As a Political Science major and recovering state legislator I have been constantly reminded of the separation of church and state. Whether it was the subject of study at Morgan State University or couched in a heated debate over prayer-in-public-schools during my time in the Maryland General Assembly, the merit of the separation of church and state reared its head over and over again. Yet as the son of an activist preacher that separation always seemed to be a direct contradiction to what was my everyday experience. While I thought I knew the intent of the phrase it hadn’t been my reality. In fact, I would go as far to say that it wasn’t the reality for most Black folks who either lived or were students of post slavery Civil Rights movements. For Black folk in America – whether they acknowledge it or not – there has never been a separation of church and state.
With that in mind it should come as no surprise that my father, the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland and the first Black chairman of Baltimore City’s state legislative delegation, certainly believed that God was God of all or He wasn’t God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not always welcome. As a matter of fact, Dad often remarked that he learned all of his politics from dealing with church folk in the first place. He needed only to model his older brother, Channing E. Phillips, who was the pastor of Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. For as long as I can remember Black Clergy has helped lead and advocate for “the least of these”.
Members of the faith community used to have a lock on leadership. They came with their own army of workers and if the choir was good, they even had their own soundtrack! The soldiers in this army suffered similar if not identical inequities and the inhibitors of their progress were easily identifiable. None of that is the case today. “Faith leaders” are likely to be as trifling as the proverbial Snake Oil salesman of yesteryear. This is not a new phenomenon. Without getting too preachy, the Bible is rife with references to false prophets and those who are called to comfort His people but do not. That’s right, I said it! Shysters were abundant even in biblical times. Nevertheless, the fact remains that problems persist regardless of the era. And on some level there will always be need for leaders. And on some level they will need to be selfless. And that is hard to do for long. Human nature and history have taught this lesson well; America’s political history especially!
During the 1950s & 1960s our political gains were social imperatives. Whether or not Black folk deserved to be treated as equals and other “quality of life” issues should not have been matters for the Supreme Court of the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the land to settle. But they were. And those causes … those “campaigns for justice” were waged by men and women of God. His Word was carried from the church house, through the streets to the White House. There was no separation.
Concerning the state of Black/White race relations in 1966, the late Dr. Nathan Wright, Jr., an Episcopalian minister, scholar, and a member of the Republican Party, in his book Black Power, pointed out that “we are now faced with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundation of our nation”. Some 44 years later it can be argued that a portion of those who now hold conscienceless power are Black. Following that same logic, it stands to reason that those now with powerless conscience not only include Blacks, but poor Whites and Latinos can be added to the ranks.
This seemingly cyclical dynamic paves the way for a Superhero; a vibrant leader or chain of leaders who will champion all causes for those who experience grave injustice.
Yet, today a “Black Agenda” is not only impossible to define but there are Black folk who have reached a certain degree of comfort who would opt out even if such an agenda existed for fear of losing their seat at the table of sameness and validation.
“We live in a system”, says Derrick Bell in Ethical Ambition, “that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained”. Bell further asserts that though there are huge disparities in opportunity and income between the “haves” and the “have nots” those who should challenge the system do not. In fact, those disadvantaged by the system are “culturally programmed” to accept things as they are. Yet, with the advent of technology and easily accessible public information the “have-nots” now know what the “haves” have and they aren’t happy about the disparities. Undoubtedly there will be those who step in to fill that huge gap between anger and action with the hope of making a difference and perhaps even [insert suspense music] becoming “leaders”.
We have all heard stories of leaders with “modest” or “humble” beginnings … those Horatio Alger, quixotic stories of victory being snatched from defeat, “rags to riches”, “poor-kid-from-the-hood-makes-good” type of stories. But sadly those stories, while inspiring, are still the exception. The truth is, at the risk of sounding like a new-age Black Panther, “all power” truly belongs “to the people”. The sad fact is that “we, the people” have relinquished ours far too often. Election after election we hear of abysmal voter turnout and lament over the pending doom of this country. It should be noted that favor will never find those who employ apathy. And it should come as no surprise that apathy’s employers are all too often the same who can least afford the consequence of inaction.
