Fanning the Flame: Pastoring in the Modern Movement

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Reflecting on this year’s 30th Commemoration of the 1992 Civil Unrest, which was provoked by years of injustice the Black community experienced at the hands of law enforcement and the tipping point of the unjust “not guilty” ruling of the four officers who beat Rodney King, we cannot dismiss the huge impact the historical Black church had in that moment. We see this vividly in the work of Rev. Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, who led FAME Church LA and the city through social justice and community development efforts to rebuild and restore LA. As I write this also in the weeks following this year’s MLK season, we also remember the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy of his leadership. Today, as our nation wrestles with social ills exposed by the global pandemic, the Black church remains a consistent central voice and resource for Black communities ravaged by COVID-19. Even in the midst of hybrid worship services, closed buildings, and full-scale electronic giving, the Black church is using digital and outdoor spaces to raise her voice and be a resource for those in need. Remembering the power of the Black church pastor throughout history, we must also continue to fan the flame of this kind of powerful leadership today, in hopes that those of us called to pastor in the modern movement will effectively do the same and more.

The iconic leadership of a Dr. King and a Dr. Murray—while separated by time and geography—represents a model of Black church faith leadership that really was a more traditional, boots-on-the-ground kind of transformational work. How do we, as pastors of the modern movement, leverage these models and build on them, in order to build from them to strengthen our community base and improve our community power?

To be sure, the pastors of the modern movement have a different kind of urgency from King and Murray, who were the starters of movements. The pastor of the modern movement has a different kind of urgency: sustaining the movement. To keep the movement of liberation, justice, equity, and inclusion alive—not simply in America in general but alive within our churches and communities in particular—is, in many ways, more difficult now than during Dr. King’s era and Dr. Murray’s era here in Los Angeles. Progress has been made; every major city department has an equity office; between 2019 and 2021, corporate America vowed to dump billions of dollars into diversity training, diversity programming, and dialogue on diversity. With this level of perceived change, the challenge for the Black church and community is complacency—complacency inside the “church” and among the community. (In part, people are also exhausted by more than two years of pandemic life.) But in the words of Dr. King: “This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

The role of the pastor in the modern movement will be keeping our congregations and congregants invigorated and enthusiastic about the work ahead, exposing the urgency of now, regardless of how disruptive it appears, and having the willingness to sacrifice comfort for courageous action. I am hopeful that we will rise to the modern movement, not only because I am a Black pastor but because the same flame—the same spirit—that burns inside of a Dr. Murray or Dr. King burns inside of so many pastors in the movement today. Let us fan the flame.

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Najuma Smith-Pollard is assistant director of community and public engagement with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She is pastor of Word of Encouragement Community Church in Los Angeles, founder of the company Living on Assignment, and founder of a sexual violence awareness and training campaign called “It’s Not Okay.” She is also executive director for the Southern California School of Ministry and leads the “…And She Can Preach!” mastermind group, committed to supporting emerging women preachers.

Reflecting on this year’s 30th Commemoration of the 1992 Civil Unrest, which was provoked by years of injustice the Black community experienced at the hands of law enforcement and the tipping point of the unjust “not guilty” ruling of the four officers who beat Rodney King, we cannot dismiss the huge impact the historical Black church had in that moment. We see this vividly in the work of Rev. Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, who led FAME Church LA and the city through social justice and community development efforts to rebuild and restore LA. As I write this also in the weeks following this year’s MLK season, we also remember the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy of his leadership. Today, as our nation wrestles with social ills exposed by the global pandemic, the Black church remains a consistent central voice and resource for Black communities ravaged by COVID-19. Even in the midst of hybrid worship services, closed buildings, and full-scale electronic giving, the Black church is using digital and outdoor spaces to raise her voice and be a resource for those in need. Remembering the power of the Black church pastor throughout history, we must also continue to fan the flame of this kind of powerful leadership today, in hopes that those of us called to pastor in the modern movement will effectively do the same and more.

The iconic leadership of a Dr. King and a Dr. Murray—while separated by time and geography—represents a model of Black church faith leadership that really was a more traditional, boots-on-the-ground kind of transformational work. How do we, as pastors of the modern movement, leverage these models and build on them, in order to build from them to strengthen our community base and improve our community power?

To be sure, the pastors of the modern movement have a different kind of urgency from King and Murray, who were the starters of movements. The pastor of the modern movement has a different kind of urgency: sustaining the movement. To keep the movement of liberation, justice, equity, and inclusion alive—not simply in America in general but alive within our churches and communities in particular—is, in many ways, more difficult now than during Dr. King’s era and Dr. Murray’s era here in Los Angeles. Progress has been made; every major city department has an equity office; between 2019 and 2021, corporate America vowed to dump billions of dollars into diversity training, diversity programming, and dialogue on diversity. With this level of perceived change, the challenge for the Black church and community is complacency—complacency inside the “church” and among the community. (In part, people are also exhausted by more than two years of pandemic life.) But in the words of Dr. King: “This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

The role of the pastor in the modern movement will be keeping our congregations and congregants invigorated and enthusiastic about the work ahead, exposing the urgency of now, regardless of how disruptive it appears, and having the willingness to sacrifice comfort for courageous action. I am hopeful that we will rise to the modern movement, not only because I am a Black pastor but because the same flame—the same spirit—that burns inside of a Dr. Murray or Dr. King burns inside of so many pastors in the movement today. Let us fan the flame.

Written By

Najuma Smith-Pollard is assistant director of community and public engagement with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She is pastor of Word of Encouragement Community Church in Los Angeles, founder of the company Living on Assignment, and founder of a sexual violence awareness and training campaign called “It’s Not Okay.” She is also executive director for the Southern California School of Ministry and leads the “…And She Can Preach!” mastermind group, committed to supporting emerging women preachers.

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