“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
— Psalm 23:4
Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar and quoted passages of all time.
For those of us who grew up in a Christian household, you had to memorize these verses. Psalm 23 was drilled into you by your parents, grandparents, Sunday School teacher, pastor, or youth director. These verses were not just scripture, but verses you needed to know and have during your life journey.
Even those who did not grow up in a Christian household are familiar with Psalm 23. Yes, what makes this psalm so powerful is it underscores the vicissitudes of life we all face.
Through the eyes of David, we are reminded that everyone — at some point in one’s life — will experience life’s “valleys.”
While many of us have heard and may even be able to recite Psalm 23, the question is: Do we really understand David’s message to us about how to overcome life’s many valleys?
As I recently traveled speaking and preaching across the country, I encountered so many people who are in their own “valley.” The color of one’s skin or economic status did not matter, or whether one had or did not have a degree. What I discovered is that there are many people in a “valley.”
Some are in an emotional valley, others in a financial valley; still others are in a physical/mental valley.
I know for many of you this year has not been the best. You lost your job. You are going through a divorce. Your children are not doing well in school. Your co-workers are stabbing you in the back. Your friends will not return your calls or help you. Yes, you are in a valley.
Valleys are unavoidable. Everyone will experience them.
In fact, wherever you go, you will encounter valleys. Valleys are on every continent. If you are in North or South America, you will encounter a valley. If you are in Africa or Asia, you will encounter a valley.
Although we all will experience valleys, we must remember that it is just a valley.
What David teaches us in Psalm 23 is that valleys are not pit stops, but “pass through stations.” That is the reason David said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley.” That’s good news!
David understood that it’s just a valley. It’s not forever; it’s just a valley. It does not determine my destiny; it’s just a valley. It may be trying and a little rough, but it’s just a valley!
Indeed, the Bible speaks about valleys several times. Yes, it is in the valleys where persons drew closer to God. And as a preacher once said, “Faith is built in the valleys of life.”
Often times when you are in the valley, you will feel as if you are by yourself because your family and friends are sometimes nowhere to be found.
But you are not alone! David says in Psalms 23:4, “for thou art with me.” David understood that while he was in the valley, he was not alone. David knew that God was with him!
Yes, valleys can be very discouraging. It is here where we are at the lowest point in our lives. These valleys can be very painful, full of trouble and sorrow. Many have succumbed to depression, physical illness and even death.
The question is not whether or not you will experience a valley. The question is: How will you handle life’s valleys? Yes, the way you handle your valleys will determine your growth spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
David could have easily succumbed to his valley and stayed there. Instead, the Word of God tells us that David kept on “walking.”
If you are going to get through your valley(s), then you must keep on walking. Remember, David said “Yea, though I WALK….” He didn’t say run, dash, sprint, or jump. David said, as “ I walk,” which means he was moving through this valley. David did not just move at a steady pace, but rather he walked with divine confidence!
David’s walking through his valley is much like the way the myrtle tree grows. In Zechariah 1:8, the myrtle trees grow in the ravine or the gulch or the darkest deepest valley. The myrtle trees grow very slowly at a rate of about 10 inches per year. It takes a myrtle about 100 years to reach its full stature. But when the myrtle matures, it is great in size and reveals nothing of the shrub it started out as. The roots of this tree draw minerals from the dirt in the valley, giving it strength.
Sometimes valleys make it look and feel like we have been cut down to almost nothing, and it can appear to be the end of our story because of the tragedy or misfortune that has befallen us.
But because the faithful believer has deep roots in God, eventually signs of life will begin to emerge and again the child of God will resume one’s growth and vitality.
Remember, some of the most beautiful trees grow in the valley. The lotus flower is a beautiful flower that grows in the murkiest mud of a swamp. And let’s not forget about the myrtle tree.
It is my prayer that as we encounter life’s valleys that we will remember three things: 1. Valleys are everywhere; 2. Valleys are not pit stops, but “pass through stations”; and 3. Valleys are places where we often have an encounter with God.
Yes, David says confidently, “the Lord is with me.” When you are in your valley, just remember that you are not alone, but that God is with you!
Beloved, valleys are unavoidable, but with God we can get through them! As always, keep the faith!
