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-

“I’m at a ‘Cross-Roads’, God!”

This letter to God is an example of Dad’s unceasing prayer. He would constantly speak with God, question Him and even get angry with Him but he always loved Him. While deeply personal, I share this letter not as a betrayal of his privacy but rather a blessing to those of us who may find ourselves stumbling in a similar “cross-roads” experience and to offer a Pastor’s point of view. We seldom wonder or care what they may be thinking or feeling. What do you do when all that you are faced with … when all that God is directing you to goes against all of your personal history, experience and knowledge?

Because I happen to know how this particular story ends I will tell you that the church did buy the property and it did start many ministries that enhanced many and even saved some lives. It was called The Park Community Center (commonly referred to as “Park”).  It was an outreach ministry of Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland. After about a 15 year run, the building was sold to what became Parklane Baptist Church.

During the time it was part of Heritage, it was many things to many people. First and foremost, it put life in a building that would have otherwise been abandoned. It was primarily a recreation center located at 3606 Mohawk Avenue in northwest Baltimore City but it was also 1) a safe haven that kept teenagers off the streets and out of trouble 2) A Summer Camp 3) A Saturday Afternoon “theater” for Movies [shown by the Pastor – complete with candy and popcorn] 4) Campaign Headquarters for various campaigns 5) The Way Inn [Coffee House Ministry] and 6) A location for church picnics, parties and family fun nights

I have great memories of Park Community Center and the lives touched and changed therein. I thank Dad for hanging in there! I thank him for his faith amidst the naysayers and the gnashing of teeth … the fighting with himself and the wrestling with his God. Dad was a visionary but, as you will find in the letter, being a visionary ain’t always easy because you are seeing what others can’t or won’t see. Enjoy and be blessed.

 

 

The wisdom of my giving the totality of my life to pastoring has been called into question, God!

I seem to be at a cross-roads in my ministry. On the one hand God, I’m pastoring a congregation of good, affluent people – nice folk who are relatively warm, biblically illiterate, cautious in the faith and skeptical about even Your leadership, let alone mine. I can sympathize in part God, for they are also insecure in so many ways due to attempts to overcompensate for their insecurities. But God, I love them. Intimacy frightens them as it does most people.  On the other hand, I am also pastoring a community of alienated, oft times hostile teenagers, whom I also love dearly – this is my Park (Community Center) ministry.

Now, You’ve given me an opportunity to marry the “haves” with the “have-nots”. God, this seems worse than a shotgun wedding! Mission is secondary to the age old bastion of selfishness  and the “what about me/us?” mindset. “If we purchase ‘that property’ (instrument of mission) what will happen to our ‘home’ (Heritage) … we can’t pay for that!”

The recklessness and excitement and challenge to their faith gets no hearing at all. The prayerful deliberation with You seems to not be needed in financial matters – God, they attempt to weigh finances with human lives – and of course You know which wins –

God, open our eyes that we may see the need … to launch out in the depths where the hurt is the greatest – the risk, the costliest … that our dependence upon You might grow to the point where we recognize that it is a necessity – not an appendage.  Are you putting me to a test God? Is this another Baptism by fire?

My patience oft times runs short and I sometimes feel the church is a stumbling block for me. So much energy is wasted fighting dumb battles which have no bearing on ministry and mission at all! Is that the way I’m to spend the rest of my life, God? It hurts. I’m tired – I know You must be tired of us God.

God help me to be still

And listen –

To seek Your counsel –

The wisdom to know the difference

Between my wants and Your demands –

The difference between my people’s fears

And Your warnings.

 

Grant us all openness of mind

A quickening of the spirit-

A sensitivity of the heart

And a restlessness of the soul

That we might become better discerners of Thy Will.

Amen!

 

-Rev. Wendell H. Phillips-

My Name is I AM

In a solitary and somber moment

I was regretting the past

And fearing the future

When suddenly the Lord was speaking …

 

“My Name Is ‘I AM’ “

He paused …

I waited …

Had to be Him

There was no one else in the room

I was momentarily paralyzed … 

Unable to think …

He continued …

“When you live in the past

with its mistakes and regrets

It is hard

I am not there

My name is not ‘I Was’.

 

When you live in the future

with its fear and uncertainty

It is hard

I am not there

My name is not ‘I Will Be’.

 

When you live in this moment

It is not hard

I AM here

My name is ‘I AM’ !”

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

A Call For Leadership


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

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

Growing or Gaming in the Gap?

Growing up in church I would always hear stories about Jesus. “Jesus did this” and “Jesus did that”. Jesus was born in a manger. Jesus made wine out of water. Jesus fed 5,000 folk with a fish and two loaves. Jesus was so bad that He healed somebody … not who He touched but who touched Him! All of the miracles and stories of Jesus’ ministry happened in a period of less than five years. Then we hear of His crucifixion. Theologians and scientists seem to both agree that Jesus died in His early thirties … 33 has been the number that I have heard most consistently. Well here is my question … what the heck happened to Jesus after the manger but before the ministry? What about the teenage years? Did He ever mess up? Did He and His “boys” ever “cameljack” anybody? Did He even have any “boys”? Did He ever step out of bounds? Or was He always aware of His divinity? Though we know how the story ends, we don’t know the whole story because of the gaps in the story.

What? What’s that you say? Too much Jesus for my Jewish brothers? Okay let’s look at Moses.

In the first ten verses of the second chapter of Exodus, we see Moses as a baby set in a basket and sailing down the Nile to safety. Verse eleven begins, “One day, after Moses had grown up …” What?!? Grown up?!? Did he ever mess up? Did he and his “boys” ever “cameljack” anybody? Did he even have any “boys”? Did he ever step out of bounds? Unlike Jesus, Moses’ story lets us in on the fact that he was a little frightened by his divinity at first … he had to grow into it.  Though we know how the story ends, we don’t know the whole story because of the gaps in the story.

And so it is with our lives, no one person knows our whole story. Let me bring it up to date and make it real to ya …

When we send in our resume along with our application seeking employment, we ought to be aware that there are folk in every HR department trained to detect gaps in our employment history. Should we be lucky enough to be called for an interview, we should also expect to be questioned about the gaps for the gaps hold information about us that cannot otherwise be found in the process.

For my young folk who may be lucky enough not to have to work try this one on … it’s 2pm … you call your significant other and tell them that you are walking out of your house on your way to come see them… you live 15 minutes from them… you don’t get to their house until midnight! That gap has got to be explained!

If you’re growing in the gap, becoming aware of your divinity, that’s a good thing and it will show when your story ends. In like fashion, if you’re gaming in the gap … when the story ends … that too will show.

So, how are you filling in the gaps? With growth or game?

Growing or Gaming in the Gap © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips

Standing In The Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography)

1.
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.

2.
…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.

3.
…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.

4.
… 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

Hello World

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