Reverend Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert kicked off Aggie Agora’s series on “Hidden Figures” on Friday, September 22 with an important first lecture on the impact of lesser-known religious leaders in American history.
Gilbert, an Associate professor of Homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity, sought to tell the story of, sought to bring to light African American ministers who inspired the prophetic vision of MLK Jr. and following generations of preachers. In doing so, he addressed the question: “How might the prophetic witness of a few daring, lesser-known African American clerics be instructive for calling 21st century leaders to a higher standard of moral and ethical responsibility?”
The history of daring African American clerics goes back to the Great Migration, he explained. As black Americans “abandoned Southern society because they yearned for human dignity,” Gilbert stated, the migrants sought refuge in Northern churches, leading to a remake of the black Church.
Rebecca Costantini, a PhD student in the department of Communication, said that “the most memorable portion of Dr. Gilbert’s presentation was his explication of the significance of the Great Migration and its impact on the dynamic of churches in the north.”
The shift in the dynamic occurred as a courageous few clerics sought to advance their theological agenda by meeting the needs of the migrant community. These figures used the prophetic tradition of using Scripture to combat the injustice of society around them – an important example that paved the way of Martin Luther King Jr. and religious leaders today.
“Dr. Gilbert’s lecture was a critical, thoughtful and educational retrospect of how African American preachers were impacted by entrenched historical struggles and geographic shifts before and after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said Costantini.
According to Gilbert, in the 21st century this prophetic teaching legacy has been met with heretical opposition in the form of “prosperity preaching” – a religious discourse that motivates people to support materialistic agendas.
Gilbert described how this prosperity preaching, which claims the blessed life is the “divine right” of every Christian, is the root cause of distorted views of material success, and essentially a blow to African American communities where poverty strikes.
“While priestly in nature, this message empties the Cross of its meaning,” Gilbert stated.
The example of prophetic preaching, however, was described as a spoken word for the sake of justice. It voices the care that God has for all people, especially the oppressed of society: a “word of life in a place of death.”
According to Gilbert, the figures that walked forward as a model of this style of preaching, seen particularly in King’s moral and ethical vision, provide a beneficial roadmap for 21st century leaders. These are the people to look to when considering the injustice African Americans face today – to speak of truth and hope, declaring Divine care, not indifference, to the struggles of the oppressed.