The Day I Almost Met …

GCT

3 GenerationsWhen Grandpa died, most of his books and writings went to my father and after Dad died, most of the books and writings went to his younger brother, Al, and I got what was left. Some years back I found two letters among my grandfather’s collection. One was in a small envelope, the type that usually holds small, personalized handwritten memos of thanks or congratulations and the other was included in Grandpa’s Souvenir Anniversary & Retirement Program. I remember the letters being almost poetic in their flow and perhaps that’s one of the reasons Grandpa kept them. He recognized not only Taylor’s talent but also his commitment to God’s Word and God’s people. Taylor was some 23 years Grandpa’s junior and I am sure each saw a bit of themselves in the other. You will notice the tone of the letter below places the respect and admiration between the two on display in their greeting, “my old and dear friend” and closing , “Cordially, as ever, Gardner Taylor”.

 

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From 1926 to 1938, my grandfather, Rev. Dr. Porter W. Phillips, Sr. was pastor of the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. One short mile away from Brown Memorial was Concord Baptist Church of Christ where Rev. Dr. James B. Adams was pastor and about 15-20 miles away was the Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. at Abyssinian Baptist Church, in Harlem. They were three dynamic preachers ministering to a diverse city through the Great Depression, to a New Deal and beyond. A change of leadership was on the horizon and a new generation of “Joshuas” was waiting in the wings.

In 1938, Grandpa would go on to pastor what became Carrone Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he pastored for 47 years (he retired in August 1985 and died in January 1986), but not before leaving his mark at his first pastorate, Brown Memorial Baptist Church. Under my grandfather’s 12 year leadership the church grew in membership and finances helping to set the stage for Rev. Dr. George W. Thomas who went on to grow and lead Brown Memorial for 35 years. In 1937, Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. stepped into the background and Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. burst onto the spotlight at Abyssinian Baptist. Little more than a decade later, Concord Baptist Church of Christ would call a 29 year old and no less dynamic, Rev. Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor, to help heal and lead the church through the fire both literally and figuratively for the next 42 years.

 

GCT Church Map
Though Grandpa had left the area, New York was still near and dear to his heart. Having served as Secretary and eventually, President of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Greater New York and Vicinity, Grandpa remained close with the ministers in the area. Grandpa had also written a book entitled, “W.W. Brown, Host”, a biography about the life of this former slave, mentor and founding pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, also in Harlem (about a half mile from Abyssinian). It is in this context that he and Dr. Taylor’s “mutual admiration society” began to flourish but what cemented their bond of friendship was a trip to the Holy Land in 1947 just prior to the beginning of Taylor’s tenure at Concord Baptist. The ship set sail for about one month and nearly killed my grandfather who fell deathly ill on the voyage. Though he had lost a tremendous amount of weight he was revitalized almost as soon as he set foot on the land where his savior walked. I can only imagine the conversations they had and the witness they shared on such a life changing trip.

After my dad’s death in 1993, I began to pore through his journals, books, letters and writings as well as those of my grandfather and uncles. I began to pay close attention to the iconic names I read in the world of politics and/or religion and their relationships to members of my family.

As I grew older, whenever possible, I would seek them out and introduce myself. I had some success with the likes of Rev. Dr. Wyatt T. Walker, former Governor of the State of Virginia, Doug Wilder, former Congressmen Julian Bond and Walter Fauntleroy and Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. were good friends of Dad’s with whom I am still in touch with to some small degree. Unfortunately, my meeting of Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor was overshadowed by the fact that he was delivering my father’s eulogy and while I am sure it was beautiful, for me, it was all a blur. However, my father’s only sister, Marie and her husband (my uncle and first Black President of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA), the Rev. Dr. W. Sterling Cary, knew Dr. Proctor quite well and were kind enough to secure for me an autographed copy of his last book, “The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith”, while taking him to the airport after a visit to Chicago.

 

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I am more than certain some couch time and even a rookie therapist would explain my efforts to meet these iconic servants as an attempt to connect or reconnect with my father and grandfather or my uncles who have gone on before me. Somewhere in my subconscious lives the notion that if I can physically touch those who worked “in the vineyard” and shared space with my loved ones … if I could share space and time with those who fought all the battles necessary for me to grow strong enough to fight my own … if I could physically touch those who touched those… who touched me so deeply … if I could continue to uncover more about them then perhaps I could discover more about me.