I can tell you from personal experience that choosing to serve the public is a difficult choice and should not be made on a whim. Parenting aside, there is no occupation that brings with it more heartache and opportunities for misunderstanding then serving the public yet there is nothing nobler or more rewarding. That being said one may feel a fair measure of reluctance but should not be paralyzed by the same for true leaders – those who seek to educate and empower – are called by something much greater than any reason for trepidation. I would say that a leader has no more (and usually markedly less) than a 15 year run from the time most people begin to refer to him or her as such. After that time either “things” begin to “happen” or conversely, nothing happens anymore.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look … how far back would you like to go? Jesus? Okay, let’s take a look. Theologians will agree that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine. Most followers of Christ will concede that event marks the beginning of His ministry … His leadership. Three years later? He was crucified. Now if you are a believer then you know the story did not end there. But even if you don’t believe but follow History, you must concede that Jesus was killed less than five years after He gained some notoriety as a leader … as He began to help change the way people thought which ultimately challenged those who thought they were in power. Too far back? Okay, how about President Kennedy, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (post Mecca Malcom X), Martin Luther King, Jr., or Robert F. Kennedy, Sr.? All killed within 15 years of being leaders whose words helped galvanize people and began to challenge the powers that be.
Now, here lately, it hasn’t been so drastic or final, thank God, but severe damage has been done. I fear there aren’t enough people who actually see beyond their own lives to help anyone else much less speak with an authority that only truth affords; because history has taught us that telling the truth can get you killed. Leaders are neutralized or somehow rendered inconsequential at a much quicker rate than we create them. Political leaders can quickly render themselves insignificant with just one scandal. No one goes into office looking to part of a scandal but the longer one stays in office, the greater the opportunity for them to be caught up in one. While said politicos are physically alive they are, for all intent and purposes, politically dead. Other politicians may languish and wither away in seats (held sometimes across generations) with but a mere fraction of the power they once wielded. So we are left with a void that widens as years go where the hour went.
The challenge is obvious … step into the void … with our imperfect selves and help lead this world. As Arthur Ashe so poignantly stated, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Our focus must include more than ourselves or our children but generations yet unborn. However, our children are a good place to start. The older I get the more confident I become that the void is created for those who recognize it to fill it or at the very least help point it out to those who not only miss the forest for the proverbial trees but also those who can’t see the trees for the bark.
Those who are called to lead will never be perfect but the cause will be. Those who try and perhaps do not reach their goal can revel in the fact that their efforts have elevated the cause for the next wave of leaders to move the needle a little closer toward the goal. Perhaps I am guilty of oversimplifying at times but I liken leaders to cars; they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There will be some with more features than others and some with a little more polish but the fact remains that if it’s made with the right stuff at its core, even a raggedy one can move us forward.
I happen to still be foolish enough to believe that we are all placed here to fill some specific, unique function that only we can do the way we would do it. I also believe that many of us stagger through life without ever putting our unique quality to work. So as we move through our lives let us be mindful of the voids that we see and let us then begin to fill them.
Witness. Testify. Act!
A Call For Leadership © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips
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
As an intelligent, relatively young man I am really tired of the “formula” for interviews with “newsmakers” – and I may have to rethink that term as much of what is now considered “news” or “newsworthy” used to be considered garbage or “tabloidian” – don’t worry about spellchecking that … it’s a new phrase that I am coining with my poetic license, thank you very much.
Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of “Meet the Press”(MTP) and I miss Tim Russert on that show … immensely. I have been watching it for years and think its reputation for bringing some of the biggest names, in a timely fashion, into our homes is stellar. Washington and world politics comes directly to all of us arm chair Commanders-in-Chief and Secretaries of State as we sit comfortably in our PJs, geeked up on our caffeine of choice, screaming at the TV and explaining to our imaginary Cabinet (or befuddled children) how we would do things differently. The timely delivery of these powerful public officials has done much to sustain the viewership of MTP and shows like it. That being said there is a growing “gotcha” feel that I am not all too sure can be counted as intelligent or journalism; much less “intelligent journalism”.
