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Preacher, prophet, poet the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. extols the blessings of Black love

The Riverside Church’s senior minister emeritus speaks with the New York City chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. was the guest last week of the New York City chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus.

LOUISVILLE — Last weekend, the New York City chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus was privileged to hear the prophetic voice of the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. You too can hear Forbes’ talk here.

Forbes is senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York City and before that was a preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary, also in New York City.

Asked to talk about the blessings of Black love, Forbes initially stuck to the topic at hand.

For years, Forbes has been one to write poems and songs. He gave one, which he said was about “the blessedness of Black love,” to his wife’s chorale, the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble, to sing: “I expected mission impossible, a call to service far away, but instead this gentle assignment God sends to us each day: Love my children, that’s all I ask of you. Love my children, that’s all we’ve got to do. If you love them as I love them we shall see them safely through. Love yourself, love me too, and whatever else you do, love my children.”

Forbes, who’s 85, extolled the practice many churches used to have of keeping a cradle roll, a list of all its children with a promise to care for them and recognize their achievements as they grew up. “It was their way of saying any child born into our [church] family needs the watchful care of church elders to make sure each child would fulfill his or her destiny under God,” Forbes said.

The Black community’s “vulnerability in the face of COVID-19 reveals that every day we find ourselves victims of circumstances which have compromised our immune system,” Forbes said. “We also found when it came to testing we were last in line. In the early phases of the vaccine, we had to fuss, fight and fume to make sure that the naturally ingrained pattern of last and least would not be visited upon us in the wake of this pandemic.” Many churches and other organizations are working to make vaccination and testing efforts more equitable, “but it’s very clear that if nobody else is going to love us, the blessedness of the Black community should be love that begins at home,” he said.

Or, to put it in the words of another Forbes poem: “Stop the virus of hate from spreading across the land, Bigotry is a deadly weapon the nation cannot stand. The ‘isms’ of division and the seeds of fear will start an epidemic throughout the atmosphere. The spirit of our nation is desperately pleading today: This is our blue-green planet, don’t let hatred take it away. Take the vaccine of love in a hurry, Let’s spread it far and near. Teach it and preach it everywhere until the air is clear.”

Two years ago while writing a chapter for a book his goddaughter was editing on the 400th anniversary of the arrival to these shores of the first enslaved people, Forbes said he ran across what he called “the biblical quadricentennial,” found in Gen. 15:12-14. In the biblical account, Abram falls into a deep sleep. God tells Abram his offspring will be aliens in a land that is not theirs. They’ll be slaves there, oppressed for 400 years, when God will “bring judgment on the nation that they serve.” After that, they’ll come out “with great possessions.”

“I asked God a question,” Forbes recalled upon rediscovering that biblical story.  “God, I see that after 400 years of brutality and dehumanizing activities, you couldn’t stand it any longer. You decided, I’m going to do something about this, and you sent Moses to Pharaoh,” who told Egypt’s ruler, “Let my people go.”

“Since God and I talk plain,” Forbes went on, “I asked God, ‘That was the biblical quadricentennial. What about ours? It’s the 400th year coming up now, God. Do you love us Black people as much as you love the Israelites?’ The Spirit said to me, ‘I love my Black people and I love my white people and yes, I am going to do something dramatic in the direction of your liberation.’”

“Since those words, I’ve been a different person,” Forbes said. When God says, “I’m going to give a dramatic demonstration of my determination to bring deliverance,” it’s not just for Black people, Forbes said, “because your bondage is mutually connected. I’m going to bring deliverance,” he said, quoting what the Almighty told him, “to people who are oppressed and who are oppressors.”

The Spirit then reminded Forbes of the timetable of the biblical account: “’When I began delivering in Egypt, it took a little bit longer than just that first year,’” Forbes said of the conversation. “‘I had to use 10 plagues. …’ I look at the Congress and I say, ‘Oh, I see what God means.’ Even when they know what’s right, some folks are not able to do right.”

Any plagues that may have already arrived or are yet to come “are harbingers of the hand of God at work to begin some deliverance in your land of bondage,” Forbes said.

When he hears a former president refer to “s—-hole nations,” Forbes said he turned to the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for help. The result was another Forbes poem, “The Divine Retribution,” a poem “for those who refer to others in degrading and disrespectful terms.” The poem includes these words: “My love is the laboratory for their refinement, tweaking the design, even after birth. I am the potter, you are the clay: I honor your freedom to be what you may. I assure you I will lure you to be the person you were meant to be …”

“It’s ‘Sacred Humanity in Transformation,’” Forbes said, laughing at his own acronym. “Y’all pardon me. I don’t cuss much.”

Forbes said he’s since seen plagues in police killings that have included George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As to the current pandemic, “Lord, there’s no question that’s a plague,” and one might add weather and power disasters in Texas and other states and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol to the list.

That same Spirit urged Forbes not to overlook other more hopeful signs, including protests around the world with people of many races, the removal of Confederate statues in this country and the election of first woman and person of color as vice president.

“I said, ‘Lord, we are still in the midst of plagues, but I’m watching you,’” Forbes said.

“I don’t care if you’re a Presbyterian or a Pentecostal,” he said. If you’re a person of color, you’ve lived through traumatic stress disorder, according to Forbes. The only question, he said, is if it’s post-traumatic stress disorder or present-traumatic stress disorder.

Citing Kathleen Battle’s Carnegie Hall performance of “Lord, How Come Me Here,” a lament Forbes said nearly all people of color have sung at some point in their life, Forbes offered some possible answers.

“Part of the mystery of life is you don’t always know the answer to any of these questions,” he said. “We know that God is at work with why we’re here … That’s why you’re loved like you’re loved.”

Or it could be that God “brought you here to help save the soul of the nation,” he said. “I want Black Presbyterians to get over whatever has ailed you in the past and get ready to make your presence known as God’s instrument of love in a world of hate.”

During a question-and-answer session following his talk, Forbes said that as awful as the violence of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was, he believes “that awful day will at least awaken Americans whose hearts haven’t been totally hardened to recognize how close we came to a coup that would have turned America into a totalitarian society. Somehow the ugliness of that moment reminds us that if you like democracy, you’re going to have to get up off your butt and do something about sustaining it.”

“I think it’s a good thing when you discover how bad things are that it makes you decide you are going to get up and do something about it,” he said. “I too was raised to consider that strength is manifested in restraining the expression of my deepest anguish. If I really was strong, I could bear up under the most intense indignity and insult.”

But then Forbes had a dream: He died and was laid in a casket. They started to lower the lid, and he sat up in the casket — which turned out to be his bed — crying, “I object! I object! I object!”

“From that day on, I began to view it as a gift of the Spirit to object to anything that plans to shut me down,” he said. “Somebody ought to write this song: ‘This Mess has got to be Over!’”

“God has told us,” Forbes said, “that now is the time for us to embrace the abundance of life God has called us to.”

“Y’all got to be crying out,” he said. “Don’t be so sophisticated that you can’t cry out when you’re hurt.”

“Purge and surge. That’s the kind of Holy Spirit I believe in,” Forbes said. “Purge the bitterness and let God give you the surge of new possibilities.”

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