Gary Simpson: A defiant community of friends
In a lonely, divisive and destructive world, the church is called to build community, to stand as “a defiant community of friends,” says the senior pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ.
December 7, 2010
Many churches today have established separate nonprofit community development corporations, but in fact the church has always been a community development corporation, said the Rev. Gary Simpson, senior pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“It hasn’t called itself that as a 501(c)(3), but we have always been trying to form community,” he said.
At Concord Baptist, the building of community is a core mission.
“The most radical and revolutionary thing I can do -- that we can do together -- in the middle of a city that tends to be very cold, in the middle of an economy ... that has fallen apart, in the midst of a world that is so divisive and so destructive ... , the most radical thing we can do is stand as a defiant community of friends,” Simpson said.
Simpson came to Concord Baptist in 1990, following the 42-year ministry of the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor. Before that he was an associate pastor at Concord and pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, N.J. He is board chair for the Fund for Theological Education and an assistant professor of homiletics at Drew University Theological School.
Simpson delivered the opening sermon for the 2010 Gardner C. Taylor Distinguished Lecture Series at Duke Divinity School. He spoke with Faith & Leadership about the call to pastoral ministry and his pastorate at Concord Baptist Church of Christ. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.
Q: The Fund for Theological Education, which you serve as board chair, has emphasized the creation of a “culture of call” in American congregations. I understand that you grew up in such a church, where your father was the pastor. Tell me about that.
It’s funny, because when I was 25 I interviewed at my first church, and they asked me, “Do you have any pastoral experience?” I wanted that church so badly I said, “Yes, I have 25 years of pastoral experience. I grew up in the pastor’s house.”
It was not like my father said, “Let me show you a lesson.” It was watching his life, watching how he maneuvered in love with the people, how he was among them in such effective ways. The first church he pastored, the men of that church built it with their hands. They laid the cinder blocks and they put in the cement.
My father never lost his care for the church. We always lived near the church, maybe five or six minutes away. And wherever we were traveling from, whether it was from a family reunion in Atlanta or the Dairy Queen over the viaduct in Columbus, Ohio, my dad was going to drive by the church so we could see if there were any lights on.
That was his life. He was in that office at a quarter to eight every morning, was present in the life of so many people and was a great pastor. Although he was not seminary-trained, he made sure the church was educated. They read everything together.
He was a good model for not only what happened in the church but also what happened in the house. My mother was the breadwinner and he pastored the church. I never saw them in a tizzy about her being the breadwinner and him not pulling his weight. But I saw him love my mother with great affection. And he was always there for us. She worked the 3-to-11 shift, so he was the one who went to PTA meetings and those kinds of things.
When he had a meeting at the church in the evening, if one of us called, it didn’t matter what that meeting was about, he would excuse himself and say, “My family’s on the phone,” and he’d go see about us. Now I have that in my ministry; I teach that my family is my first ministry, and there are days where I have to be present to them that will necessitate that I won’t be present in the same way that I am on other days to the congregation.
He had a gift for humor, and he could laugh people into doing all kinds of incredible things.
Q: How was your own call to ministry influenced by watching him?
I can remember, as early as 5 or 6, having dreams about helping my father in the church. I think it caught him altogether off guard. He thought my brother, who became a doctor, would be the one who was called. I was the curious, mischievous, devilish one in the family. Usually that’s the one the Lord calls anyway, but when I told him at 15 that I had an aspiration for ministry, he told me point-blank, “Do something else.” It took him a while to see that I was serious about it. Once he figured out I was serious, he got with the program. But I ran from it for a while. The little old ladies in the church would tell me, “You’re going to be a pastor one of these days.” And I’d say, “Oh no, not me.” I thought I was going to be a lawyer. And I still am doing that in some way. I’m arguing a different case right now, and I’m enjoying it.
Q: Looking back, what lessons does your father’s church offer about creating a culture of call to pastoral ministry?
