By Aaron Weaver
During the inaugural New Baptist Covenant gathering in January, 2008, I attended the special session on prophetic preaching and had the opportunity to hear sermons from several great Baptist pulpiteers. Sitting in the crowd, a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., caught my attention. “When we are committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, when we are anointed by God to preach and teach the Gospel — you don’t have to look for suffering, it will come to you in due time,” Moss preached.
I returned home from the New Baptist Covenant and read up on Dr. Moss. I learned that Moss knew suffering well. As a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Moss fought Jim Crow with nonviolence. He led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and marched for voting rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma and Washington, D.C. He was jailed a few times too.
After two decades in the ministry, Moss became pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1975. Thirty-three years later in 2008, he retired from Olivet, which had become of the largest congregations in Cleveland and known for its commitment to civil rights and social justice. Ebony Magazine has twice named Moss as one of America’s greatest Black preachers and Yale University honored him with the Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching in 2004.
An adviser to President Carter at Camp David and special guest of President Clinton at the peace treaty signing between Israel and Jordan, Moss was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame for his civil rights ministry here in the United States and around the world.
At the recent New Baptist Covenant Summit held Nov. 21-22 in Decatur, Ga., Moss was the featured speaker. There, at the summit, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Moss over breakfast. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
You have had several notable mentors. How did these mentors shape you and your ministry?
Number one, great mentors play a preventive role and a developmental role, not in the scientific sense, but in terms of shaping your own paradigm. I am sure there are great mistakes that I might have made and that we might have made, if we had not had the opportunity to literally converse with a Daddy King, a Dr. King, a Dr. [Benjamin] Mays.
Nonviolence became a cause of mine and my foundational belief through mentors. The path I took in the Civil Rights Movement was shaped by mentors. My mentors [helped me] view racism morally and through a logical principle…that we all have a role in overcoming racism, but we can overcome it both with legislation and through a moral commitment by way of and through nonviolence, which is, in my belief, the way of Jesus Christ. So, my mentors helped me to see the problem [of racism] and the direct relationship of what we preach and teach on Sunday with what we practice and walk and talk on Monday through Saturday.
Here is an excerpt from your sermon at the first New Baptist Covenant gathering in 2008. “Prophetic preaching is dangerous and can get you killed. Prophetic preaching is not necessarily safe but it is saving.” What does prophetic preaching look like?
I think prophetic preaching ought to begin with “Thus saith the LORD.” But that should not be surface. What is that message? What does it do to me? What does it mean for all humankind? Prophetic preaching is something that the New Baptist Covenant adopted. If you look at the 61st chapter of Isaiah, reintroduced in Luke 4, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, he has anointed me to preach the Gospel, to set the captives free, to open the eyes of the blind and to proclaim the year of Jubilee, which began with freedom.
I think that ought to be the core of our preaching and teaching from Alpha to Omega.
It was prophetic preaching that created the nonviolent movement in Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, Nashville, Tallahassee and a dozen other places. Even the students that were involved in the student movement — whether they acknowledged it or knew it or not — were really disciples of the prophetic gospel. And in the early days, in our days of the student movement, when you looked at our messages, our songs, our actions and our behavior, all of it is anchored in the prophetic gospel.
Imagine young people ranging from 17-to-24 years-old, all vowing to bring about significant change even if it cost their lives and willing to suffer, going to jail with their chemistry and biology books and philosophy and sociology texts and New Testament readings in their hand, and determined to continue a path of academic excellence and also present their bodies as a living sacrifice.
I can imagine that. But, I’m not sure I can fully grasp that context.
It’s probably the difference between — you went to Baylor — watching the game and participating in the game. Now, there is a sense of involvement if you are a dedicated fan — and I was not an athlete — but all of my friends who came away Saturday with scars and yet feeling fulfilled. It’s a lot different between being in that phase and being in the grandstand.
However, we should never underestimate the role of the attendee and how they impact it, and how the game impacts them.
“Everyone is eternally obligated to grapple with great ideas.” That’s a nugget from one of your sermons. What great ideas are you currently grappling with?
That really is a quote paraphrased from Dr. Howard Thurman, another mentor. The greatest idea that I think has been deposited in my life is God is love and love is of God and whoever does not love, does not know God.
And we might start with that Bible verse, but when we allow that to use us and allow it to become the guiding principle of all that we teach, say or do, we spend the rest of our lives grappling with what it means to be totally committed to a God of Love — not a God of entertainment, not a feel-good God. The feel-good ought to be the overflow and not the intent.
So, if one is to ask these questions — what is truth? What does it mean to be redeemed in love? What is profound forgiveness? What is the relationship between love and justice? And what happens when we separate the two? Is it possible to build a community on the principles of love, justice and reconciliation? And what happens when we do? What happens when we do not? Those are the kinds of questions that I’ve been grappling with.
In your sermons, you have preached about the need to have a vocabulary of love and justice. With all the incivility in society, this strikes me as something we very much need.
That vocabulary should be developed in the cradle. Before you were born, there was a play on Broadway called South Pacific with a song that said: You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.
And if we’re not taught to love, we’re almost by definition taught to hate. It doesn’t mean that you are going to hold a hate class. And if you don’t teach love, you are by the very deficit, teaching hate — because you are leaving a void that hate fills.
After marching from Selma to Montgomery and fighting for the Voting Rights Act, here in 2013, is it disheartening to know that voting rights are an issue again?
In Texas, you can use your National Rifle Association ID but you can’t use your student ID. Now, I believe that’s not only immoral but it ought to be illegal. And we have to work to make it illegal.
In terms of being disheartened or discouraged — YES. But, as you well know, it is not new for people to drift back into old habits. Getting out of the Egypt of oppression is not easy and people do not give up the trappings of oppression through generations. How can I put it? You can correct some things, but if human beings are in charge of mechanisms that has to be retaught from generation to generation. And if you don’t, the moment you relax, the demons that you thought you got rid of will collect other demons and come back and occupy the house.
You and your son [Otis Moss III] have been called “America’s most dynamic father-son preaching duo.” What’s that like, being able to preach alongside your son?
It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of ministry and I have to give my son credit because he came up with the idea. And we did it and found it to be not only an opportunity to say something together, but really an unspeakable joy-sharing.
It requires extraordinary work. You have to work together and put through a concept and idea and work on developing the message and then find the time to dialogue before delivery. And that takes a lot of communication because you don’t know what’s coming out.
What’s your hope for the future of the New Baptist Covenant?
That it will have a leavening effect and impact the whole loaf. I don’t see it necessarily becoming the next giant denominational mega-structure. But, I do see it as an infusion of a kind of transformational presence that affects all of our denominations.
This column first appeared in the February/March issue of fellowship! magazine. Download the PDF of this column here. Sign-up for your free subscription to fellowship! – the bimonthly magazine of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.