The lure of appearing on MTP for those who hold public office or positions with federal agencies is that about 3 million people are going to see you and hear what you have to say. The danger of appearing on MTP is that about 3 million people are going to see you and hear what you have to say.
In 2007, Neilsen Media Research data claimed that MTP was the number one public affairs show among adults aged 25-54. This is the group of folk who are really paying attention to what is going on in the world … okay … at least we should be. This is the workhorse demographic. If you look 5 to 10 years on either end of this range, a good number of folk aren’t really contributing to our economic engine in the same way.
Before 25 years of age young folk are becoming adults and most haven’t yet settled on a career path. They have years to go before their earning potential peaks. On the other end of the spectrum, people beyond 54 years of age are looking to transition out of the “rat race”. Their earning potential peaked years ago and they would like to -at least – think about relaxing. Their grind isn’t the same. I can only hope to see that day … but with a 2 year old? … at 46? You are much more likely to attend my funeral than my retirement party. But I digress. The point is we are keen folk who watch these shows and we tune in because we are plugged in. We are directly, if not immediately affected by all political machinations. So each Sunday we sit down to see who is going to be on the proverbial “hot seat” this week.
One would think that in today’s world of camera phones, open mics, youtube, “off the record” statements that somehow end up on the record, and other gotcha “journalism” practices, you are only as good as your last faux pas. In the case of MTP, when we see someone getting grilled or saying the exact opposite of something they have said before – sometimes years before – we are shaking our head or screaming at the television, nearly choking on our coffee trying to pass judgment on someone whose position we are likely never to be in. Yet many times it’s whoever is getting interrogated that week that helps make him or herself look guilty.
With lobbyists, experts on specific issues and yes, even constituents, folk on Capitol Hill have information to which the rest of us have limited or no access. With more information ought to come more knowledge and a better perspective or grasp on a given issue. Sometimes that additional knowledge, that obscure report or the testimony of constituents whose lives could be completely decimated or forever lifted by the press of a “Yea” or “Nea” button is justification enough for changing the way one sees an issue. But admitting they didn’t have enough information to take a stand on an issue or that they found they were -get this – “wrong” on an issue is just not something most elected officials are willing to do. So here they sit on the MTP “hot seat” and the dance begins. They make contradictory statements, the host calls them on it and we label them a liar – or worse – a typical politician.
We tune in week after week for much the same reason we rubberneck at accident scenes. That “gotcha moment” on MTP grabs politicos like The Jerry Springer Show grabs idiots. About the only thing that rivals that moment is how the issue, statements or misstatements get spun throughout the next week. But the formula works and has been for years.
The intention of MTP is to interview public figures and hold them accountable for their words and/or deeds. In short, it is essentially a 30 minute press conference with one reporter followed up by a 30 minute panel discussion over the events of the past week. The clever part is that the seed to some of the issues discussed this week were planted last week from all the spin doctors trying to correct statements from their bosses … who at the end of the day are mere mortals. Real people with real families and real lives just like us.
I have to admit that I find it interesting that when the show began on radio in the late 1940’s it was hosted by a woman. By the time televisions made their way into most homes the host was a man. In fact, for more than 50 of its 63 years the host of MTP has been a man and for a year in the mid eighties, men, as Roger Mudd and Marvin Kalb co-moderated. Martha Rountree holds the distinction of being the only female employed as moderator of MTP. I only throw that in because I find it interesting for a show that was viewed by so many as “cutting edge”, the edge isn’t sharp enough to seriously entertain the possibility of a minority host. Though the show co-created by a woman there has not been a female permanent host in over fifty years. Why not? Hypothetically speaking, would it be so bad to tune in on Sunday and see … say … Gwen Ifill, Michele Norris, Leslie Stahl, Natalie Morales or Suzanne Malveaux on your screen? Would the news be somehow less “newsy”? Would World events lose their importance? I think not.