Thirty years later, I run into people all over this country who have professed a call to ministry that they trace back to their relationship with my father and that little church. It’s amazing, for a church that size, with 350 people and two services, that there may be 20 to 25 people all over the country who got started in ministry because of that. I mean, my father was present in the community. He was a surrogate father to many people whose fathers were unable to show them love.
I remember a high school football game; one of our members got hurt, and his parents hadn’t come to the game. My father took him to the emergency room, stayed with him and brought him home. That kind of presence is what inspires people. He didn’t start out to say, “We’re going to make pastors in this church.” But some kind of seed about loving community -- about being helpful to others and framing life within a theological construct -- stuck, and it’s still pouring out seeds and bearing fruit 30 years later.
Q: There are many lessons in that.
Particularly now, people at the local-church level are really looking for what I would call organic leadership that grows out of a love for community. What we do is community building.
I’m really interested in how do we reclaim the church as community building. In many churches now, they have what they -- they opened up a separate 501(c)(3) as a community development corporation, where they do things like housing and jobs and things. But the church has always been a community development corporation. It hasn’t called itself that as a 501(c)(3), but we have always been trying to form community.
And that’s what we are doing, in fact, at Concord now. I think the most radical and revolutionary thing I can do -- that we can do together -- in the middle of a city that tends to be very cold, in the middle of an economy that is falling apart, that has fallen apart, in the midst of a world that is so divisive and so destructive to the person, the most radical thing we can do is stand as a defiant community of friends. We talk about being connected technologically, but we still crave intimacy, authentic community and authentic engagement.
Our mission statement is very simple: “The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, creating a community of friends, witnessing for Christ.” And we really talk about what does it mean to have authentic friendship in a city where most people, when they say good morning to you on the street, are about to hustle you. And that’s a part of the gift we give. And when people come to our church, they speak about hospitality, about not being a stranger.
This world can be a radically lonely place, destructively so. If we can give people an opportunity to say, “Yes, I belong, and there are other people who not only believe in me but who are counting on me to do my part,” I think that’s what churches are doing.
Q: What’s the role of preaching in leadership and community development?
Preaching is not something I do to people. It’s something I do among them. It’s my life in the week -- not just my performance of that word on Sunday morning, but how I’m engaging people with presence in the week. Preaching is a way to form community.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, the sermon was entitled “The Missing ‘N’ Word.” I went through all the euphemisms and the horrors of the word that is supposed to be in that blank. And I turned that to Romans 15, where Paul says that each one of us is to please his neighbor. We started to talk about “neighbor” as the missing “N” word. The talk behind that was so important; now people have something positive to radically change even the visceral negative implications of the “N” word. When somebody sees that as “neighbor,” they think very differently about calling somebody into relationship.
I’m not patting myself to say that was a great sermon, but it was an opportunity to change a paradigm. In preaching, we change the paradigm. We give people alternative language. We give them an opportunity not just to describe the sludge that they are in, but we give them an opportunity also to hope for and to live for the transformation where that sludge might one day be streets of gold, in the eschatological sense.
Q: You have been at Concord Baptist Church for 20 years. What are the challenges of being pastor of such a prominent church?
Concord is a wonderful place. We are 163 years old. The first five people pastored for 15 years, and the last five of us pastored all of the 140-plus years since. They’ve had this unusual ability to look at a pastoral hire as an investment and a willingness to grow along with the pastor. They know there are going to be mistakes, but they’re willing to create authentic community together. It’s been wonderful, and it is wonderful. Because of that kind of spirit they are not afraid to do anything. Dr. Taylor told me at my installation that they will not shrink at any challenge, and it has been so for these 20 years.
And it’s just getting fun now. It was never “unfun,” but there was so much to learn, so much to absorb, so much to know and to appreciate. But it’s been a blessing. I’m excited about what we are becoming. People are embracing this mission statement that I spoke to you about, and seeing themselves as practicing friendship in the world, starting with each other.
Q: Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known 20 years ago?
