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Brian Ide: Unselfish love could bridge what divides us

Brian Ide is on the road. He’s somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, headed to Amarillo and points beyond, traveling cross-country to talk about a topic that, in this moment, feels both vitally important and virtually impossible to achieve.

In his new documentary, “A Case for Love,” Ide raises the possibility that unselfish love could be a bridge across the nation’s significant social and political divides.

The topic plays out through conversations — some with people the film’s crew literally walked up to on streets across America, others with individuals and families deeply engaged in living out love through challenging situations. And there are interviews with recognizable figures such as Al Roker, the Rev. Becca Stevens and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

The son of a Lutheran pastor father and Catholic mother, Ide has worked in the entertainment industry for more than two decades, founding Grace-Based Films in order to start telling faith-centric stories that weren’t being told in Hollywood. He had joined the vestry as a parishioner at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills and quickly recognized that conversations about stewardship and pledging shortfalls did not play to his strengths.

“It could be a long [vestry term] — or maybe we could start telling stories and utilizing other gifts in our parish because of where we were,” Ide said he thought. “Especially back then, [what] was coming through Hollywood was centered around, if your faith was strong enough, then your football team won and your marriage was reconciled.

“We thought, ‘Who’s telling the stories about the messier, more complicated conversations, where you don’t get the big football win?’ It was born out of there.”

“A Case for Love” is Ide’s fifth film and first full-length documentary and will be showing in wide theatrical release for one day, Jan. 23. Ide spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne during a promotional tour. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: There are a lot of entry points into the conversations featured in the movie, including for people who are not from a faith background. Was that intentional?

Image of 'A Case for Love' poster
headshot of Brian Ide

Brian Ide: That was really important to us. Through the course of the filming, we had one story that was inside a church, because the story itself was about somebody’s faith journey. Then Al Roker, when he agreed to do a cameo for it, wanted it to be at St. James’ [Episcopal Church], but other than that, it is a story about ordinary people.

It is not a propaganda machine for the Episcopal Church or for the Christian church. It’s not a story about telling you what to believe on any of these entry points that you’re talking about; we are not experts on anything. It is truly a journey story about bringing human beings back together again in a time when it feels like we’re all being pulled apart. What can we take from being exposed to people’s intimate, vulnerable stories? We were really intentional about not hiding from it but also trying to do something that had a broad reach.

F&L: You feature such a breadth of people. How did you find and choose them?

BI: The film itself is broken into four groups of people, and the bulk of it, probably 95% of the whole film, are these deep-dive stories of ordinary people that cover a range of topics that are woven together into seven chapters. It’s usually two, maybe three of these stories woven into a single chapter, and the chapter itself has a universal theme — so a chapter on love and loss or a chapter on being dealt a difficult hand or a chapter on answering the call.

We knew early on it was really important that the bulk of the film be about ordinary people, because we wanted it to be for ordinary people so that, hopefully, they’d be inspired or moved or motivated to do something in their own life. If they see it’s Bob and Susan doing this, then they’re like, “OK, well then I think I can do that.”

Whereas if all we had was a bunch of CEOs and Mother Teresas, it would be, “Great for them, but I’ll never do that.” So that was really intentional; that’s really the heart of the film.

There were a handful of those that we had lined up before we started the filming tour, and two of them were military. We knew that it was important for us to explore the military space and that intersection of what we assume is this community that has to face conflict and war and death sometimes, and how does that intersect with love. We were just fascinated by the power of that.

Beyond the four or five we originally had lined up, it was trusting in the Holy Spirit to start in Minneapolis and be with people. And they’re like, “You’re going to Indianapolis? Listen, you really need to meet with Tim Shaw. Let me see if I can make that happen.” And the rest of the stories ended up coming from the journey itself revealing [them].

It was this mix of being intentional and planning about having diversity in the stories but then letting the Spirit guide. I love that, because we ended up being with the people that we were supposed to be with, and they weren’t people that were chosen because they’re experts on any of these topics; they’re just people. We’re in their homes, and we’re creating a space that’s vulnerable enough and safe enough for them to open up about their particular journey.

That’s the deep-dive portion of it. Then we were fortunate enough to have access to these notable figures, and those were politicians and actors and rabbis and Muslim leaders and NGO leaders. That helps Hollywood see that they can have something to sell a ticket on, when you have these notable faces and names in there.

The third group are people on the streets. We had probably 200, 250 of those, where we just pulled over [and approached them] everywhere, from downtown Indianapolis to the Brooklyn Bridge to just a small row of farms in Pennsylvania. We would just pull over and then walk up to people and ask them about what comes to mind when they hear the words “unselfish love,” and where have they seen it in the world and where have they seen the absence. Those were probably the interviews I enjoyed the most, because of how eclectic they were, how surprising they were.

After all of that, we sat down with Bishop Curry and said, “OK, you’re the teacher. Here’s what we saw. What does this mean?” He’s just beautiful about speaking to the human condition.

F&L: What a faithful way to have set out to do this, to discover the voices you needed along the way.

BI: I would say that. Or terrifying. One of those two. I think it’s a little bit of both. But it was a trust, which I loved.

F&L: What surprised you or resonated with you from these conversations?

BI: A couple of things. This first one wouldn’t be a surprise but would be a reinforcement for me that we are way more connected than the headlines of the world want us to believe.

Most of us are trying to figure out how to take care of our families and loved ones; most of us are trying to figure out what our purpose is on this planet; most of us are trying to figure out how to be kind. And most of us find that pretty tough at times. In being with people and talking about those things, where we were on some political issue or social issue never came up. Just the human part of the dialogue came up. It reminded me and reinforced for me — and that gave me hope — that we are very much connected.

The surprise part of the journey was probably the people-on-the-street times, because we’re a crew of eight. It’s a big camera package. We have big sound equipment and all of this. When you walk up to somebody and they’re walking to the grocery store to get their lunch and you pull them aside, I think everybody’s first sense was skepticism.

The surprise of it was that as soon as they believed what we were about, then there was this lifting of spirit across the board and there was a sense of, “You want to know what I think? Nobody ever asked me what I think about that and holds that in value.”

I saw that time and time again. When that happened, they shared incredibly beautiful, vulnerable, intimate things that they probably never in a million years imagined they would tell a group of strangers on camera on their way to work.

That surprised me, not knowing what that part of the process would be like, and I think that’s probably why I enjoyed them so much.

F&L: You talked to children and to young people and gave value to their stories as well.

BI: What I loved about the young people is they don’t tell you as quickly what they think you want to hear — they tell you what they think. That gives me hope too, because we’re all born with a pretty good soul and a pretty good view of what love is and instincts of what love is. To sit with them reinforced that.

I think the next project is going to be centered around young people in some way. I think, this last handful of years, that they’re absorbing toxicity at a rate that we’re not fully aware of, and I think that they’re struggling in a variety of ways. So I want to do something to serve them.

We had a national educator see one of the screenings of the film. He was like, “Can I create a discussion guide that uses our language in schools for young people?” He created a free one for seventh through 12th graders (it’s on the website and free to download) that uses the language of young people and educators. That was a beautiful thing.

F&L: Where do you hope to go with this particular project, and what’s next for Grace-Based Films?

BI: For this one, Hollywood is in an enormous period of transition right now, and I think they’re trying to figure out what models are working and not working. Is it streaming? Is it not streaming? What kinds of movies do they greenlight?

For films like these, they don’t usually get significant platforms. And when they do get platforms for faith-centric movies, historically, a lot of them have been catered to big evangelical megachurch worlds.

It’s much harder in the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran worlds to do that, so they just haven’t been given the megaphone in that way. It is really important to me to do everything we can to show the business analytics side of this, that there is an audience for these stories.

We were offered this theatrical release, which is in almost 1,000 theaters nationwide, provided by Fathom Events. (Fathom is owned by AMC, Regal and Cinemark.)

They created this company to create opportunities to add new content to midweek auditoriums and theaters, because most of their box office happens on weekends. They can now offer it to films that aren’t “The Avengers” and “Avatar” and give them opportunities like this.

The way it’ll work for us is that we’re in theaters on Jan. 23 for one day only, as most of their films are. We push all the attention toward that, and the success of the attendance and engagement with that will then dictate, “OK, does that mean that Netflix is next or Amazon is next or Peacock? What streaming opportunities? What opportunities are there for military bases?”

All of those have this tiered downstream process dictated by Hollywood. Much of that will be on the success of Jan. 23.

I try to plan for the next one, and I realize, every time I do, that I’m wrong. But I really do feel this pulling toward something that is youthful. I want to travel again and spend time with [young people] and listen for, like, “OK, what are the things that you all are talking about, and what are you not hearing, and what are you not saying?” and then mirror that with the power of storytelling, probably in a scripted movie, not in a documentary. To find something in that space is where my heart is right now.

F&L: You address head-on that some people might view this movie cynically. Bishop Curry says in the film, “Someone could say that’s naive, but sometimes what we call naivete actually are ideals we don’t want to deal with.” Could you speak to that as a filmmaker?

BI: As we were in the earliest processes of dreaming this up, I was sitting with a writer-producer friend of mine who’s done this for a long time in Hollywood, and he said, “OK, here’s the deal. You have a documentary about love. You have an older, ordained minister as the inspiration for it. The vast majority of people are going to look at that and be like, ‘I already know what that is. I don’t need to watch it.’ Or some people will be like, ‘I want that,’ but they’re going to assume that they already know what it is.

“Your job as a filmmaker is to say, ‘You thought it was this? It’s actually this.’” That drove so much of the way I went about this process, and Bishop Curry was really focused on that as well.

He says it over and over again when I’m with him, and I’ve heard him say it to many other people too, that this is not a sentimental love. He said, “What I’m talking about is not sentimentality. Unselfish love is a very different thing.”

When you hear “unselfish love,” it forces you to take a beat, because you don’t usually hear those two words together.

Sometimes jarring people can be good. There are going to be some stories that are jarring. We have some really beautiful, simple, heartwarming stories in there, and then we also have a story of a woman who was sexually trafficked from the time she was 5. We have the whole gamut in there, because different people need to hear different things, and also to remind us that these are complicated things.

All of those things drove how we go about this, so it doesn’t get written off as a churchy thing or a Valentine’s Day thing but instead is like, “No, we really need to have these conversations as a human being thing.”

We’re seeing the effect of not having these conversations, and it’s not great. Those were driving forces for us.

F&L: What haven’t I asked?

BI: I’m a hopeful person. This film is funded entirely by donors across the United States, from individuals to foundations to parishes to all kinds of people. I don’t own any of the profits from it. Bishop Curry doesn’t own any of the profits from it. The people that funded it don’t own any of the profits. They all go toward telling stories that serve people. I’d love for that to come across. Because sometimes, I think, in the cynical world that we’re living in, it’s like, “OK, is this guy hopping around all over the place trying to get people to buy his product so his product is successful and he becomes successful?”

It is important to me that people know that that’s not the driving force of why we or the people that funded this made it happen. I do like sharing that, and I think people will be surprised — I think they’ll be moved by this.

We didn’t want people to go to a theater or watch it at home for two hours, be entertained or be moved, and then go back to their life. We wanted this to instigate something; it’s part of the launch of 30 days of unselfish love. So the call people will hear in movie theaters on the 23rd, the call is, when you go home, for the next 30 days, be intentional about seeking out — every day — some act that works in your world of unselfish love and journal about that. What is the impact on you, and what did that mean to you?

There are journals on the website too. They’re beautifully designed, and they’re free; they’re downloadable. Our CFO was the one who came up with this, and he’s a very Type A, analytical, list-driven person. He started this, and he put it on his whiteboard each morning.

What he found was that by the sixth day, it became a habit. Our belief is that acts turn into habits and habits create change. We invite people to use this and then find out whatever [is next]. A lot of the NGO partners — folks that are doing really great work that have come on board, like,, racial justice programs and neighborhood collaboration programs — if somebody’s moved by the faith element of this, if they’re moved by the volunteerism element of this, here are groups that do that really well.

Take this as an instigator toward action. We hope that people see that too — that this is more than just a moment in time.

When Robert Shetterly taught himself to draw and paint, he became fascinated by the themes of nature, animals and religious forces. He began making a living by creating art from his home in Maine. But eventually, that wasn’t enough for Shetterly, who’d been an activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War during his high school and college years.