Someone wiser than I coined the phrase, “information is power” and if that is true then so is the fact that misinformation is an epidemic. Despite some of what I mention here, I will continue to watch MTP (and shows like it), read papers, articles, books, attend forums and events because I like to be informed. With an equal measure of passion, I like deconstructing misinformation, reading body language and listening to what is not being said. So I leave you with one request … regardless of where you get your information, think and think critically before speaking of, acting on or most certainly spreading what you consider to be “news”.
Well, I’ve got to go because it’s the weekend! In fact, it’s Sunday … “And if it’s Sunday … “.
Meet the Press(ure) © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips
In life we will experience things that for some reason make us uncomfortable. Maybe we are unable to put a finger on it, perhaps it rubs us the wrong way but there have been events that leave us feeling unsettled. I experienced one such instance recently. Actually, I should say that I experienced another such instance recently. Over time there have been many examples but the “last straw” incident which was the impetus for the inquiry of my friends occurred on a national morning news show. The slight – I will allege it so – was made by a reporter; a supposed media professional.
As I recall, the story was about the coming hurricane season and the effect it would have on the efforts to quell BP’s oil volcano (I refuse to call something that massive and out of control a “spill”). I remember the strange feeling I got upon hearing the reporter then refer to the President of the United States of America (POTUS) as … just … “Obama”. I do not remember any introductory phrasing or prior mention of the president that could have excused the reporter’s last name only reference. Granted, I was merely listening to the newscast while tending to other things so it is entirely possible that I could have missed something. Not wanting to assume the worst I put some “feelers” out to see if anyone had heard what I thought I had just heard. My intent was to ask them 1) what morning news show they watched and 2) if they happened to be watching the same news show I watched, did they witness anything strange but I didn’t even have to ask! As soon as I referenced the event and they said, “Yeah, I saw that, too … and I cringed. I’m tired of it!”
I am far from a media professional but I am familiar enough with politics, news and reporting to know what is usual and customary with regard to respectful references to the “highest office in the land”. Even if we feel that the person occupying that office doesn’t deserve said respect, because they are sitting in that office, it’s theirs by default. Now we may “talk junk” about the person in the office amongst our friends in private but, for the most part, in public we are respectful. Media professionals most certainly should be, at the very least, respectful.
After having my suspicions substantiated I began to rummage through my mental Rolodex to recall the major slights that this particular occupant of the White House has had to endure in just 20 months:
1)Day 1 – Oath of office snafu. There was so much made of this that President Obama felt he needed to have a “do over”. So he did. And from what I saw it appeared the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court actually made the blunder.
2)New York Post Editorial cartoon appears to depict President Obama as a dead chimpanzee.
3)Birthers – Questioned President Obama’s American citizenship and nationality.
4)Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina essentially calls President Obama a liar when he shouts, “You Lie!” while the President addressed the nation.
Clearly these examples are evidentiary of a fundamental lack of respect for something or someone. So which is it? Is there no respect for the office or the individual who occupies the office of President of the United States of America?
I am sure there will be those who read this and dismiss them as twaddle from an overly sensitive writer who must be Black. And, with the exception of “twaddle” and the “overly sensitive” part, you would be correct. But your being right doesn’t necessarily make me wrong. Any sensitivity that one may detect is born from the insensitivity that has run rampant since this President’s election. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t quite a year ago that a member of Congress called the President of the United States of America a liar. This wasn’t the British Parliament. Joe Wilson wasn’t sitting in the balcony of a B–movie theater hollering at the screen. This was on Capitol Hill! So, was he calling Mr. Obama a liar or the President of the United States a liar? And which – if any – is excusable?
There will be those who think my objection is all about race … that my “sensitivity” is rooted in the fact that this President is Black and since I happen to be Black I am now paying attention where I paid none before. But it is precisely because I paid attention to the “ghost of President’s Past” that the last name only reference disturbed me so.