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Follow Dr. Johnson on Twitter @drkrj.
The battle for the mind has been a struggle since the creation of man.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent asked the woman, “Did God really say…?”
This was a question to control humanity’s mind and ultimately one’s destiny.
Carter G. Woodson would later prophetically argue that, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.”
Indeed, this is the reason why many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded and became liberal arts institutions. As Dr. Benjamin Mays said to Morehouse students in 1959, “We want Morehouse men to develop keen minds, steel girded character, a social conscience, and above all, we want Morehouse men to be free.”
Freedom of the mind was the goal. For if a man is mentally free, there are no chains that can keep one bound.
It is this spirit and philosophy that led me to Morehouse College in 1992. I wanted to be free and be among those who desired the same freedom for themselves and our people.
The controversy regarding an article I penned last month, “A President for Everyone, Except Black People,” essentially highlights why we need to support our HBCUs. Free speech and free thought are the hallmark of Black colleges and universities.
There was a period in which W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, and others only taught (or were able to teach because of segregation) at HBCUs.
In his book, A Clashing of the Soul, Leroy Davis highlights the “dual selves” that HBCUs encounter as they seek to be free and seek to raise the resources needed to sustain their institutions.
Certainly, this was the challenge of John Hope, president of Atlanta University and Morehouse College in 1920. Davis argues that Hope’s “inner turmoil” was the result of attempting to balance John Hope “the college president” with John Hope “the race leader.” This dilemma still rings true for many of our HBCUs today.
Beloved, mental freedom comes with a cost. When you look at many declining HBCUs, they are floundering not due to a lack of intellectual prowess, but rather because of financial resources (due to declining enrollment) and, more specifically, a lack of alumni giving.
Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Hampton, Tuskegee, Lincoln, Cheyney, Fisk, etc. will never be truly free, until they are financially free!
The history of HBCUs is rooted and connected to white philanthropists who dared to give large sums of money and endowments so that “Negroes” might attend college. The irony is many of us are now free — we live in big homes, drive nice cars, have children in topnotch colleges and graduate schools — but the institutions that freed us are still not free. They are not free because we have failed to take up the mantle of philanthropy to ensure that our schools are financially and fiscally sound.
For if we do not support Lincoln, Morehouse, Spelman, Cheyney, Fisk, Howard, Hampton, Dillard, and other HBCUs, then we are at fault for our institutions not becoming bastions of liberal arts education, free speech and critical thinking, but rather institutions bound by debt, financial insufficiency, and the chains of perpetual fundraising.
Whether you personally attended an HBCU or not, each one of us must make the commitment to the generations to come to not allow another Black school go under due to a lack of financial support from it’s alumni or the African-American community.
Let’s increase support of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities so that they can be free and continue to liberate our people!
As always, keep the faith!
Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
As President Barack Obama begins his second term, there is something noticeably different about his new cabinet - the absence of African-American leaders and advisors.
The Congressional Black Caucus chair, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio recently sent the president a letter stating, “You have publicly expressed your commitment to retaining diversity within your cabinet. However, the people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.”
When one compares President Obama to his predecessors, the decrease in African-American appointments is astounding.
In American presidential history, President William Jefferson Clinton has been, by far, the most transformational leader.
Clinton appointed seven African-American cabinet members, the most of any president in history: Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce; Mike Espy as Secretary of Agriculture; Hazel O’Leary as Secretary of Energy; Alexis Herman as Secretary of Labor; and Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veteran Affairs. President Clinton also appointed Togo West as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Rodney Slater as Secretary of Transportation.
Compared to Obama, President George W. Bush also had more African-Americans in his cabinet, including the first African-American secretary of state and secretary of education, Colin Powell and Rod Paige, respectively. Bush also appointed Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Alphonso Jackson as secretary of housing and urban development.
For Obama, Eric Holder is the first African-American attorney general and the only African-American cabinet member of Obama’s administration.
In sum, when one compares the first African-American president to his recent predecessors, the number of African-Americans in senior cabinet positions is very disappointing: Clinton (7); Bush (4); and Obama (1). Obama has not moved African-American leadership forward, but backwards.
