Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Reverand Otis Moss III: A Preacher for a new generation

Taking the helm of Trinity United Church of Christ, Shaker native Otis Moss III reaches youth with an energized message and hip-hop-infused sermons

Brought up in a family of faith

Moss' path to this high-profile Chicago pulpit completes a circle, of sorts.

Moss grew up in Shaker Heights, the youngest son of three children in Cleveland's "First Family of Faith," known for mixing God and politics in a way that made many white people uneasy. His parents, Edwina and Otis Moss Jr., pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, met when she worked for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Moss Jr. was a board member of an organization headed by the civil rights leader. The younger Moss recalls having breakfast with King's father when he was 8.

Growing up, he also recalls conversations around the dinner table that centered on connecting faith to political issues.

"My dad always asked, 'How is your faith connected to transforming your community?' and 'How do you deal with issues of poverty, race and class?' " Moss said. Olivet was known as much for feeding the poor as it was for registering blacks to vote and holding rallies to protest racial inequality by City Hall or the police.

Like his father, Moss is a proponent of "black liberation theology," which interprets the Bible as a story about the struggles of black people, who, because of their oppression, are better able to understand Scripture than those who have suffered less.

"The pre-eminent ethic of Jesus Christ, his inaugural sermon is 'the Spirit of the Lord is upon you to preach the good news to the poor, to set up liberty, to set the captives free, to allow the mind to see,' " the younger Moss said. "I believe that is the mission of the church."

"You are not just preaching the Gospel," the elder Moss said. "You are dealing with social conflict. That's what Jesus was doing every day.

"The church has to be the conscience, the voice for the hopeless, the marginalized, the disinherited," the elder Moss continued. "Dr. King used to say that the church has to be the headlight, not the taillight."

The conservative movement that is moving through the church community - both black and white - is silencing that role, he said.

"The flag has become a substitute for the cross, and patriotism is defined as the refusal to criticize the government, which is a dangerous attitude for a democratic society."

While father and son's theological, social and political views mirror each other, the men's mannerisms and preaching styles do not. The elder Moss speaks methodically, his diction formal, the use of contractions unusual. The younger Moss is stretched tight, like a membrane of a drum, exuding a tense energy. Listening to him preach is like hearing a recording of his father, the tape stuck on fast-forward.

Moss said growing up in Cleveland was "a blessing" but not perfect. When he and his friends rode their bikes on Shaker Boulevard, they would make bets about how many whites would lock their car doors as they zipped by.

"We would hear click, click, click of people's door locks all the way down the street," Moss said.

As a 12-year-old, Moss said, he was called the N-word by opponents and sometimes their parents when playing hockey in North Olmsted, Oberlin and "anytime we were in a place without people of color."

Despite his occupation today, Moss said people still look at him as a threat or a problem just because he is a black male. "That is something African-American young men experience whether they come from a middle-class home or the inner city," he said.

'God had other plans'

After watching his son preach at Olivet when he was 15, the elder Moss said, he hoped that one day his son would take over Olivet's pulpit. "I knew then he had the touch, I would say, theologically, the anointing of a minister," said Otis Moss Jr., 72.

But at the time, the younger Moss had no interest in full-time ministry.

He lettered in football, basketball and track at Shaker Heights High School. After he graduated in 1988, he competed in track (100-meter dash, 200, 4x100, 4x400, and high and long jumps) and studied mass communications at Morehouse College in Atlanta, his heart set on becoming a filmmaker like his idol, Spike Lee.

His college track coach encouraged him to try out for the Olympics and he began training in the long jump.

"But God had other plans," Moss said. He became ill with the chicken pox. He lost 15 pounds and was out for two weeks. Afterward, as he struggled to regain his former strength and speed, he said he heard God's voice telling him, "Stop running in circles."

Moss changed his major to religion and philosophy. He knew he was being called to full-time ministry, but he hoped God didn't want him to work in a church.

"It's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job, and I didn't think I would be cut out for it," he said.

His first job after graduating from Morehouse and receiving a divinity degree from Yale University was working with a group of former gang members and drug dealers in Connecticut. When Moss talked about "Amazing Grace," one man asked, "Who is she?" Moss realized that trying to use "Christian-speak" to reach the disconnected and disenfranchised who didn't grow up going to church was a waste of time.

"I believe it is the mission of the church to reach out to groups like that," he said.

Moss found using hip-hop lyrics was the perfect middle ground, and a ministry was born.

From New Haven, he became the pastor of a Baptist church in Augusta, Ga., which grew from 125 to 2,100 members during his nine years there. He had no intention of leaving. Georgia was home. He and his Morehouse sweetheart, Monica, married, had two children and set down roots.

If he left, it would be to step into his dad's pulpit in Cleveland, he said.

In 2005, Wright of Trinity invited Moss to come to Chicago to guest preach. While Moss was there, Wright asked him to consider taking over. Moss thought he was kidding. After a year of prayer in Georgia, Moss and his wife packed their bags for Chicago. The predominantly black Trinity boasts more than 10,000 members and is the largest church within the traditionally white United Church of Christ denomination.

"The more I began to reflect on it, the more I realized that I would be going to Cleveland to support my father because I am his son not because God was saying, 'Go to Cleveland,' " Moss said.

He has never looked back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I listened to a couple of Rev. Moss's sermons (as well as Rev. Wright's) and can say that I admire their intelligence and capacity to inspire. I am a Catholic and born in a South American country.

I can perfectly parallel their extraordinary capacity to reach and inspire to that of my admired Frei Betto, a Brazilian Dominican friar and liberation theologist.

The current President of Brazil counts Frei Betto as a close advisor and friend. Nobody is worried about this friendship in Brazil or in the US! :).

See this article about Frei Betto in wikipedia: