The work and art of Prophetic Preaching
By Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
The work and art of the preacher is a peculiar enterprise. The preaching artistry of the Black church is underappreciated, often misunderstood, and misinterpreted. The preacher and preaching has been satirized in popular culture and shaded with demonic overtones by literary mavens who do not recognize the depth of intellectual engagement or view it as a discipline, let alone art. Preaching has faced the judgment of academia and the stereotyping of uninformed media mavens masquerading as cultural gatekeepers. Black preaching is a unique preaching form forged by people of African descent who were marginalized by western culture, yet the acoustic creativity continues to go forth.
As a boy, I grew up in a faith community where preaching and the preacher were respected as artists and academics weaving together poetry and pragmatic wisdom for daily living. On Sundays, I witnessed my own father and Pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio shape a new reality with metaphor, poetic rhythm, and intellectual engagement of philosophers. He stood week after week and dialogued with a text while he referenced Howard Thurman, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Heschel, Fanny Lou Hamer, Khalil Gibran, Benjamin Elijah Mays, Constance Baker Motley, and Dorothy Day.
Each Sunday was a full meal of word, current affairs, southern storytelling, and humor. Each week, my father created a message where he struggled with great ideas and challenged us to question the world. He was raised in the segregated south, a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement, an organizer with the Atlanta Sit-In Movement, and a pastor. His theology and preaching introduced me to the importance of blues and jazz to the preaching project.
Black preaching, I believe, is more than preaching in Blackface; it is a unique cultural narrative and theological enterprise where African motifs meet diverse western influences of North America. A beautiful, bold, homiletical voice, poetry, prophetic witness, southern storytelling, lament, blues, and celebration are born out of this tradition.
Before his passing, I spent several consecutive summers with Dr. Fred Craddock, who was, without a doubt, one of North America’s homiletical luminaries. He served as the Bible study teacher and Theologian-in-Residence for the Children’s Defense Fund, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference of Child Advocacy at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee. A bunch of preachers, young and old, gathered daily around the lunch table to ask Dr. Craddock questions. He was gracious with his time and patient with us. I remember him remarking about the importance of Black preaching: “All preachers will do well to study the history, structure, and theology of the preached word that is birthed from the Black church.” It was a quiet, matter-of-fact comment coming from this intellectual giant, but it spoke to the yearning in my heart.
The preaching I heard as a boy and studied as an adult, was not confirmed or ratified by seminaries or western gatekeepers. The preaching I witnessed danced with Lorraine Hansberry, did sets with John Coltrane, flowed with Maya Angelou, and was inspired by Langston Hughes. The preaching I heard seemed to know Amos personally, conversed with Isaiah weekly, and painted a picture of Jesus with such power that the aroma of wine at the wedding of Cana would saturate the air. The diversity of thought, theology, and technique boggled my mind. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jarena Lee, Vernon Johns, Ella Mitchell, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Sandy Ray, Lizzie Robinson, Esther Smith, William Seymour, William Augustus Jones, C.L. Franklin, Miles Jones, Benjamin Elijah Mays, and Prathia Hall. The list goes on beyond the time I have in this brief essay.
It was my dream to introduce this sonic knowledge, mixed with academic rigor, to a new generation of practitioners who were not given the opportunity to listen to these stories and witness the artistry of prophets now gone. The Prophetic Preaching Laboratory was born out of this concern to teach, dialogue, and pass on the legacy of this ancient storytelling tradition. Our world is in deep need of prophets who will reset the moral compass of our nation and inspire the moral imagination of ordinary citizens seeking to reclaim this developing democracy.
The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III is the Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, an Auburn Senior Fellow and Board Member.