Moreover, while having African-Americans in senior cabinet positions does not guarantee an economic agenda that will advance Black people, it at least is a starting point and puts us in the driver’s seat. With President Obama, we are not in the driver’s seat - or even in the car.
For me, the absence of African-Americans in a second term is not only disrespectful to the Black community—who voted 96 percent for President Obama in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012, but also underscores a larger problem of economic and job opportunities for the Black community.
Indeed, if we objectively look at Obama’s presidency, African-Americans are in a worse position than they were before he became president. At the end of January 2009, unemployment for African-Americans was 12.7 percent. Four years later, the situation is worse, and unemployment is higher at 13.8 percent.
For those of you who have read my articles in The Philadelphia Tribune, you know I have been a very strong supporter of the president and worked hard to get him elected in 2008 and 2012.
Shortly after Obama announced his candidacy to run for the office of President of United States, in 2008 I hosted the first clergy breakfast in Philadelphia to encourage religious leaders to support his candidacy. This was a major gathering at the time, because both Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter were strong supporters of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and were encouraging the clergy to support her and not Obama.
I supported then-Senator Obama not because he was Black, but because I truly believed in my heart that he was the best candidate to empathize, understand, and develop policies to help the African-American community, the poor, and previously under-represented communities.
To my disappointment, the president has not only failed the Black community, but also has failed to surround himself with qualified African-Americans who could develop policies to help the most disenfranchised.
The president’s agenda appears to be for everyone except Black people—his most loyal constituency.
In 2012, two prominent Philadelphia lawyers convened a meeting between White House senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, and a cross-section of Philadelphia’s African-American leadership. The purpose of the meeting was to candidly discuss the president’s re-election strategy and policies toward African-Americans.
The meeting was initially cordial until I mustered the courage to ask Jarrett a question I have heard repeatedly in the African-American community, “Over the past four years, what has President Obama done to help Black people?”
After the question was raised, you could hear a pin drop in the room. Jarrett, who is known as the chief loyalist to the president, did not mince words when she responded to my question and proceeded to fire off the administration talking points: the passing of Obamacare, the increase in PELL grants, etc. She concluded her remarks by saying that we should support the president because “we are family.”
Moreover, when I raised additional questions about persistent high unemployment in the Black community and the lack of appointing an African-American to the United States Supreme Court (a move that could have real and lasting impact on the future of our community), Ms. Jarrett then went for the jugular and said, “The president is the president of all people and not just Black people.”
Jarrett is right. The president is the president of all people, but aren’t Black people part of the “all”? In the words of Langston Hughes, we “too sing America.”
Given the president’s poor record in catapulting an economic and empowerment agenda for the African-American community, we must begin asking the questions:
My questions do not suggest that we should necessarily change political affiliation, but they do suggest that the African-American community must hold political leaders accountable and change our strategy to ensure that we are fully engaged in the political process beyond November elections.
George Burrell, a member of my church, a well-known lawyer, and someone I respect, recently told a group of leaders that having an elected Black politician is not enough. He argues that having an African-American mayor, governor, or president does not guarantee, in and of itself, that the Black elected official’s agenda will be the same as the Black community. After much reflection, I agree with him.
In order for the African-American community to become “real” players in the political process, shaping a politician’s agenda, Burrell argues that the Black community must do what every other community is doing - control the politicians through money.
In the past, the African-American community has relied exclusively on our voting power to advance their agenda. However, voting power is meaningless when politicians are perpetually thinking about their next election and the financial resources they will need to win.
If Burrell is right, then this would be more of a reason why the president should have made appointments that would not only make a difference in our community but further break down barriers in our beloved country. President Obama is not running for re-election, and should have felt empowered to appoint a diverse cabinet and not one reflected of the status quo.
Hence, this is the main issue I have with President Obama and his second term: Obama is more of a historical leader than he is a transformational leader for the African-American community.
If President Obama does not make some changes soon, at the end of his presidency he will be known as a historical leader - the first African-American president, but not a transformational leader - the president who truly uplifted and catapulted Black people from cycles of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and despair.
As we observed across the nation the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, I hope that President Obama and others are reminded that we, too, have dreams that should and must be fulfilled.
