The Prophetic Preaching Lab annually invites emerging Black Christian leaders to an intensive and immersive learning experience to explore the traditions and practices of Prophetic Preaching in the Black Church.
Under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the prophetic preachers delve into the stories that shape their contexts, find relevance and inspiration within biblical and public narratives, and retell the stories of their communities, weaving together a new vision that articulates and proclaims a reality rooted in love and justice.
The following piece is a collection of stories and inspirations that shape the Lab.
The African-American visionaries of the Civil Rights Movement greats like Howard Thurman: “Words can move like balls of fire. A light has never been.”
Fannie Lou Hamer: “These are the things that we go through in the state of Mississippi just trying to be treated like a human being.”
And Sandy Ray: “When you’re called to preach, your life becomes a mission.”
Spoke truth to power they use words to foster change.
Today 50 years later a new generation of Black leadership is stepping up to the mic.
My name is Dr. Otis Moss III and I am the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in partnership with Auburn Seminary I had the honor of bringing together a cohort of some of today’s most dynamic African-American ministers to meet elders of the freedom struggle and take part in a prophetic preaching laboratory in Sarasota Florida.
Prophetic preaching for those who are not familiar is using stories of the past, Biblical and historical, to imagine a more just and compassionate future. It’s about using the sonic power of the Black church to help change the future story of America. This is how I started the seminar.
“It has always been a kind of a dream to have this opportunity to bring together sisters and brothers who are committed to ministry and to pass on stories that I heard growing up.
I don’t want to be a spiritual hoarder. I want to make sure that everybody has the same stories because they were a blessing to me. And it has just been an honor and a privilege to have you all gather here for this and to hear stories from some of the great storytellers and those who have walked a path that has opened doors for all of us in this space.”
Among the great storytellers at this year’s inaugural laboratory was my father Otis Moss Jr. My father was born in truth County Georgia and was a lieutenant in the civil rights movement working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He’s a pastor theologian and activist. Here, he recalls the time when a Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth publicly embarrassed Eugene Bull Connor, then Director of Public Safety in the city of Birmingham Alabama, knocking him off his proverbial racialized pedestal.
“Some of these back stories. In the movement. And one that I like to tell. Is the time that Reverend Shuttlesworth acted as his own attorney. He knew that if he acted as his own lawyer it would give him the authority to summon Bull Connor. To court as a witness although he was a hostile witness.But he had to come.
Sitting in the witness chair was sworn in. Reverend Shuttlesworth stood up with his legal pad. Nothing written on it.
‘Will the witness please restate his name?’ And Bull Connor hesitated. Reverend Shuttleswoth turned to the judge, ‘Your Honor would you please instruct the witness to answer my question?’
Judge, ‘you have to answer this question.’
‘My name is Eugene T. Connor.’
‘What does the T. stand for?’
He hesitated again. ‘Your Honor would you please… Instruct the witness to answer my question. Judge?’
‘You have the anchors question.’
‘Eugene Theophilus Connor.’
And it went on through that and Reverend Shuttlesworth lost the case which he knew it first. But. The court room was packed. No seats available, standing room only.
Black folk. When the case was over even the folks who didn’t go to court said, ‘Man you should have seen that Shuttlesworth. I was there.’
It spread. The news spread to the beauty shops the barber shop the pool room. Bull Connor ain’t so bad.
‘You should have seen him when Shuttlesworth got through with it. He was so nervous. They had to take him out of the court.’
Well that was an exaggeration. But what he did in that moment was demystify Bull Connor and reduced him to a single sinful person.
And then when they had the massive meeting I’m quoting now. Shuttlesworth stands up and said ‘I want you to know Bull Connor is no longer a bull he’s just steer.’
So you combine hope and humor. Generate a spirit of courage and determination. That sustained the movement. And then you start singing ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.’
So then when you meet Bull Connor again you know that you are a child of God. And here is a sinner in need of salvation.”
Another powerful voice who offered stories from the civil rights movement was attorney and activist Dr. Marian Wright Edelman.
“There was a big wreck in front of our church. We lived on Centeral highway and we all went out in the middle of the night and it turned out it was a migrant family that was black that had collided with a white truck truck driver, two white truck drivers.
The ambulances came they saw all the black folk lying there in the street. But they saw that the white truck drivers were not injured and they turned around in the ambulance and they left those people lying on the highway.
I never forgot that in my mind. Even though we always had books in our house and reading we would always have books because we had a second pair of shoes. I always went up to the public library to try to get in and I would they didn’t let me in but I could not you know stop protesting. In fact at a protest when I was about 5 at my public school teacher took me up to the Belk department store. And I didn’t know anything about black and white water.
And I went to drink some water I’m a white water fountain and she jerked me her way and I was I didn’t know what was wrong. And she said you can’t drink there. I didn’t know why, she told me. And I took my little wounded psyche home and told my parents who told me it wasn’t my fault, that it was the external world. That we could do something about it when I got to be a little bigger. But I didn’t want to wait until I got a little bigger. So one of my little first causes of rebellion was to go and shift the black and white water fountains sign so that people would drink out of the ‘wrong’ one. “
This year’s seminar wasn’t just about legends sharing unforgettable back porch stories. It was about passing the baton, about the next generation soaking up narratives. Listening. Identifying for themselves new tools to incorporate into their practices. This is Damaris Whitaker Senior Minister at Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York.
“The guiding principle of prophetic ministry is getting that additional vote. All the time against evil.
So whether we’re working toward sanctuary. We’re trying to give that one more vote against evil.
If we’re working against gun control we’re trying to get that one more vote against evil.
If we are working against mass incarceration we’re working to get one more vote. Against evil.”
I try to use these ideas in my own preaching practice by using history and folk narrative, I strive to craft new narratives in which the congregants co-labor with God to dismantle unjust systems.
During my Martin Luther King Jr. Day sermon this year, put this strategy to work. A portion of the congregants here at Trinity United Church of Christ are Haitians and when they heard the horrific words flowing from the mouth of the commander in chief they were spiritually scarred. It was my role as preacher, teacher, and prophetic clarifier to clarify the true history of our community.
“Cause if you knew your history you wouldn’t know that the first free African nation in the Western Hemisphere was in Haiti and a gentleman by the name of Toussaint Louverture who lead that revolution.
And because of that revolution he was able to free people from the colonialism of the French. But he did not stop there.
They also freed those in Venezuela and in Ecuador but do not forget when America was asking for help.
When they were fighting against the British in 1776. It is our Haitian brothers and sisters who came to our aid.”
It was my task to create a new story here I try to explain this idea in the seminar:
“Power of story story is the one way that we imprint tradition upon people. That’s how you pass on a tradition. You don’t pass on tradition by giving data, you pass on tradition by telling the story. So when Jesus wants to pass a tradition that we still practice, he tells a story.
The beauty of stories is that stories are memetic in other words they are viral.”
When closing out the seminar spoke about how prophetic preaching has the potential to transform our churches and our society.
“Hopefully these kinds of conversations will become viral where you’ll host one and you’ll host one and you’ll host one. And before we know it you know 20, 30 years we look down and all of a sudden we have a different narrative of what we’re talking about. That we honestly are going back to the heart and the core of our tradition and of our faith. Where Jesus gets to be center all of a sudden we start talking about compassion and love all of a sudden again.
Thank you for listening to this showcase of the inaugural prophetic preaching laboratory. This lab would not have been possible without the support of Alborn seminary and David and Lisa Grain. To learn more about similar events, please visit AuburnSeminary.org