BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO AND MARY ANNA TOWLER
At 63, the Rev. Marvin A. McMickle is worried about tomorrow’s leaders. Generations of younger people, including those called to the ministry, haven’t been shaped by a great moment in history, he says. The civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King have begun to slip into history. As a result, McMickle says, fewer people appreciate what it means to speak up for justice in the face of personal risk. And fewer are willing to take that risk.
Who, then, can lead a nation as divided as this one?
McMickle, who became president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in January, met King as a teenager and counts him as one of his mentors. His connection to King and social activism was something that drew him to CRCDS. King, in fact, is Crozer Theological Seminary’s most famous student, and his original application letter to Crozer – then a separate institution located in Pennsylvania – hangs not far from McMickle’s office.
McMickle is among what he describes as the last of a breed of black activist clergy shaped by historic moments. Like King, these activist clergy learned to mix prayer with peaceful political protest.
Born in Chicago, McMickle earned a master’s degree in divinity studies from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and his doctorate from Princeton. During the 1970’s, he served on the pastoral staff at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Abyssinian was home to Adam Clayton Powell, and by then had become emblematic of black religious power in America.
“When you go to work in a place like that, it becomes pretty clear that it is a congregation where religion and politics go together like hand in glove,” says McMickle.
He later served as pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and then as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland from 1987 to 2011. There he helped organize one of the first ministries in the country for people affected by HIV/AIDS.
McMickle’s theological career overlapped a fascinating political career, a natural occurrence considering his activist roots. He served on numerous committees, led two branches of the NAACP, and was head of an Urban League chapter. He also served on the school boards in Montclair, New Jersey, and in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
In 2000, he ran for the US Senate (unsuccessfully), and he was an Obama delegate in 2008. A towering physical presence with a booming laugh, McMickle says, “I never turned away from an opportunity to have a voice in public policy.” But he adds, significantly, that not many clergy today “feel prophetic urgency to speak about it.”
With a charming mix of wit and worldliness, it’s just as easy to imagine McMickle as the head of a large Fortune 500 company instead of a small divinity school. But his values are deeply anchored in his faith. He injects Biblical references into his conversation frequently and speaks about God as if the two were standing next to one another.
McMickle was planning to retire from pastoral ministry in Cleveland but continue teaching when he was approached about taking the reins of Colgate Rochester. And he joined the school at a critical time in its history. Colgate has put some difficult financial trouble behind it, he says. The school, which is located in a picturesque setting across Goodman Street from Highland Park, now rents space in some of its buildings to offset operating costs. The school also had to reduce its faculty by about half. McMickle is charged with rebuilding enrollment at a time when divinity school tuition is a serious hurdle for many prospective students.
In addition to heading an institution that trains people for the ministry (and for non-clergy careers such as religious teaching and non-profit work), it’s likely, given his history, that McMickle will become involved in critical issues facing the community. Although he has lived in Rochester for only a short time, he has already been writing and speaking about such issues as same-sex marriage, wealth disparity, and gun violence.
In a recent City interview – which took place only a few hours after the Aurora, Colorado, shootings – McMickle discussed the polarized state of America and how it has metastasized in the public realm.
The list of topics Americans can’t discuss calmly seems to be expanding rapidly: race, gun control, same-sex marriage, poverty, urban education, health care. Still, McMickle believes we’ll find our way, even if it requires a little divine intervention.
The following is an edited version of our conversation with McMickle, beginning with a discussion of his own record of activism and of the role of religious leaders in issues of public policy.
CITY: A lot of clergy today seem reluctant to speak out. It’s not the 1960’s.
MCMICKLE: I think that’s because a great many clergy were born after the 60’s. It’s not just that they didn’t feel its impact. My son is now 32. He was born in 1980. Martin Luther King Jr. is a memory; he’s a historical figure.
I was in jail with Ralph David Abernathy. I’m the last of a breed. I worry about the next generation of people who were not molded by any great moment. Some people were molded by the Great Depression, World War II, the feminist movement, or the civil rights movement. What has molded people lately? What great event has galvanized and shaped a generation?
I’ll be 64, and there just aren’t many people left who can say, “I was there, and I heard King give that speech.”
Social issues, political activism, trying to bring the Scriptures and Christian values to bear on matters of public policy are what I was trained to do. I don’t take any credit for it. This is a result of the circumstances I was molded by. And part of the reason I wanted to come here or be involved in a seminary somewhere is to breathe that last little bit of life I have for my career into this next generation and say: “It is not enough to pastor a church and stay inside the building. You’ve got to get out. Your voice has to get out. Your congregation’s influence has to be expanded. You’ve got to engage the world around you. And if you don’t, you’ve failed.”
It’s going to be a big enough job training the people who come through these doors and running this institution from a business standpoint. Given your history, what’s going to be your role in the Rochester community?
That depends on the Rochester community. I think every seminary president reinvents the job to make it match his or her own worldview. I think the search committee and board of trustees here not only knew that I was an activist, but were counting on it. The activism and visibility of the president only works to the advantage of the school, which in recent years had been suffering from a really low profile.
To have Colgate Rochester be spoken of or represented by the president helps the school to become better known. And it helps me model for the students what I think religious leadership should entail: “If you want to know what I think you should do, watch me.” In the words of an old black preacher, “If there’s a good fight, get in it.”
What fights do you want to get into locally?
This thing with gun violence: if white people were shooting black people at the rate that black people are shooting each other, they would be marching in the street. There would be demonstrations at City Hall. They would be burning buildings.
But there isn’t, because either people are afraid to speak up because they fear that they will be next, or there is complacency. And maybe there’s a sense of hopelessness “because there isn’t really anything we can do about this.”
There’s the sense that this is the way it is. No, this is not the way it is. This is the way we’ve allowed it to become because of our sense of complacency.
Now in order for things to be different, might there have to be some discipline and some structural changes that might pinch people in terms of having to conform? Yes.
Would any discussion about gun control not only ignite anger in the black community, but also bring out the attack dogs of the National Rifle Association? Sure; you’re going to fight black people who say you’re sympathizing with police in cracking down on crime. But we have to do something.
And what about our Second Amendment right to bear arms? That’s where we are in Aurora, Colorado, today: a Second Amendment right to bear an AK-47? Gas bombs?
Let’s discuss this right to bear arms. I can’t wait to hear what the NRA is going to say about this. “Even though these things happen, it’s not the guns that do it. It’s the people who have the guns that do it.”
I think people without the guns lack the guts to do this. It is the gun that gives you this sense of empowerment. Take away the guns and ask these shooters to confront the people they are trying to get at one on one. There’s no way in the world they would do it.
What besides the gun issue is a fight worth joining?
None of these are Rochester fights in particular. But there are Rochester implications to poverty. There are Rochester implications to violence, unemployment, environmental hazards, and racial disparities in education. So in a sense, I don’t have to find a new fight.
I think we have to get back to the point that we speak truth not just to those that are in power, but speak truth to those who are using what little power they have – whether it’s a gun or whatever – in improper ways.
Many church congregations don’t want their clergy involved in a controversial issue: Leave the Old Testament prophets on the shelf and just tell us all the good stuff.
The last book I wrote, “Caring Pastors, Caring People,” is based on two principles. The job of the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. So the first idea is that it is not the job of the pastor to do the work by him or herself. It is the job of the pastor to not have the congregation come and sit in the church and hear a sermon, but to go out and do the job of the ministry.
The second principle is based on three concentric circles. Drop a stone in the water and watch these circles.
The first circle is the pastor providing traditional pastoral care: weddings, funerals, counseling, and sermons. The second circle is the pastor carefully preparing the congregation to better care for itself. If so-and-so is in distress, who besides the pastor should show up?
The third circle is the pastor challenging the congregation to see that what is going on outside of its walls is also its responsibility. If all we do is sit in here in these beautiful surroundings and listen to the pipe music, robed choirs, and splendidly intellectually stimulating sermons, that’s not going to work.
In Luke 16, there’s a story about the rich man and Lazarus. And it says there was a rich man dressed in purple, and he ate well every day. At his gate, they laid a beggar named Lazarus every day. The text puts in proximity great wealth and great need. When the rich man died and opened his eyes, he was in hell. Why did he go to hell? Not because he was rich. He was in hell because when he was alive, he never did anything about the person in need outside his door.
Now my response to congregations is I don’t want you going to hell – not because you didn’t go to church. You went to church, but you didn’t see Lazarus on the street on your way home. Or you saw him, but you were too busy going to brunch, and you didn’t take time to pay attention to someone in need.
There’s a wonderful Garfield cartoon, where Garfield is sitting at this wonderful Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings. And in the backyard you can see Odie the dog chained to a fence in the snow. In the second panel, Garfield goes to the window, and you get the sense that Garfield is going to say, “C’mon, let’s eat together.”
But in the third panel, Garfield closes the drapes, and he goes back to his meal, and he says, “Now that’s better.”
I say to our churches, there are too many of us like Garfield who enjoy our prosperity and ignore what’s out there. Poverty doesn’t suffer in silence. People make themselves known to us. They’re not going to just starve while we feast.
How can pastors frame societal, economic justice, and war and peace issues so that their congregations and the public are willing to hear it?
The hearing is not the issue. It’s the surviving after having been heard that’s the issue. People hear you. That’s why they shoot you. They heard King; they just couldn’t bear it.
A lot of this has to do with the courage of the pastor and whether or not you are afraid: if I say this or do this, am I going to be fired? If a pastor spends all of his or her time worrying about whether they say something that might result in some type of punitive action, they’re captive. And they really do not work for God. They have a congregation of 1,000 to 3,000 bosses, any one of which can intimidate them at the drop of a hat.
If you’re offering me partisan political punditry about why you’re not going to get engaged, if you love the Tea Party more than you love Jesus, of if you find that your love of money is greater than your love of justice, ok. But I’m going to get engaged anyway. And I’m going to have a job, because the Lord is not going to let me starve. And if anything worse should happen to me, I’ve joined good company.
See, this is what happens to people who are shaped by a season in American history where risk is an everyday happening. If you wake up every day and you never have to risk anything to shape the world that you dream about, then you don’t know what you can face up to.
I met Martin King in 1966 when he came to Chicago to march for the Open Housing campaign, which we lost because Chicago was then and is now the nation’s most segregated city. But at the beginning of every march, they made it clear to you that they could not guarantee that you’re going to come home alive, that you’re not going to be insulted and assaulted. And before you get into this march, you need to understand that you must be non-violent. You can’t get in this march and when you get into trouble, pull out a pistol. That would just undermine the whole thing. Don’t start if you can’t stay within this rubric.
So every day you were thinking: Do I really want to get into these marches?
And people were always asking, “Why do you have so many worship services? Why you all praying so much?”
Well, we prayed at these evening rallies to get over what you had just been through, and to get ready for what tomorrow was going to bring.
These were not pep rallies. These were soul-searching events. In other words, do you really want to do this tomorrow? We’re going to Cicero [Illinois] tomorrow, and we had been told, none of you all are going to get out alive. This was when the white power logos were hanging from peoples’ houses.
So being heard is not the issue. People will hear you, and then they’ll decide what to do about you for having the nerve to say it to them. I can tell you one thing: They will respect you more if you come back next week and say it to them again.
What is the state of the black church today?
There is no such monolithic entity. That said, the fastest growing segment of the black church is within the Pentecostal and charismatic communities, for example, the Church of God in Christ, people who believe in what’s called the Third Work of the Spirit, speaking in tongues. Very heavy into what they call praise and worship and a little light in civic engagement or social activism, because for them it is a theological issue. Too much engagement with the world may make you like the world, and in that sense they are bit like the Amish, strangely: “Come out from among them.”
My uncle was Church of God in Christ, and so was half of my family. He would not get involved in the civil rights movement, and he wouldn’t let his children get involved because, he said, it was worldly and it was secular and it would distort your soul. He would say, “Marvin, come out from among them.”
You could almost describe the black church in this historical sequence: the 18th and 19th centuries were about Methodist churches: AME Church, AME Zion, and CMA. The late 19thand all of the 20th century were about Baptist churches. Martin King, Adam Powell, Jesse Jackson: all of these were sort of independent black Baptist congregations.
I am concerned that the 21st century belongs to the Pentecostals. While the Baptists and the Methodists will continue to exist, they won’t be able to exert the same level of influence they did at one time.
It makes a person like Bishop Charles Blake, the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, who has a 25,000 member congregation in Los Angeles, the most powerful black religious leader in the country. He’s got a six-million-member denomination and a 25,000-member church, and if you were to walk about down the street and ask anyone who is not a member of the Church of God in Christ, ‘”Who is Bishop Charles Blake?” the average person will say, “Who?”
And there is our problem. We are steadily moving toward a privatization of religious life, where it all happens in the church, where it all involves spiritual formation and holiness. But it doesn’t have the capacity to impact the social scene.
Preaching in the black church used to have a social and sometimes even political edge to it. Even if the pastor didn’t do anything, he would at least try to make you see that a lynching had happened. Take, for instance, these laws in states around the country that are trying to reduce voter access. It’s obvious that they are trying to reduce voter access in certain states involving certain people, because they’re trying to minimize voter turnout and maximize the impact of another party’s vote.
But if you were to listen in on black sermons today, you wouldn’t hear much about it. You wouldn’t hear much about Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” and how incarceration has replaced slavery as the tool of preference in dealing with young black males.
Part of what I see in the black church today is the trivialization. It’s all about the little things: Are you tithing? Are you regular in your attendance? Do you have your spiritual house in order? Have you praised God today?
Now you take someone like Joel Osteen and “the power of prosperity,” and the idea that what God wants is not that we be faithful, but that we be successful. There is the pastor of the largest congregation in America who could not preach his way out of a paper bag. But he has these little sayings that all promise you something. I don’t know where this is in the Bible.
But we’re a consumer society. So I am going to the church that is most likely to give me the American Dream, not the church that is likely to send me out to do battle. Oh, no, I’m going to the pastor that has a Bentley parked out in front, and I want one, too.
How do you speak to the black and white communities that believe that to be homosexual is not a natural condition, and that gay marriage is a terrible thing?
What people tend to do is define as sin something that they themselves do not do; therefore, it becomes comfortable for them to attack it because it’s not something they are involved in. And they can go full throttle about it.
If intimate same-sex activity is a sin because you read that in Romans 1 or in Leviticus 18, let me concede that for argument’s sake. And let me invite you to read the next verse. Paul then says that there was malice, anger, jealousy, divisiveness, and pride. He doesn’t say these were descending matters.
And in Leviticus, he doesn’t just talk about men lying with men. He talks about fornication and adultery. So how is it that an adulterer has the luxury of condemning someone whose sexual relationships are different?
It is my job to say that you have not read the whole Bible. Stop picking out these little verses here and there that seem to say what you want them say, and at the same time, ignore all of the other verses.
That’s the internal church fight. Here’s the larger civic and social issue: Leviticus was written for a theocratic community where God and divine law were the arbiter for civic life. If you did not obey, there were laws stipulated therein: Take him out and stone him or cut off a hand.
We have this document called the Constitution, and whether you consent to it or not, there is a First Amendment. And in it there is a protective clause that keeps religion from becoming the rubric by which civic life is ordered. The government will not tell you how to be religious. You are free. But you cannot tell the government that your religious laws should be how our social life should be ordered.
Marriage in the US is not the property of the church, because a judge, ship’s captain, and a mayor can marry. I did a wedding back in Cleveland last week, and on the envelope to the marriage license, it said, “Please return this license to the Probate Court.” That’s where marriages are kept track of, not in the pastor’s study. We need to get past this.
The old adage says 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the nation. Is that still true? If so, how can we move beyond that in an increasingly diverse and fractured culture?
It is true in even more cynical ways than it was 50 years ago. In 1961, segregation was largely racial. But that was governed by segregation laws. Today, it is still largely so, with white churches and black, but it’s worse because there are class and doctrinal divisions.
There are lots of ways to segregate – according to race, and within the races. There are black middle-class churches like the one I left in Cleveland that are not all that keen on integrating the membership to poor people. Think about it: black people who don’t want them in our church.
When we first started an HIV/AIDS ministry in our church in 1998, the first question I heard as pastor was, “Why do we have to have those people in our church?” I said, “Which people are you referring to?” What they did not know was that the first four people who told me they had AIDS were all members of our church.
We are more segregated, and we are more theologically apart.
I watched a Tea Party rally in Arkansas on C-Span two or three years ago. It was the day after Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court: the day after a black president nominated a Puerto Rican woman to the Supreme Court. And this woman at the rally was saying, “I want my America back.”
I knew exactly what she was saying. “I want back an America where there is no black president who can do this.” And: “What is a Puerto Rican woman doing on the Supreme Court? We want the days when the entire court was white, male, and Protestant.”
So we are divided and polar opposites in lots of ways – race relations, in some ways, being the least of my worries. There are so many divisions within the racial groups, and so many divisions in the church in terms of what we ought to be doing.
What’s your prediction, then, on all of this polarization?
I am a realist about all of the problems in front of me, but despite all I have just said, I am an eternal optimist in the power of God to accomplish God’s purposes with or without us.