People will throw President George W. Bush into the mix. They will make mention of all the terrible things people said about him but excluding fanatics, in George Bush’s worst hour (and there were many from which to choose) even his worst media critics (and again, there were many from which to choose) referred to him as “George Bush” or “President Bush” but never last name only! That being said, if so called “professionals” can disrespect this President of the United States, who happens to be Black, what message does that send to young Black men (and I include myself in that number) nationwide?
It should be a “respect of office” issue – as it traditionally has been – not a “race” issue. But given the circumstances is that possible? So we get to choose. Either it has something to do with race – consciously or unconsciously – or the media professionals have suddenly lost respect for the office of the President. And if you choose the latter the question will be “why?” What’s different about this President? Is he a man? Check. Did he have enough charisma and political savvy to get elected? Check. Did he at some point make a majority of the people feel good about their country? Check. Did he make campaign promises? Check. Has he made promises that he is having difficulty fulfilling? Check. Has he had to deal with unforeseen circumstances? Check. Hmmm … sounds just like the other 43 Presidents that preceded him. So what’s different about our 44th President … President Barack Hussein Obama?
Do I think the slights are always conscious? Not at all. Do I think that there are things woven into the fabric of this country that make unconscious slights commonplace and palpable? Indeed. Do I think there is a better country? Not by a long shot. Do I think this country can do better? Yes! … In fact, it must.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T! That’s What POTUS Means to Me © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips
Not My Mother …
My mother first met the idea of her spirituality in Rochester, New York at an Episcopalian church and she is a woman of strong faith. While there may be those who consider that statement oxymoronic I would dare you to meet my mother. Her mother, Cecile, worked as a domestic and was a faithful member of a Baptist church in Rochester. My mother’s father, John, worked during the week as a lumberjack in Canada and came home to Rochester at the week’s end. From what I can gather, he did not have much time for church or the spiritual life. That is not to say that he did not believe in “spirits.” In fact, he devoted much of his life to spirits – distilled – but spirits nonetheless. It soon became apparent that a spirit-filled life and a spiritual life do not always equal a match made in heaven and so in the early 1940’s my grandparents parted ways. John went his way and Cecile, with her two daughters, June and my mother, Dorothy, went another.
Some time later Cecile met and married Earl, a God-fearing, fun-loving, hard-working Red Cap (the railroad’s equivalent of an airport’s Sky Cap) who came to Rochester, New York from Atlanta, Georgia. It was Earl who was the member of the Episcopalian church. It was Earl who attended church with his stepdaughter, Dorothy, and as fate would have it my mother became responsible for taking her little sister, Yolanda, the child from Cecile and Earl’s union, to church with her. It was in this church that my mother began to tone her spiritual muscle.
Married life became rocky. Children are seldom concerned with the “whys” for they are not as important as trying to cope with everyday life and getting through each day. John, June and Dorothy’s biological father, was not around and had not been in the picture for quite some time. June, the older sister, began to act out. There was constant tension between June and their mother Cecile. Once again the “whys” held no import. Yolanda, the youngest of the trio, seemed to fair a little better. Unlike June and Dorothy, her father was in the home and while she and Cecile had their difficulties there was only so much that could be done to her for “Daddy” was ever present. Cecile and June however, was another story entirely.
Dorothy was the classic “middle child;” quiet, introverted and with the exception of her height and pleasant look, easy to miss. If life was a movie, then she would more likely be cast as an extra as opposed to the star. She loved both her sisters equally but lived life as a spectator observing the different ways similar outbursts between here two sisters were handled. More often than not it was Dorothy who cared for Yolanda as she was more than a decade older. She held Yolanda’s hand as they crossed the streets to go the church.
The sanctuary never held truer meaning than for Dorothy. It was in this safe place that Dorothy began to beseech God. It was in this place where her personal “whys” were pondered but refuge for all was requested. While in her home, Dorothy’s faith was constantly tested but in her church with her God she found a mighty sustenance that made the daily discomforts of life seem almost bearable.
