The Riverside Church of Manhattan on the Upper West Side comes to mind when one thinks of bastions of ecclesial liberalism. And generally one calls to mind famous pastors of Henry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin and the latest James Forbes. Sadly, I’m sure in the history of this great institutional church, Dr. Brad Braxton may be the only pastor with an asterisk by his name.
Now Dr. Brad Braxton is somewhat of a academic icon to me personally. I never really followed him perhaps until the last year or so, and I have yet to read his books, but I did know that his areas of expertise were the New Testament and Homiletics and many use his book Preaching Paul in their homiletics classes. And frankly I think his sermon at the back “A Second Wind” was pretty darn good considering most things. I remember that when word got to us at ITC that he was leaving his post at Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity to accept the job as pastor of the Riverside Church in New York that many of us looking toward Ph.D. programs were happy for him being an African American to have the position, but also that the academy would be made more the poorer because of his vacancy.
I really hadn’t followed him since then until on Friday when my friend told me that he resigned. And I was a bit shocked. I remember that there had been some mild talk about the fact that Riverside was going to have two African American pastors back to back, and there was some mild concern that Riverside was turning into a “black” church. Whereas previous membership had been 60-40 in favor of Euro-Americans, by last year that number had reversed with growing numbers of Latinas and Latinos and a small Asian population out of a slightly more than 2,500 member congregation.
However, the recent stories surrounding his resignation don’t seem to point to the fact that it was racially motivated at all, but squarely financial:
The senior pastor of Riverside Church, the renowned bastion of liberal theology and social activism on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is resigning after just nine months on the job.
The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton, has been the focus of a fierce battle within the congregation over his compensation package and the mission of the church. He said he notified the church’s board Monday night that he was stepping down.
Dr. Braxton, 40, was chosen last September by a committee that considered more than 200 candidates. But a week before his formal installation in April, a group of dissident congregants went to State Supreme Court in Manhattan seeking to block the ceremony, saying that he and the board had been unnecessarily secretive about the church’s finances. They also complained that Dr. Braxton was moving Riverside away from its tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice. The judge refused to block the installation, and urged both sides to reach an accord.
Since its founding in 1930 as a Gothic cathedral built by John D. Rockefeller, Riverside Church has espoused a progressive and often pacifist agenda. But internal fights have plagued the congregation for more than a decade.
Longtime members ascribe some of the tension to changes in the racial makeup of the 2,700-member congregation, which was once about 60 percent white and 40 percent black, and now is roughly the reverse. Some of the troubles are traced to generational differences, between older whites with roots in the civil rights era and younger, middle-class black members who are less politicized.
Dr. Braxton, a Baptist minister and former Rhodes scholar, appeared to knit together both those traditions, calling himself a “progressive evangelical.”
But his opponents kept up their attacks, saying that his pay package exceeded $600,000 a year, including a $250,000 salary and a housing allowance. Experts on American churches said the pastor’s compensation was well above average among pastors nationwide, but within the range of packages for senior pastors of similar major churches in other big cities.
Well, I’m frankly not in favor of any pastor, no matter the size of the church making more than $300,000.00 in my own opinion particularly does not speak well of a pastor. I think such a comfortable salary fully allows for a pastor to take care of housing expenses and most other expenses that arise. Well, Brad Braxton got a $600,000.00 package that included
Not to mention that Braxton brought on an assistant pastor with a package of $300,000.00.
I’m sure the church could more than afford nearly $1,000,000.00 in new salaries, but it’s not a good look when Braxton’s package was doubled that of James Forbes who most certainly has more name recognition than Braxton does on the preaching circuit, and even ten times more than that of the famed William Sloane Coffin (even though that was 1987 money).
Well what does this have to do with diversity and it’s danger Uppity Negro, you ask? Well I’m glad you did. Check out the following clips of Braxton.
This is what Riverside was getting.
Now Braxton had already categorized himself as a “progressive evangelical” and naturally the word “evangelical” causes the average liberal to see red immediately. Check out this quote from the Wall Street Journal:
Riverside prides itself in being interdenominational, interracial, international and, even, interfaith. In its multiracial Sunday worship it defies the characterization of Dr. King, who famously observed: “The eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Mr. Braxton was the second African-American to serve as senior minister at the church.
Riverside is also known for being highly democratic, so much so that any 10 members can call a general meeting of the congregation. The church overwhelmingly voted to hire Mr. Braxton back in September. But from the start, a small group of dissidents complained about his evangelical style, which they said put a greater emphasis on personal salvation than on doing social justice. They recoiled at his penchant for the “altar call,” in which he asked people to step forward and witness their faith.
The small group of dissidents called a congregational meeting. They went to court to try to stop the installation of Mr. Braxton in April. The truth is that they did not get much traction until they mentioned to the Daily News the $600,000 compensation package — which included salary, a housing allowance, retirement benefits and tuition for Mr. Braxton’s 4-year-old daughter. It became front-page news with Mr. Braxton identified as the “600K Pastor.”
Aside from church people being church people and being mired in tradition, whatever that tradition may be, Braxton’s large salary in the face of the church’s social justice and liberative tradition and the massive economic turn-down was merely the icing on the cake. I’d suggest that the real problem lie in the type of diversity that Braxton was bringing to the church.
As I put a quarter in it and park, given my own run-in with one of the lone Euro-Americans who was in attendance at the church I preached at this past Sunday, and on the blog comments I read over at Shaun King’s blog, Shaun in The City, in a post thread entitled “Fostering (Real) Diversity Is Harder Than I Thought,” I am making the suggestion that ecclesiastical diversity seeks to be dictated through a white American hermeneutic. I say that because usually when issues of marked negritude arise, that it’s those of Caucasian background that lay the charge that whatever is being said or done is anti-diversity.
I was really struck by a comment left on Shaun King’s blog concerning this topic where one commenter suggested that whites don’t care what color Jesus was:
…but what you find with most black ministers is that they choose to focus more on fighting racial discrimination than they do showing the community the grace and mercy offered by Christ. Certainly, discrimination violates Christ’s command to love one another as we love ourselves, but the Gospel isn’t about man’s inhumanity to others but about a loving Father who allowed His Son to come and reconcile us all to Him.
Most white Christians have no issue with the color of Jesus’ skin. He could have been the blackest Ethiopian or had the slanted eyes of an Oriental or worn the red hair of a freckled Irishman. The God of scriptures accepted us all the way we are – bigotted, racist, ignorant, indifferent, apathetic, and totally screwed up. Explain why God would do that and people will flock to hear the Good News.”
Now someone else came back and refuted that claim by saying that:
Your statement “Most white Christians have no issue with the color of Jesus’ skin,” could be based on the fact that Jesus has been portrayed in the mainstream as looking European. Many ethnic minorities have also accepted this vision. It would be easy for White Christians to have “no issue” w/ Jesus’ color since that is the “common” image for Him…Ethnic minorities who experience racial discrimination and live in an environment they perceive to be oppressive, may experience self -loathing, hardened hearts, and a spirit of fear and hopelessness among others. For black ministers to overlook these experiences would be insensitive and unrealistic. Contrary to your statement, when discussing discrimination, black ministers discuss Christ’s unconditional love and His celebration of our differences. Black ministers also encourage living victorious lives regardless of circumstances b/c God is above it all.
But it got me to thinking that perhaps–yes, perhaps–the prevailing thought is that whites should be allowed to dictate the diversity conversation and that yet again, the African American perspective is “other” and needs to be revamped in order to sit at the table of diversity. I am suggesting that some of the members at Riverside that had already set their teeth against Braxton simply because he did an altar call (something that’s more than common in black churches and many evangelical churches) have effectively placed Braxton on a “time-out” and told him that he needs to calm down and stand in the corner before he can come sit at the table of diversity as defined by some liberal elite group.
The lone white person at the church took great issue with my sermon and suggested that it was divisive in so many words without being quite that blunt about it. But he proceeded to tell me about the purpose of Martin Luther and the 95 Theses he tacked to the door of the church at Wittenburg and how he was at this church to be a liaison between the only all black church in this presbytery with their sister church in the city (which I’m presuming is either much more white or much more racially and culturally diverse) and moreover how he considered himself a “lay minister” and that he was here to keep the “little Larries like you” in check.
Again, he’s one white person in a church that’s all black.
Frankly, I’m mildly, mildly insulted that a white person in an all black setting had the cajones to step to me and talk to me about racial reconciliation. Fact of the matter is that half the damn reason we have separate EVERYthing is because there was most certainly a time when whites didn’t want to be associated with blacks. It seems that whites have now turned the tables on us. I’ve yet to meet a black pastor who ever once made a declaration that whites weren’t welcomed in their church, in the past or present, but that’s not the track record for some white congregations in the past most certainly. When a white person, this particular man or not, feels comfortable to assert that one’s sermon or any other word or deed wasn’t fostering cultural diversity and racial reconciliation because of a mere recitation of verifiable historical facts, then I think reconciliation is doomed from the start.
To take the Riverside Church as an example, when a church is 60-40 in favor of a white majority, it’s considered a diverse church. When it’s 60-40 in favor of blacks its considered a black church at worst, and a church becoming a black church at best.
Are we seriously blind in this country to the disconnect here?
Commenters on Shaun King’s blog noted that it was much easier for a white male pastor to have a “diverse” church (which I’m beginning to wonder is “diverse church” merely code word for a church with mostly white members and the “token” members from other ethnic backgrounds) than for a black (male) pastor. One such commenter pointed out that:
Our congregations reflect who we are. You and your wife went to colleges with people who choose to segregate by sex and race. You did your elementary school outreach in a school that was not diverse. Not casting stones at any of these things but they are what they are and none of these landmark events speak of diversity. On top of that you do blog posts criticizing Christian events that are too white. Not exactly rolling out the welcome mat.
My church is diverse because that is who I am, not a goal I am trying to get others to adopt.
Couple these things with the reluctance many white people have to submitting to black leaders, and the fact that you are leading a plant in the south, the lack of diversity seems pretty understandable, if not expected.
My question is what type of accomodationism must take place in order for whites to accept a different point of view. So Shaun and his wife went to Morehouse and Spelman, they got the same basic education as did everyone else and their degrees hold as much weight as any other four year degree. So Shaun did outreach at a predominantly black middle school–how is that of all things not rolling out the mat for whites or others of ethnic background to be attracted to him? Are whites opposed to doing outreach at all black schools? I’m confused. Now I’m not saying that the author of that comment is indicative of all whites, but I’m sure he’s not alone in his point of view.
I think Braxton should have seen this coming, but something tells me he got the big head slightly making the argument that churches of comparable size were paying their senior pastors as much, and particularly with him being degreed and having previous experiences at the Douglass Memorial Church in Baltimore, an ecumenical equivalent of Riverside, and having to be CEO of sorts over a staff of 150 and a school as well. He should have known that he was coming in through a storm and he should have laid as low as possible. I almost don’t doubt him for resigning because he had lost pastoral capital with too many of the church members.
Now, the sociologist in me would be very interested to see racially what members were raising the most sand. To probe deeper I truly wonder if it was a money issue solely or was it the money coupled with the fact that he was “changing our church.”
Diversity is when everyone’s opinion is recongnised as a lived reality. While it may be hard for whites to recognize and accept the past racial misdeeds in this country, many, many more need to accept that it is an everyday lived reality of racial discrimination and discrepancy for millions of non-whites and non-Americans in this country. By the same token, non-whites need to be more understand of the ignorance that belies many whites in this country. Through the privilege of white skin, many whites really are wholly unaware of the culture of non-whites. In some respects do you really fault someone for true ignorance? It’s my personal prayer that when these whites are aware of the injustices that their non-white citizens experience that they actually do something about it and not just remain in their ivory towers.
I think the whole diversity debate is more a cultural one than it is a racial one, but I guess I’ll just let that one marinate on your mind.
Do you think the diversity discussion properly takes into account what could be an African American perspective? If so why and if not, why. What should both parties bring to the diversity discussion table that would result in steps toward reconciliation? Why do you think some whites have a problem with what’s considered an African American perspective when what’s being said is irrefutable facts? How far off base do you think my analysis was?
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL