Dialogues with Harlem Heritage: A Church’s Prophetic Voice in the Context of Diversity
I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by three men with hoodies in church yesterday. My shoulders tensed for a few moments. Growing up in New York City, I’ve been groomed in paranoia and 20/20 peripheral eyesight. Yet after taking a second look, I smiled as I admired the theater props: Three hooded figures containing the faces of Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Trayvon Martin, with a caption reading, “We are Trayvon Martin.”
Metro Hope Church meets weekly at Harlem’s National Black Theater, so our church gatherings can often be a dance in improvisation as we’re frequently welcomed by new sets. One summer we were greeted by a gigantic “tree” protruding from center stage. It made this preacher’s imagination run vivid with all sorts of sermon possibilities.
But the hooded figures that greeted me last Sunday were a tribute to Trayvon Martin called, Facing our Truth: 10 Minute Plays on Race and Privilege. This month also happens to be the month that Trayvon Martin was born, and a month for celebration of Black History. These convergences do not escape me, nor does the distinct mission of our church in Harlem.
No stranger to dialogue on race and privilege, our church will often reflect on Dr. King who once lamented, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America … 11:00 on Sunday morning …we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
Sunday mornings are reflected differently in our church, thankfully. We have African-Americans worshipping together with Latinos, Asians, and Whites. Race is something we discuss openly, making it integral to our church’s mission of reconciliation. This message of reconciliation is present in our preaching, infused in our dialogues, and we’re mindful of it as we gather around the Lord’s Table.
And we honor our small community within Harlem’s historic fabric. As Harlem gentrifies we are curators of the activist impetus that nurtured the wonderful writings of Langston Hughes, the efforts of Puerto Rico-born, Arturo Schomburg, a preservationist of black culture, and the American tradition of jazz, with its European and African influences in dialogues. Not forgotten are those smoky lounges of the Harlem Renaissance where people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds came together over this musical form.
We are grafted into Harlem’s dialogue where historic spaces like Abyssinian Church maintain the tradition of the prophetic pulpit connecting the gospel to the social dimensions of life; threading a gospel of liberation with human uplift; proclaiming truth with an urgency not dictated by consumer forces; a church that remains a dialogical space where the realities of faith and our world are not separate or escapist.
In light of Harlem’s tradition, like many others preachers, I am left with my own dialogue:
“How do we talk about race and privilege in a way that is unifying?”
“Why don’t we just focus on three steps to happiness?”
“How does a church grow if people don’t always feel ‘comfortable’ on Sunday mornings?”
“ … Oh heck, maybe we should just have more potlucks.”
Pulpits across our country were faced with a similar dialogue on July 13 after the George Zimmerman verdict. I was on a mini sabbatical at the time. Like many, I felt the shock and polarization that followed the verdict.
The next morning I received a call from my brother, Stephen. Stephen was scheduled to preach that Sunday morning. Stephen also happens to be white.
“Hey Jose, do you still want me to preach?”
“Well … we gotta address it, Stephen … can’t do church as usual.”
We prayerfully decided Stephen would preach that day. Stephen and I have a strong and perhaps naive belief in the power of God’s beloved community.
Before Stephen gave his sermon I had someone read a letter I penned to the church. Here’s an excerpt:
Dr. King’s legacy was not just about racial progress but human uplift … He was seeking fellow prophets from beyond the black community who would name the injustices of the day … I continually say, “brown people are expected to speak about diversity and controversy.” Yet some of the most healing and reconciling moments for us have been when our white brothers and sisters raised the clarion call for justice. Indeed, this was part of Dr. King’s dream, too.
Stephen preached a message of healing and lament, a message of solidarity in suffering, a message of the Cross of Christ. It remains a continuing dialogue today, and perhaps a good reflection from our pulpits during the upcoming season of Lent.
As our churches strive to become those “beloved communities,” we remember a Christ who became conversant with the desolation of a wilderness experience, and the pain of the cross so our world could be tethered to Heaven, here and now.
Indeed it’s an eternal dialogue where many tribes and tongues through out history continue to proclaim his holy name.
The Rev. José Humphreys is a faith organizer, and pastor of Metro Hope Covenant Church, a multi-ethnic church movement in East Harlem, NYC. José remains committed to shalom-making in NYC, through facilitating conversation across social, economic, cultural and theological boundaries.
Image: Beloved community illustration, urtcan / Shutterstock.com