As always, keep the faith.
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is the senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14
Last year, I presented the vision that God had given me for Bright Hope Baptist Church during our annual Vision Church Conference. During the conference, I shared the story of the historic brand, Eastman Kodak.
Since the 1880s, Eastman Kodak had been at the forefront of all things image-related. They invented the technology we use to capture memories on film for our family photo albums. They also developed the technology we use for digital and video cameras.
However, something happened to Kodak during the digital era. Although Kodak developed the digital technology that we now use in our digital cameras and smartphones, Kodak could not keep up with how their own technology was being used in cell phones, digital imaging, and other technology that emerged over years. Thus, in January of 2012, Kodak — the historic company — filed for bankruptcy because it was having difficulty staying relevant.
How could such a thing happen to a company that not only dominated, but practically created the film and digital industry? You may be asking, “What does this technological story have to do with me and my church?” Well, I would like for you to take a moment, reflect, and ask the question: “Are we, the Church, still living in a Kodak World?”
Bright Hope is a wonderful and historic church. Our impact has been significant and felt internationally, nationally and locally.
Yet, we recently had to ask ourselves as a 103-year-old institution: Are we keeping pace with the ever-changing digital culture? Are we taking advantage of every available means and opportunity to preach the Gospel and make disciples? In sum, is Bright Hope relevant for today’s generation and generations to come?
Not that the church should “conform to the world,” but is the present-day church as concerned as we need to be about the world that continues to walk in darkness? Are we more committed to staying the same and maintaining the status quo, than innovatively reaching new souls for Christ?
Our church and community came into being through the vision God gave the Rev. William H. Gray, Jr. in the 1960s. When Gray and the dedicated members of Bright Hope built the sanctuary where we currently sit and worship, it was not only state-of-the-art, but cutting edge! Bright Hope has always been a church that is engaged in the community, fighting and advocating for the least of these, on the cusp of trends, and most importantly, focused on winning souls for Christ! We will not lose that drive and that determination.
For ministry in the 21st century and beyond, the church cannot lose sight of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. The Gospel makes the church relevant. Jesus’ disciples found that it was the Gospel that made a tremendous impact on their society and continues to make an impact on the world of today. However, we must not go the way of Kodak.
Analysts say that Kodak realized too late the need to change; moved too slowly to change; became complacent, relying too heavily on old product mainstays and misjudged the importance of digital technology. The church must remain faithful to the Gospel, vigilant and concerned about souls and innovative in our methods to reach the world with the greatest story ever told.
Let’s consider the some of the challenges that the modern church is facing:
Seniors are living longer than ever before, and we have to be able to meet their spiritual needs.
There is an increase in divorce, single parenting and blended families. The church has to be equipped to minister to the children and the adults in those situations.
We see an increase in violence among our young people and we have to have the manpower and resources to minister to their spiritual needs, and provide programs to develop, mentor, and save their lives!
Most people are immersed in technology-cell phones, computers, etc., and we must recognize that there is a place for embracing the technology to help us spread the gospel by streaming online, having a website, recording our sermons to reach our world, and in short, using every available voice and mechanism to reach the masses!
Christ is still the answer, but is the church allowing Jesus to reign or our parochial and outdated traditions? As I’ve said before, some things can never, and will never change, like our faith in Christ, reading and staying true to the Word, prayer, healing, teaching, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.
Yet, we must remain innovative to keep the present-day church moving forward by utilizing every possible resource to reach this dying world. Beloved, we cannot get left behind! God has had his hand on all our ministries, but we cannot let tradition keep the church from growing and moving forward. I exhort you to support your pastors, imams, rabbis, etc. as they dare to move the church forward into the 21st century!
As always, keep the faith!
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson. is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde
Long before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, which officially ended slavery in America, African Americans found solace and strength within the “invisible institution” (i.e., the Black church) and the “liberation” narratives in the Bible.
The former allowed African Americans to build and have their own institutions, while the latter served as a source of inspiration and hope as they read the liberation stories of the Hebrew children from their oppressors in Egypt. The Exodus and other Biblical texts, like the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ, inspired oppressed men and women to pursue freedom and the abundant life.
