You Can’t Be A Trickle-Down Revolutionary: Dreams From My Father (A Prologue)
by R.L. Stephens II on December 5, 2012
It was December 2009 and my father and I were in the doctor’s office. It was an early appointment, and he needed me to drive him because he didn’t have the strength. It was just me and my dad in the room when the doctor walked in and told him that he had terminal cancer. June 21, 2012 he died at home with my mother, brother and me at his side.
For most of my life my father was larger than life. He was a preacher of rare technical quality with an insight for textual analysis and a gift for teaching. He was among the top minds within his field, and he was a member of Samuel Proctor’s inaugural doctoral class where he was joined by leading preachers like Jeremiah Wright. My father’s faith in God and in the power of community dedicated to liberation was unshakable to the end, and was an inspiration for many. His goal for the church was that it should be a transformative space that worked in tandem with the community as they collectively marched towards liberation. Though I’m an atheist, I respect his vision.
He wrote in 1993,
There has been a strand of revolutionary behavior present in the African American church from its inception up to this present moment. This strand has been resolved not to accept the status quo and has been bound and determined to accomplish liberation for an oppressed people. It has not always been the dominant ideology expressed by the church, but it has always been there. Whether one examines the religious activities of the slaves or the first organizing efforts among the various denominations of African American people, there has been a tendency towards social transformation. It has been an African American church in the midst of slave oppression, Jim Crow laws, bitter segregation, urban migration and economic displacement that has enabled a people to mitigate the cycle of pain inherent in the decadence of American society.
Over his lifetime he reached a great many people, and changed a lot of lives. However, with influence comes envy and betrayal. The institutional church, much like the revolution, eats its own children.
My father received death threats for standing against a man who was abusing and battering his wife. While many people said “that’s his business”, my father stepped in, extended his hand to the woman, and said that the man’s evil wouldn’t be sheltered in his church. Despite the fact that the man brought a gun to church, my father stood with conviction and no shots were ever fired. Another time, my Dad was thrown out of a minister’s conference because he promoted women being full participants in the ministry. Not only did he speak with boldness and conviction, but he also had a commitment to solidarity with people who many in the church viewed as “undesirable”.
His beliefs regarding the church’s role, extend back to his interpretation of Jesus through the liberation theology lens.
The primary concern of the ministry of Jesus was the ushering in of the kingdom of God. It concerns itself with the establishment of a just society where the Good News is preached to the poor, the wounds of the brokenhearted are mended, the release of the captives is proclaimed, and the oppressed are set at liberty. This means that the African American Church that follows these patterns shares in a liberating gospel that leads to social transformation.
His belief that the church belonged to everyone no matter their status got him into trouble, but he refused to sacrifice his convictions for popularity. He suffered for his beliefs, and the greatest tragedy of his storied life was that he never knew how truly loved he really was.
Though I admired his many stances against injustice, I’m most proud of the time my father chose to walk away. In 2001, my dad quit pastoring the oldest and most famous Black church in Minnesota. This job was prestigious, financially lucrative, and a powerful platform that allowed his message to be heard by thousands of people. It was the kind of church that could build a preacher’s legacy. Of course my father was never one to compromise his vision in order to placate those in power, so there was great conflict between him and a small, yet venomous and influential, segment of the church. So, my father walked away. He left the money, the perks, the power, and the fame. His dedication to his vision and his purpose was more important than a position of power. Though it wasn’t easy, at one point he couldn’t even get a job at Home Depot (despite four degrees, including a doctorate), he never regretted leaving that church.
After he retired from pastoring, he spent the last years of his life working with my mother to recruit parents to adopt Black children in the child welfare system. He did child-specific work, often lifting the cause of children who were difficult to place. Due to his efforts, even as his health was failing, many of those children have families whose love and support have transformed their lives. In addition to recruiting parents, he had a vision of community in which Black children weren’t disproportionately removed by the state, and he worked to teach and prepare families, friends and neighbors to stand against the state to prevent their children from being taken. It wasn’t a job, it was a commitment to a vision of community empowerment and transformation.
Although he believed in liberation, he also dreamed for his children to be owners in this capitalist society and to achieve power in the dominant culture. Yet, it was my father’s courage to stand for his beliefs even when it cost him that has been one of the biggest influences on my life. While my family’s circumstances changed after he walked away from the institutional church, we continued living. His example taught me that you can stand on principle and still make it in this world, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
In 2011, the summer after my first year of law school, I found myself at a crossroads. I could continue stifling my voice, my creativity, and my belief in radical change, and opt for the prestige and comfort of a legal profession that was antithetical to my values, or I could make a left turn and follow my passion. I chose my heart. Though he had dreams of me becoming a member of the owning class, my father understood when I chose to pursue a different path (although he never accepted my atheism).
Days before his death, I had my last conversation with my father. I lamented to him about the scorn I often felt from my peers as I took my first fledgling steps to participate in radical uprisings and projects. While my father has said that he was proud of me on many occasions, this time was different. He said that the fact that my voice and writing has been seen and quoted across the world was beyond anything he had imagined. He then told me words that I will not soon forget. My father told me that he would live through the work I was doing and would do in the future. His words were the ultimate respect, and were all the assurance that I will ever need in this lifetime. Thanks Dad.
So, it is with confidence that I reject the opportunity to take my place in institutions of power. I want radical changes in my life and community, and that cannot be accomplished by racing to acquire structural power and hoping that grace will befall those beneath me. A small group created these structures to protect their interests. Anyone who joins these systems perpetuates those interests, regardless of what their personal motives/values are. At most, you can open access to a privileged few, and that becomes the measure of progress. However, the problem isn’t access, it’s function: what these systems do, not who runs them. If we want fundamental change, then we have to build from the foundation, and we must work directly with people as we strive towards collective and mutual liberation.
You can’t be a trickle down revolutionary, do you have the power to let power go?