White Pastor, Black Theology

“What do you think Jesus looks like?” asked the pastor who was leading the baptismal study.

I said something like, “He has long hair and a beard and wears a robe.”

The straightness of his hair was more or less implied.

“So you think Jesus looked like a hippie?” was his response, accompanied by a friendly chuckle.

And that was it.

Nothing else said about it – ever.

Back to whatever the regularly scheduled topic was.

Why did this white pastor ask me, the only black boy in his congregation, a question like that? Why did he seem surprised and amused by the answer based on all the Christian artwork I had ever seen inside the church and out? Why did he seem to poke fun at this ubiquitous portrayal of Jesus? Why didn’t he follow it up with any other questions or answers? Why didn’t he share his thoughts on what Jesus looks like? Why didn’t I ask him?

I unexpectedly ended up having lunch with the pastor decades later at a large denominational gathering. I didn’t even think to ask him about that “Come to Jesus” moment. I’m not sure why. It’s not because I forgot. Maybe it’s because his response didn’t matter anymore. That might seem strange, but his question already did what I believe it was supposed to do.

This short exchange during the baptismal study taught me to look beyond people’s portrayal of truth, whether it’s about the physical appearance of Jesus or about interpretation of his teachings. Although the aesthetics of the church led me to see Jesus as a “hippie,” the pastor subtly led me to question that assumption.

This seed planted in childhood lay dormant for years until germinated by influences like Henry McNeal Turner’s “God is a Negro,” Countee Cullen’s The Black Christ, W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Gospel of Mary Brown,” James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet,” Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Fred G. Sanford’s “you can’t hang around Jerusalem no thirty-some years and don’t wear no hat and stay white,” the “Black Jesus” episode of Good Times, Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans,” Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire, and Crystal Valentine’s “And the News Reporter Says Jesus is White.”

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

By Carl McRoy

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