Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Friendship-West Baptist Church

DALLAS, Texas, February 16, 2014. The campus of Friendship-West Baptist Church sits along the north side of Interstate 20 to the south of downtown Dallas.  This was the only church visited for this study that had traditional pews. The large, elevated stage and choir loft was framed by two large video screens to either side that scrolled various church announcements as the congregation filtered into the sanctuary. As the early service started, the lower level was mostly full, and the balcony would largely fill in as the morning went on.

As the service appeared to be formally beginning, a video was played in which a physician, Dr. Andre Graham, advertised his professional services.  This was followed by an advertisement for an upcoming conference that was taking place that week and which would be discussed further in the service. In fact, a large number of visitors prominently seated near the front would be playing leadership roles in that conference. Other advertisements played, as well.

This was followed by another video of roughly five minutes length featuring a black woman describing various forms of racial injustice that she had experienced throughout her life, going back to her birth in Temple, Texas, for which her parents had relied on the services of a midwife because doctors refused to see blacks in that area.  She described numerous experiences of discrimination, both in employment and as a would be consumer of services. Explaining that she had lived in other states, she added that the worst of her discrimination had occurred in Texas. As the taped testimony concluded, she exhorted the congregation that education was something that could not be taken away.
This was followed by a long, vibrant prayer by a female minister of the church.

An energetic song leader, assisted by a band, praise team, and full choir, led the musical part of the service, which began with songs declaring “It’s all about Jesus” and “When You Call upon Jesus, Something Happens.” The music was repetitive and emotional, consistent with black church traditions extending back throughout American history. Interestingly, an organ was not heard during most of the congregational and other singing, but it did play in accompaniment to persons speaking.

Pastor Frederick B. Haynes, III, who, it was noted, had just celebrated his 31st anniversary as the pastor of the church, welcomed those in attendance.  During these opening remarks, he made mention of “nonsense in Florida last night.” As I had not seen the news that morning, I was uncertain as to what he was speaking about, but as it became clear that this subject would be a significant point of discussion in the service – Pastor Haynes indicated that he had changed his sermon plans in light of the news -- I quickly scanned the news on my smart phone and learned that a jury had returned a verdict of guilty in 4 of 5 counts in a case involving a white man shooting into the truck of a group of black teenagers. The fact that the not guilty count involved the most serious charge enraged the minister, and he would discuss the nature of his anger through the course of much of the sermon later in the morning.

At this time, he mentioned that many guests were in attendance for the upcoming Proctor Conference, an annual event encouraging political activism on the part of the black church. Attendees included a representative from the World Council of Churches. The minister also worked in a reference to Fox News, who he identified as Fake News while expressing unhappiness that a story critical of a black minister had appeared on the network in the previous week.

The pastor then used a portion of the service for the purpose of introducing the congregation to members of the church who would be up for election in primaries to be held the following week. The candidates had completed cards about their candidacy that were read by the pastor, who expressed his approval of them to the congregation – he took care not to actually endorse anyone, but wanted the congregation to be aware of their presence on this Sunday. In addition to individuals who would be on the ballot, Rev. Haynes also asked controversial, but popular, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price to come to the platform. At the time of this service, it had been widely reported that Commissioner Price was under investigation from the Justice Department for various crimes associated with his position (he has since been indicted and is awaiting trial), but Pastor Haynes provided his enthusiastic endorsement for Commissioner Price’s work to the applause of the congregation. For the remainder of the service, Commissioner Price would be seated prominently near the front of the congregation, enthusiastically raising his hand or standing to show approval for many of the pastor’s most controversial statements.

Pastor Haynes additionally spoke about his work along with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor of President Barack Obama, in encouraging churches to combine an emphasis on individual salvation and social justice in the same manner as Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ and Hayne’s Friendship West Baptist.

After an announcement by Dr. Iva Carothers promoting the Proctor Conference, the congregation was treated to a violin solo by Daniel Davis. Only in his early 20’s, Mr. Davis showed considerable talent and poise, continuing to work flawlessly after the microphone on the violin failed and required changing. This was followed by an offering, which essentially required everyone in attendance to file to the front. This enormous undertaking for a large crowd was handled in an organized and expeditious manner. The choir then performed “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

The text for Dr. Hayne’s sermon was from Matthew 2, the text recounting Herod’s murder of the innocents following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He criticized Christian groups that claim to be pro-life while cutting funding for government programs and otherwise displaying a failure to value black life. Along those lines, he suggested that the jury verdict in Florida furthered an attitude explicit in American culture, as revealed by provisions in the U.S. Constitution as originally ratified that counted blacks as 3/5 of a person.

Dr. Haynes sharply criticized ministers that failed to address these issues, saying that “Herod always has some preachers on payroll that he can pimp.” In particular, he resented those ministers that preached prosperity instead of prophetically speaking truth to power.  The church needs more preachers like Moses and Nathan, he urged, and, in that vein, he offered criticisms of President Obama for his drone policy, suggesting in the process that the President had been duped by the Jewish lobby. Nonetheless, he urged that God’s people also have the faith to see beyond the troubles of right now to a better not yet.

Returning to the Matthew 2 text, the pastor pointed out that Joseph found safety in Egypt, argued that Egyptians were black Africans, and contended that the fact that Jesus could be hidden there proved that the Messiah was also black.  He expressed disdain for white depictions of Jesus, but instead of opposing images of Jesus as violations of the second commandment against the use of images as aids to worship, he insisted that depictions of Jesus should be of a black person.

He used those thoughts as a further springboard calling on blacks to rediscover the achievements of African culture, including medicine and the building of the pyramids.  He then returned to the subject of the Florida trial, complaining that other preachers “will not say one damn word about what happened last night.” Anticipating criticism for the use of the curse word in that statement, he expressed outrage that there is no controversy around damning black children. While continuing to express anger toward the verdict, he offered hope that God has the last word regarding all injustice.

Following a prayer addressed to God, who was described as “our Father and Mother,” he offered an invitation for those who need “to give your life to the Lord.” This was followed by a video promoting the work of St. Jude’s hospital, for which the church received an offering, and a benediction based on the Aaronic blessing.

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