn’t know what “up” looked like.

These pastors were and – in many cases – still are treated like royalty. Pastors were God’s earthly emissaries. Their word was believed to be more than just their word but rather, God’s Word. In times past the pastor was accessible; he lived in the community and lived like the residents of the community. Member and pastor not only saw each other in church but also at the grocery store, school PTA meetings, the bank and in my father’s case, it was usually on Monday depositing the offering from Sunday’s service. Every human encounter was an opportunity to minister to and quite possibly be ministered to, as well. The lives of the two were not that different. They worked hand in hand on problems within the community because the member’s community was the also the pastor’s community. The pastor was a visible, vigorous and viable part of the community and if he was in good enough shape, he may even join in a quick game of basketball with the rest of the folk in the neighborhood.

No matter the myriad shattered dream stories we’ve all heard and they have most certainly seen, basketball and the unlikely dream of making it to the NBA never seems to be enough to deter the next generation of ballers. Sports and its limited number of rags- to- riches recipients are all they need to see to continue to keep hope alive. In the minds of our young ballers, the dream of pro basketball being “the way from around da way” continues to trump the Church, God and His “way out of no way” truth. Basketball has not lost its luster but I am sorry to say that for many, the Black church has. And we are left to wonder, “Why?”

Have Black churches become so self-centered and insular that they have neglected their role as a major care taker of the community in which they sit? And if so, does that weaken or strengthen an individual’s relationship with God? Over the years I have become keenly aware of how intensely personal one’s spiritual life can be. I have come to the conclusion that it is my spiritual relationship with my God, my vertical relationship, if you will, that grows more important and essential with each passing day.

So … How’s your vertical?

How’s Your Vertical? © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips

For Those Who Say There Is No God: Exhibit (A)

This morning was not unlike most mornings. Eugene, called which made me get out of the bed. I was not asleep but like many mornings, Eugene was the first person I spoke to. It is usually a race between Eugene and my daughter, Clarke, to see which one will get me to talk first. He asked if I would ride out with he and his daughter, Lynn, then two-years old, to check out the progress the builders were making on he and his wife’s new home.

It was an overcast day. One of those days it would have been just as easy to roll over, close my eyes and go back to sleep but I was feeling good. It feels good to see friends doing well and “making it happen”. Eugene and Tanya were doing just that as were James and Malone. I am very proud of and extremely happy for both of those families – they are the kind of folk that make me glad that I am a human being. I thank God for the blessing of their friendship. You’ll pardon my digression.

When I got back from hanging out Eugene and Lynn, Ruth and Clarke were literally on their way out the door. Perfect timing! They were off to get their nails done – a necessity for Ruth, a novelty for Clarke. As much as I love family and the idea of “family time”, I really love the occasions when I am by myself. It is at those times that my mind really gets to run wild. It is in those instances that I communicate with God. Through music, writing, being otherwise creative, goofing off or just being quiet and listening to Him or listening for Him. In the space those times afford, things are on my mind; not necessarily troubling things but the kind of things upon which one can ponder while going about mindless chores around the house.

Eugene calling me first thing in the morning prompted me to do the same to another good friend of mine. I called JD and mentioned to him that I had all of these sermon titles rolling over in my head but I needed some hermeneutical “meat” to put on the bones of my titles. It is important to note that though almost all of my male predecessors were ordained ministers I was far from a bible scholar … very far. I knew principles taught in the Bible but couldn’t point you to where to find the support for those principles in the Bible … at least not with any certainty. At the same time, my mind was always full of spiritual thoughts and sermon titles that related to the principles that I knew but needed help finding where those lessons were referenced in the Bible. JD had a great command of scriptures and where to find what in the Bible. He went on to tell the story of how a good minister friend of his had told him he had much promise – in fact, the minister said he believed that JD had even greater promise than he! Part of what JD remembered was a sermon the young minister preached that was directed at the young men who had the energy that was needed in the church but most of those said men had not the time for church. JD said, “I think . . . he said Aaron or something like that . . .”

After we got off the phone, I decided to grab my Bible and look up Aaron. I knew that he was Moses’ brother but that was about it. In my New International Version (NIV) Life Application Bible I read Aaron’s profile. I learned that he was a good team member but not a good leader. The attributes that made Aaron a great team member made him a terrible leader. Aaron was too pliable to lead but if you gave him the words, he could deliver them with great aplomb.

As I was silently reading where to find out more about Aaron in the bible Ruth and Clarke returned from their outing. Normally when Clarke comes in, she will search each room in the house until she finds me – today was no different. She usually just wants to seek me out to make sure that everything is “ok”. Clarke has an extremely strong sense of family for a five year old. Everything is not “ok” unless and until everyone who is supposed to be in the house is actually in the house. Once she is assured of that fact, she feels comfortable enough to go on and do whatever it is five year olds do.

Clarke bounded up the steps and stopped at the threshold of the Master bedroom to find me sitting in the chair, 10 feet away, reading silently about Aaron.

“Hey Daddy, we’re back”, she said. Ignoring the obvious, she asked a quick question almost without pause, “Whatcha doin’?”

With my chin still resting in the palm of my hand, I glanced up to see my five year old ball of energy with her hands gripping either side of the doorframe, kicking her right leg back and forth creating a rhythmic “squeak” each time her sneaker touched the hardwood floor on which she stood.

