taking the words of Jesus seriously

Every month, Freedom Road—a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap—utilizes their podcast to bring together national faith leaders, advocates, and activists to record the kinds of conversations that are normally had on the front lines. “It’s just that this time,” Freedom Road President Lisa Sharon Harper says, “we’ve got microphones in our faces, and you are listening in.”

Lisa, a co-conspirator of Red Letter Christians, has shared with us the latest Freedom Road Podcast episode where she welcomes special guest, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Below, you’ll find transcript excerpts from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.

LISA: Otis is joining us on Freedom Road during this black history month to help us go deep on legacy and the power of pilgrimage.

I don’t think there’s any better way to transform communities or even our own individual worldview outside of moving in, like in living in a place for multiple years. The reason why we have Otis with us today is because Otis has got the pilgrimage bug as well. As a pastor, he is committed to taking his own church through pilgrimages once a year. Also, because this is Black History Month and we want to talk about legacy and how pilgrimage helps us to connect with legacy. And Otis is connected to legacy in his own blood and veins; his own father, Reverend Dr. Otis Moss Jr. was a hero of the civil rights movement, a friend and a colleague of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and so we want to offer this opportunity for us to hear from someone who has learned about legacy up close and personal, and also about pilgrimage. So, Otis, thank you so much for being with us and welcome to The Freedom Road.

OTIS: Thank you so much, Lisa. It is a delight to be on the Freedom Road.

LISA: So, I want to know, let’s just jump in by asking, you know, how has pilgrimage helped you to understand your father’s story, and by extension, our nation’s history more deeply?

OTIS: So, let me begin by just kind of sharing with everybody who’s listening. My dad was a part of the Student Movement of Atlanta when he was a student in seminary. My father, along with persons by the names of James Orange, Charlene Hunter-Gault, Marian Wright Edelman, [and] a variety of other students. [They] were the people that were a part of the desegregation of Atlanta. These were the stories that I grew up with. Hearing these names and then hearing other names such as Dorothy Cotton, Fannie Lou Hamer, who were friends of the family, Ella Baker, and Septima Clark. These were the individuals who were close to my parents, so my mother was the office manager for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

And so that was normal for me. It was normative. I thought any person in the faith community was committed to transformation. I thought that’s what you – when you went to church, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You love Jesus, change the world. That’s what you do. Racism is a scourge, [it] is a part of America’s original sin. I thought that was a normal theological framework until I went to college and I found out about all these other individuals who were – they said they were pre-millennial and millennials. I didn’t understand anything; I didn’t know this perspective at all. So, this was part of the legacy that I connected with. And then I ended up going to my father’s alma mater, Morehouse College, which on one level was a blessing. And on another level, it was a huge burden because this is the school he went to. And trying to make your way, trying to understand who you are in a space where your father casts a beautiful shadow, not one that is destructive. And that’s sometimes very difficult for, you know, for a young man, especially a person of African descent when you have his name also.

READ: Pilgrimage to Ferguson

LISA: So, your childhood in many ways was itself a pilgrimage, like the relationships that your family held immersed you in the stories like just around the kitchen table, I imagine.

OTIS: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s a great way of putting it. Yeah, it was.

So, [once, I was] in class with Dr. Harding, and I am communicating my radical perspective that non-violence is a tactic, not a way of life. As I’m talking and [Dr. Harding] just keeps saying hmm, hmm. If you’re from the South, you know that that sound has a variety of meanings within it. He plays a clip from Eyes on the Prize, Lisa, and it’s a clip from 1967 in Memphis, the strike of sanitation workers -to the entire class. Now I’m the one who’s, you know, got, I got on the radical soapbox that, “Nonviolence is only a tactic. We have to be able to utilize whatever we need to utilize because the oppressor uses whatever the oppressor wants to use against us. We have the right, you know, black people will not be cornered into one tactic.” You know, I’m just, I’m, I’m going in and he’s listening and saying, “Hmm.” And so he plays the clip, and the way Dr. Harding can only do it, he says, “Did you see it?” And we’re all like, “See what? Yeah, we saw people marching.” He said, “Let me rewind.”

And again he said, “Did you see it?” And we’re all like, “Yeah, there were people marching.” He said, “Let me rewind.” And so he says, “Otis, did you notice there’s a woman who’s 90, marching? Do you see the man right there with the – he only has one leg and he has, he has crutches. Do you see this young girl?” He then says, “Your vision of liberation is centered on men liberating everyone else, able-bodied men. This movement allows the ninety-year-old, the child, the differently-abled person to participate. Only non-violence does that.”

I mean, I’ll never forget, I’ll never forget it. It was the most amazing way of helping a young brother who was grasping at, you know, my maleness was, it has to be rooted in, “I have to defend somebody, I have to be physical. You cannot, you know, corner me with just nonviolence. I need to be able to use my fist because that means that I am truly being a man.” And he called out my patriarchy. And called out my shallow, thin spirituality.

LISA: Oh my God. Wow. See now . . . we don’t want to hear necessarily from the expert who learned what they learned in, you know, Harvard or whatever. We want to hear from the people it happened to, and we want to hear from the people that are descended from those people. And maybe last on the list might be someone from the community who learned what they learned at Harvard. Do you know what I mean? So you had the amazing benefit of just walking through your life and talking with the people, with those people. Your  life has been a pilgrimage in so many ways, and so you have been transformed just by living your life in the way that most people require to go and separate themselves from their everyday life [to] walk on the land where things happen and hear the stories from the people that [they] happened to. That’s powerful. That time sitting there in that classroom with Dr. Vincent Harding was a pilgrimage, [a] transformation moment.

OTIS: It was – it was a transformation-moment for a young man who was trying to figure out what does it mean to be a black man in America. And I was defining my manhood; and that’s what Dr. Harding helped me out with. You are defining your manhood through the lens of someone else. Non-violence is a courageous act. Picking up a gun is a relatively easy act. And one that is lifted up so often: you are defining your power through someone manufacturing something you can hold in your hand and not what you hold in your heart.

Find the full conversation at Freedom Road Podcast.

About The Author


Lisa Sharon Harper is the founder and president of Freedom Road, a groundbreaking consulting group that crafts experiences that bring common understanding and common commitments that lead to common action toward a more just world. Lisa is a public theologian whose writing, speaking, activism and training has sparked and fed the fires of re-formation in the church from Ferguson and Charlottesville to South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Ireland. Lisa’s book, The Very Good Gospel was named 2016 “Book of the Year” and the Huffington Post identified Lisa as one of 50 Women Religious Leaders to Celebrate on International Women’s Day.

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