I am a child of God and a worshipper of Jesus who has been radically transformed by the Gospel. I am also Black and unapologetically so. I am by no means a perfect person. I have blind spots and preferences like every one else. Jesus knows this about me and He knows this about everyone else as well. I’m also by no means a master theologian but I do my best to honor God in what I say and do. I’ve come to know that it’s really difficult to study or represent God accurately solely from my particular point of view. God has a perspective on things that is infinitely bigger and more thorough than mine. Therefore, when I think of “Big God” theology, I am doing my very best to get as far away from my personal perspective as possible to get a greater glimpse of the view of God.
To understand my perspective, you need to understand my story. Here’s a little bit of it.
Making Me Black
My story and background is diverse. I grew up in Springfield, Illinois. The home of Abraham Lincoln is a diverse place. My upbringing was decisively middle class. My neighborhood was mostly White with a fair amount of other ethnicities around. I never really thought too much about race in those early days. From kindergarten to the fourth grade I was usually just about the only Black kid in my class but it never really bothered me. My best friend was a Korean kid for most of these early years. I just did and enjoyed whatever I felt like doing or enjoying.
I went from elementary school to a fifth and sixth grade center and then middle school. It was during these years that I was around a large number of Black kids for the first time and I realized that somehow I was a bit different. I didn’t really talk about the things many of them spoke about. The only rap songs I really knew about were by MC Hammer and maybe a little bit of LL Cool J and Kool Moe D. My folks didn’t play that N.W.A. stuff so I was pretty sheltered. Don’t laugh, my folks raised me right. #Jesus
From these years onward I began to grapple with what it meant to be Black. I won’t seek to define Blackness in this post but my high school years found me increasingly exploring this idea of Blackness. So much so that when it came time for me to pick a college, I had the opportunity to attend Clark Atlanta University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), in Atlanta, Georgia.
It was here that I really came much more intimately acquainted with the sound and soul of Blackness. Songs and singers that I had heard about in passing from my Dad’s LP’s and from Magic 108 when I got the chance to visit my family in East St. Louis, Illinois became the soundtrack of my life. I was suddenly immersed in the culture that I had only romanticized about when watching Bill Cosby’s A Different World. Names I had heard about once a year in February suddenly became centerpieces of my thinking and worldview. Names like W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. were joined and supplemented by names like Vernon Johns, Joseph Lowery, Ralph David Abernathy and many others in my historical database. I was learning much more about Blackness.
Atlanta also showed me a side of Blackness that I hadn’t been as much exposed to in Springfield. In Atlanta, particularly on the west side during the late 90’s, You had to go on quite a targeted expedition to find White people. There were Black professors, doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, store owners, politicians and everything else you can think of all around me. This was Black excellence to me. Black people had nice homes, clothes and cars and it wasn’t the exception it was the norm. It was here that I solidified what my parents had already taught me about Blackness and that was this: There is absolutely nothing wrong with being Black. Quite the contrary, our unique experience in this land had brought about something special, resilient and worth celebrating as much as any other heritage or culture you might find.
The most transformative thing that happened to me during these years however was having my heart to collide with the Gospel when I was around 21. I didn’t know where life would take me when I met Jesus on that cold December night in 1999 but I suddenly became aware that He was the biggest and most important entity in my life and He was the only one that I wanted to shape my identity.
Upon my graduation, I moved to Beaufort, South Carolina. This was my wife’s home town and is historic in its own right. This is the birth place of Robert Smalls and a cultural gem for learning of the Geechie and Gullah people. I wasn’t going out of my way to be Black or worship with Black people during this time. I was just living life and going where I believed God was leading me. I was still surrounded by and growing in Blackness. I served as Minister of Music at Pine Grove Baptist Church for two years before we got an opportunity to move to Jacksonville, Florida for me to teach in St. Augustine, Florida.
We joined the great Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville where they had a phenomenal preacher. This was before the great HB Charles graced the pulpit there but this pulpiteer, who has since suffered a moral failure, was simply great at teaching and preaching scripture. I didn’t know why this man’s preaching connected so much with me but I knew I couldn’t get enough of it. I would later come to know that his style of preaching was expository. It gives me great pleasure to point out that I learned about expository preaching from a Black church for those would argue that I’m trying to be White (more on that later).
We soon moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina following the birth of my first daughter. We got back to work at Pine Grove Baptist Church. I also formally accepted my call into the Gospel ministry at this time. I still would log on to the website at Shiloh in Jacksonville almost every week and listen to the preaching. One Sunday a man of whom I had never heard preached. His name was Jerry Vines. I don’t remember what he preached about but I know it rocked my world so much that I had to find out who he was. A Google search revealed that he was the pastor at the time of the great First Baptist Church of Jacksonville and he was also hosting a preaching conference in Atlanta in a few months called Power in the Pulpit. I was thrilled when my church agreed to send me there to help me to prepare to learn to preach.
