Telling The Future Story of America Through Prophetic Preaching
By Rev. John Vaughn
Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III doesn’t simply tell stories. He builds them out of materials available to the prophetic preacher.
Prophetic preaching, especially within the Black Church, is the act of telling a story that has the power to transform the future story of America. Dr. Moss draws on the power of past prophets, both biblical and modern, to allow his congregation to imagine a more just future, one where God’s justice reigns on earth as in heaven.
Over the past year, Auburn Seminary has partnered with Dr. Moss, a Senior Fellow at Auburn and Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, to pilot the Prophetic Preaching Lab.
The Prophetic Preaching Lab is focused on building the preaching capacities of emerging African-American clergy to embody the prophetic mandate that speaks truth to power, brings congregations into the story, and makes congregants protagonists as they create solutions to the challenges of systematic inequality.
As Dr. Moss explains:
“The Prophetic Preaching Lab places social justice rooted millennial ministers in conversation with elders of the freedom struggles to share oral history and the undocumented cultural theology of the Black religious tradition. This year, Howard Thurman, mentor and teacher of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was chosen as the intellectual catalyst for the inter-generational dialogue.”
Dr. Thurman was a spiritual advisor to Dr. King and his commitment to nonviolence and community building served as a guiding vision for civil rights activism in the 1960s. It continues to provide much-needed inspiration for our time.
Learn it by living it.
Prophetic preachers listen deeply to the stories that shape their contexts, find relevance and inspiration within the biblical narratives, and retell the stories of their communities, weaving together a new narrative vision to create a new reality.
In December, the Prophetic Preaching Lab gathered leaders from around the nation in Sarasota, Florida, for the second gathering of the Lab. We were inspired by the stories that shaped Dr. Moss, whose parents Edwina and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., met on staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The couple was married by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and studied under Howard Thurman. Throughout their ministry, the Moss family has led congregations in the fight for civil rights.
Also part of the gathering was Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. Edelman’s enduring work through the Children’s Defense Fund still provides legal protection for children of color today. Dr. Wright Edelman was an organizer in Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign (1968).
Dr. Wright-Edelman’s take on prophetic preaching is clear:
“If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time.”
That call to change “the way the world is” is being taken up this year by another of Auburn’s Senior Fellows, Rev. Dr. William Barber III. As co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Barber uses his own prophetic preaching to highlight the human impact of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and environmental devastation.
What we need now.
The root of prophetic preaching is a challenge to dismantle unjust power systems so that they can be rebuilt upon the Divine mandates of justice and compassion. Just as prophetic preaching inspired many in the Black Church and other faith traditions during the Civil Rights era, the moment we are in now demands prophetic preaching that shines God’s spotlight on legal and cultural policies that push any of our communities to the margins.
At its best, prophetic preaching speaks to the heart, the head, and the soul all at the same time. It is a style rooted in both authenticity and a political and social analysis, and it must be articulated clearly and concisely.
As Auburn deepens its commitment to serving communities and leaders of color, we are grateful for Dr. Moss’s leadership and for the leadership of our partners in the Prophetic Preaching Lab experiment, David and Lisa Grain.
David and I were schoolmates at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in the mid-to-late 1980s, he worked with me to encourage individuals to invest in faith-rooted work in East Harlem. We believe it’s critical to hear people’s stories of struggle and success wherever they’re living and working. In Chicago, Mississippi, Alabama, Harlem, and Washington, D.C., stories build bridges across difference. It is an honor to bring the power of these stories to the work of equipping leaders who will move the Black Church and all of America forward together.
In the coming months, we will explore how to continue to support this first cohort of the Prophetic Preaching Lab and find new ways to write and tell the future stories of African-American leaders, both in churches and in the world.
To learn more about the Prophetic Preaching Lab or any of Auburn’s programs, sign up for our newsletter below or write to us at [email protected].
Rev John Vaughn is Executive Vice President at Auburn Seminary.