Just a few short years ago I was excited to learn that two good friends of my father’s and mentors to me, the Rev. Dr. Alfred C.D. Vaughn and the late Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter, Sr. periodically travelled to Durham to visit with Dr. Taylor. I had asked that they let me know the next time they go to visit and they told me they would but I was working in Greensboro and the times they came I was either out of town or engaged in meetings I had no authority to reschedule but as fate would have it, about a year ago a series of events led to my working in Durham, N.C. and while that put me in the right city, I still had no clue as to where Dr. Taylor actually lived. Out of respect, I felt I needed the introduction of my mentors before I went barging in to see Dr. Taylor. Rev. Vaughn said, “Wendell, his body may be worn down but his mind is still sharp as a tack! Just go on in there and tell him who you are and who your grandfather was. I will have my wife call you with the number to his place.”

You know, life has a way of moving at breakneck speed while we are so busy meeting, planning, coordinating and organizing. We are so busy, “getting ready to … commence … to begin … to start” working on something that time and opportunity will often pass us by and all that was once “right on time” becomes “too late”. I had been asked to lead a revival during Holy Week at Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore. For those of you who have never had to lead one, a revival is a lot of work! In the midst of working on that my spiritual father and the pastor who licensed me to preach, the Rev. Dr. Howard Allen Chubbs, lost his battle with cancer. It created a huge void in my life but I still had to prepare for this revival that was now a little more than a week away.

I was honored to be given the opportunity to take part in Rev. Chubbs’ Homegoing service and I thought I would now need the robe I had been meaning to buy for years but procrastination had outsmarted me at every turn. I did attempt to place a rush order but they would need more time than I had to deliver, so I checked to see if I could borrow a robe from some local pastors. One pastor, who collects robes like my Dad collected crosses, came to pick me up and take me to his church to try on a couple. On the way from my job to the church to check out the robes the pastor points and says, “Gardner Taylor lives in that building right there”. The convalescent home was less than three miles from where I worked. I had passed the building going and coming to work for over a year! I was in utter disbelief but pleased that I finally knew where this great man was located. I got the robe and thanked the pastor as he dropped me back by my office.

I should have gone to visit that day … but I didn’t. I needed to get through Rev. Chubbs’ funeral and the revival before going to see the great Gardner Taylor.

A week passed and with the funeral now behind me I went on to Baltimore to visit with Mom and finish preparing for the Holy Week revival. On the first night of the revival, the always supportive Rev. Vaughn was in attendance and I told him, from the pulpit, I had finally found where Dr. Taylor lives and that it was only about 3 miles from my job and that I was going to see him as soon as I got back in town, which would be Easter Monday. I finished the revival on Wednesday, continued to enjoy visiting with my mother on Thursday and left to return to Greensboro on Friday afternoon. Easter Sunday was bittersweet as it was the first Easter in almost 50 years that Rev. Chubbs wouldn’t be there but just a few miles away, God was busy making preparations.

After rising to go to church on Easter Sunday morning and having dinner with his wife that evening, Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor went on to join that “great cloud of witnesses” on Easter Sunday evening. On this particular Resurrection Sunday not only did Jesus rise to be with The Father but He took Gardner Taylor along with Him. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1999, Dr. Taylor said almost prophetically, “poetry must insert itself at times where prose will not speak”. Now, tell me, how poetic is that?

Well done, good and faithful servant, well done!

Right Thing. Wrong Place, Wrong Time.

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It was a few years ago when I first saw a this picture. It is a single frame from a video of an ordinary baseball game. The focal points are the pitcher, the batter and the bird. Yes, the bird. The explosion of white that could be misconstrued as a puff of smoke is actually, or was actually, a bird. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s interesting here is the bird is both the “victim” and the one “at fault”.

As bad as we may feel for the bird the truth is everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing where and when they were supposed to be doing it, except the bird. The batter was in the batter’s box batting, the pitcher was on the pitcher’s mound pitching and the bird was in the air flying… albeit far too low.

Life is like that for us at times. Being where we are supposed to be, doing what we are called to do can be difficult to discern if we don’t stay in close contact with the God who called us. And, by the way, being called doesn’t mean we won’t meet tough times but know that it is far better to be walking in God’s Will than flying outside of it.

There are quite a few baseball teams named after birds but birds weren’t created to play baseball and they certainly weren’t built to withstand the impact of a 90 mph fastball. Yes, the bird was doing what it was created to do but it wasn’t doing it where it was supposed to be doing it!

Sometimes we know what we are called to do but outside forces lure us off course and we become disconnected from God who has called us. When that happens we do one of two things: 1) find ourselves acting out of season or 2) like the bird in the picture, find ourselves out of position.

There is nothing worse than knowing what you are called to do and not being where God needs you to be when you are supposed to be there. The consequence/s can be devastating. Stay in tune. Stay in touch. Choose to be blessed!

Come Thirsty, My Friends!

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Whether we are drinkers or not, most of us have seen the commercial for the beer where the actor ends each spot with the tag line, “Stay thirsty my friends.” Well, I was thirsty. So, while trying to do right by my body and drink more water, I filled up my water bottle with some cold H2O. At times I take quick sips while others require long gulps; today is already a long gulp kind of day. I could contain the water in the bottle and direct into my mouth and as the water gathered in the back of my throat I swallowed. That was the limit of my control.

