In the late 1970s, I was a not-yet-30-year-old pastor with four or five years of grassroots ordained experience under my belt. I was serving a congregation of fewer than 50 members in south-central Los Angeles, in a converted restaurant located in a community whose racial makeup was rapidly transitioning. Whites had long since made their flight from the economically declining neighborhood to points westward, seeking enclaves of homogeneity.
A once-striving class of African-Americans was also giving way to a new influx of coping- and crisis-class Hispanic immigrants. Culturally, the idealism of the Civil Rights Movement was being replaced by bitter cynicism. For many African-Americans, dreams deferred were much like a raisin in the sun, beginning to fester and rot. Lyndon Johnson’s vision of The Great Society was changing and preparing the way for Ronald Reagan’s theory of trickle-down economics.
Christendom was in decline. The hot new book was Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.
Among the questions on my mind back then:
–Are there more legitimate ways to measure ministry success than the size of the brick-and-mortar structures where “church” happened, or the number of bodies in the pew, or the amount of money contributed on Sunday morning?
–What is the nature of the gospel for people who have everything? For those who have nothing?
–How does one constructively address the angst and anger of a people whose human dignity and basic human rights have been consistently denied and dismissed?
–Is there a biblically based Christian alternative to an overly privatized, personalized and pietistic religiosity that all too often smacks of patriarchy and paternalism?
I began to get some answers to these questions, not through reading theological and sociological treatises, but through an encounter with a person: the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif.
Even in the late 1970s, J. Alfred Smith was a towering prophetic figure. He was combating police brutality in East Oakland, registering people to vote, building housing for the poor and elderly and breaking bread with hippies with waist-length hair, militants with swaying Afros, anti-war activists, labor organizers and homeless neighbors. His preaching was powerful and transformative, known for rejecting both a Lord-less liberalism and a cross-less, heartless conservatism.
I invited J. Alfred Smith to come to Los Angeles and lead a three-day revival in the spring of 1979. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, Dr. Smith preached to those 30 or 40 folks as though he were preaching to thousands of people. He spoke with the same fervor and passion as when he addressed the United Nations regarding issues about South Africa in 1978, or when he preached before the Progressive National Baptist Convention as its president.
Souls were converted that night, certainly to Jesus Christ and just as certainly to become repairers of the breach, restorers of paths to dwell in (Isaiah 58:12, paraphrased).
In this opening decade of the 21st century, many of the questions and concerns of that once-young pastor still remain. Looming as large today is the question, whence cometh the prophet?
In this age of prosperity ideology and preaching, where are the contemporary prophets, and how do we undergird them for passionate engagement with the issues of our day in an increasingly hostile environment?
It is with these questions in mind that we launched Speak Until Justice Wakes, the J. Alfred Smith Sr. Prophetic Justice Institute, earlier this year. Our specific goal is to prepare a new generation of leaders for prophetic ministry–leaders who will enable the church to be an instrument of God’s will in the 21st century.
It is our intention to do this by deepening spirituality within a tradition of prayer and attention to Christian discipleship. Our vision is to attract and empower hundreds of lay and clergy prophetic leaders at the second J. Alfred Smith Institute, to be held Oct. 13-14, 2008, in Oakland, Calif., in cooperation with Allen Temple Baptist Church and the American Baptist Seminary of the West.
Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III is executive director of National Ministries, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. This column appeared previously in The Christian Citizen, a publication of National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.