Yes: that I didn’t have to do it all. At this point there are lay people who are in leadership both on staff and in the congregation. It’s wonderful. There are people who are so much smarter, so much more gifted, so much more willing to do some of the things that I felt like I needed to do myself. Once I released them into that, and I released myself from that, the church grew in so many different ways. That would be the lesson: that just because I’ve gone to seminary and done some other things, I’m not the only person who has ecclesial sense in the church.
Q: What was it like to follow Gardner Taylor? What are some lessons for other pastors who follow a well-known, popular, longtime leader?
The first thing I had to recognize when I started was that I could not compete in 42 days with what he had put there for 42 years. Resist the spirit of competition. Relax and let things naturally evolve; don’t be in a rush. I tell my young pastor friends, “You can change everything you want to in a church today if you’re not planning on being there for a long time.”
People are invested in things, even if they are the wrong things. They are invested, and that comes with some history. Until one really finds out what that history is and unpacks why people are loyal to certain things, it is very dangerous to rip what people have known away from them immediately. While I’m waiting on those things, I get to know who I am in the midst of that.
That’s the second thing: that I need to learn the story. Anybody who goes into a new church, before they do anything, they’ve got to learn that story. I’m the resident historian of Concord Church. It is not on my job description, but if I’m going to do all the other things, I have to know the story of that church. I have to be able to tell it with passion, and I have to be able to talk about it as if I had actually been there. So I’ll say things like, “You know, when our church burned down in 1952,” or, “You remember, when we moved to this place in 1939.” To connect myself in that story is important to me and to the people who come behind me.
Also, you’ve got to have fun. If you’re going to commit your life to something, there ought to be some fulfillment and joy in it. One of my central values is, if it’s not fun I’m not going to do it. People need to recognize that that’s important. Being a Christian is serious, it is at times solemn, but it is not a life of drudgery and boredom. It is a very exciting life.
Q: I understand that Rev. Taylor did a lot to help effect a smooth transition.
He did some things that, to me, didn’t make sense at the beginning. For example, when he retired he stayed in Brooklyn, but he wouldn’t preach in New York for a year. He wouldn’t preach anywhere in New York. He did that. That was his self-imposed rule.
He wouldn’t do any funerals or any weddings. People would ask him, and he’d say, “Rev. Simpson is the pastor. He has every right to do the funeral, as he will do mine.” He’s been very good at making sure that people respect the office of the pastor. I’ve invited him to preach every Christmas and Easter for 20 years -- [but] “No, sir, that’s your job as pastor.”
Q: And you served under him earlier as an associate pastor. What was that like?
It was a blessing to be there as his ministry was winding down, to assume some responsibility and free him up to give the sermons that he gave every Sunday. The last part of his ministry, he was very clear: he was a preacher. He took one part of the week to get ready for preaching, then took the other part of the week to rest from preaching. With a colleague, we were able to do a majority of the pastoring so he was free to do that.
It was a blessing to work with him. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to tackle Concord Church in all of its complexity without having that time. I had a leg up on somebody who would’ve come altogether new.
Q: I noticed on the Concord website that you have an alternative identity as the Green Lantern. Tell me about that.
I do. That’s my alter ego. It’s my Facebook identity. Part of it comes out of this whole need for imagination in our culture and the fact that there are not many black superheroes. Not that I’m suggesting I have superpowers, but somebody should put the icon of a black superhero up so that young people can aspire to think about and imagine a world that is not. So that’s kind of my tribute to all the African-Americans who have been superheroes in my life, and to inspire young people. They really think I’m a cool pastor with the Green Lantern as my alter ego. It gets me in touch with a lot of people who are trying to figure out, “Who is this guy?”
Q: So, who is this guy?
The Green Lantern, of course, is a DC Comics hero who evolved over time. One of his last iterations in the Justice League of America was as a black man. And Green Lantern’s power is in his ring. The church gave me a set of Green Lantern cuff links for an anniversary. I mean, it’s really a big, wonderful way of living in some way in a virtual life. That’s my avatar. And again, it is all about trying to set up a positive image out there, somebody who is willing to be about the building up of community in a positive way. And if the Green Lantern works for some folks who may not want to call me Reverend or Doctor, then that’s good, too.