“Reading”, I answered. I was in the process of flipping to the beginning of Exodus to start reading more about Aaron as most of his story is told in that book of the bible.

Almost as soon as I got to that page, having laid reassuring eyes on me, Clarke, still 8 to 10 feet away from me, turns to leave the room singing in a low, melodic voice, “Let my people goooo!”

“What did you say?!” I barked out the question in disbelief, startling her.

“Let my people go”, Clarke turned around to reply, “Like Moses said in the Prince of Egypt.”

“What made you sing that song?” I calmly asked, accepting what this moment revealed but still pleasantly astonished by the whole event that took all of about 7 seconds. But there was more to come.

“There’s a little fairy saying it in my ear and she told me to say it out loud. She said you needed to hear that song and she told me to sing it to you. They come to me all the time” Clarke said, “now she’s making bird sounds.”


And you still say there is no God?

(Written March 25, 2005)

For Those Who Say There is No God: Exhibit (A) © 2005 by Wendell F. Phillips

Faith in the Face of Reality

Bishop Eddie Long is in trouble and I’m not sure why people are shocked and amazed. In fact, through time immemorial men (and women) have never proven to be anything more than human when all is said and done. In all fairness to brother Long this really isn’t about him, his situation or whether I feel he is guilty or innocent. This isn’t solely about the Black Church; it’s not about sexual misconduct. There is far too much happening (or not happening) in the world to let the actions of one individual devour this small bit of time that we share. Much more poignantly, this is about the rest of us … all of us, how we feed these insatiable beasts – cynicism, envy, guilt, shame and judgment – and how our individual hang-ups and insecurities collectively manifest in some of our spiritual and political leaders.

Eddie Long, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Winnie Mandela, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim Jones, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Sr. (and now Jr.), Ted Haggard, Bill McCartney, Norbert Maday and Eugene Lewis – are just some of the people that have run across the headlines over the years. They represent a few well known and some not so well known folk who large numbers of people love/d, trust/ed, had/have faith in and depend/ed upon. I suppose you could spend the better part of a work week googling stories about each name listed – some founded, some unfounded. Some proven, some proven to be false but all have helped to erode our belief in altruism and basic morality while simultaneously giving birth to some of the greatest hurt and cynicism this world has ever known.

In his book, Seeing Through Cynicism, Dick Keyes states that some of us “embrace cynicism with pride and defiance. Others suffer from a cynicism they do not want to feel but are forced to adopt by honesty” and still some fight against it but drift into it without knowing how they got there. I stand firmly in the second category by way of the third: I feel forced to adopt cynicism by honesty but I don’t remember when or how I got there. Keyes goes on to state:

“The church … is an institution that stands solidly astride the paradox of the human condition – simultaneously glory and ruin. It is made up of people who have acknowledged their ruin but who have found forgiveness, purpose and hope of glory in the mercy of God. This means that by its very identity and definition the church is people who come together in a common acknowledgement of failure but also a common hope for something better.”

One of our greatest public servants, Shirley Chisholm, summed it up best when she said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”. Is the ego involved? Certainly. But is it the primary motivation? Not necessarily. Sure, it takes a certain amount of ego for anyone to believe that he or she can “fix” it. But it takes an equal measure of humility to even want to. The choice to be a Pastor, Priest, Nun, Imam or Rabbi – to choose to surrender one’s life to God and thus serve His people – albeit weightier to those of us who believe – is similar. Staunch believers in the separation of church and state will no doubt take offense to my commingling pastors and politicians but I contend their roles are much more alike than different.

The pastor has a congregation and the politician has a constituency. The pastor has a diaconate board to advise and carry out tasks and politicians have campaign committees to do the same. The pastor follows the rules and laws of God in the Bible and the politician follows the rules and laws of man in the Constitution (which is, to a large degree, based on biblical principles). The pastor needs money to keep the missions of the church running so God’s message can be manifest in the larger community while the politician asks for money to enable him/her to get their message out to the electorate in an effort to carry “your” voice to the nation’s capitol. Pastors are trying to prepare us for the next life and politicians are trying to prepare us for the next election. But in all seriousness, public service and pastoring are difficult occupations. Why? Because the general public is, at best, fickle. And guess who lives in the general public? The electorate, church folk, our political and spiritual leaders! (see how that cynicism just crept in there on me?)

Gone should be the day of just giving money to the church without understanding its mission and our place in it; your time and talent are as valuable as your treasure. Get and stay involved. To echo the sentiment of my good sister, Candice Benbow, in her blog, Selah and Amen, there will be hard conversations that need to be had – have them! Hard questions that need to be asked – ask them! When you know better you can do better. You could be the next public office holder or church leader. In all the stories of the Bible you will note that God didn’t make any extraordinary people. He made ordinary people – like you and I – and equipped them to do extraordinary things.

So while the actions of men and women can help dismantle “a” church, no human act or actor, no one’s past or pastor can dismantle “the” church. Though all the names I mentioned consider themselves Christians, Christianity is not on trial here. Though many of those named are political, politics is not on trial here. Men and women are. And that includes you and me. If when you heard the allegations levied against Bishop Long or any of the others mentioned, you were hurt and saddened, I would commiserate with you. If, on the other hand, you tell me your faith was rocked then I would argue that your faith was misplaced.

Faith in the Face of Reality © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips