Prophecy and Possibilities

12-25-2010 by

Alicia Leonardi
Reflections on Justice, Chicago, and American Culture with the Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton

For Brad Braxton, the world is a sermon. Sometimes the illustrations come from his own life, other times he borrows from the stories of others to spin tales that have held many listeners spellbound. As a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Braxton is obviously an intellectual, but he hasn’t forgotten his small parish roots and the reality of systemic racism that encompasses nearly every aspect of life as an African American.

Having relocated to Chicago, Braxton recently joined the faculty at McCormick Theological Seminary for the 2010-2011 academic year as Distinguished Visiting Professor. His schedule is fast-paced as he balances speaking and preaching appointments around the country with the demands of preparing McCormick students for ministry in the Church. Having gained much wisdom from his challenging experience as Senior Minister of New York’s Riverside Church, Braxton is glad to be back at work after a one-year sabbatical and finds himself in the right setting to look forward.

Chicago has been an ideal place for envisioning new ministry possibilities

“Chicago has been an ideal place for envisioning new ministry possibilities,” Braxton said. He specifically cites the value of being near his mentor and father figure, Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Senior Pastor of Progressive Community Center – The People’s Church and of his work at McCormick.

One of the highlights of his time at McCormick will come when he preaches at McCormick’s 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration of Praise and Worship, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (reception at 5:45 p.m.), Friday, January 14. As has been McCormick’s custom at this event that honors Dr. King, Braxton will creatively confront the realities of contemporary racism.

No stranger to personal experiences of racism, Braxton says the same issues of systemic racism that affect the rest of the world are also present in Chicago.

“I am troubled by this idea of a post-racial society,” Braxton said. “Racism is alive because we limit it to individual acts. Twenty-first century racism continues to operate at the structural level, by which I mean unequal access to institutional power and privilege that some groups in America have enjoyed for centuries. We need a new generation of activists who call our nation to repent by elevating diverse voices and embodying new perspectives.”

Grieved that the city seemed to be able to find the money to make an Olympic bid but doesn’t have safe public schools, Braxton plans to speak specifically on how Martin Luther King Jr. might react to Chicago and the world in general if he were alive today.

In a world where the rich want more tax cuts, Haiti is in shambles, and millions of people do not have clean drinking water, Braxton believes King would be concerned not only with racism but all issues of social inequality.

“We have undervalued moral leadership,” Braxton said. “Were Dr. King here, he would lead these conversations.”

Due to reservations he has about the Chicago Public School system, Braxton enrolled his five-year-old daughter, Karis, at a parochial school. As a parent, Braxton does all he can to give Karis the best chance at life. He wants her to be exposed to many cultures, but especially to be proud of her African American heritage. 

“As parents of an African American girl, we are aware of the forces that conspire to snuff out the dreams of African American children,” Braxton said. “There are so many temptations for African Americans to love everybody else’s culture and to despise their own.”

The son of a pastor who specialized in peacemaking and of an award winning kindergarten teacher, Braxton claims preaching and teaching as part of his DNA. Raised in Salem, Virginia, Braxton believes that his destiny was sealed from the very beginning of his life.  His first name, Brad – which means “broad meadow” – has prophetic implications, he says, and so he strives to use words to create common ground and bring reconciliation in contexts rife with animosity.

Braxton said he watched his parents take a stand for peace and justice through embodying the Gospel with their whole selves. They were highly respected in the community and characterized by kindness, even when parishioners would show up at the door with concerns at midnight. He grew up amid the same deeply-rooted African American church traditions that shaped Martin Luther King Jr.

“At the end of the day, Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. I Have a Dream is a good old fashioned black sermon,” Braxton said. “I’m coming to preach in that same vein.”

Eschewing PowerPoint as a means of grabbing attention, Braxton prefers to woo audiences through the graceful language and the “drum and trumpet” vocal intonation frequently found in the Black Church. Though he does like to warm the hearts of his listeners, Braxton isn’t afraid to address social injustices that many seem to ignore.

“Who is talking about the millions of poor people who go to bed hungry every night?” Braxton said. “Where are our political leaders as it relates to serious conversations about domestic and global poverty?”

Braxton said conversations about long-term social change are often not a priority for many of the poor, because they are too busy trying to survive day-to-day.  He said others miss the chance because they are at death’s door or are incarcerated. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 41 million African Americans in the United States have twice the unemployment rate of Euro Americans and have dramatically higher rates of homicide, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.

Drinking from the same rhetorical stream as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – the black Baptist preacher who called America to be its best self, the Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton wants the modern Church in America to rise to the challenge and be its best self.

“Christianity when it’s not at its best gets in the way of attempts to display compassion and create genuine community,” Braxton said. “Christianity’s power to transform society involves a commitment to Jesus and restorative justice.  Faith in God and in what is best in the human spirit can help us find a new and better way.”

Braxton believes that not only the Church, but also American culture has turned away from more substantive issues in favor of sensationalism and celebrity worship, and that Americans must not only consider what is best for our country, but we also must engage in conversations about reconciliation and peace at the global level.

 “There is much to do for the sake of justice and peace, and I still believe that with God’s grace we can make a lasting difference,” Braxton said.