Dorothy seemed to go through life without a great amount of risk or chance taking. To her, God was, is and forever will be a sure thing. There was no sense in seeking something or someone greater because there was no such thing or being. Pressing one’s luck did not make much sense to her. If I am painting the picture that my mother was boring, then I have done her a huge injustice. She was then and remains resolute, resilient and consistent – qualities not found in great abundance today. Mom has a self determination that to me, as her son, is at times maddening and refreshing at once. I have come to believe that those qualities are not only gifts from God. Each time she relies on those gifts she feels that she is honoring a God who loved her enough to give those gifts; she knows God is watching and it is her desire to please her God.
To this day Dorothy does not wear her faith on her sleeve. Her faith is not something that she has to show you or me anyway. Her faith is reserved for her God. It is not a faith that you see with your eye but rather a faith that you feel when you are in her presence. I can remember hearing her faith in an answer to a question that some theologian may have expounded upon for hours. I asked her, “How and/or why do people who seem to never get a break in life keep coming to church and why is their faith so strong?” In what appeared to be no time at all, she exposed my lack of faith and demonstrated the strength of the convictions she had learned as a child. Her reply was unassuming, simple and quick, “God said our reward is in Heaven. So we really shouldn’t be expecting too much here on earth. That is why anything that we do get while here is considered a blessing and we should be thankful for it.”
As a child, Dorothy learned there was a loving, forgiving, providing God. She believed it wholeheartedly and would come to lean on the strength that the phrase held repeatedly throughout her life.
…Not My Father…
My father’s introduction to spirituality was more of an immersion. He was the next to the last child of Porter, Sr. and Dorothy’s (coincidently the same name as my mother) six (6) children. Porter, Sr. was the pastor of a Baptist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dorothy kept the household going and also printed the bulletins for Sunday service, typed Porter Sr.’s sermons, taught Sunday school and as if all that was not enough, she was the organist for Sunday service. Of the six (6) children, there were five (5) boys, four (4) of whom were ordained Baptist ministers. The only girl married an ordained minister.
My father, Wendell, grew up under the teachings of Porter, Sr., a devout Christian and probably the holiest man I will ever have the pleasure of meeting. He was a preacher whose trajectory suggested that he was on his way to becoming a member of the Academy. He was an educated man who, in 1941, was already in possession of two graduate degrees, was working on his doctorate and had published a book entitled, W.W. Brown, Host. From the time I met him, Grandpa’s life was completely given over to “his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” He had never been to a movie theater, believed in hard work and providing for his family, and above all, serving God always in all ways. He was not overly involved with the day to day workings of maintaining the family, which was my grandmother, Dorothy’s job and she handled it quite well seemly loving every minute of it. Porter, Sr. seemed to always be focused on the next sermon. As soon as Grandpa came home from church he immediately retreated upstairs to his study to begin researching and writing his sermon for the next Sunday. He did that for close to fifty (50) years.
There was never any question of whether or not you were going to church. It was understood and expected. If there was the infrequent occasion where one of the children found themselves too sick to go to church (or school for that matter), then the remedy was always Castor Oil. To listen to my father tell the story, it would appear that Castor Oil was quite a drug. The mere mention of its prescription seemed to miraculously cure all who even thought they were ailing.
Young Wendell grew up witnessing the works of his father firsthand. Dad would often remark that his father was “the best sermon he had ever seen”. To Porter, Sr. the way to “God’s Kingdom” was through service and sacrifice. On those terms there was no wiggle room.
Though my father was ordained a Baptist minister, he was called by the newly formed Northwest Congregational Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1964 – I was seven months old. That church later became Heritage United Church of Christ. The UCC appealed to my father because it gave the congregation a voice. Directives were not merely handed down from a larger, governing body or dictated by some demagoging pastor. The UCC invited people from all denominations to participate. It allowed a pastor’s creativity to flourish. The pastor could work with the congregation and vice versa. The people had a say in what they would do as a “body of Christ.” My father believed in God and religion, but he had grown weary of denominations and their doctrines. He was felt that the denominations did more to divide churches as opposed to providing cohesion.