It was here that I learned why I loved that preacher at Shiloh’s preaching so much. It was here that I learned that there was a name to this style of preaching that leaned so heavily on the Word of God. I determined in my heart that if I was going to be a preacher, I was going to be an expository preacher. Not long after this, we had the opportunity to return to the St. Augustine/Jacksonville area and I knew that whatever church we joined had to feature expository preaching.
Upon landing in St. Augustine, we visited dozens of Black churches because this is all we knew how to do. We met many great people and pastors who loved Jesus and the Gospel. The Black church is full of people who love Jesus and the Gospel. We just didn’t feel called to any of the churches we visited. It was unfathomable that we would go to a White church, however, one Sunday morning, we didn’t have a church pre-selected to visit. We decided to run around the corner to the White church where my daughter was attending Pre-K. We visited Turning Point at Calvary Church and everything changed.
Making Me White
I remember our first Sunday there very well. I don’t think they sang a single song I had ever heard before. They probably didn’t actually sing these songs that day, but this is where I learned songs that all the cool White kids make fun of me now for. Songs like Everlasting God, Worthy is the Lamb, Your Grace is Enough, Not to Us and Days of Elijah were our regulars. Cut me some slack—this was like 2008. When I tell you that we were the only black faces in a sea of about 800 whites I’m not exaggerating. We were like two meatballs in a big old bowl of rice. In the strangest way, it seemed right. For some reason, we felt like this was the place that God wanted us to learn and grow in ministry.
There were many growing pains and learning moments in these years. I may have some fun one day and talk about the very real differences between White church and Black church, but I’ll minimize those stories for now. Suffice it to say that there were many awkward moments and conversations. Again, contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t trying to act or be White at any point then or now. I can remember one Sunday in particular where one of the associate pastors made some very pro-Republican and anti-Democrat remarks that were very off-putting to me even though I was only marginally political at the time (but still a Democrat by default). I distinctly recall turning to my wife and saying, "that preacher needed to be careful because everyone in the room probably isn’t a Republican." I didn’t know that most White evangelicals were Republicans by default at the time but my point still stands.
However, like it or not, this is where I really began to dig deep into theology and sharpen my skills as a theologian and preacher. That’s not to say this wouldn’t have or couldn’t have been done in a Black church as the Black church is no stranger to “Big God” theology or any other quality needed to grow good disciples. This was just where God had placed me and this was where I came to know, love and understand people who were completely different from me but bound to me by the name of Jesus. These were and are good people who love Jesus and the Gospel.
How About Now?
Since 2008, I’ve pretty much served in conservative evangelical churches that are predominately White. There have been triumphs and frustrations. I became a political radical right-winger for a time as an over-correction from my apathetic left-leaning history. I have since recovered and only wish to know and represent a Biblical world view wherever this truth leads me. Someone once said that the more biblically faithful you are, the more ambiguous your political alignment will be. I’m good with this.
I’ve come to know and love many good people in my time in the Black church as well as the White. Many of which are born-again believers in Jesus Christ. These people agree with me on what is most important—The Gospel. Mankind is hopelessly fallen and in need of a Savior. That Savior is Jesus Christ. He was born of a virgin, died on Calvary’s cross and risen on the third day giving all who will put their trust in Him everlasting life and freedom from sin and death. Most of the people who I’ve worked beside in all of my churches are godly people who are doing the best they can to live holy, raise strong families, fulfill their ministries and give glory to God. They share my concerns and worries where it matters most yet in many cases there are some things that seem to separate us.
Politics aren’t the point of this post however. It is clear that politics, race and culture are causing many rifts among evangelicals in America. We must reconcile that God does have a point of view and perspective that supersedes and, dare I say, trumps all of our limited perspectives. This includes the White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Republican, Democratic perspective and any other perspective. I have lived among and loved a diverse group of Christians. The Gospel and my story is what fuels my desire to be a peacemaker among my fellow evangelicals. I hope to submit a way forward in part two of this post for these beloved people.
Herbert is a believer in Jesus Christ who is overwhelmed by the riches of the Gospel, the husband of April and the father of Cadence, Imani and Angel. He also serves as the worship pastor for the great Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has been serving in full time ministry for more than five years and was a public school music educator for twelve years prior to that. He loves deep philosophical conversation, barbecue and golf even though he stinks at it.