Aaron L. Parker 83G, Pastor, Zion Hill Baptist Church
|Reverend Aaron L. Parker
By the time Reverend Aaron L. Parker 83G meets with Emory Magazine in his study at Zion Hill Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta, it is after eight o’clock on a muggy August evening. He has risen early this Wednesday to teach two classes at Morehouse College, where he is an associate professor of philosophy and religion; returned to the church to conduct a funeral for a longtime member of his congregation; and just finished a rousing hour-plus adult Bible study on the topic of maintaining faith in crisis. The son of a Baptist preacher from Canton, Mississippi, Parker is a master of homiletics, keeping his church members engaged and enthusiastic. He is tired but thoughtful as he contemplates the role of pastor to church, and church to society, in a modern, troubled world.
Q. What drew you to the ministry?
A sense of need, a sense of calling. The idea that I could help and be of service. Certainly listening to my father and other preachers as a child had an impact on me.
Q. What do you see as the role of the church in society today?
I believe the Christian church has a priestly role, which is serving people in need, and a prophetic role, which is analyzing society, declaring some of its ills, and pointing toward some possible solutions. By ills, I mean all of the typical ones: classism, racism, sexism.
Q. Are there particular challenges faced by the black church?
That depends on what you mean by “the black church.” If you mean congregations that are predominately black calling for responses to issues that confront people in the African American community, perhaps these congregations, not individually but collectively, have to address family needs, social needs, economic needs as well as the traditional spiritual needs.
Q. What are your most important roles as a minister?
I define ministry with two basic concepts: love and service. Love is at the very heart of the Christian gospel—I try to show love, to explain love as best I can, to affirm the love of God, and to inspire people to love one another. This doesn’t mean just sentimental love. Sometimes love is tender, sometimes it’s tough. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a tough mind and a tender heart.” I’m also a servant of the church, of the people, of God. I don’t see these as dichotomies—in my mind, they are all the same thing. I try to inspire others to become servants of truth, justice, peace, and most importantly, love.
Q. There is such tension today between many of the world’s religions. What is at the root of these problems, and do you see a hopeful resolution?
I believe a failure to communicate accounts for most wars—on an international level and a personal level. A failure to communicate effectively and meaningfully across cultural, gender, and national lines. It’s ironic, in this age of easy communication, this failure to communicate. But there is always hope. Always. The very fact that we still try implies hope. Despair is an absence of faith, a denial of God.
Q. As you know, a famous theological question put forth forty years ago by a professor at Emory was, “Is God dead?” If I were to put this question to you right now, what would you say?
Well, I never understood that question as ontological, but as anthropological, sociological, and psychological. For some people, groups, and movements, God is dead—secularism is real. But God is not dead in my mind.
Q. What would you tell someone in despair, perhaps in the middle of a war zone or in the midst of great suffering, who may be in doubt?
Nothing. I would just listen. I would hear them. And hopefully in the care of my listening, they might get some sense of God. And in my willingness to help them, they might experience God.
Q. Is extremism in all forms dangerous? Should we strive for moderation?
I don’t see extremism as bad—we need extremists. I see Jesus as sort of an extremist. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, all extremists. Refusing to eat until something happens—now that’s extreme. But extremism
in the service of what? That’s the question.