During my first year of seminary, I attended the Samuel Dewitt Proctor conference for progressive African-American faith leaders and their congregations. It took place in February 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. I had not heard of this conference before, but the opportunity came across my radar because of my affiliation with the Fund for Theological Education (now known as The Forum for Theological Exploration).
As a black, queer person of faith, I felt like I was on the periphery of this conference for black progressive faith leaders. I realized how relative the term “progressive” is, since there was little-to-nothing in the conference agenda discussing sexuality, nor was there time or space set aside for us to think critically about our theologies regarding the topic. I was a victim of my assumptions – figuring this would be the kind of conversation that progressives would embrace.
Based on conversations I had with other “progressives” at this conference, I honestly felt like my beliefs and thoughts were in left field.
I recognized not only the fear and terror that comes from one’s willingness to think differently, but also the fear that comes with articulating these thoughts aloud. I was afraid to say what I was really thinking because so often it seemed in contrast to what I heard from others. After all, I have been shaped by a black church culture that was fed by the “Amen corner” – in which someone hollered, “Amen” or “I am with you preacher.” However, I quickly began to learn that these affirming words become fewer and fewer when a preacher goes against the grain.
While seated at a banquet during the conference, Bishop Carlton Pearson walked in and sat across from my table. I was overwhelmed, for this was a person I grew up singing along with his Azusa Street Revival recordings, and here he was in person. What struck me most was my thought, “What was he doing at this conference?”
For those who don’t know the Carlton Pearson story, I urge you to read up on it. In short, he was once revered by black churches and beyond as a charismatic preacher/singer. But this all changed when Pearson began to think differently and started expressing his new beliefs. He was soon pushed to the periphery, treated as a heretical figure.
The moment, the message
As I stared at him – which was about the entirety of the banquet – I imagined being able to meet him and talk with him, because I, too, was thinking differently; as a result, my social circles began to shrink.
God must have heard the prayer of my soul because someone connected the two of us at the banquet, and I was able to meet with him privately. I poured out my heart to him and he offered me counsel and wisdom. His words that stood out most and continue to echo within the halls of my heart are these:
You cannot feed off the applause and appreciation of others. Otherwise, when those applauses and appreciation end you will not be able to go on. You have to feed off something beyond them, rather something within you that is organic and life-giving. This is what you need to keep you moving.
– Bishop Carlton Pearson
As a new church pastor, traveling the road less traveled, I revere the words as they keep me going forward. Thinking differently is OK, and I need not be afraid to articulate my beliefs. I am being set free from the need for folks to offer me an “Amen,” as my “Amen” comes from within.