My father strongly believed that God was either God of all or he was not God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not welcomed, including the political arena. He learned this lesson from watching his older brother, Channing, who was the pastor of Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Dad consistently put his faith into action. As an entrepreneur, he opened a religious bookstore and card shop in the neighborhood. When I questioned the logic, he would just reply with, “The community needs this.” I did not understand. I thought the purpose of going into business was to make money and “the community” could certainly use a record shop. He ran for public office and was the first minister to be elected twice to terms in the Maryland General Assembly amid cries from some that the political arena was “no place for a pastor.” He went on to become the first Black to chair Baltimore City’s Legislative Delegation and in the mid 1980’s helped to deliver more money to Baltimore City than had ever been delivered before. He did these things and many more based solely on the beliefs imparted to him by his father and mother. Without question, my father was the greatest sermon that I ever saw.
…But It’s Me, Oh Lord …
As you have probably been able to discern, my story is not the story of someone who has constantly toiled through life. It is not the story of one who did without the “finer things”. It is not the story of one whose parents were scattered about by lofty ideals or haunted by the lack thereof. Not to in any way belittle the situation or the powerful witness that these stories contain but mine is not the story of a “black boy from the tough, inner city, raised by a single-mother” or grandmother because his father was not there or both parents were strung out on drugs, incarcerated or some seemingly insurmountable combination of the two. And though “some of my best friends” have come from those realities, I thank the Lord that I did not. My parents provided everything I needed. I did not have to “do without.” Nevertheless, my life has not been without struggle… beautiful struggle.
It may come as a surprise that though I grew up around so many ministers I really do not know much about the Bible. My lessons usually came from watching great people who I have encountered attempt to live out lessons from the Bible. From those observations I have tried – for the most part – to live my life adhering to what I feel are the two most important lessons in the Bible: 1) place no one and no thing above God; for there is no one greater and, 2) “Whatsoever you do to the least of these you do so unto me.”
While my parents grew up in different types of homes I benefited from the main thing they held in common – their sense of spirituality. My parents seemed to recognize that it takes a certain amount of introspection to unravel the questions related to one’s spirituality. No matter how one grows up there must be something on the inside that helps determine one’s path. Unlike me, my parents both had siblings. In my mother’s instance, she chose a different path then her sisters. In my father’s situation he chose the same (or very similar) paths of his siblings. My mother and father found each other and I was able to benefit from both of their strengths regarding spirituality. My mother’s quiet, reserved dutiful but unshakable faith coupled with my father’s “faith in action” afforded me the best of both worlds with regards to spiritual teachings.
… Standing In The Need Of Prayer.
On January 29, 1993 my father died suddenly. Needless to say my world was rocked; shaken to the core. My mother and I were devastated. Dad was everything to both of us and a whole church and surrounding community grieved with us. Had you asked me prior to his death how I would live without him, I would have told you that I could not. Almost seventeen (17) years later I am still here. I have two daughters to whom I am teaching the spiritual lessons taught to me by my parents and in that way he lives on through me and now to them. Though I did not think that I was ready for him to be gone it seems that Dad had helped fortify me with most of the tools needed to survive. My mother has lent to me some of her remarkable strength to help balance out the equation.
I struggle sometimes with the inevitability of death and, at times, when my faith is low, the finality of death. But then I am reminded that when a caterpillar “dies” a butterfly is born. Through my spirituality I have come to accept that once a person has learned all they need to learn or taught all they need to teach their work on this earth is done and whether we know it or not we will be ready.
As I stated earlier, my journey to this point has not been without struggle. When you are born with the same name as your father society immediately relegates you to forever stand cold in his shadow and I am sure the same holds true for women and their mothers. It matters not if people speak well or ill of him your place remains unchanged. You inherit all of his enemies and half of his friends and the struggle to define yourself – at times for the sake of others and at other times in spite of others – begins.
