Black Methodists To Share God's 'Amazing Grace'

April 03, 2009

A UMNS Report

By John W. Coleman*

April 2, 2009 | PITTSBURGH

One of America's foremost preachers ended a three-day conference of black United Methodist leaders by foretelling good news, citing divine intervention in the U.S. presidency of Barack Obama and calling for a deeper Christian commitment to ministry among the poor.

The Rev. James A. Forbes, senior minister emeritus of New York's Riverside Church, spoke to more than 500 members and guests of Black Methodists for Church Renewal at their closing banquet on March 27, in a manner that some described as "prophetic."

It is a familiar description for this 74-year-old energetic orator and retired pastor, thrice named by Newsweek and Ebony magazines as one of the most effective and eloquent preachers in the nation.

Quoting from Luke 4:21 in the Bible, Forbes told members of United Methodism's black caucus that he heard the voice of God on the day of President Obama's inauguration telling him that 2009 would be "the year of the Lord's favor."

He acknowledged the dire problems facing the nation: the steep economic decline; widespread loss of jobs, homes and investments; two intractable wars; a growing crime rate and prison population; and the unrelenting rise of HIV and AIDS in black communities. Yet, he said, "sometimes God specializes in doing great work in times of deep trouble. ... God will do something this year that will be called amazing."

The charismatic, widely revered preacher and advocate for social justice led the progressive, multiracial, interdenominational, 2,400-member Riverside Church for 18 years, from 1989 to 2007, as its first African-American senior minister.

He is ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA and the Original United Holy Church of America and now heads the Healing the Nations Foundation, which he co-founded to support ministries of spiritual and social transformation around the world.

'The God factor'

Forbes defined the unusual circumstances leading to America's first African-American president and the first with biracial parents and a multicultural upbringing as "the God factor."

"There is a tradition in heaven," he explained, noting the 1968 assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, "that when someone has died a martyr's death, every 40 years Heaven arranges a special manifestation on earth to show the martyr that 'you did not shed your blood in vain.'"

Forbes then widened his focus to include the cause of helping the world's poor, a population, he said, that is growing exponentially, even among some who were formerly wealthy, due to the global economic collapse.

Recalling Jesus' revelation of his life's mission in Luke 4:18-21, "to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed and to give sight to the blind," the impassioned preacher urged his banquet congregation to fully embrace that same calling.

The BMCR caucus, which made Forbes an honorary member, had just spent March 25-27 in plenary sessions and workshops discussing revitalization goals and strategies for their churches, their caucus and their denomination. Those discussions reflected The United Methodist Church's renewed emphasis on developing new churches, new leadership and new outreach ministries among the poor. However, Forbes made his message more personal, citing the importance of knowing one's own given purpose in life.

"Unroll the scroll," he advised his attentive audience, recalling how Jesus had unrolled a scroll to read his own mission statement from the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah. "Find your place in God's plan for the age of amazing grace. ... Find somewhere where it is written what you are called to do in this life," he recommended.

Forbes shared that God was calling him to "not waste anymore time" and to "stop pussy-footing around with the gospel," a surprising confession for a busy preacher and committed social justice advocate. He then recited lyrics from his own rap-style poem, "No Time for Foolishness."

"What is your response to the poor who don't have healthcare, who don't have a home, whose lights have been cut off, or who need a job?" he asked. "There are more black people incarcerated than in college. What are you doing about it?"

Inviting his listeners to "join God's transition team," Forbes left them with three instructions to help them "function in this age of God's amazing grace." He told them to first list and be thankful for blessings God has already granted them, and then to list the favors they want to receive that only God can grant them. Finally, he gave them words to recite in dedicating their lives to serving God by serving others.

"You and I must unroll the scroll and find our place," he said, "so we can embody God's promise of amazing grace."

*Coleman is communications director for The United Methodist Church's Commission on Religion and Race, based in Washington, D.C.