I have seen things happen that I never dreamed would happen. If you had told me at a march in Cicero in 1966 that somebody would come out of that city, who wasn’t there yet, to become my president – I would have said, “Take a look around you.”
There are indicators that wonderful things can happen, not because we plan them. God steps in.
In the Greek language there are two different words for time. One is chronos, as in “chronology.” The other is kairos, divine time intervening. I count on occasional kairotic moments, when God says: “Ok, that’s enough. Let’s shake this thing up.”
I think God sends people into the world at kairotic moments or brings about kairotic events. Now they don’t happen every day. They don’t happen every month. Sometimes they don’t happen for 25 years. But they happen enough to keep us going. But when God steps in to move us forward, there are forces that try to take us backward.
I think that from the moment that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, there has been a counter-revolution. I heard Mitch McConnell say not long after the inauguration that the only order of business for the Republican Party for the next four years was to make sure that Barack Obama was a one-term president.
I think we’re going to inch our way forward. There are some things that we’re not ever going to go back to. We’re going to get past issues concerning human sexuality just like we got past other matters.
We’re not going to do it by national consensus. Some things have happened in this country because federal authority moved us forward. Brown vs. Board of Education was not a vote of the states. Nine people just moved us forward.
Who would have thought that John Roberts would have cast the deciding vote for the Affordable Care Act and take all the heat? But who better than the chief justice?
Locally and nationally we’re having a debate about how to improve public education in public schools. We’ve tried so many different things, the latest being standardized testing and teacher evaluations that are tied to student performance. But the outcomes seem to be the same or worse.
Public education was never meant to be delivered in class-segregated settings. It was supposed to be the great equalizer, where people from all backgrounds could come together and all of us could benefit. Schools that are separate are inherently unequal, because the majority culture does not invest in those schools. I’m not talking about money; they don’t invest their passion. They bemoan what happens in them, but they’re not vested. Their children are not there.
When my family moved into a house in 1969, we were one of three black families within a three-square-mile radius. All the rest were white. Three years later, the entire neighborhood was black. I asked my mother what happened? She said, “We did.”
They never took the time to find out if we were that bad. They saw us and ran. You cannot minimize the effect white flight has had on America. They just kept running, leaving poverty behind.
What’s left? Ask yourself how you would behave if you ate Cocoapuffs and Coke for breakfast, and you didn’t have medical insurance, so you never go to the doctor until you’re really sick. You’ve never seen everybody in your family get up and go to work every day. There are no books in your house.
So where do you go for reinforcement to be successful in school? You’re not being reinforced by the teachers, because many of your teachers don’t think you can learn. You’re not being reinforced at home because you are the third or fourth-generation person of the same set of circumstances. You’re not being reinforced by your friends or the broader culture
A guy from Chicago did a study that showed in the 1950’s that the five major points of influence for children in the black community were family, church, school, peers, and media. So before the media could do anything to you, they had to get through all of the others.
He did the same study 50 years later and now the five major points of influence on urban children are media, peers, school as a social environment, family, and church — almost a complete inversion. The results are obvious. If you get your values from Black Entertainment Television or hip-hop culture, that’s why you’re walking around with your pants hanging down. If you are shaped by Grand Theft Larceny 3, where everything gets resolved by shooting, then you have everything being resolved by shooting, except in Grand Theft Larceny 3 nobody dies. It’s all on the screen. In Rochester, when you shoot somebody, they don’t come back up.
You cannot fix the schools and leave America unaddressed. But is there the political will to fix the country? No; let’s point to the people in the schools and make them the problem.
You cannot expect your new superintendent of schools to fix this. The only thing wrong with American public education is America. There’s a reason why these things aren’t working, and it has little to do with the children. And in order to get to the problem, we have to have a conversation that goes beyond “I’m taking my kids out of the public school.” We’ve discovered that no matter where you go, it will follow you. It will follow you to Aurora, Colorado.
Part of my frustration with our president, and I have said this to him: You cannot fix the country by fixing the middle class. We aren’t broken at the middle. We’re broken at the bottom. Don’t have trickle-down theories that trickle to the middle, the homeowners and business owners. The foundation of 30 percent poverty, four generations of unemployment, and in Cleveland 70 percent of your black males dropping out and 75 percent of your births being out of marriage, that foundation will not sustain your vision of the middle-class of America.
Have you heard either one of the presidential candidates say anything about this? I can’t even get Obama to say it.
Do you think he can get re-elected saying it?