Spring 2009: Cover Story
Annemarie Poyo Furlong 89C
The Audacious Thing
‘One does not simply want to be the pastor of the Riverside Church in the city of New York. That would not do justice to the magnitude of this work.
‘You have to be called to it.’
Read more about Brad Braxton in Religion Dispatches, a daily online magazine about current religion topics and issues coedited by Gary Laderman, professor and chair of Emory’s religion department.
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
Brad Braxton 99PhD has a pulpit in his study. When he practices his sermon, as he does at least three times each week, beginning to end, he delivers it from this real pulpit to an imaginary congregation, polishing and perfecting its phrasing and cadence. Braxton is what he calls a manuscript preacher—one who commits his sermons, word by word, to paper, speaking each part to himself as he writes. When he was in college, he and his friends would sit around listening not to rock or reggae but to tapes of the great preachers of the last century. That’s how serious he is about preaching.
Which is why, on this wintry Saturday, Braxton is just a little more nervous about his sermon than usual: tomorrow, the first Sunday of Lent, he plans to come down from the church pulpit and leave the script behind.
The particular pulpit Braxton now occupies is heavily steeped in two venerable traditions—fine preaching and liberal activism. The Riverside Church in New York City, a breathtaking two blocks of European Gothic architecture on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has served as a wellspring of progressive political, social, and spiritual thought for more than seventy-five years. Founders, including John D. Rockefeller Jr. and modernist Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, envisioned an interdenominational community that would not only study and interpret the Bible, they would use Christ’s example as the catalyst for social outreach and change. Those who have spoken their message from its pulpit include Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Kofi Annan.
Braxton is Riverside’s sixth senior minister, the second African American following the renowned James A. Forbes Jr., and at thirty-nine, the youngest to hold the post when he was appointed last September.
Of course, this is his dream job. Right?
Sitting in the church offices that overlook the Hudson River, while a string quartet plays outside and guests tour the majestic building during a public event on this busy Saturday morning, Braxton hesitates—a rarity in a man whose easy, eloquent speech is his livelihood.
“What I am trying to do,” Braxton says slowly, “is be faithful to God’s dream for my ministry. God always has bigger dreams for us than we dream for ourselves. At some point, you have to recognize that one does not simply want to be the pastor of the Riverside Church in the city of New York. That would not do justice to the magnitude of this work. You have to be called to it.”
Last year’s lengthy and rigorous candidacy process for the senior minister position was a time of deep soul-searching for both Braxton and the Riverside congregation. At the time, Braxton was serving as associate professor of homiletics and New Testament at the divinity school of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His wife, Lazetta, had just opened her own financial planning firm, and the couple has a three-year-old daughter, Karis. On a practical level, the idea of moving to Manhattan was as intimidating as it was invigorating.
There were more philosophical matters to be considered, too. Braxton’s Riverside predecessor, Forbes, led the church for nearly two decades and was nationally recognized for his extraordinary preaching. His tenure also saw changes in the congregation, with black membership increasing significantly and the interweaving of what some felt to be a more Southern, black church tradition with Riverside’s liberal activist roots.
Tensions formed that seem to have continued into the early months of Braxton’s appointment, as some members lamented what they see as a dilution of the church’s historic commitment to social justice while also objecting publicly to Braxton’s compensation package.
Braxton, himself a product of the black church, has emphasized that he embraces the multicultural diversity that characterizes Riverside. He also is equally focused on the congregation as both a spiritual community and a social force.
“At Riverside, we are trying to be deeply in love with Jesus, and deeply in love with one another, and deeply in love with justice,” he says. “The timing was perfect, in a way, because my sense is that God wants an audacious thing to happen here. I believe the congregation and I can collaborate to achieve it—a refined understanding of the gospel that compels us to do some bold new things for the sake of justice.”
As a kid growing up in Salem, Virginia, Braxton loved Perry Mason. He would rush through his homework each night so that he could watch old reruns on TV, idolizing the smooth, well-dressed lawyer who could turn the perfect phrase at just the right moment. Braxton was drawn to the cachet and lucrative potential of a legal career. “All that was fascinating to me,” he says. “I just knew I was going to be a lawyer.”
But there was an even stronger influence in Braxton’s home—his parents. His father, a Baptist pastor for some forty-six years, was one of the most important touchstones of his life; his mother was an elementary school teacher. Braxton and his three siblings grew up in what he remembers as a model of Christian integrity, encouraged to strive for excellence—moral, educational, spiritual.
Among Braxton’s most powerful memories is his father telling him, “Son, I will never call you into ministry. But if God calls you, I will cast everything I have behind you in support of your call.”
When he was in high school, Braxton recalls, he began to wrestle with the notion of entering the ministry, feeling the pull but worried that he would struggle financially. He had seen his parents sacrifice to give their four children every possible advantage on the incomes of a pastor and a kindergarten teacher. But as he searched for the right answer, Braxton began to find confidence that if ministry was his true path, the necessary resources would follow.
“As I progressed in that conversation with God, I began to experience what I call a constant gnawing,” Braxton says. “It was as if God were saying to me, I have given you this gift of communication and a deep love of people, and I will show you that I have put some leadership skills in you, too. And I did not give you those skills for the courtroom, as admirable as that is.
“You are to be a pastor and a minister and a leader and a teacher.”
Braxton took it as a positive sign when he won a prestigious Jefferson Scholarship to the University of Virginia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in religious studies. And the signs kept coming: he went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, traveling to the University of Oxford to study for his master’s degree under Christopher Rowland, one of the world’s leading New Testament experts.
But Braxton did experience a slight chill when he arrived at Oxford, still trailing the warm glow that accompanied the excitement of winning a Rhodes.
“Oxford is a tough place, especially for non-white people, because all the symbols there hail the greatness of white people,” he says. “So I was dropped in a cultural context where there was little affirmation of my humanity. It created enormous psychological discomfort.”
During his Oxford study, Braxton discovered an antidote to that discomfort in another kind of journey—a pilgrimage, as he calls it, to Africa. There, for the first time, he began to realize the critical importance of ancestry to identity and came to understand how the practice of slavery had eroded African ethnicity, essentially subsuming slaves from different tribes and cultures into one race. The trip changed his life course and became the foundation for his thesis, eventually published as No Longer Slaves.
“One morning I was sitting in that hot Banjul sun, reading the Greek text of Galatians, the fourth chapter where Paul says, ‘You are no longer a slave.’ And it absolutely struck a chord in me,” Braxton remembers. “African Americans have been emancipated from slavery for many years, but there is still mental slavery. What would emancipation from mental slavery look like?”
Braxton continued this exploration as a PhD candidate in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, studying under Carl Holladay, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament Studies, and Charles Foster, professor emeritus of education and religion at Candler School of Theology, among others. In his dissertation, he examined the New Testament’s troubling ambiguity with regard to slavery, recognizing that the Bible can be called upon to support injustice as easily as justice.
“As a doctoral student, Brad was an enthusiastic participant in seminars and discussions, and always eager to learn,” Holladay remembers. “He’s engaging at every level. He’s an exceptional expository preacher and has a rare ability to spot the message in a biblical text and develop a powerful sermon around it. With his remarkable gifts, he seemed destined for a high-profile pulpit.”
It was also at Emory that Braxton found his voice as a teacher as well as a preacher. “My professors not only developed me as a scholar, they were deeply invested in my teaching,” he says. “The skills they helped me gain and refine serve me well now as a pastor.”
Braxton would soon call on those skills as senior minister for the prominent Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, a position he accepted at twenty-six, while still a doctoral student at Emory. Much like Riverside, Douglas Memorial is a diverse, urban church known for its progressive pulpit. During his five-year tenure, Braxton flexed his wings as a teacher and pastor by starting a series of Bible study classes complete with a syllabus, reading list, and exams. He also launched new outreach programs for people with HIV/AIDS, prisoners, and the poor. It was, he acknowledges, the perfect preparation for Riverside—although it would be another eight years before he realized it.
Starting in 2000, Braxton served on the faculty of the divinity schools at Wake Forest University and then Vanderbilt, establishing his reputation as a progressive theological scholar with a special interest in racial reconciliation. In 2006, he was selected as London’s Bray Lecturer and invited to preach at Westminster Abbey and throughout England as part of the bicentennial of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the British Empire.
In much of his writing and talks addressing race, Braxton reminds his audience that slavery was a centuries-old, global institution supported by virtually every engine of social life—government, military, transport, commerce.
He invokes the language of W. E. B. Du Bois in describing the “veil” that shrouded human reason when it came to seeing slavery for the dehumanization it was. The veil, he says, is woven of two fabrics: colonialism, and fundamentalism, which he defines as a sweeping movement that “flattens mystery—everything becomes this or that, and there is no playfulness,” Braxton explains. “It was this wicked combination of colonialism and fundamentalism that allowed a group of people to view reality in such a binary and distorted way.”
Braxton outlines four steps for lifting the veil, steps he hopes to employ as pastor at Riverside: strive to tell the whole truth about injustice, make room for righteous anger, make apologies believable, and create space for constructive guilt. These steps require courage, vulnerability, and passion, he says. Braxton is eager to inject fresh energy and meaning into the Riverside worship rituals and to inspire church members at a deeply spiritual level.
Braxton’s vision for Riverside includes bold community outreach, such as grocery stores in inner-city neighborhoods where healthy food is scarce, scholarships to the church preschool to promote economic diversity, and antiviolence work with gangs. But first, he says, the congregation needs to look inward, to do some more soul-searching.
“Sometimes in progressive institutions that are committed to external justice, we forget that the first public of a congregation is the congregation itself,” he says. “Riverside had compelling answers to some of the twentieth century’s great questions, but we’ve got to recognize that there are different questions being asked now. What will the great answers be? This is a wonderful, marvelous experiment of trying to remain relevant as the landscape is shifting. It’s challenging, frightening, and at times, exhilarating.”
On the morning of the first Sunday of Lent, Braxton, in a brilliant, full-length blue robe, steps down from the Riverside pulpit and to the top of the center aisle, probably surprising many longtime churchgoers. The pulpit, he tells them, is a sacred desk, one that he cherishes.
“But today,” he adds, “I am simply a pastor with an urgent need to commune in a different way with my beloved congregation.”
Braxton’s voice is like a river, sometimes flowing along smoothly, sometimes dwindling to a whisper, and sometimes unleashing a torrent of emotion, drama, and authority. At many points, members of the congregation speak out, affirming his words aloud. At the end of the sermon, there is a standing ovation.
“I enjoy his sermons immensely,” says Camille Brown, a forty-year member of Riverside. “He makes things very clear so that you really go home with a message. That’s the main thing for me, that I take home something to think about through the week.”
Today, Braxton has undoubtedly provided food for thought, reminding the congregation that Christ and the crucifixion are central to their identity as a community. In his sermon, he urged the congregation to remember what they are—not a social institution, but a church.
“We are believers in a scandalous execution,” he says. “If you are a follower of the crucified one, your very existence is scandalous. . . . I think there may be a misconception in our congregation that worship is simply a prelude or a postlude to justice work. But worship—warm, inclusive, passionate worship—that is justice work.”
And at that, heads nod, bodies sway, and voices say, “amen.”