By Bankole Thompson
In his seminal work, Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone, one of the great theologians of the 20th century writes, “Black theology must take seriously the reality of black people – their life of suffering and humiliation. This must be the point of departure of all God-talk that seeks to be black-talk. When that man is black and lives in a society permeated with white racist power, he can speak of God only from the perspective of the socio-economic and political conditions unique to black people.”
Cone added, “Though the Christian doctrine of God must logically precede the doctrine of man, black theology knows that black people can view God only through black eyes that behold the brutalities of white racism. To ask them to assume a ‘higher’ identity by denying their blackness is to require them to accept a false identity and to reject reality as they know it to be.”
Cone’s postulation of Christianity in relation to the African American experience encapsulates the six-decade impactful ministry of the late Bishop PA Brooks, who was unapologetically black and who used his incredible influence to help tear down the walls of resistance to black freedom and justice. He was a powerful model of black excellence by inspiring and pricking the conscience of generations of professional black men and women to use their positions to fight against structural inequities as well as invest in the communities they came from.
Until his death on April 9, at 88, Bishop Brooks was the senior pastor of New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ in Detroit, where he remained the indomitable dean of the faith community. But the ecclesiastical responsibilities of Bishop Brooks, were not only limited to the compassionate and generous ministry he led in the city over the years, they were also intricately tied to a much larger role he assumed on the national religious scene. He was the First Assistant Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ. That position as the second in command of the largest black Christian denomination in the nation, also enabled Bishop Brooks to further expand the tentacles of a ministry of speaking truth to power and standing with those who are often neglected in our community.
That is why his legacy in Detroit is indelible. Those left on the margins of society, who are too frequently politically disenfranchised by double-talking politicians found a reliable and consistent ally in him. He gave voice to their claims of legitimate discontent. Sometimes he did so without the full gallery of a press conference. He did not need the cameras to make a statement about an important public policy issue. Because he commanded so much respect across the political and religious spectrum as a statesman, his calls did not go unanswered in the halls of power, and neither were his words taken lightly by the politically curious, when he spoke on behalf of underserved communities.
Bishop Brooks used his impeccable integrity to speak out in defense of black humanity. Countless Detroiters over the years sought his help, and he readily made it available because he believed that it was the black church’s role to offer guidance and support for black people who are still dealing with the legacy of slavery. His ministry offered empowerment programs ensuring that the church provided answers to some of the most basic yet difficult questions of black life including the crisis of homeownership and education.
His biography captures succinctly, the essence of his church ministry.
“Bishop Brooks expanded his local ministry into a variety of community outreach programs. He founded the Grandmont-Rosedale Christian Day School, K through 8. He established the New St. Paul Non-Profit Housing Corporation which built Faith Manor Senior Citizens Apartments on the campus of New St. Paul Tabernacle. The New St. Paul Community Development Center is the home of the New St. Paul Tabernacle Head Start Agency which has become the model Head Start Agency in the city of Detroit with 11 affiliated centers,” his accomplishments on the church’s website reads.
Aside from his church being an example of liberation theology in action in terms of the kinds of services that were offered to the community, Bishop Brooks understood that black people are still locked in a fight for equality. Often, when I would visit with him in his office, our entire meeting would focus on the challenges in the nation and how they impact black lives. Whether it was the continued assault on affirmative action, the need to support Detroit’s homeless population or ensuring that the practice of redlining became a thing of the past, Brooks remained concerned about the future of black America.
Despite Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, Brooks saw emancipation through the lens of an ongoing black pilgrimage in the American experiment, where black people are still traveling the long, difficult and bumpy road to realize the promises of the Declaration of Independence.
For example, he was visibly angry in 2015, when 23-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine parishioners including the pastor of the church Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The Charleston church had special significance in the emancipation fight for black people as former President Barack Obama explained during his moving eulogy stating that the church was “built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes.”
I recalled Bishop Brooks called me days after the widely reported assassination of the nine innocent black lives and said the dastardly act was an important reminder that black people are still on a long walk to freedom. Before we ended the call, he asked if I would consider being the keynote speaker the following Sunday morning at his church, because he wanted me to speak directly about the massacre in South Carolina and the larger implication it has in our democratic experiment. I accepted the invitation and told him, I deemed it an honor to deliver the Sunday morning keynote address from the pulpit of New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, on an issue of national and international significance and one that has summoned our body politic to seek redress on behalf of the victims and their families.
Later on, as I reflected on my phone conversation with Bishop Brooks and being asked to come to his church and deliver a message that puts in historical context a murder that took place in the oldest black church in the American South, it dawned on me that his invitation underscores the need for the church to continue to be a force against white supremacy in this present dispensation.
That invitation to speak at his church followed several others.
It is difficult to eulogize anybody. It is difficult to eulogize the multi-contextual life of Bishop Brooks. But for the coronavirus pandemic that has currently engulfed all of our lives, I was anticipating the eulogy of the esteemed Charles E. Blake, the Presiding Bishop of COGIC, whom I first met after an introduction by Bishop Brooks. Bishop Blake, who elevated Bishop Brooks to the No. 2 spot in the COGIC leadership had enormous respect for him so much that he designated him as one of the church’s major troubleshooters. He saw in Bishop Brooks a dependable leader, mentor and a working partner.
When we look at the sweep of Bishop Brooks’ life and the intergenerational impact he made, it’s difficult to capture the full meaning of his theology that was guided by the dictates of freedom and compassion for the downtrodden in one single column. He belonged to a generation of exceptional black men who defended the race and where extraordinary ambassadors of black America to the larger American society. Deeply influenced by the weight of history, the conditions of the global black diaspora, and informed by the indispensable work of the Civil Rights Movement, Brooks would emerge as a theological lantern of liberation for black people in Detroit.
If Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the spiritual father of the anti-apartheid movement, Bishop Brooks was the spiritual father of an earlier movement in Detroit to affirm that black lives matter in what is now America’s largest black city. He played the role so well at a time when the city had just elected Coleman A. Young as the first black mayor. His strong alliance with Young, serving as a spiritual fortress for a city that was coming out of the ashes of the 1967 race rebellion, helped to affirm the long quest for the right to self-determination for black people.
When I think about Bishop Brooks, I think about other courageous black men in Detroit, who were gallant soldiers for justice and equality such as former U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith and former legendary Congressman John Conyers Jr., both of whom have passed away.
Each of these men used their profession to create lasting change.
Keith used the court to wage war on inequality and racism.
Conyers used Congress to advocate for the poor.
Brooks used the church to champion fairness and equity.
In his own words Bishop Brooks once said, “I have been privileged to serve as a local pastor for over 50 years, the national church for nearly 40 years and as a jurisdictional bishop for more than three decades. In this capacity, my focus has been to preserve and protect the purity of our holiness faith. It is the single greatest responsibility to the body of the Church of God in Christ. Throughout my entire tenure of service to our church, at all levels, I have endeavored to be an example of consistent loyalty, dependability and excellence.”
And all of us were a part of the larger church and the community of justice that Bishop Brooks, a theological giant ministered to. For that alone, I remain indebted to the close friendship we shared over the years. That friendship included an invitation I received from his daughter evangelist Faithe Brooks, four years ago to be the surprise guest for a private birthday dinner the family was hosting for her father at The Capital Grille in Troy. When I showed up, Bishop Brooks was elated and the rest of the entire evening was hearty laughs. In his usual reverent voice, he said my appearance made his birthday extra special.
Our friendship was also reflected in an annual breakfast meeting the two of us held a week before Christmas at the Beverly Hills Grill in Southfield, where we would meet to talk about the challenges of the past year and the dawn of a new year, and what it all means during a season where many feel alone and dejected. Months before he passed away, I visited him at his home while he was still ill. As soon as I walked into the room, he said, “I’m so happy you came. I feel 10 feet tall.” I was simply there to show care for this globally renowned and transcending leader who was a trusted friend.
Most importantly, our friendship had an added significance because we both shared concern for those who are the victims of exclusionary politics in Detroit and around the nation. That is why Bishop Brooks’ theology was anchored on freedom and compassion for people who are disadvantaged when political and economic power used at their expense renders them the victims of naked exploitation. That has been the hallmark of the black experience and Bishop Brooks conveyed that message in his ministry.
Bankole Thompson is a distinguished journalist and author who serves as the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, where his column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of REDLINE, a news magazine and hard-nosed commentary show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs Monday through Friday from 11am-1pm EST. Thompson is the author of a pair of books on former President Barack Obama including “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” published in 2010, and whose foreword was written by Bishop PA Brooks.