Theology Thursdays: Exclusive Q & A With Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, Interim Pastor, The Eliot Church Of Roxbury, (Part I)
If anyone had announced ten years ago, that Nation Of Islam Minister Conrad Muhammad, a decade later, would be known as Baptist Minister Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, few would have believed it. And by his own account, include among that majority, the subject himself. But time and circumstances continue to teach all of us that we should expect the unexpected. And the unexpected turn of events in the life of the man born Conrad Tillard, forty years ago, have been so stunning, complicated and misunderstood by many - in the media and outside of it - that still 7 years after he left the Nation Of Islam, it is hard to find or hear or read a cogent, private or public account of what happened to, and inside the heart and mind of, the man known in Harlem as 'Brother Conrad'. What caused him to make the transition in public ministry, from Islam to Christianity?
To be sure, Rev. Conrad Tillard is not the first Member of the Nation Of Islam to leave or return to the Church. BlackElectorate.com has featured coverage of another such reported 'conversion' involving Jeremiah Cummings of Dallas, Texas who left the Nation of Islam and became a Christian preacher. And many know the story of Rev. A R Bernard, the leader of New York City's largest Church - The Christian Cultural Center, who was once a Member of the Nation Of Islam. But there have been few, if any, with Minister Conrad Muhammad's public stature - a former Minister at the Nation Of Islam's historic New York City Muhammad's Mosque # 7 - who have gone on to become a prominent Christian Pastor.
Guided by the maxim, 'the more unlikely an event, the more information it yields' and inspired after a reading of two recent articles published about Rev. Tillard (BeliefNet.com's, "A Prodigal Son Comes Home" and The Boston Globe's, "Heeding A New Call"), BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedric Muhammad, on March 1, 2005, two days after the Nation Of Islam's observance of its annual Saviours' Day Celebration, requested an in-depth interview with Rev. Conrad Tillard to discuss his controversial spiritual evolution; his Hip-Hop ministry; and his political ambitions and worldview. Rev. Tillard kindly accepted the interview request and agreed to grant BlackElectorate.com a 45-minute to one hour interview. In a departure from the original intention, the interview, conducted on March 15, 2005, spanned nearly four hours. What follows is a very slightly edited transcript of that conversation.
It is our deep desire that the first part of this three-part interview, which today focuses on Theology (published the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) will stimulate deep thought and reasoned discussion on the subjects of Jesus and Islam and their relevance to Black people in America, in particular, and religion and theology all over the world, in general.
Cedric Muhammad: Dear Reverend, for nearly five years at BlackElectorate.com it appears that almost no year has gone by where an article has not been written and published about you. Invariably these articles revolve around primarily four things: your decision to leave the Nation Of Islam, your religious beliefs, political worldview and Hip-Hop activism. It is these four areas that I would like to have an in-depth conversation with you about, to go beyond much of the superficial reporting that is currently out there, in my opinion. I think you, and these factors, are significant.
So, what I would like to do is first get a brief snapshot of where you are today before going into these four factors. So, please tell us a bit more about what some of us learned from what was reported in a recent Boston Globe article about you – that you are now a Reverend at Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts. How did that develop?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: First let me say that I certainly appreciate the opportunity to talk to BlackElectorate.com. I think it is one of the great websites and news sources for African American people. I appreciate the weight and the substance of the coverage. I am a frequent reader and visitor to the site.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank you Reverend.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: You are welcome. Today I am a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, an ordained Baptist Minister – ordained by the Rev. Dr. Calvin Otis Butts and the deacons and congregation of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the United Missionary Baptist Association of New York, an affiliate of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. I have returned to a tradition that is very much a part of who I am and who we are as a people. It is a tradition that has produced Martin Luther King, Howard Thurman, Adam Clayton Powell etc… Morehouse and Spellman College, Benjamin Mays and Black institutions all over the world for African American people. The list goes on, and on, and on in terms of what the African-American Church – all denominations - (has done). And I am particularly proud to be of the Baptist Church. I currently serve as the interim pastor of the 170-year old Eliot Church of Roxbury, a United Church of Christ Congregation (UCC). The Roxbury section of Boston is really like the Harlem of New York.
Cedric Muhammad: And prior to that you were first in New York and were ordained by Rev. Butts at Abyssinia?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yes, at Abyssinian.
Cedric Muhammad: Now let’s go back to the first factor. I want to take you back to your time in the Nation Of Islam, as a Believer and Minister. Just for the record, when did you join the Nation Of Islam and when and how did you become Minister of Mosque # 7 in New York City?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, I joined back in 1985. I first started attending the Mosque around 1984. My first job was with Rev. Jesse Jackson. When he ran for President in 1984, I was one of the student organizers in that campaign and I worked in the national office that summer. And I worked in Pennsylvania as a student organizer. So I did campaign throughout that campaign season and then I went to hear Minister Farrakhan in Washington, August 22, 1984, and he very much affected me and I joined the movement shortly thereafter.
Cedric Muhammad: And then what year did you become Minister in New York City?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, I arrived in New York in 1989. I was the National Youth and Student Minister based at Mosque # 7. And then in 1991, I became the Minister of Mosque # 7.
Cedric Muhammad: And Brother when was the decision made to change the leadership at Mosque # 7?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: February 1997.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank you. That is just for context and background. Brother, as I believe you know, actions and decisions always spring from how people think and feel about themselves, others, principles and events. What were some of the factors and specific events that produced thoughts and emotions which influenced your decision to resign from the structure and leadership of the Nation Of Islam?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, there were a number of factors as I look back on it now. As I look back on it now, it was not an overnight event. I was in many ways, growing in different ways, understanding life differently, understanding the nature of organizations differently, and so I can’t really say that there was any one particular event but it was a combination of events that had to do with the Nation and changes in the organizational structure. It had to do with my faith going in different directions and my personal life taking on different challenges. For example, I left New York in 1997 and went to study at Harvard Divinity School. But I remained in the Nation for about a year. During the course of that year there were a number of things that happened that sort of made me view the world differently – leaving the environment that I had been in for 12, 14 years and going into that academic environment had a very transformative effect on me. Because I met people from different faiths. I met clergy from different faiths – preachers of the Protestant Churches, Catholic priests, Greek Orthodox clergy, Jews and Rabbis and Orthodox Muslims, and it was a very interesting environment and it gave me an opportunity for the first time, really, to interface with clergy of different races and different religions, and I really believe and I saw, at that point, that many of them had very similar circumstances to mine, in terms of their working within their organizational bodies, their polities and I realized people have a lot more in common than really I thought. You know, strange as it may seem but a person who was a Minister in the Methodist Church, or a person who was a priest in a Catholic Church probably had a lot more in common with a Minister in the Nation than I would have ever thought. So that was very profound in terms of affecting my change. Some of the courses that I took were very profound, and we will talk about that later, but also I was forced, through a change in my family life, to sort of really look at myself and life and where I stood from a different perspective and finally, I had a chance to step back from the Nation for the first time since I had joined. And I had an opportunity to look at it from an organizational standpoint, in a way that I had not been able to before. So those were some of the factors.
Cedric Muhammad:Yes. And I want to go deeper, theologically, a few questions down. But if I could just isolate this. Certainly nothing personal that I want to ask you about but I do want to know, because I think this is, I think, a key dynamic with not just people that are in spiritual organizations but as you know and I think you have alluded to it, other organizations. The dynamic of belief and engagement through the spirit and the agreement with the mission and purpose and tenets versus the path of development professionally in terms of skills and talents being applied in the cause…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: I did not quite understand could you say that again?
Cedric Muhammad: Sure. I’m sorry. I wanted to isolate a dynamic that is really not the monopoly of a religious or spiritual group, I think you were alluding to that, which is that there are issues of belief in the mission, the cause, the tenets; and then there is the labor course – the path of development and the professional application inside of the organization. So I wanted to know, leaving personal factors aside, was there frustration with the execution of plans or perhaps ambition that you had, or was there disappointment with your development or station or whatever post in leadership that you had that contributed to your decision?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: No. Well let me put it this way. Certainly there probably was on some level. I have said in the past that I believe that what happened to me in New York in terms of how I was relieved (as Minister of Mosque # 7 in New York) was undemocratic. I have said publicly that I do not think it was just. And I think more importantly, that I don’t think it was good for the organization. And I think that time has shown that it was not a wise move in terms of the organization. But what I realized then…was the personal frustration, or disappointment, as you put it, was really only very minor to be honest with you. I was really very tired after serving so intensely in New York for eight years. I began to appreciate that there were certain dynamics in the organization that certainly were far beyond my control. And I think that what that event did for me was allow me to see the Nation in a different way. I always thought of the Nation as a more democratic organization for the people, for Black people. As I grew and got older in the organization I realized that the organization was, from a polity category – it is considered, probably, a more autocratic organization. And for me, I fully - as I grew - understood and respected that it was an autocratic organization. And I never fought any decision, because I respected the leader of the organization, and the leader’s right to appoint Ministers to wherever he saw fit. That is no different than the Catholic Church, and I understand that and I don’t begrudge him his right to do that. I understand, now. I understand certainly later, better, the polity of that organization and so that was something that I had to grow to understand and ironically when I came back into the Church I began to understand the structure even better. So I don’t lay a lot of emphasis to that. That is the cannon or the canard that I became personally disappointed. No, I never became personally disappointed. You know, let me say this, also about that. When I left New York, I went to Harvard as a member of the Nation, and as a Minister, in the Nation. If you remember, I was still the National Youth and Student Minister. So I had no animosity with anyone and now I realize that it was God’s plan that I go to Harvard and I was exposed to things that I had not previously fully appreciated. And that ultimately would set in motion changes far more than anything that happened as a result of me leaving New York or Ben Chavis being Minister. That was almost secondary. I was actually very relieved and happy to have an opportunity to go back to school and to engage in the intellectual pursuit of studying theology. I thought that it was a good place to be in. So, I do want to dismiss the view, in some circles, that my leaving the Nation was a matter of sour grapes. It certainly wasn’t. And anyone that believes that may believe it for their own reasons. They may need to believe that for their purposes. But it is not true.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You Brother, this is so important. I am going to bring up a question that I wanted to ask later because it is germane. Again, the dynamic that I am trying to isolate and that you are helping me and us to see is a dual track so to speak for lack of a better phraseology. There is the internal integrity as it relates to the belief system and then there is the, as you mentioned, organizational and the development factors. I am not even dealing with “sour grapes”, or resentment or personal (factors), so let me raise this point. I have here a statement that you kindly faxed to me, published in the New York Beacon. And I don’t have a date on it Brother, I don’t know if you remember the date.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yeah, actually that is the text of my press conference when I resigned from the Nation.
Cedric Muhammad: OK. So they just re-published it?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: They published the actual text of it.
Cedric Muhammad: Do you remember the date of the press conference?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: It was in March of 1998 as best I can remember it.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You. A portion of this statement reads, “Perhaps one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever made in my life has been my decision to resign from the structure and leadership of the Nation Of Islam”. I paid close attention to that language. So my question is: at that time did you make a distinction between your membership of the Nation Of Islam as a Believer, and your membership in its structure and leadership?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, first of all you have to put it in a context of this is me deciding to publicly make a statement and leave the organization after fourteen years. This is in the immediate aftermath of my decision to leave. This is in an immediate context. So I was, from the standpoint of belief at that time still very much a Believer in that ideology, in that theology, but I certainly believed that I could no longer work within the Nation. I believed that my time in the Nation had come to pass. But I also – you have to understand contextually – that statement was also the announcement of the ministry that God had really put in my heart, and given me the vision for when I was at Harvard, and that was this vision of ministering to the Hip Hop generation. But at that point of that statement, I still very much wanted to make it clear that I was not indicting the Nation. I think if you look at the text of that statement, it was a statement in which I thanked many people in the Nation that had nurtured me and had been role models for me, but I had decided that it was time for me to move on. So that is the context of that statement. It was within months, weeks, and days of me making a very difficult decision, and agonizing over a decision, and going public with it, to leave the Nation.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You Reverend. Now, another part of your statement that you just alluded to is this, and I don’t know if you did this, in what I am reading here, but The Beacon put it in bold, and perhaps you read it this way at your press conference. It said, “Why then Minister Muhammad if you are so laudatory of the Nation are you resigning?” And then, this part is what they show of what you said (after that question), “ I want to say simply that for me it is time to move on, Almighty God Allah has inspired me with a vision of a new ministry, focused on my peer group the youth.” So my question is, you said that essentially that vision came when you were at Harvard…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: That is my actual prepared statement. That was a rhetorical question that I raised (“Why then Minister Muhammad if you are so laudatory of the Nation are you resigning?”).
Cedric Muhammad: OK. So you did raise that question (“Why then Minister Muhammad if you are so laudatory of the Nation are you resigning?”), that was not The Beacon?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: No, no, they just reprinted it.
Cedric Muhammad: OK, I got you. So for clarity sake and to help me with the dynamic that I am trying to isolate - because you still were a Believer of the ideology (and theology) as you just said – what essentially was the difference between the vision for this Ministry (inspired) at Harvard, and the Ministry that Minister Farrakhan had placed you in, dealing with the same peer group essentially?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, there were a number of key things. You have to remember in that year that I was in school – from 1997 to 1998 – being a student again for the first time, in maybe 10 years, I had an opportunity to read a lot, and to reflect and think. If you remember when I first started A Movement For CHHANGE one of the things that I said that was very important as I reflected on Huey Newton and Bobby Seale is that even though they looked up to Malcolm and Malcolm was the ideological, sort of, inspiration for their movement, I had to really ask myself - I wonder would they have been able to work with Malcolm? And when you consider the fact that Malcolm was born in the thirties and raised in the forties, and shaped in the fifties, it occurred to me that Huey and Bobby, who were baby boomer babies, who came of age in the 1960s - they probably would not have been able to work with Malcolm. And then it occurred to me that while SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ) worked closely with King - Ella Baker (a founder of SNCC), understood that it was important that the preachers of SCLC not kick over SNCC. And Ella Baker understood – and this is what I have always believed – because remember I was a student leader and activist before I was even in the Nation, and I believe, as Franz Fanon, said, that each generation has to identify its mission and decide whether it will accept its mission or betray its mission. And so for me, what was very important was that there needed to be a youth-founded, youth-led movement because the issues facing my generation, and the generations coming after me are unique to that generation. I am forty years old now and already there are some levels that I cannot speak for, to people who are sixteen and seventeen years old. And so, what I believe and what was important to me was that there was a movement in the Hip-Hop generation that would address spiritual issues but would also challenge that generation to become active politically, socially, and you have to remember now it is common, and people regularly identify the Hip-Hop generation with political activism. It was not so in 1998. It was not so in 1997. It was not so in 1994. Many people in the Nation did not appreciate my involvement with the Hip-Hop community, as a Minister. And so you have to put it in the context of the times and at the time I felt that the organization that we were founding – A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE – needed to be founded by young people and led by young people. And someone very close to me in New York had told me that while I was a Minister of Mosque # 7, when I first got there, I shied away from really engaging my generation because I was so young. And there were so many people that I was ministering to who had been parishioners of Malcolm X, and parishioners of Minister Farrakhan and I did not want to appear too young, immature and inexperienced to be able to serve them and so I skewed away from young people. But then someone very close to me told me that it is a blessing for me to be young and to be able to speak to my generation and that I should not shy away from that and that I should embrace the fact that as a young man I am speaking for and to this generation. And that had a profound impact upon me. So by the time that idea crystallized during the time when I was at Harvard, I really realized that that’s what was missing, an organization where young people who knew the issues of their day, who understood the subtleties of our day, could challenge a generation and call them to action. So that was the purpose of my leaving the Nation, and I will say that like any organization, any established organization that predates a cultural phenomenon, it was difficult to do that in the Nation. And that is not an indictment of the Nation, but that is just a fact from my perspective.
Cedric Muhammad: I am going to put a pin in that part of our conversation because we are approaching the second half of the interview subject matter and I want to go deep, deep into what you just said…OK a couple more final points on this stream. Reverend Tillard, one of the most recent articles written about you, “A Prodigal Son Comes Home” published in Beliefnet.com and another article published in the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of The Amsterdam News, entitled, “The Next Malcolm X?” openly make analogies between you and Brother Malcolm. Do you think such analogies are appropriate? And do you self-identify with Malcolm X?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, you know, certainly I, like, most people in my generation, was profoundly affected by Malcolm X - profoundly affected by the reading of the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book which I read when I was thirteen years old. I have tried not to self-identify with Malcolm X because I’m not Malcolm X, I’m Conrad Tillard. And because I ministered at Mosque # 7 and because I served in the Harlem community where Malcolm served there was always tremendous pressure on me, in terms of people comparing me to Malcolm. And also, because I served in New York and at Mosque # 7 where Minister Farrakhan served, there was always pressure on me and always people comparing me to him. But the reality is that I have always been very clear, certainly, the older I get the more I am clear, that I am not Malcolm. I am not Minister Farrakhan. I am Conrad. And though there maybe some similarities in terms of our development, our trajectory – Malcolm’s journey took him to Mecca and in Mecca he came to different conclusions. My journey took me to the seminary and in the seminary I came to different conclusions. When I preached my trial sermon at Abyssinian one of the deacons came up to me and said how great my sermon had been and he said, ‘I was here when Malcolm preached and I was here when you preached, and Malcolm’s sermon was great, but yours was greater because you were preaching Jesus Christ.’ So you know, Malcolm is like Dr. King, like W.E.B. DuBois, like Booker T. Washington, like Muhammad Ali, like the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Benjamin Mays – these are all of my heroes. I am a student of the African-American culture, the African American struggle, the African American tradition. I studied African American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, W.E.B. DuBois’ university. So, I love Malcolm, but I always ask people to judge me for who I am. One of the interesting meetings I had when I was meeting people and telling them I was going back to the church - I met with a lot of people. And one of the people I met with was Mr. Percy Sutton (Co-Founder of Inner City Broadcasting and a former lawyer of Malcolm X), who has always been not only a mentor to me but a supporter, he helped me through seminary, and when I told him I was going back to the church he was stunned. And he said, ‘How will the people feel, with you, the heir to Malcolm X, going back to the church?’ And I said to him, ‘Mr. Sutton, I don’t know how they will feel but I do know this – the Lord is leading me in this direction and I have to be true to my own story, my own testimony, and my own truth. I am not Malcolm. I’m Conrad. God led Malcolm one way. God has led me another way’. And I think the only important thing about any human being is that we embrace the direction that the Lord leads us in and be true to our own selves and our own calling.
Cedric Muhammad: Thus far, Dear Brother, I have not read or seen any in-depth account that chronicles the theological transition in your thinking and beliefs – from a Muslim to a Christian. For the record I would like to ask you about a few subjects, and allow you to comment on any changes in your thinking regarding them, from a religious and theological perspective. But first, could you please tell me some of the factors and circumstances and I guess, really how the decision was made, while you were in the Nation, for you to go to Harvard Divinity School?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, when the decision was made to make a change at Mosque # 7, I met with the Minister (Farrakhan) and he expressed to me something that he wanted me to do. But that was an interesting moment for me, Cedric. Because from 1985 to 1997 my whole life had really been focused on the Nation. I left the University Of Pennsylvania, and where as my peers were going into Corporate America or professional school I went to work in Harlem, working in the Nation. It was a time for me, in ’97, when that change took place, for me to step back and take inventory of my own life. The Lord led me to grab the reigns of my life. And for the first time for those number of years, or at least the eight years that I had been a Minister in the Nation, from 1989 to 1997, that was the first time that I made an empowered decision for myself in terms of what was in my best interests, what was in the best interests of my family, and something that I wanted to do. And so, Evelyn Higginbotham who was my academic advisor at (the University) of Pennsylvania – she is the wife of late judge, Leon Higginbotham, recommended that I apply to the Harvard Divinity School. I looked at Yale. I looked at Union. I looked at a number of schools. Harvard was unique for me at the time, because even though it was a seminary, it had a very strong world religions department. And at that time I had no intention at all of returning to the Church. So I did not apply to Yale because it was primarily a Christian-oriented seminary. I didn’t apply to Princeton because it was Christian-oriented. And I didn’t apply to Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) (a consortium of six historically Black Protestant seminaries) because it was Christian-oriented. And ironically I was not a Christian and I did not intend to be one. And so I made the decision that I would respectfully decline the Minister’s (Farrakhan) offer to do what he had said he wanted me to do, and I did respectfully do that. I talked to him about that. And I decided to apply to seminary. I applied to Harvard. I was accepted and it was a decision that I had made to go there, by about May of 1997 and the Minister embraced that decision although it was not his decision, it was my decision.
Cedric Muhammad: So, I don’t...I will leave that alone. I don’t want to unnecessarily discuss your and the Minister’s conversation. OK, now…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: But let it suffice to say that, at that time I was 32-years old. And as a young man who grew up in that organization having tremendous respect for the Minister, I think that the Minister is a very wise man and certainly he understood, at that point, and from my judgment, that I had, in a sense, taken my own life and destiny into my hands. And while I was very respectful of him, I understood at that point that that was my life, and I had to make decisions for myself.
Cedric Muhammad: Yes Sir. Now the specific subjects. First, on specific theological subjects, have your beliefs changed regarding the subject of Jesus and the expected return of the Messiah?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Have my beliefs changed?
Cedric Muhammad: Yeah. Now I am still dealing with the theological transition.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yes. My beliefs have changed from when I was in the Nation. When I was in the Nation, certainly I had a great respect for Jesus. But I have returned to my pre-Nation beliefs and that is that Jesus Christ is Lord and Messiah and that Jesus Christ is my Saviour. And that I have been saved. And I have been born again through my accepting of Jesus Christ as my Lord. I always knew God. I always loved God. People in the Nation love God. People in the synagogue love God. People of the Abrahamic faiths love God. As I have returned to the Christian Church, I love God, certainly, the Father. But my relationship with God, the Father, comes through the Grace of Jesus Christ. And this is God’s gift to man and so that is a very important difference in my theology. I accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as my Saviour.
Cedric Muhammad: Second, how has your thinking changed, if at all, regarding the place of Black people in the plan of God. For instance, you once publicly taught that Black people were those that fulfilled what was written in Genesis 15: 13-14. Do you believe that today? And do you believe that God has a Chosen people?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, I believe, first of all, I’m Black. And I am in love with Black people. I’m in love with the Black experience. I’m in love with African culture, African heritage, and I am in love with African-American heritage. So, in that regard I have not changed at all. However, I have changed in this regard - I truly believe that we are all God’s people. And, as far as I am concerned, if someone has skin, if they have blood, if they stand on two feet. If they have a heart, they have a mind and they are human, they are God’s people. Whether they live in America or Iraq, whether they live in the Himalayan Mountains or whether they live in the Amazon jungle, we are all God’s people. Whether they are Black or White, whether they are rich or they are poor, we are all God’s people and I believe that God is after all of us, to love all of us. Now, certainly the spirit of Satan is present. And that spirit has inhabited people, no question about it. But my belief is that everyone of us, at some point in our lives, gives in to the spirit of Satan and I do not believe that there is any one people, in a static way, that represents a Satanic force. You have got many good African American people, many good Black people; many good Asians; you have got many good Whites. You have got many good Latinos. But you also have many bad Whites, and many bad Latinos and many bad Blacks. And I think that where I have changed most dramatically is that I can no longer subscribe to any ideology that exalts and elevates one people above another as a birthright. I believe that God chooses people, yes. But that, in my judgment, and my reading of the scripture, is not a static condition. God chooses whom He pleases. His ways are not our ways. His ways are from above, ours are from below. God chose many people in the past to do great things but we also have to be true to God. We have also got to please God, because He has the right to choose us and He also has the right to unchoose us. And I think that African- American people have undoubtedly been chosen by God for a purpose, and that purpose is someone had to, in many ways, embody a living, walking and taking Gospel of Jesus Christ, the words and the spirit of God. And I believe that through the Black Church, through our struggle, through what we have represented as a people in this nation (United States of America) and what we have endured in this nation and yet we have struggled and maintained our dignity, and our sense of moral integrity, I absolutely believe that God has used us for that purpose. But I see us today moving in a dangerous direction where we are abandoning many of the great traditions, many of the great moral character traits that have made us so special and so dear to God. As I look at young African American people I don’t see any difference between young African-American teenagers that are possessed by excessive materialism in Hip-Hop, that are obsessed with violence, obsessed with the desire for power; I don’t see any difference between someone with that character who is Black and someone who is White. And so I think that it is a mistake for Black people to believe that our selection by God to be the moral conscious of this nation is because we are Black or that it is a static choosing. And if we lose the moral character that we have always possessed than that anointing from God, I believe will leave us like it has left other people. And I believe we are in danger of losing that anointing as we stand in 2005.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, in reference to what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for example, puts in the Muslim Program (in point # 5 Of What The Muslims Believe) regarding us as the choice of God, and us fitting descriptions specifically in the scripture, that is one point. Another point would be many of those who we know are Jewish, of various schools of thought, they say a similar argument, but they say that what is written in the scriptures took place 4,000 years ago – that those verses in Genesis and Exodus refer to something that happened in Egypt. So I understand your point about anointing and static selection and moral correctness and accepting righteousness as an ultimate determinant of being in the favor of God, but I wanted to know theologically, in terms of even what you studied in Harvard, did you refine or relinquish what you previously believed, and how do you juxtapose you current position with that, of the beliefs, of say the Jewish community who believe that they fulfill certain parts of the scriptures, their history.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, again, I think that you could literally blindfold yourselves, look at a map, and point to any continent, country or region of the world and you will find, Brother, poor, suffering people, who God loves and whom God has chosen for His purpose. And who fulfill God’s plan in God’s unique way. And I think that it is important that we understand that God is God. And He is God all by Himself. Duke Ellington said men talk to God in many different languages and God understands all languages and so, I believe, in my heart, I truly believe that no people have a monopoly on suffering. No people have a monopoly on God’s love. No people have a monopoly on fulfilling God’s purpose and plan. And I think that God has selected people throughout the years to fulfill His plan, to serve at His pleasure and the challenge for all people that God has chosen is that they continue to remain faithful to the covenant that God made with their forefathers. And whether it is Jews, or Christians or Muslims, once the covenant is established, the challenge for us, is to maintain our end of the bargain. God is Truth. He is Veracity. He is Goodness. He is Omnipotent, Omnipresent. He can’t lie. God can’t fail in His end of the covenant. The challenge for the peoples of the earth is that we uphold our end. And while we are quick to point out where others have failed to hold up their end, the challenge for us is for us to hold up our end. Remember now, God knows everything about us, Cedric. But He still loves us. And that is why this Christian concept of Grace is so very important. I believe truly that I am a sinner saved by Grace. I don’t believe that there is a man or woman on earth that can stand up to God’s law. I don’t believe that there is a man or woman that can please God through work. It is only by the grace of God, God’s love and God’s goodness that anyone of us has received the gift of salvation. And it is just time that we humble ourselves and realize that we don’t have all of the knowledge, we don’t have all of the wisdom, I don’t care how disciplined you are. The Bible says that if you think about killing someone, you already have killed them. The standard of God’s goodness is so great that, as the Bible teaches us, as Paul says, ‘it is by faith, not by works that we are saved.’
Cedric Muhammad:And what is your view or how has your thinking, theologically, if anything, experienced a transition on the subject of Muhammad of 1,400 years ago and the Holy Qur’an?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, you know, as I read the Bible, Hagar and Ishmael were loved of God. And God promised to make them a great nation, there is no question about that. That’s in the Bible. And so, the Arab world, Muslim world, has fulfilled that. It has fulfilled those words that, that people have become a great people and that people have been the custodians of a great faith, an Abrahamic faith, and as a Christian, I want to see a day when the Abrahamic faiths can find common ground. I respect the Jewish faith. I respect the people that have a relationship with God through Abraham and Moses. I respect the offspring of Hagar and Ishmael and those who have a relationship with God through Muhammad. I am a Christian and I believe that Jesus Christ is not only a prophet; I don’t believe that he is a prophet, I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s grace to us. But that doesn’t cause me to be contemptuous or disrespectful of other people and I think that it is important. This is one of the things that so profoundly affected me about the theology of Howard Thurman. It is that Thurman understood that it is important that even as you are a Baptist, and even as you are strong in your love and belief in Christ, you have to respect the religiosity and cultural context in which other people exist. You have to seek common ground and that is very important to me. Because I was – I met many Muslims for fourteen years and I know the religious sincerity, and genuine religiosity of people in that faith and I know many Jews, and I know their fastidious acknowledgement of the laws, and the rituals and the customs of their faith. They don’t do that because they don’t love God, they do that because they love God and certainly I respect the authentic religiosity of those faiths and other faiths that are not Abrahamic, and that doesn’t detract from my belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and that Jesus Christ is for people everywhere and for people of every faith. There was a profound theologian who said once, and I believe that this is so true, that there are many ways to God, and men would travel many ways to God but ultimately on the road to God any sincere seeker of God would have to have a meeting with Jesus Christ. And I believe that, I believe that you cannot look at Jesus (and not be affected). You cannot read his words. You cannot know what he stood for and what he was and if you love God, you would have to embrace Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean that every Muslim is going to leave the mosque and become a Western Christian. It doesn’t mean that every Jew would leave the synagogue and become a Christian, a Western Christian. But it does mean that people who are sincere for their love of God could not dismiss Jesus Christ.
Cedric Muhammad: Now at this past Saviours’ Day (the Nation Of Islam’s annual celebration ) - what you said just brought to mind what Minister Farrakhan spoke about in part, and this is relevant. I fully respect what you said about sincere religious people having a meeting with Jesus. Now, from the other perspective, because if you look at the faiths and you do it retroactively, Christians certainly revere Moses, and Muslims revere Jesus. And I have heard the Minister (Farrakhan) refer to the abrogation of faiths (and messages), and how people have a problem accepting future prophets or subsequent prophets. Theologically, have you ever considered the avenue by which Christians could see Muhammad as a prophet and the Holy Qur’an as a divine scripture, or do you think that is incompatible with what is written in the Bible?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, I think that, see, it is interesting, I am pastoring now a UCC Church and their slogan and marketing campaign now says, ‘God is still speaking’. And certainly I believe that we cannot limit God. God is God. And one of the dangerous things about fundamentalism, and I mean Christian fundamentalist, I mean, Jewish fundamentalist, and I mean Islamic fundamentalists. A fundamentalist needs to see the world in very concrete and absolute terms. The only problem with that is the knowledge of God is so vast and beyond our comprehension and understanding and so, while I believe with all of my heart, I cannot, nor am I required to say that I have the knowledge and all knowledge of God. I hold onto God’s Word in the Bible but I also understand that even my understanding of that is limited. And so I don’t claim to have a relationship with God because I met God. I don’t claim to have a relationship with God because I know God. I don’t claim to have a relationship with God because I have seen empirical evidence. I have a relationship with God, because I believe God. I have faith in God. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. I have to, as a human being, be cognizant, and I have to recognize my limitations when it comes to the vastness of God and therefore I have to be open to the possibility that God is not limited to His expression in the way that I understand it. And so again Thurman was so important for my development because I grew up around Christians who basically had a fundamentalist outlook. It was easy for them to discount or to disregard the religiosity of people of different parts of the world, of different cultures. Now all of this comes out of cultural imperialism and hegemony. When I first joined the Nation of Islam I believed that was something unique to White Europeans. But the reality is that you have just as much cultural chauvinism, cultural hegemony, and racism in the Muslim world. You have it among Jews. And so I am very cognizant of the fact that one of the reasons why it was easy for the Church to sanction slavery, and that is a black eye on the Church, it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. It doesn’t detract one iota from Jesus Christ, that after him, some people who followed him enslaved others in his name. It doesn’t take away from who he is. It doesn’t take away from the righteousness and the perfection of Christ. And that is something that I also did not understand when I first left the Church. I was willing to disregard Jesus because people in his name did terrible things. Well, a billion Muslims in the world today are not going to disregard Islam because of what Osama Bin Laden did. And so, the point I am trying to make Brother is that we have to keep talking to each other. We have to keep sharing. We have to respect the parameters of each other’s faith. No amount of preaching in the world from any Muslim is going to change the fact that people who are Christians believe in the Trinity, believe in the manifestation of God, as God, the Father; God, the Son; and the Holy Spirit. There is no one in the world wise enough that will change Christiandom on that point. And we have to respect the cultural context of other people. And I believe that I can share Jesus with people and find them wherever they are. Some of them will become Christians. Some of them will stay where they are but they will honor and respect and want to learn more of Christ and perhaps even develop a relationship with Christ. That’s what Thurman said. Thurman went to India in the 1930s and he was confronted with the reality that the greatest impediment to the message of Jesus Christ was European colonialism and racism, and he was told by Gandhi, the worst enemy of Jesus in India was the Church. And by that he meant the cultural chauvinism of the Missionaries. Another man challenged Thurman on why he would be a Christian, he talked about the history of the Church in terms of racism and enslaving African Americans. And certainly it did not shake Thurman’s faith. He remained not only a Christian but he remained a Baptist Christian. But it forced Thurman to acknowledge and recognize that – and this was so important for me – you have to separate Christ from Christians. And there is a big difference. There is a big difference. And when I think about Malcolm X whose father was a Baptist preacher, who lived across the street from the Church that I now pastor in Roxbury; we probably never would have ever heard of Malcolm X had the Ku Klux Klan – the White Christian organization – not killed Rev. Earl Little, Malcolm’s father. You probably would have heard of Rev. Malcolm Little. When I think about The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, his father and grandfather, both Baptist preachers in Georgia - were it not for White racism sanctioned and supported by the Church, you probably would have heard of Rev. Elijah Poole. My point is there is no doubt that the history of the Church, just like the history of Judaism, as a religion, and the history of Islam, in terms of organized religion, are replete with heinous infractions against the law and the will and the teachings of God. But the truth is, Brother Cedric, you cannot judge God based upon the behavior of those of us that follow God. And until we respect each other and continue to dialogue and share with each other, you perhaps will continue to have people who believe in God who continue to kill each other in the name of God. And in my humble judgment just as a preacher of the Gospel, one of many, many men and women, of the earth, who have dedicated their lives to the service of God and building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, in my humble opinion, that is the issue that we have to focus on and try to bring about a change through this inter religious dialogue, and so, there were many fundamentalist Christian organizations that wanted to use me in a negative way against the Nation of Islam but I would not do that. The tradition of Christianity that I have returned to is the one I was born into. That was one of the Black Church where enlightened men of faith like Rev. Dr. Calvin Otis Butts, my pastor, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Howard Thurman – men of great substance who are absolutely faithful and clear as Christians but who are not afraid to engage the larger society and to engage people of every faith and religion and culture in the world. And that is an important distinction in Christianity because you have many Muslims and many Jews who are very sectarian who pay no value and no validity in the humanity of people that do not believe as they believe. You have many Christians the same way. But you also have very enlightened Christians who do not see it as a conflict to believe in Jesus Christ and to interface and interact with the peoples of the world and have genuine love and appreciation for people of other faiths and other cultures. And Howard Thurman represented that tradition and that was a very important school of thought for me as one who was born a Christian who had left the faith of my birth because of some of the narrowness, but was able to find his way home through that enlightened thinking.
Cedric Muhammad: Now I have three specific questions on Mr. Thurman that I want to close the theology section on. But I have two other ones before I get there. If you could be a little more specific, you have probably already given the parameters, but maybe you could distill it all – what is the basis of Christian-Muslim unity today, in Black America? And do you have any thoughts regarding the just announced partnership and alliance between the Nation Of Islam and the United Pentecostal Churches in Christ?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, first of all I think that is a wonderful development in the sense that it is in many respects the more Pentecostal movement in Christianity that has been reluctant to engage those outside of Christianity. And so I think that is a very positive development because that is a very important segment of the Church and if they are engaging in dialogue with the Muslims, then I think that is a wonderful thing and I pray that the Lord will allow greater brotherhood, friendship and love to develop from that alliance. Not only do I believe in Muslim-Christian unity, I believe in unity of the peoples of the earth. I believe that we are all God’s people. I believe that we all have to learn how to unite with each other, because you see, when you go down a sectarian road, it is a dangerous road. Today it is Muslims and Jews, but tomorrow, it is Shiite versus Sunni. Tomorrow, it is Orthodox Jews versus secular Jews. Tomorrow it is Baptist versus Pentecostal. So again, I am dedicated at least, from a religious standpoint. And this is why, even though, I did not plan for it to be that way. I didn’t think it would be that way. But when I left Harlem in 1997, and arrived at the campus of Harvard Divinity School, and I had an opportunity to interface with people from vastly different backgrounds, religiously, I really began to see that we all are in this thing together. And that sounds like a cliché but I realized that that is a truth that will never be debunked. And so I am hoping that in a world where you see wars, daily, sectarian wars, inter religious wars, clashes of civilization, I am hoping and I am really praying, and I have faith, although I don’t have the knowledge of how it will happen – I have faith that it will happen – that we will all step back. And one of the great things about being a convert to any faith is that you can step back from your belief and you can understand the thinking of people who are where you used to be. And I believe that all too often when we preach our doctrine, which we preach them in a way of conquering people outside of our doctrine, converting them, humiliating them in many senses, overcoming them, I believe every religion has been guilty of that but I believe that there has to be a way Cedric, where we can share and have dialogue with each other, where we decrease, and God increases in these conversations. And God is God all by Himself. If we can decrease and take ourselves out of it and allow God to work in the lives of His people, then we will overcome much of that which keeps us divided. I really believe that in my heart.
Cedric Muhammad: And lastly before I focus in on Mr. Thurman, in April of 1999, I heard you speak at a conference at Columbia University hosted in part by Dr. Manning Marable and you said that you once were very condemnatory and spoke harshly of America. The implication that I took, was that, at least your teaching no longer included this element. This was more in a political context. But from the perspective of the scriptures do you believe in the concept of national judgment where God judges nations, and do you believe that in anyway America is pictured in Biblical prophecy as a nation?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, I believe that God’s Word is eternal and I believe that God’s Word is written to accommodate every empire that has been and every empire that will be. And I think that God’s Word will outlast America, no question about it. But I do believe that America, like every great nation – Rome, the great African Kingdoms and nations, have this challenge – that as we prosper and as we grow, as a result of God showing His favor upon us, that we continue to place God first. And I have changed about America in this regard – I believe that America is a great nation. I’m proud to be an American. I believe that some of the democratic principles that were introduced here, that came together in the document of the Constitution represent in many ways, man at his best, in terms of the theory. But I also recognize that the political leaders of our nation, the cultural leaders, and the religious leaders, fell woefully short of living up to those words. But the thing about this nation, Cedric, that I think is the hope of this nation, and where this nation’s greatest strength is – and this is another Baptist view point – is the separation of church of state. When I was in the Nation Of Islam I viewed that as a negative. But I appreciate now, more than ever, how fundamentally profound that principle is, because what separation of church and state achieved for us is that men and women are able to be led and compelled by their own conscience and belief system, and I think that if ever there has been an alter ego to America and if ever there has been a conscience in America it has been the men and women of God who, from pulpit, from marches, and demonstrations, have challenged this nation to be better. And I think that one of the things after 9/11, I really began to realize the strength of this nation in terms of living up to those ideas even as it has many shortcomings. After 9/11 there was tremendous anxiety, animosity, and in many corners, outright bigotry against Muslim-Americans. We know that in World War II the same thing happened to Japanese-Americans. But even with all of the corners or segments of our society that had the freedom to express their bigotry and vitriol, I was in New York one day and I saw a Muslim family – the woman was heavily veiled and the children were with her and the husband, and they were somewhere uptown, but it was a sea of humanity on the street, and for a moment I was very proud that in our nation, even after 9/11, with the tendency on the part of some of the more reactionary people in our nation to round up all Muslims and seek to take their life or to imprison them, I was proud that those people, though they probably have suffered at the hands of some bigots, but they felt comfortable and they felt that they belonged, and they felt that their presence in many ways acknowledged the greatness of this nation and I love and will always respect the fact that people of every faith and every religion can speak in America, can preach, and can organize the way they want to organize, can worship the way they want to. Muslims in America do not have to worry about a car bomb going off in front of their mosque on Friday. Christians don’t have to worry about a car bomb going off in front of their churches on Sunday. And in all of our criticisms of our nation, and I am convinced that everybody who criticizes this nation does it because they really do love it and really do expect that it should live up to the principles that it espouses. I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in something would even waste time challenging it. So I believe there is a deep hurt in many African-Americans, and many African-American leaders that we have seen that America has not lived up to its promise, but the strength of the Black community is that we have maintained our dignity even as we have fought to make this nation better. And I believe we have made it better. I believe Martin Luther King made this country better. I believe Malcolm, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali made this nation better. I believe Huey P. Newton made this nation better. I believe Howard Thurman made this nation better. And Reverend Jackson and Minister Farrakhan have. I believe all of our voices that have challenged America to be what it is supposed to be have made this country better and we’ve got to acknowledge and be able to admit that honestly. Listen, I don’t like people saying nothing has changed in America. A lot has changed. And it has changed because DuBois and Garvey and Booker T., and Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Fannie Lou Hammer, were not failures. Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser, David Walker, Phillis Wheatley, they were not failures. We have in fact changed this nation. Of course, we have a long way to go. But part of the process of growth is being able to acknowledge your victories, and I think one mistake the movement, particularly the (Black) nationalist movement has made, is that it has been unwilling to acknowledge that America has changed dramatically. And we are vested in this thing. Our blood, our sweat, our tears has changed this nation. And so we are vested in this nation and we have to continue to engage this nation. That is my hope and prayer. I love America. I am proud to be an American. I am in fact not ashamed of that. I don’t reject saying that as I once did. I don’t see that as a badge of shame I see that as a badge of honor. But I also understand that to be a patriot is to constantly challenge America to live up to its ideals. And I believe as an African-American we have the right to do that Cedric. When you think about the fact that Black men fought and protested to get into World War I and World War II and liberated concentration camps in Germany, and defeated Hitler. The 369th Regiment (Infantry), Harlem Hellfighters, Tuskegee Airmen. Yet we came back to this nation and Nazi POWs could ride in the front of the train and we had to ride in back of them. We endured that. And we have continued to keep on keepin’ on, in challenging this nation. Not becoming subversive but being American citizens but at the same time challenging America. I think that makes us patriots of the first order and people that are a credit to our nation.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, to the great minister and theologian Mr. Howard Thurman. First, Mr. Thurman believed that the cultivation of a rich "inner life" - through prayer, contemplation and meditation - formed the foundation on which much of our personal, social, and political life rests. Do you agree? If so, how has the cultivation of your "inner life" impacted your worldview and work?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yes. Yes. I absolutely agree with that and that is one of the most profound aspects of Thurman’s theology. You know, one of the great things is, the Minister (Farrakhan), when I wanted to go to Harvard, I think he understood that because I think he understood the nature of a person’s spiritual evolution. We all come to religion by way of some mentor, some preacher, some Imam, some Rabbi, someone that we look to as the focal point of our faith and we believe principles, we believe someone else’s testimony. We buy into it and we accept it as our own testimony. But as we walk on the road of life, we are challenged by the circumstances that we encounter. We are challenged by God and we are challenged by Satan to develop our own testimony and our own walk with God. My prayer life became richer when I left the Nation Of Islam, than when I was in the Nation. Not because I did not pray when I was in the Nation Of Islam, I certainly did, but when I was alone for about four years, before I decided to walk down that road and come home to the church, there were days, times and periods in my life when things were happening of such a dramatic nature that I learned to rely on God in a way that I had not previously known. I learned how to communicate with God in a way that was completely unique and authentic to me, and sincere. And so my point to you is, it is not what we read. It is not what you learn. You don’t approach a relationship with God from an ideological or intellectual perspective. It is a matter of the heart. And the more we talk to God, the more we allow God to speak to us, the more we allow time for meditation, and prayer and contemplation, the more we are able to receive from God and to find the peace that so desperately evades people in mosques, churches and synagogues. The other day I was walking in Boston in a snowstorm and I was looking at a beautiful scene of a stream and it was very cold, snow flakes were very thick and heavy, and on this day I stopped for a moment. I was dressed warmly so I was really enjoying the scene of the stream and the snow and nature. But then I looked up in the sky. I am forty years old. I don’t think I have ever done this in my life. I looked up in the sky as the snow was coming down. I looked up at millions and billions of flakes. I don’t think I ever stopped in my life to take the time to behold what snow looked like coming down from the sky. And as I looked at those flakes and as I looked at this tremendous site. These white snow flakes coming down from the heavens in numbers that are far too great to even think of attaching a number to and just for that one moment I heard no sounds. They didn’t make any sounds. And for that one moment I was suspended in time beholding God’s greatness and placing myself as one human being in the context of God’s magnificent creation. And I think that in our lives, in modern society, modern man, we simply do not take the time to do that. And the more we live and the more we are serious about developing a relationship with God, we need to take time to do that. And I think Thurman understood that because there are a lot of things outside of us that give us the sense of mission and purpose, but sometimes even the people who have the greatest mission on the outside are so devoid of that peace on the inside. And this is particularly true of Ministers and Pastors, and Rabbis. Because we are always serving others and bringing the Gospel and the truth to others and helping to rejuvenate others. But not taking that time to do that ourselves. So I absolutely have grown over the years to understand the power of spiritual practices and taking that time so that I’m OK. And that’s one of the things I learned in seminary. And I pastored many years and then went to seminary. But I learned that you have to make time and take time for yourself and regenerate. Because if you don’t do that you cannot serve other people. You simply will burn out.
Cedric Muhammad: Well, thank you. Next, I wanted to ask you, Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber, in their book "A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life" state that Howard Thurman saw Jesus not as a religious object of devotion and worship, but rather as a religious subject in quest of moral community and spiritual dignity. Does Jesus represent this to you, and what lessons do you believe Jesus' life offers for those interested in public service?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well actually, one year I took, Walter Earl Fluker’s course at Harvard. In fact I took several courses from him and I credit Fluker with introducing, in a substantive way, Howard Thurman to me. There are people in the Church who do not agree with Howard Thurman’s theology. And I think that Howard Thurman was very important for me in terms of his views, because of where I was coming from. I think what Howard Thurman was attempting to say to people, and this is my interpretation of Howard Thurman as I have read Howard Thurman. He did not want Jesus to be used as a weapon or a battering ram against the peoples of the earth from different cultural and religious backgrounds. And I think that his growing up in Florida in the South. I think his growing up, seeing White racism (was a factor). You know the irony of White racism, in the Christian context, was, that the people who enslaved African-Americans and claimed Jesus, our conversion in some instances into Christianity, did not stop their disregard for our humanity. And so I think Thurman understood the danger of marrying White racism, cultural hegemony, the Church, the Crusades, the Church supporting the Crusades – I think he understood the danger in that. And I think he saw that Jesus was being used in a way that would ultimately undermine people’s ability to see Jesus – by the Church and by people who would subscribe to Jesus’ teachings.
So I think that Thurman was very, very courageous as a scholar and as a theologian, and as a Believer that he was willing to really examine the relationship between God, the Father; God, the Son; and God, the Holy Spirit. He was a profound thinker and thinkers oftimes challenge the orthodoxy, and they go deeper, and they ask questions that others are not comfortable asking. My understanding and my belief in the Trinity is very simple. I believe that God, the Father, is so far beyond our ability to grasp. I believe that God is so great and beyond our human scope. He is so far from us in his perfection and goodness that he gave us the gift of Himself through Jesus Christ and we know God through the example of Jesus Christ and through the person of Jesus Christ. And we received grace from God through Christ Jesus. So I believe that Jesus; God, the Father and the Holy Spirit are inseparable in my theology. There is not room to separate them.
Cedric Muhammad: Alright. And lastly, Rev. Tillard, as you know Howard Thurman passed away in 1981 before many things developed and emerged in our sight. What do you think he would he say today to us about: the far-reaching cultural impact of hip-hop, Dr. King's national holiday, our sometimes very separate and often extremely unequal education system, and the war in Iraq? I know I just hit you with a lot but…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, it is easy on the war in Iraq and on the unequal educational system. He saw those things in his life. We know that Thurman did not believe in unjust wars. Thurman did not believe in any wars. And he certainly trained people who have become great leaders in the movement today in the struggle against racism and discrimination. I think where I will address that question is where would Howard Thurman view Hip-Hop and the Hip-Hop generation and I have often asked myself that question, and as a member of the Hip-Hip generation, I often ask the question of what would all of our great ones think about our young people and where we are today. I ask what would DuBois think. I ask what would Booker T. Washington think. I think about what George Padmore and David Walker would think and Thurman. And I think that my answer is always the same, my answer is that as they look down upon us, a tear rolls down their cheek. Water wells up in their eyes. And as I think of Malcolm and all those that worked before us, I know their hearts are broken and conflicted because we – this generation and these last few generations – occupy a place high up on a mountain on which they struggled to place us. We have more now than we have ever had before. But the thing that we have lost is the thing that everyone I just mentioned and many others that went unmentioned struggled to give us. And that is a dignity and a sense of moral righteousness and what’s unique about it, is that as Thurman fought hard that people would understand the dignity of African American people, and that we would maintain our dignity, I think that he would be tremendously disappointed at where we have gone as a people and where our young people are going in all too many instances. And you know what is sad? What is sad, and we will get into this later, is that the reason that our young people have gone in the direction that they have gone in is because there has been a disconnect between the ideals that made Thurman and all those others that I mentioned so great. That idea that we always had, as African-Americans, that we had to be twice as good. That we had to be twice as right. That we had fight to maintain our dignity. And it wasn’t just about how much money we had, it was about that when you saw Black people, we wanted to demonstrate to the world who we were and what we were able to accomplish. And I think that for Thurman now, to see young African-Americans independently wealthy going into restaurants, and going into society cursing and acting crazy just cause they can do it? I think he would be bitterly disappointed but I think being the eternal optimist that he was, one rooted and anchored in faith he would just keep on teaching, keep on praying, and keep on hoping that we would turn that around. And so I am inspired by that.
Let me say finally on this whole question of theology. The Black Church, Cedric, is so important to our story. See it was the only institution we had. And from the Black Church sprung forth all of the subsequent institutions but it was the only one we were permitted to have. It was the only one. And so my point is I hope that people who are evaluating my leaving the Nation of Islam and going back to the Church will not be disheartened because I love my people and I will never be an enemy or tool against any Black people. But I have to stand on my truth and my testimony. And if the Lord has led me in this direction which I know he has, then everyone should be happy and be proud that I was able to stand up on what I believe and do something that many people would have thought impossible to do. I was walking down the street in Harlem the other day and I get three reactions. Some are very happy. Some are very confused. And some are very broken and disappointed. But I say to all of them, the same thing I say to your readers. I have to listen to the voice of God as He leads me. Paul was not a Christian but when the Lord spoke to him, he had to follow Him. He was compelled to follow the Lord. And I remind people that I was not born in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I respect those great people. I was born in America. I was born in the Church. My stepfather’s a Baptist preacher. My grandmother was a steward in the AME Church. I had a grandfather who was a deacon in the Baptist Church and a treasurer in the Presbyterian Church. So I am not turning against anything, but coming home to a tradition. You know it is so interesting, so many people want to say that Christianity is the White Man’s religion. But just any small cursory reading of the history of the Church will debunk that myth because the Church was vibrant and alive in Ethiopia before it ever reached Europe. Before it ever got to Europe, Africans were converted to the message and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So we should always remember that. And always remember that people who use Jesus’ name but were not practicing Jesus’ word, cannot forever be an impediment to us from seeing the life-giving message of Jesus Christ. So I am on fire for the Lord now and I will continue to preach the Gospel and help people to know the greatness of Jesus.
End of Part I
Part II: Hip-Hop Fridays March 25, 2005, Rev. Conrad Tillard Discusses Rap Music And His Point Of Departure With Black Leaders
Part III: Politics Mondays March 28, 2005, Rev. Conrad Tillard Discusses His View Of The Black Electorate And America's Two-Party System
Thursday, March 24, 2005
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