However, there was a flaw in African Americans’ pursuit of liberation and freedom, particularly as it related to the establishment of the Black church. According to Anthony B. Pinn, “one of the most widely debated concerns during the entire history of the Black church, an issue cutting across all denominations, is the role of women within Black church life and activities.” In 2004 Delores Williams argued that:
“When the issue of sexism surfaced in the Black church, particularly in the late 19th century on the heels of the emerging women’s suffrage movement, the Black churches did not see gender equality as a concern — or at least as a concern equal to that of race and class oppression.”
Indeed, this created a major dilemma in the Black church, particularly as it relates to full equality and freedom for both men and women. Williams’ assessment is troubling because it unveils the dilemma that has plagued the Black church since its inception: What do we do with the women?
Although when Blacks left white churches during slavery they were determined to serve God “in Spirit and in Truth,” their doctrine and policy were no different from the white churches that they had left.
This obviously created a schism in the Black church and led some 19th-century Black women, such as Jarena Lee, to challenge the Black church’s doctrine and polity, specifically as it related to women’s leadership roles in the church.
Fed up with racism and now sexism in the church, these women challenged the Black church about its own traditions and raised the following critical faith questions:
“If the man may preach, because the savior died for him, why not the woman, seeinghe died for her also? Is he not a whole savior, instead of a half one, as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach would seem to make it appear?” (Lee, 1986).
Similarly, when a preacher argued at a women’s rights convention that a woman could not have as much right as a man because Christ was not a woman, Sojourner Truth argued: “Whar did your Christ come from?…Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”
These critical responses of Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee raise the issue of servanthood and women’s social roles in the church, and expose the sexist and patriarchal ideologies that have existed in the Black church for years.
In the 20th century, there was a move among some African-American preachers, such as my predecessor the Rev. William H. Gray, III, to reexamine the women’s roles of leadership and expand it in the church. Specifically, at Bright Hope Baptist Church, we not only embraced female preachers, but also female deacons. And under my now six-year tenure as pastor, we have had at least two women to serve as chair of the deacon board.
Part of the reason that pastors have evolved to accept women in leadership positions is because in many African-American churches, women are the “backbone” of the church. Demographically, women come to church more, give more, serve more, and in many cases sacrifice more. This does not discount the men and their service, but shows appreciation to the women of the Black church.
Nevertheless, in 1993 Jacqueline Grant wrote an article, “The Sin of Servanthood,” and offered a stinging critique of women being the “backbone” of the church. For Grant, when women are called the “backbone” of the church, it “may appear to be a compliment, especially when one considers the function of the backbone in the human anatomy.” However, Grant says:
“the telling portion of the word backbone is ‘back’. It has become apparent to me that most ministers who use this term have reference to location rather than function. What they really mean is that women are in the background and should be kept there.”
Certainly, the issues raised by Grant and other womanists undoubtedly have reignited an effort to redefine leadership within the Black church, and to emphasize a more egalitarian view of church leadership.
Congregations that were once Biblical literalist are now embracing a Biblical hermeneutic that is transformative and critically reflective of one’s faith. They are questioning many long-held theological beliefs, such as 1 Timothy 3:2-5, which has often been interpreted as the Bible prohibiting women to be in authority over men.
For example, when the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., pastor of the oldest African-American congregation in Washington, D.C., began to critically assess his views on female deacons, he shared with his congregation the following argument on why they should ordain and embrace female deacons:
“I believe that the word diakonos is never used to describe a person; rather it is used to describe a function. Deacon is not a noun which describes a person, but rather a verb which describes one’s actions. Ultimately, God uses whom he chooses, whether to teach or to preach, or to serve as deacon within the administrative boundaries of the local congregation.”
Hicks’ “Rationale for Female Deacons” is historic, for it not only highlights how a church leader has addressed critical faith issues, but also began to engage a congregation in critically reflecting upon its religious traditions, assumptions, beliefs, and faith.
This shift in faith learning and development is indeed revolutionary, and is currently becoming an unavoidable issue for other traditional Black congregations in America. In our post-modern world, the church must hold to the tenets of Jesus Christ but also be honest with itself regarding traditions that are more church-centered than Christ-centered.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.