Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Memoriam

The democratic primary controversy regarding Barak Obama and his relationship with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, called into question a great deal regarding the Black Church and its influence in the Black Community.

I heard a number of pundits and politicians, unfamiliar with the Black Church, question what took place in the churces whose make-up was predominately African-American. A question which, by the way, is never asked when it comes to contemporary Gospel music, or other forms of worship in the Black church whose design is to make it into the 'mainstream' and is therefore often reduced to entertainment more palatable to a broader audience.

The styles of preaching that have sustained the community are by no means limited to that of Jeremiah Wright, or James Cone as important (yes important) as their contributions are to the life and culture of the African-American Church. There are countless others, both contemporary and historic.

One such figure died recently: Dr. C.A.W. Clark. He passed away on July 27, after 58 years of serving the Good Street Baptist Church, in Dallas, Texas. And his the mark of his ministry upon the church world, African-American and beyond is indelible.

Dr. Ceasar Clark passed away this past Sunday, July 27 and there is emptiness for those of us who belong to the African-American church community. He was so much a part of the church landscape that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine that world without him.

Clark’s phenomenal influence upon the Black Church can be seen in this way: he impacted the substance and style of preaching for more than five decades, while bypassing nearly every medium for mass exposure. He had no radio or T.V. broadcast, no internet out reach. He wrote no books. Yet if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, few were flattered as much.

Ceasar Clark’s predecessor at Good Street, Dr. T.M. Chambers was also a preaching legend. It was the equivalent of W.A. Criswell following George Truett. But Clark was distinct in his preaching and his leadership. He led by inspiration. He was progressive and unthreatened by change, even in his advanced years. One member says, Clark told him, “The one thing about trying new things, is that if they don’t work you can always go back to what you did before.” He led Good Street to ministry in economic empowerment by establishing a credit union, low income housing, and subtle but significant political influence. He was such a respected figure that even among other ministers when his judgment was made known, it was seldom publically questioned.

His was an era when the pastor was a respected figure in the Black community. The interpretation and teaching of scripture was seen as a gift from God that drew great admiration. African-American clergy stood astride two worlds: the familiar world of the descendents of slaves; and the foreign territory of the descendents of slave owners. On one hand respected, admired, loved and sometimes even feared for his apparent closeness to God, on the other acknowledged as the one leader in the Black community who spoke to, if not for, every segment of that community and was seen in that regard as representative.

But as inspirational and innovative as Clark was as a pastor, he was known for his preaching. One member of Good Street probably said it best – he was addicted to preaching.

Clark commanded attention from the outset in the pulpit. In a deliberate drawl, he would announce a sermon title which had congregants begin listening on the edge of their seats: ‘Make this Valley Full of Ditches’; ‘…And the Worms Got Him’; ‘This is a Large Place’.
He would pace himself throughout a message that often became scholarly thesis, citing with poise, and familiarity, philosophers, great works of literature, and theologians. This generous sharing of the intellectual side of faith gave a deeper validity to already committed, while making it difficult for the educated to brush off that faith as pure emotionalism. His preaching was as much respectable craft as it was spiritual conviction.

Clark’s scholarship and erudition gave way to the traditional melodic cadence of the Black Baptist preacher, finally climaxing in escalating octaves and eloquent perorations vividly describing the triumph of Christ at Calvary and the resurrection or the ultimate freedom and vindication of the Second Coming.

As I told a group of preachers whom I helped train when I was a pastor, “I’m sorry you never got a chance to hear him.”

Often Dr. Clark would end a sermon quoting several stanzas of a favorite hymn of the church driving home his point with glorious appropriateness. One song he quoted often seems most fitting now: ‘Servant of God well done, rest from thy love employ. The battle’s fought, the victory’s won. Enter thy Master’s joy.’

Like Jeremiah Wright, this youtube clip doesn't quite due justice to life of his preaching. But it is a sample of the preaching to which we were treated and to which we thrilled for more than five decades...


Keith Brenton said...

Rev. Britt, I appreciate your article in the New Wineskins e-zine, and wish that more people - black and white - were inspired to write and speak with a prophetic voice.

Larry James said...

Powerful tribute, Gerald, as well as an informative commentary on the preaching and ministry of the church set square in the Kingdom of God.