I could feel the water parting, coursing through both the left and right sides of my body. I didn’t know where the water was going or what it was doing. I couldn’t tell the water to go to my heart or parcel out equal percentages to my liver, kidneys or other organs. The water went where it was supposed to go and did what it was supposed to do.

When I had finished drinking and the water had finished its travel through my body … responding to where it needed to go … a message was sent to my brain that my thirst had been quenched. I could continue on.

There is something else that moves like water … a living water … that seeks its own level … can’t be directed … but wherever it goes is exactly where it is needed and try as we might, just like water, we can’t live without it – the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Whether you are going through the difficulty of trying times or the exuberance that accompanies the best of times … you will get thirsty and you will need to be refreshed. Take the time. Drink it in. Choose to be blessed.

Cuban. Crisis?

Some may be surprised but I, for one, am not mad at Mark Cuban. I am neither Cuban fan nor detractor but his comments and our reaction to those comments deserve examination. Cuban was open, honest and true to himself. And while we’re being honest, his “crossing the street” statement merely described the behavior of many people – Black, white and other. I agree Cuban’s “hoodie” reference was insensitive at best but he recognized and apologized for it in hindsight. Some will choose to park the focus of their argument here but to do so skirts the issue.

The media will seek to sit Mark Cuban on the same bench with Don Sterling but their game isn’t the same. Both Cuban and Sterling were speaking in a seemingly relaxed and controlled setting. They were under no pressure to say the “right” thing. Cuban spoke his mind and Sterling was obviously out of his. Sterling never expected his words to be heard outside of where they were spoken, while Cuban’s words sought no such confinement.

I do not believe Cuban is racist but he is prejudiced. Which makes him just like the rest of us, although given the background of a number of players on the team he owns, one might think Cuban would be more aware than most of the dangers and fallacy of such broad statements. However, if we really want to work at the eradication of racism, prejudice, bigotry and all things related then we must allow people the space to be honest and to grow. We must sanctify safe spaces where people can speak freely without judgment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQFs462MvXc

America has been infected with a terminal case of prejudice for a long time; I dare say since it’s inception. It manifests itself as bigotry, racism and all things related. Cuban’s words come from a mind tainted with the residue left by years of the social construction we have come to know as racism; that system of beliefs that values or devalues people on sight. It is an illness that many refuse to recognize as such, especially since the election of Barak Obama to the office of President of the United States. Many believe we now live in a “post-racial society” and I say there is no such animal. Can we ever get there? Prayerfully, but not without doing the work and not without open and honest conversation.

Cuban was direct and honest. I appreciate his honesty because now there is something with which to work; I know what to focus on to correct his thinking or at least to give it pause … and perhaps next time he will think differently when he sees a Black guy in a hoodie or a white guy with a bunch of tats. Cuban described his behavior when he saw certain Black and white folk.

Mark Cuban painted a picture and revealed for us at least two things he considers dangerous or frightening. If we look past how he chose to say it, Cuban’s words reveal his truest concern and the most basic human instinct: self-preservation. How can he stay safe while walking the streets? Well that’s a conversation we all could be interested in, right? Right! But before we have that conversation we need to address the flaws and stereotypes that riddle his (and our) thoughts.

If we continue to attack those who are simply speaking their truths then people will stop speaking altogether. They will harbor their truths internally and those truths will manifest in thoughts that become actions, lies that produce laws and perversions the become policies conceived in fearful minds. Let’s work at meeting folk who are stumbling in the dim light of ignorance and walk with them toward enlightenment.

If we want to help change the world in which we live let’s work at creating safe spaces to be honest without judgment for each who care to understand all; that is, if you truly believe changing the world is a cause worth your while.

Speak Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Halls of the Hospital

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This summer’s ordeal with Clarke’s eye injury was interesting for many reasons. Clarke’s amazing display of maturity in the face of uncertainty and discomfort was one reason. All of the waiting, shuffling and shuttling from the Urgent Care center, to the Emergency Room, to the Pediatric ward for subsequent exams, was another. When all was said and done, Clarke had endured more than any parent would want their child to experience including a CAT scan and a visit to the Ophthalmologist for a final opinion. A few thousand dollars and day-and-a-half later, Clarke was on the mend, all thanks be to God, and I began to observe and reflect.

For me, hospitals have always been interesting places. I remember accompanying my father when he would visit sick family members, parishioners, folk he knew from the neighborhood or elsewhere in the community he happened to hear were sick; fellow clergyman, political constituents and the like. There were even occasions when people who had no known church affiliation would holler out into the hallway and ask if he would come and pray with them. As an older teen, I was Dad’s chauffeur and personal assistant; his “body man”, if you will. But when I was a young tyke, I would sit in the designated waiting area and if it wasn’t a terribly busy time, I would be entertained in fits and snatches by members of the nursing staff.

To me, the hospital was the equalizer. Unlike churches, hospitals weren’t among the most segregated places in a city at that time. And, if truth be told, I would say there was more fervent prayer in the hospital, on any day, than in many a church … even on Easter Sunday. The hospital was that place where people of all colors, creeds and religions would go seeking a remedy for whatever ailed them. Some would pray to God while others, who never prayed before, would pray hoping there was one.

Whether they were sick or recuperating, in some emergent need or undergoing a battery of tests to keep tabs on those pesky symptoms, the hospital was either the first line of defense or the last stand for people of every background. The circle of life, with its perfect rhythm and syncopated beats, both began and ended here. And no matter which, families were forever changed.

As Clarke and I moved from station to station I remembered my younger years moving through hospitals with my father. While I was just as quiet and observant now as I was back then, I was also much more aware; though I was still an emotional magnet.

The discomfort of those being wheeled from room to room; the moans of those being carted in and out of the elevators … it was all so palpable. For this reason, each time I cross a hospital’s threshold I work at making it my practice to utter a silent prayer for all who find themselves in the hospital; the patients, the doctors, the caretakers and the family members of each patient. No matter the reason, every patient, every family, every life is being altered in some way in a hospital. God is working overtime in a hospital. True, God always works overtime but it is so much easier to see – should you ever take time to notice – in the halls of the hospital.

By God’s Grace, I was afforded the comfort of knowing that Clarke would be ok. Her injuries were nowhere near life threatening or even life altering beyond her time of recuperation. But I never lost sight of the fact that there were those I “met” spiritually that day – if only in the brief moment our eyes locked – whose lives would, indeed, be altered.

As I was finishing this piece I learned of an old friend, Levonne Garvin, who was the passenger in a tragic motorcycle accident. According to news reports, a crossover vehicle crossed over the double yellow lines, struck the motorcycle head on and both vehicles burst into flames. Levonne was flown by helicopter to a shock trauma hospital where she later died. She was just 50 years old. She was a mother and she was a friend to many. I thank God for our paths having crossed and her wonderfully vibrant spirit and zest for life.

So I ask that we all remember life is just as fragile as it is precious. It can be altered (for better or worse) or ended in the blink of an eye. Transitions are happening as you read this … on roads, in homes or on battlefields in foreign lands. And yes, even in hospitals. Some too soon, and yet, others not soon enough when we think of those enduring great pain and discomfort.

I am grateful to God that Clarke will be ok; I can only hope that God’s Angels snatched Levonne’s soul to Heaven before she knew any pain. I pray God continues to watch over and comfort those with sorrowed eyes – like those that locked with mine – as I moved through the halls of the hospital.

On Words

On Words

 

I have no recollection of when it actually happened. In fact, as far back as I can remember, there was no one “moment” that moved me to this place but, the truth is, I love to write. I suppose that on some subconscious level I was always aware of words and the power they possess.

When I was a child my father would pick me up from school and we would go to the church where his office was housed. His office was full of books. The walls were filled with books that sat upon crude, do-it-yourself shelving that had warped and bowed from the weight of the volumes. The shelves rested upon narrow metal brackets with small slots that were anchored, or sometimes not, to the wall.

On the spaces of the wall that weren’t covered with books were framed pictures and posters of some of the authors whose works sat on the shelves; people who played a significant role not only in my thoughts but also in the progression of human or civil rights around the world: Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey P. Newton, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Parren J. Mitchell, Joseph C. Howard, W.E.B. DuBois, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Dad’s older brother Channing Phillips, Bobby Kennedy, Eldrige Clever, Angela Davis and two relatively famous Harry Anderson prints, “Prince of Peace” and “Christ of the City”.

I remember hating to read because it just seemed to take so long. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again (just messin’ with ya). Ironically, I remember beginning to enjoy writing in the fifth grade . At that stage , Mr. John Schmick, encouraged me to write and to do so creatively without much regard for factual boundary.

I loved the way words would play in my mind. How “united” things could in a moment become “untied”. Just by the shifting of an “i” you could exchange unity for chaos. You had the ability to be “nowhere” or “now here”. Depending on how you choose to use your space, you could convey how you saw yourself in the world. I liked the way some words were virtually self defining in their spelling. For instance, did you ever notice how “evil” is to “live” backwards? Or how well-balanced the word “level” is on either side of the “v”?

I guess I have loved and respected words for most of my life. The power they wield is unsurpassed and I suppose that makes sense … after all, “in the beginning was the Word …”