The Common Good
January 2012

Seeing Things Through

by Jason Storbakken | January 2012

Activist pastor Gardener C. Taylor on lessons learned in a long life of faithfully taking the side of the oppressed.

PASTOR AND civil rights activist Gardner C. Taylor has influenced a nation, providing counsel to presidents and leading a movement. Alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and others, he helped establish the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) and served as its second president. In 2011, the PNBC celebrated its 50th year.

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For 42 years, Taylor served as the senior pastor of the historic Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York. The cross street where I live in Brooklyn is named after this iconic man of God. He is 93 years old and still bearing abundant fruit. His most recent book, Faith in the Fire, is a collection of reflections and stories gleaned from his last 60 years in ministry.

Jason Storbakken: You were pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ for more than 40 years. That’s unusual today, when so many move on after three or four years.

Gardner C. Taylor: I think there is a restlessness on the part of pastors and on the part of congregations. They do not seem to be able to settle down for the long haul. It is very important for the pastor to come to know the people and understand the goals and purposes of the people and how they plan to get there. It takes time to learn all of that.

We have many identities—ethnicity, nationality, gender. How should our shared identity in Christ affect our life?

If we understand the dimensions of our identification with Jesus Christ, it gives us a balance and a sense of purpose and the determination to see things through.

You have been called one of the greatest preachers in the English language. What advice would you give to new preachers so that they too may “see things through”?  First, to root himself or herself in both the scriptures and in circumstances around them. I think many of our younger preachers have abandoned their basis in scripture or, to the other extreme, have become exclusively scripture-bound—both of which I think are bad. We need to have the scripture and we need to be employed by the scripture in the community.

What would you say to the seasoned preachers who’ve been ministering for many years? They need to see that the times are changing and have changed, and they need to adjust themselves to the new situation. Things are not what they were, nor should they be.

The other day I went down to Occupy Wall Street ... Good. Good.

Most of the people there are young and white. They seem to be part of the “new poor.” How do we engage those who have been on the margins for much longer? There is a need to train, educate, and propagandize people to know that their situation of poverty is not necessarily permanent—there are possible ways out of it. And they need to participate in those movements that are aimed at redeeming the situation of poverty. People need to be stimulated and need to see possible purpose and possible goals and advantages to them.

What are your feelings regarding the movement for gay and lesbian rights, particularly within the church? The gay and lesbian community is with us. Always was, and it is pronouncedly with us now. They have to be included in our community. Their sexual orientation needs to be respected. We need to move forward.

What advice do you give to young Christian activists in the 21st century? To acquaint oneself with what is happening, why it’s happening, what is the purpose, and how they can participate in advancing the cause of a better community. That comes by conversation—the classroom is well and good, but the job is to get into it. Be active. Passivity will not help us.

What is an important lesson you’ve learned as a pastor, preacher, and civil rights leader? To know what is happening and to participate on the right side of what is happening. The job of intelligent people is to discern what is going on and take the side of those who are oppressed.

You recently published Faith in the Fire, and the PNBC just celebrated its 50th anniversary. What next? Well, I’m 93 years old. There’s not much next for me. [Laughs.] What’s next for me is to see the younger people meet the issues of their time constructively.

Jason Storbakken is cofounder, with his wife, Vonetta, of the Radical Living Christian community in Brooklyn, New York, and chapel director of the Bowery Mission.

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