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the United States’ subsequent invasion of Iraq to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” Shetterly found himself in a rage over what some have since called flawed intelligence and others have called lies.

“All I could do was rant. And I was really making myself sick,” Shetterly said. He wondered whether he should leave the country or stay and use his talents to have a voice.

Robert Shetterly

The desire to speak out won, and Shetterly started painting portraits of people from the 19th century who were courageous in standing up for what they believed in, such as Harriet Tubman, who had helped lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

“I thought, OK well, ‘How can I use this enormous energy that I’ve got right now, because of how I feel, and do something positive? Something that’s about love rather than hate?’”

Since then, Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project has grown to more than 260 portraits of those living and dead.

“[T]he more I did it, I realized this was not just about my own personal relationship with the country or my own therapy. It was really about education,” Shetterly said. 

Today, he continues to connect to communities through painting and through exhibitions and other events. His work travels to settings like museums, schools and faith communities. The documentary “Truth Tellers,” directed by Richard Kane, shares the story of the artist’s work and journey, and encourages people to connect and discuss themes of truth, justice and equality.

Values of faith and honesty

It’s no coincidence that many of Shetterly’s subjects are people of faith and that faith communities have exhibited his work.

“We are encouraged often to think about finding our ethics in our economy, in how many jobs have we got, are people being paid a fair wage, what kind of innovation can we do,” Shetterly said.

But in faith communities, he said, fundamental values like compassion, dignity, truth telling and courage are the ones that must first align.

Shetterly said his faith-focused subjects are people who believe in these values and understand that they can’t live with themselves if they don’t act on those values. When his work is exhibited in faith communities, it can spark conversation and introspection.

What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?

In 2022, Shetterly was a guest speaker for chapel at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, focusing on themes of truth and justice. Speaking to an audience of 650, including 500 students at the residential school, Shetterly shared the story of one of his portrait subjects, Claudette Colvin, who as a Black teenager in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, refused to cede her seat to white passengers months before Rosa Parks would famously do the same.

St. Paul’s students attend chapel four days per week. There, they grapple with big spiritual questions like, “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to be a good and ethical person?” said the Rev. Charles Wynder Jr., the school’s dean of chapel and spiritual life.

Robert Shetterly in his studio
Robert Shetterly discusses a portrait of Bayard Rustin.

Shetterly’s visit, including his discussion with art students later in the day, brought to life the work, sacrifice, vision and life’s journey of people who have sacrificed for the common good, Wynder said.

For Bethany Dickerson Wynder, the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives, Shetterly’s artwork complemented the school’s efforts to lift up “unsung heroes” in the Black community and supported the school’s focus on education in the arts.

Prophetic voices

Shetterly’s portrait of the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and an elder in the Church of God in Christ, features the subject wearing a dark-colored blazer and a matching hat that reads “Resist.”

“Often, the greatest leaders come out of that tradition — that prophetic tradition in the churches,” said Shetterly, who explained that he didn’t want to paint his subjects as icons or people on pedestals.

“This isn’t the work of a few heroes and giants — this is the work of people,” he said.

The Rev. Dan Smith, the senior minister of First Church in Cambridge (Massachusetts), Congregational, United Church of Christ, has helped share Shetterly’s art in a faith-based setting. Smith engages with the church’s collaborative staff on social justice tasks as well as deep spiritual formation work.

Before the pandemic began, Smith’s church had reached out to Shetterly’s team after seeing the artist’s work in Maine. The church had been doing a deep dive into its own legacy of slavery — finding that there had been more than 30 enslaved people in its historic membership and doing the spiritual work of repair by visiting sites like Selma, Alabama. But the timing wasn’t yet right to connect with Shetterly.

Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?

In 2022, the church reached out again, looking ahead to the theme of “Truth that sets us free” for the season of Lent. First Church went on to offer an exhibit that ran from February to June 2023.

The staff chose portraits that connected with the church’s story, whether by geographic proximity or because their words inspired the community. For example, there was a special local connection with the unveiling of Shetterly’s portrait of Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist and author who had freed herself from slavery and run a boarding house near the church grounds after her escape, Smith said.