I never felt that my parents forced religion or spirituality on me. Yes I had to go to church but I never felt that I “had to” attend church. I went along with what people expected the PK (Preacher’s Kid) to do with regard to griping about “having to” go to church but the truth of the matter is that I really enjoyed “living” in church. I learned some of the best lessons that could have ever been taught, met some of the greatest people God’s ever created, laid down some of the heaviest burdens, cried some of the most cleansing tears and experienced some of the most outrageous joy. I remain in the process of becoming. My spiritual growth is a work in progress and I may never get it right, but I thank God for each opportunity that I have to do so, for without God, I am nothing.
Standing in the Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography) © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips
No one has ever told me to write a disclaimer but being a student of the world I am sure that there may be something I “say” that will offend some and whether it be intentional or unintentional I ask that you wait a second before judging. If you can’t say “Amen!” then just say “ouch” but by all means … say something! My reference to the word “world” means everybody who inhabits this planet. So while I may not be included in your world, you are all included … in fact, welcome, in mine.
I am the son, grandson, nephew and cousin of pastors so you will pardon my religious references … or not. I also find some degree of humor where there should be none. I can find some humor in almost anything. I have come to find that to be a blessing as well as a curse but most often a blessing.
I know the audience is broad – I hope it remains that way. That being said, I know not everyone believes the same thing and there will even be those who find it hard to believe at all. But it is my desire to use this blog to help us come to our similarities through our differences … leaving us all a little more tolerant and much, much stronger.
These are my lenses … welcome to my world!
P.S. For those of you who need to know a little more … keep readin’.
Wendell F. Phillips is the only child of Dorothy A. and the late Rev. Wendell H. Phillips. He came to NC A&T State University and Greensboro in July of 2007. As the Director of State and Community Relations, his primary responsibility is to help develop and maintain positive relationships between the university and various State and local elected officials as well as community organizations throughout the greater Greensboro area.
Politics, community and service are the consistent threads that have run through the fabric of Wendell’s family. His father, the late Rev. Wendell H. Phillips was not only an ordained Baptist minister and the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ but he also served as a representative in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1979 – 1987. His uncle, the late Rev. Channing E. Phillips was not only a pastor at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ but he was also the first African-American to be nominated by a major party for President of the United States of America from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Wendell’s passion has always been helping anyone and especially “the least of these”. He channeled his passion through a well fueled campaign that won him the same seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. As a member from 1999-2003, Wendell served on the Ways and Means Committee and chaired its Business Tax Credits Workgroup. He was also a member of the Tax & Revenue subcommittee and the Education subcommittee.
Other committees on which Wendell has served are: the Governor’s Task Force to Study Educational Programs for Chronically Disruptive Students, as well as the Task Force for African-American Entrepreneurship. Mr. Phillips also chaired the Legislative Black Caucus’ committees for Judicial Appointments and its Civil Rights committee.
Mr. Phillips was named a 2001-2002 Flemming Fellow by the Center for Policy Alternatives as well as a 2001 Toll Fellow by the Council of State Governments where Wendell was one of forty (40) individuals from across the country designated as an up and coming “young leader of tomorrow” recognized for his outstanding achievement and service to state government. Wendell is also a 2008 graduate of Leadership Greensboro and a member of the Greensboro Partnership’s Governmental Affairs Committee.
He was a member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ Committee on Elementary & Secondary Education and in 2001 the organization released its first white paper, Closing the Achievement Gap: Improving Educational Outcomes for African American Children.
Wendell’s creative tribute to Michael Jackson was published on BET.COM and after the tragic earthquake in Haiti, his article entitled “The Audacity to Adopt” was featured on Blackpressusa.com and as a result carried by various media outlets across the country. He is a co-author of Atonement: The Million Man March and landed a featured extra role as one of the Golden Lords in Robert Townsend’s 1993 motion picture, Meteor Man. With the ability to find humor in just about any situation, Wendell tried his hand at amateur stand-up comedy and hosted Open-Mic nights throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area.
He is a graduate of Baltimore City College High School and Morgan State University (B.A., Political Science). He is married with two lovely daughters.
Hello World © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips