Once in a blue moon, as the generations before us would say, a truly special member of the community comes along. Pittsburgh has certainly had its share of these people. From spiritual leaders and innovative politicians, to musicians, artists, and creators of movements and inspirations that transcend race, religion, and social standing.
As I reflect on my role as pastor in the community—especially during this month that salutes the many African Americans who contributed so deeply to our communities—I find that I want my congregation and anyone who I can reach through my words and influence to get to know those from the past who actually shaped the communities in which we live. I usually lean to someone in the religious community, but as we all know, our innovators take all forms and appear in all walks of life. God intends for us to use our talents in ways that we may never see until we ask Him for guidance. It is a gift from God when we get to experience these quiet geniuses close to home.
Back in the early part of the 1900s, the Pittsburgh Courier was one of the top African American owned newspapers in the country. Pittsburgh’s own Charles “Teenie” Harris was their renowned photographer from 1938 until his retirement in 1975. Make no mistake about it, this newspaper was certainly the voice of the African American community back then, and Mr. Harris was as well-known in his neighborhood as any politician or athlete. For years, Harris recorded the lives of African Africans at work, at play, in turmoil, and in celebration. He visited dance recitals and barbeques, photographed children swimming and watching the Fourth of July fireworks, visited funerals and weddings, recorded mothers making fried chicken at block parties, and captured fathers heading off to work in the mills. He watched election results with the guys in the neighborhoods, and he strolled the streets with the ladies headed off to the beauty parlors. While he was sought out to photograph many famous people, these everyday people in Pittsburgh’s African American neighborhoods became his muses. As a result, he documented lives during some of the most important times in the past century, including the Civil Rights Movement—all by hanging out, and having lunch and conversation with the people of Pittsburgh.
A number of years ago, his photographs were exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh. Now, in Mount Ararat’s own East Liberty neighborhood, a handful of them are on display at the newly reopened Ace Hotel, another shining jewel in one of Pittsburgh’s primarily African American neighborhoods. I urge you to visit the Ace, stroll by the photographs, pick up a book on Charles “Teenie” Harris, or look him up online and see if you can see the same neighborhoods we walk through today. See if you can feel the influence he has had over African American culture in this East End neighborhood of Pittsburgh. God calls many of us to special things in life, and we must honor those who took the call to do great things, especially as we celebrate Black History Month.
Around the same time that “Teenie” Harris was taking his photos, Errol Garner was an accomplished jazz musician in Pittsburgh. A lecture on Garner given by Robin D.G. Kelley of UCLA will be held at the University Club, University of Pittsburgh, Ballroom A (123 University Place, Oakland) at 7pm on February 17th. Local congregants, please consider attending this and other lectures that highlight influential area African-Americans.
Books and Authors
Bryan Stevenson is an influential lawyer, civil rights activist, and speaker. His book, Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, is a must-read. Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction as well as the recipient of a number of other honors, it is eye-opening and inspirational. Stevenson has long been a hero of mine. He is currently the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and a professor at the New York University Law School. He has argued on behalf of many condemned prisoners over the years and has presented a number of challenging cases for the poor and under-represented in front of this country’s courts (including the Supreme Court).
As we finish celebrating the first week of Black History Month 2016, I find myself reflecting on those that made it their life’s work to ensure that African Americans would receive all of the basic rights of an American citizen. How many of you are familiar with this historic line, declaring these freedoms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? First written in the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, and notably quoted thereafter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech, we should always remember the basic principles that our nation was founded upon and act to ensure that progress continues to be achieved.
There are many highly esteemed, educated, and successful trailblazers that deserve to be honored, remembered, and celebrated at every possible opportunity. One of those is the late Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter, Sr, whose 47 years in ministry impacted multiple generations. Dr. Carter should be remembered not just for his determined faith, but for the many leaders and ministries that have grown and developed in unbelievable ways with his direction and example. While leading his Baltimore-based congregation at New Shiloh Baptist Church, which is now one of the largest churches in Maryland, Dr. Carter labored to establish a church complex that includes senior citizen’s housing, a theological institute, a music school, and a children’s center, all of which have become a model for other ministries to follow. Outside of the walls of his church, he also became a sought after speaker for the Promise Keepers Men’s Ministry and countless other revivals and events throughout the United States and abroad. His words even crossed the airwaves, as he shared in ministry on WBAL-Radio on Sunday evenings for decades.
Dr. Carter was heavily influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and followed a path similar to that of Dr. King, first aspiring to be an attorney before accepting the call to preach. He was heavily involved at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, coordinating the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, which sought to rally support for African American causes. His wisdom allowed him to serve as a bridge between leaders, inspiring generations as he served as a spiritual patriarch of love, compassion, generosity, and wisdom.
I’d like to direct you all to Dr. Carter’s book, The Prayer Tradition of Black People. While discussing the history of African American prayer life, he uncovers nuggets of historical gems that prove to be both engaging and thought-provoking. If you’re looking for some additional stimulating reading material that will provide you the opportunity for exploration during Black History Month—or at any time—I also recommend works by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu. Dr. Kunjufu has lectured at universities throughout the United States and also served as a consultant to many urban school districts. He has been featured in both Ebony and Essence magazines and has appeared on BET, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The Michael Baisden Show.
It’s important to get out and educate ourselves locally on the events and celebrations in honor of Black History Month. On February 11th and 15th at 11:45am, the “Hallowed Grounds” tour at the University of Pittsburgh (4200 Fifth Ave, Oakland) highlights numerous significant African American events that occurred on the University of Pittsburgh campus over the years. Among other spots, you will see the computer lab and hear the account of an incident in 1969, when at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, 50 students locked themselves in that room, and in a rousing peaceful protest, demanded to have their voices heard.
Get out and see the city in honor of Black History Month!
The origin of the formal “Black History Month” commemoration goes back to 1915 when Harvard historian Carter G. Woodson and Pastor Jesse E. Moorland founded a group called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which researched and promoted achievements of people who were of African descent. Today, the group is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH. Back in 1926, ASALH began the sponsorship of a Negro History Week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to honor the birthday of Frederick Douglass. The birthday of Abraham Lincoln was celebrated as well. With overwhelming response, teachers, students, philanthropists, and progressive whites began supporting the effort. Becoming a crucial part of African American life and culture, a genuine appreciation for Negro History Week was fostered, expanding well past Woodson’s death in 1950. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and many college students on campuses around the country began to celebrate Black History for the entire month of February. In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans everywhere to reflect on and honor the accomplishments of African Americans.
Since then, schools and churches across the country hold events, awareness seminars, and celebrations to honor prominent African Americans from history and in the local communities. Anyone under the age of 50 grew up celebrating this month as a way to study, research, remember, and honor the generations of African Americans who struggled with great adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society, thus impacting social and political change worldwide in the process.
However, many generations lived in a very different time and still bear painful scars. We have a responsibility to continue pressing forward, and cannot allow the sacrifices of those that have come before us to be forgotten. Our history is fraught with adversity, but it is with thanksgiving for past sacrifices, hope for the future, and pride in our accomplishments that we celebrate Black History Month.
Since the first Black History Month in 1976, every American president has released an African American History Month proclamation. I suggest we make our own proclamations this year. It’s time we stepped forward to endorse the effort, taking pride in those who struggled before us. In the words of President Gerald R. Ford, let us “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Join me here every week in February as we celebrate Black History.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (NIV)
We recently celebrated a national holiday that celebrated the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a pastor, I draw inspiration from the ability he had to develop his mind and bring it to the pulpit for a standard in excellence that provides a truly outstanding example for ministry today. He didn’t let doubt stop him from moving his thoughts forward and bringing them to the public. In fact, his passion for improving the situation of his culture and race—all races, really—stands as an inspiration to others to this day. He executed this initiative during a time that was volatile and unfriendly in the way of race equality. Doubt didn’t stop him then. He went on to affect government and author legislation that changed the landscape of racial equality in this country.
The truth is that we all need help now and then; we all have doubts. Recognizing that in ourselves should help us dispel some of the doubt that we experience when we face challenges of any kind or when we set off to improve our lifestyle and our frame of mind. Just as Jeremiah 29:11 tells us, God has good things in store for us. He will provide a promising future and give us our heart’s desire when we strive to follow His direction and heed His wisdom. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., there are many paths to take in life, but those that set us on the journey to righteousness are best.
The challenges we face each year aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. When we bring the idea of change into our psyche, however, it can seem daunting. I’m sure there were countless days and nights that Martin Luther King, Jr. felt overwhelmed and discouraged. Always remember that God’s plan is for us to prosper and He longs to give us hope and a fulfilling future. With God’s help and our own fortitude behind us, our struggles are not insurmountable, and doubt will not overtake us. Make 2016 your year, using a renewed sense of confidence to believe that you WILL achieve the things you set your mind to.
Are we ten pounds lighter yet? Have we managed to save a million dollars in the last two weeks? Have we been getting up every morning at 6:00 AM to pray and reflect on our lives? Have we stopped worrying entirely? Taken that vacation we told ourselves we deserved? While I hope some of these initiatives and positive thoughts for the new year are on our minds, I’m sure we haven’t even come close to any of our New Year’s goals and aspirations yet. I’m hoping that we maintain a positive perspective, making sure to tackle our goals and resolutions at an appropriate speed. Part of our plan this year should also be to avoid taking everything so seriously and being too hard on ourselves. There is time for all of our resolutions and improvements. There is also time to sit back and decide what can happen early on in 2016 to make us feel better, enjoy more time with our families, and get more satisfaction out of our weekly worship.
Simply put, just taking a moment to reflect and think about daily life is the first step in enriched experiences with family and friends, and with ourselves. When we move too fast and pack too much into our days, we run the risk of not enjoying and absorbing any of the beauty of the day. When we slow down and have dinner with our family or actually take the time to enjoy a morning run instead of ticking it off our lists for the day, we can learn to relish the moments that allow us reflection or togetherness with loved ones. In church, when we make the effort to truly sit, listen, and experience the message of God’s Word, we are more centered and more open to that message for the rest of our week! If we sit, tense and thinking of other things, the message is lost on us, and the fellowship with other members of the congregation becomes nonexistent.
So, my advice on this day in mid-January 2016 is this: Stop and take in the day. Understand each moment as God wants us to. Listen to your kids, talk to your spouse, enjoy your time alone exercising, praying, or whatever brings you peace. Take the fellowship that you experience in church into your workplace or in your community as you buy groceries or get your car serviced. Talk to people and interact on a deeper level, trying to understand what makes others happy and what gets you through your own day. This is your first step to seeing all the other components of a happy life fall into place for 2016.