“The congregation loved having the portraits. They were immediately inspired when they walked into the building,” he said, noting that staff had scattered the art inside and created a ritual of standing before two images at a time and having a short prayer along with time to hear the subjects’ biographies.

He said the hope is that the exhibit will return, noting that there is a connection between the branches of social justice and the spiritual roots of worship.

How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?

Portraits by Robert Shetterly
“Harriet Jacobs” and “Reverend Jim Lewis” by Robert Shetterly

“When a congregation gets too focused on prayer life without looking out beyond itself to what’s going on with its neighbors, that’s problematic. I think when a congregation is all about social justice and doesn’t tend to its prayer or worship life, that’s also a problem,” Smith said. “I think the sweet spot is when there’s a real sense of balance and integration and alignment.”

One example from Shetterly’s work would be the portrait of the Rev. Jim Lewis, who has focused on issues like health care and criminal justice as an Episcopal clergyperson and author. It depicts Lewis looking out stoically from a blue-green background, with his quote reading, in part, “Turning the other cheek is a revolutionary idea.”

A documented legacy

If the unveiling and display of Shetterly’s portraits is an experience, so too is the act of painting them. The process is so inspiring, in fact, that it spurred director Richard Kane to document it.

“‘Truth Tellers’ is the most important and most difficult film I have made in my long journey of producing almost 100 films,” Kane wrote via email.

“I began following Rob around 2003 in his process of selecting his subjects, interviewing them about their beliefs in the ‘American experiment,’ selecting a quote from their writings, and painting their portraits,” Kane wrote.

“It soon became a series about his belief in returning to the founding ideals of our country — liberty, equality and justice for all. It became a series of discovering one’s moral courage. And it was courageous of Rob to select many lesser known but significant Americans who symbolized our fight for justice — racial, indigenous and moral justice.”

Kane noted Shetterly’s deep belief in democracy is what drove the desire to create the film.

“At a time when there is a pattern of states denying the right of students to study slavery, inequality, diversity, critical race theory, preventing students from learning about our true history, ‘Truth Tellers’ is here to tell the truth and give teachers a tool to have students understand our real history,” Kane wrote.

For his part, Shetterly remains committed to sharing his message and his craft.

“The first thing I do with each painting is I paint the eyes,” he said. “As soon as you paint the eyes on a wooden panel, [it] actually seems like there’s a life there.”

Instead of relying on brushes, Shetterly said, he paints a lot with his fingers, building up thin layers of paint using a technique called glazing. Eventually, the light comes through the paint, and the emotions of his subjects begin to surface, allowing Shetterly to then scratch their words onto each wooden panel, using a dental tool, to bring the elements together.

Early on, for historic subjects, Shetterly painted from existing images. But for subjects still living, he has also traveled to those who are willing to meet in order to understand their stories and capture their images in real time. Today, he has a list of hundreds of people he can paint, including names suggested by others.

Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?

Capturing emotions

Shetterly’s meetings with the subjects might require less than an hour of guided conversation that he hopes will shape their facial expressions, and he then may take just 20 to 30 photographs that capture their emotions in the moment. These days, he can even carry out the initial meeting via FaceTime instead of an in-person visit.

When it comes to the actual painting, Shetterly can finish in about a week to 10 days, but he often spends more time traveling and researching each portrait.

Some of those he approached were wary to participate at first, he said. But after the publication of his first book and the launch of his website, subjects could see the company they were going to be in, he said, and would rarely refuse to sit.

And even though many of the people he’s painted were first unknown to him, many — like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and public health advocate who revealed the truth of the inhumane conditions in Flint, Michigan — have become friends and even guests for related events. Regardless of whether subjects follow up with program events, the experience can be meaningful.

Kathy Kelly, who was co-founder of the grassroots campaign Voices in the Wilderness and now is president of the board of World BEYOND War, remembers sitting for Shetterly in the early 2000s. At the time, she’d returned from overseas travels where she’d seen children, who couldn’t get pain medication or antibiotics due to economic sanctions, withering away in hospitals.

“It was at a point in time where I felt a little fragile. I think in the painting maybe I look a little fragile,” she said, recalling that it seemed clear that the economic war would become a bombing war.

“Our group really wanted to raise the voices for people who had no voice in the United States,” Kelly said.

In contrast to the difficult scenes she’d witnessed overseas, Kelly’s portrait session was set in a welcoming space by the water, she said.

“Rob Shetterly exposed many, many truths through his amazing portrait artistry that would never have seen the light of day,” she said of his body of work. “And I love it that he does it with [paint] and a few words.”

Portraits by Robert Shetterly
“Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha” and “Kathy Kelly” by Robert Shetterly

Portrait subject Louis Clark had a similar positive experience, coming from his work representing and protecting government and corporate whistleblowers via the Government Accountability Project (GAP).

After helping Black voters register and get to the polls in 1960s Mississippi, he had earned his master of divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion before obtaining his law degree from American University in 1977 and becoming director of GAP in 1978, just after its launch. With Clark at the helm, the organization assisted whistleblowers.

Today, Clark calls out the role of faith in the work his portrait highlights.

“A pretty significant percent of the people that come forward are coming forward because they have ethical concerns and convictions, very often religiously based, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “Because, essentially, what we’re doing is helping people in the workplace to realize their ethics and their morality. And to me, that’s exactly what it’s all about in terms of religion. That is the narrow path — the narrow path of righteousness is truth itself.”

This kind of work — and the willingness to go beyond accepted norms — has historical significance in the church.

“What we know about the history of Jesus is that he was a radical,” added Clark, who is ordained in the United Methodist Church.

“For example, he ate with unclean people. His ministry included — in leadership roles — women, which was pretty unheard-of in the day,” Clark said. “[Jesus] recognized the humanity of all people.”

It’s this kind of action that Shetterly’s project continues to recognize and share for discussion and contemplation. The portraits, and the related documentary, can help inspire and encourage others to tell their own truths, explore their own stories and look out into their own communities.

“What Robert Shetterly does is he tells narratives of truth so that those who look at his images, his paintings, and hear his story … will live into a truth that is loving, life-giving and liberating,” said Charles Wynder, of St. Paul’s School, noting that the essence of truth allows us to liberate ourselves.

“Developing global leaders who pursue truth — seek to live it, strive to tell it, work to protect it — is foundational to not only our faith journey but the aims of religion and faith: to see the divine in others, to find ourselves together [in a way that] recognizes our connectivity and our particularity,” Wynder said.

What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?

Questions to consider

  • What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
  • Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
  • How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
  • Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
  • What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?

After being expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives for engaging in protest for gun reform, Rep. Justin J. Pearson demonstrated that his work is not just on behalf of the people or even just with the people; his work is Black faith embodied.

The Sunday following his expulsion, Pearson preached an Easter sermon in which he made clear that he’d mastered the homiletical genius and the sociopolitical hermeneutic of hope often found in conscious or prophetic Black preaching. And he is in good company.

He is a descendant of liberating faith traditions that have marked their identity by the life of a revolutionary Jesus resurrected in these contemporary civil rights movements.

Across generations, Black preachers have often been the voice, face and front-line leaders of freedom struggles. That truth remains evident in Pearson’s work as grassroots organizer, nonprofit founder, state representative and invigorating preacher whose audience crosses socioeconomic and racial lines.

Justin Pearson - Easter Service
Justin J. Pearson, fourth from right, stands with his fiancee Oceana R. Gilliam at The Church of the River in Memphis, where Pearson preached an Easter sermon.Photo by Ron Peck

Pearson appears to recognize this truth, as he began his sermon by calling the names of his own ancestors — Annie Ruth, Flossie, Evaline, Lavenia, Gwen, Kimberly, Jason — and the great cloud of witnesses who have taught us what it means to believe that “the true measure of a [person] is not how [that person] behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how [that person] stands at times of controversy and challenges.”

Though the myth of inevitable progress coupled with our violent realities may make the future appear bleak, I am encouraged by the voices of my peers across the nation, including the public faces such as Pearson and his fellow state representative Justin Jones, as well as by the quieter workers who are also making major contributions to freedom struggles.

I’ve personally worked with leaders such as the Rev. Kazimir Brown of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Rev. Kendal McBroom, the director of civil and human rights at the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC. They are the evidence that the spirit of Black liberation theology is still moving among us.

I’m inspired by what I am witnessing.

I watched the events in Tennessee unfold, and it seemed as if half the world stopped. I was reminded of the power and purpose of our proclamations, the possibility of realized liberation as a result of liberating theologies.

Many people are moved by the sounds of Black preaching, the oratorical passions and homiletical theater of it all. But in these traditions, the words must be embodied. The Black preaching tradition is a matter of prophetic proclamation that begins in individual study and does not conclude unless or until the sermonic moment has been embodied. Both speaker and hearer become the word daily lived into the world as co-laborers with God in efforts to usher in a more just world.

No matter where we find ourselves after the Sunday morning gathering, what we believe about who God is and how God is at work in the world as a result of that moment will dictate how we engage the world around us. Engaging that experience responsibly is especially weighted for Black faith leaders who have positional authority in particular occupations.

Though the House floor is not an inherently spiritual space (or prophetic in its intended work), there is a spirit that is inextricably linked to the faith in public witness that Black leaders carry with them into diverse occupational spaces, because our proximity to power never saves us from death-dealing politics and policies. Therefore, to be a politician and descendant of Black preaching is also to be the personification of prophetic witness in the face of injustice.

The March 27 shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville is not only one of 163 mass shootings in the U.S. as of this writing in 2023, but it is couched within a history and culture of gun violence across generations. Be it by the bullets of police, of neighbors, of racist vigilantes, of white supremacists with Nazi manifestos, of hooded evangelicals or of “friends” on camping trips, Black people are familiar with the violence being inflicted upon the nation right now.

Furthermore, we are familiar with the apathy and inaction of legislators who serve as co-conspirators with the lobbyists, corporations and millionaire classes that benefit from the crosses we’re all being forced to carry.

While it is imperative that we recognize the unique struggle of children being gunned down in schools, it is also important for us to recognize the interconnectedness of our suffering and the shared source of that suffering.

In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. … This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Our hope, therefore, may be found in our collective will not to stand down. What took place in the Tennessee House is evidence of what could and should take place across the U.S.

The expulsion of Pearson and Jones from the legislative body coincided with Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday and signifies the hope we embody when we choose to reject the cross in all its death-dealing variations.

We are surrounded by crosses, and those crosses must be dismantled. Second Amendment crosses upon which our nation’s children are sacrificed. Crosses of capitalism upon which the poor and dispossessed are hung. Crosses of white supremacy upon which those who voice dissent are nailed.

Black and brown people who are being sacrificed on the altar of power for the sake of the crosses of dominion must be saved. We are living in existential hells from which we can be redeemed only when we choose to resurrect the spirit and ideology of a crucified but resurrected Jesus.

Pearson and his colleagues are standing within a lineage and legacy of Black faith leaders who have done just that. They are doing the work of moving the pulpit into the public sphere.

This begs the question: Who are we when the hour of “worship” has ended and we are surrounded by the spirits of Golgotha’s hill? When we find ourselves drunk with congregational praise, visions of Calvary should sober us into righteous indignation — until freedom.

A compelling argument can be made that preaching in the context of the American empire has failed miserably. American Christians support fascism, exploitative capitalism and white supremacy from both pulpit and pew.

Churchgoing Americans revel in progressive speech and rhetorical and symbolic “wokeness” while doing little to transform systems that have produced the greatest wealth inequality since the Gilded Age. The early decades of the 21st century have been marked by churches that have conflated American citizenship with Christian discipleship, churches that have embraced rigid ethnocentrism, churches that are committed to American global dominance, as long as that dominance has the patina of kindness and inclusion.

Christians who cling to these beliefs listen to sermons regularly. If preaching is intended to produce what I have described, then American preaching has been effective. But many preachers and congregants know that preaching is supposed to do something else.

What is preaching? What is preaching supposed to do? Preaching heralds the inbreaking reign of God in time and space and invites human participation in God’s reign. A sermon that shines light on divine activity without summoning humans to act alongside God leaves communities of faith vulnerable.

In the United States, converging sociohistorical reckonings are removing threadbare theological carpet and exposing the rotten ecclesial floorboards upon which much of American Christianity rests.

God in Christ is active and present amid this.

But where? With the help of the Holy Spirit, preachers must tell us. And how are we supposed to respond to what God is doing? Answering that question is also the preacher’s work.

Preaching is how the church talks to itself and to others. The church is not called to speak only to itself. The church is called to speak also to those who do not claim our Lord but who are cherished by our Lord just the same.

Sectarian understandings of preaching are biblically and theologically troubling. Indeed, our internal speech may differ from our external speech, but a broad understanding of the preaching task is tied to our broad understanding of how God works in the world. The God revealed in Scripture had a maddening way of speaking to and using people from many backgrounds.

The Jesus of the Gospels was a fantastic trespasser of cultural and religious boundaries. Our speech, like our God, is not for Christians only.

In particular, Mark’s Gospel is fertile ground for our inquiry around preaching and congregational leadership. Mark’s Gospel teaches us that preaching always happens in the context of conflict.

Mark was written around 70 A.D. as the temple lay in ruins. The people were plunged into a theological crisis as the Jewish-Roman War was raging. And Mark decided to tell the story of God’s reign embodied in a poor, peripatetic prophet, healer and preacher.

The Spirit of God compelled Mark to tell the story of Jesus in that roiling reality because at that moment the people needed to know that God was present, and that God was active in Jesus.

We, too, live in a time of rubble. The temple of our familiar (with homage to the great Alice Walker) has collapsed. We preach and lead congregations amid cultural ruins. Many who once believed in American nationalist propaganda no longer do. The abandonment of the national myth has occurred across the political spectrum.

The first words of Mark 1:14-15, marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, are “Now after John was arrested.” Jesus did not preach until after John was arrested. As some scholars note, Jesus may have been John’s disciple prior to emerging as a teacher-preacher in his own right. Notwithstanding, Mark makes a subtle yet pivotal point here. Jesus’ preaching happened in the crucible of conflict.

John had been forcibly taken off the scene by imperial power. His proclamation and ethics had challenged the legitimacy of the empire and the religious powers that lent it credibility. Jesus was clear about the cost of preaching. What had happened to John could happen to him. Yet Jesus preached.

I share Mark’s belief that the empire, be it Roman or American, will never be hospitable to the proclamation of God’s great gospel.

The gospel claims all humans and all creation as sacred and unequivocally abhors their exploitation in the interest of gain or greed. The gospel prioritizes an economy of shared abundance and human flourishing. The gospel is committed to nonviolence.

What the gospel is, the Roman Empire was not. What the gospel is, the American empire is not.

A key shift must occur in the thinking of many American preachers and churchgoers if they would wrestle with my idea of Jesus’ homiletic. They must begin from the vantage point that the telos of the American empire, regardless of rhetoric and propaganda, is diametrically opposed to the telos of God’s gospel. History and current events bear witness to this fact. But this knowledge should not be cause for despair.

Before a word is uttered, those who preach in this moment must literally and metaphorically make their way to Galilee, to the place of great risk and great need.

Jesus was afraid. There is no way that John’s arrest did not shake him to the core. Jesus knew that imperial forces would violently take John’s life and ultimately his own. This reading of John’s arrest and Jesus’ preaching in Mark leads us down another path — a soteriological one. God did not send Jesus to die. God sent Jesus to teach us how to live and to love, and we lynched him.

In this moment, preachers and churches must not side with the politics of death that thrive in this land. God showed us that God is on the side of life when the Human One, whom we the religious powers slaughtered in collusion with imperial powers, was raised from the dead early one Sunday morning. God is a God of life. Is the American church committed to life for all people? Death hung in the air like fog throughout Jesus’ ministry. He preached anyway. What about us?

Today’s preachers must deploy language that interrupts imperial rhetoric and liberates the imaginations, visions and dreams of all people, so that their minds, hands and feet will be free.

Today’s preachers must interrogate words like “freedom,” “liberty” and “justice.” Congregations use these words homiletically and liturgically, but they often mean what America means and not what the gospel means when they speak them. Today’s preachers must empty these words of their imperial usages and redeploy them in the interest of God’s reign of justice and peace.