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Politics Mondays: Exclusive Q & A With Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, Interim Pastor, The Eliot Church Of Roxbury, (Part III)

Today we conclude's exclusive interview with Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, Interim Pastor at The Eliot Church Of Roxbury. This third and final portion of the Q & A focuses on Politics. Thursday's Part I dealt with Theology and last Friday's Part II dealt with Hip-Hop.


Cedric Muhammad: Now, if I could, I would like to broaden the discussion, with that context of Hip-Hop established, and, I guess, I want to move more narrowly in the sense that Hip-Hop maybe broader than partisan or electoral politics. For the record, Brother Reverend are you a registered Republican, Democrat or Independent?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: I have always been a registered Democrat. I have never been anything but a registered Democrat in terms of my party registration. But I have always been very independent in politics in terms of who I felt we should go for. You know, I voted for George W. Bush in 2000. I voted for John Kerry in 2004. I voted for Governor George Pataki in New York in his last two elections. But my point is I am a registered Democrat but I believe that Black people have to work with and support parties based upon the issues and not based upon the party.

Cedric Muhammad: Have you ever had plans to run for elected office? There were rumors in 2004 and 2002 that you were going to challenge Rep. Charles Rangel for his seat in Harlem.

Rev. Conrad Tillard : I did run against Congressman Rangel in I think it was 2000. And that was something that I did because I felt at that critical time in Harlem, that a generational conversation needed to be created. There were some major issues taking place in Harlem that I felt needed to be discussed but I love Congressman Rangel. I recently was with him at the opening of the Lincoln Center and I really apologized to him for running against him because although that conversation was very important, Rangel is a good man, always has been. And that was something that I probably should not have done at that time. But I have tremendous respect for him and I did, recently as a man, we talked, and I apologized to him. He embraced me as he always has and said, ‘Just don’t do it again’.

Cedric Muhammad: It was been reported that you have considered running as a Republican for some political office and there has been some division over the implications of your candidacy within the GOP’s New York City establishment. Some think you are an attractive candidate that would help the Republicans reach several constituencies that it has been unsuccessful in engaging. And others have problems with your past in the Nation Of Islam and would like you to denounce past comments and Minister Louis Farrakhan, of course. From what I understand you met with or had discussions with Former Manhattan Assemblyman John Ravitz, an influential Republican. Is that true?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: I did meet with Ravitz, in fact, I met with the whole Republican establishment in New York state and New York City. My differences were more with the city party than the state party. But it is true that those concerns were raised but you have to understand that from my vantage point, those concerns are also raised by the Democrats. From my point of view the Republicans aren’t so different than the Democrats in that regard. The Democrats have had a bigger tent. But I just believe that if Rev. Jackson and Rev. Sharpton are going to threaten to walk out of the Democratic Party, if the Democrats don’t do (what we want) then we have got to have somewhere to go. And I have always believed that the one-party strategy is unwise. It’s a mistake. It essentially leaves us with no where to go. And so, as much as I disagreed with Condoleezza Rice; I have tremendous respect for Colin Powell – I do disagree with him on some policy pieces – but I think it is very important that we have African Americans in the Republican tent. We have got to be everywhere. Catholics are everywhere. Jews are everywhere. That is a winning strategy. And the problem with us is, whoever wins, whatever camp wins, we have representatives both places but very often, our representatives are not there with a clear understanding of those parties (and) that , ‘my interest is my constituents’. And I believe Black Democrats have shown in all too many respects, that they are too loyal to the Democratic Party, and Black Republicans have shown in all too many respects that they are too loyal to the Republican Party. And neither of them have shown that their loyalty is with their constituencies – the African American community. I mean, you have a Jesse and Sharpton in the Democratic Party, but the Republicans need some Jesses and some Sharptons, people who are independent, who work and do business with the Party, but it is understood that they are not going to rubber stamp everything that the Republicans say. They are not ready for that yet. The Democrats are a little more advanced in that area.

Cedric Muhammad: Now you sound a lot like someone who is a friend of mine, she might be one of yours, but I know you have dealt with her for years and that is Dr. Lenora Fulani. What do you think of what she has tried to do and what do you think of third parties and Independent...

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, in many ways I completely disagree with much of Fulani’s politics. I am completely skeptical of many of her motives. But I will agree with this – Fulani understands that at the end of the day, the only leverage you have with one party is your ability to have a relationship with another party. She has got that piece. We both worked closely together in the Bloomberg campaign (in the 2001 New York City Mayoral election). We were on different teams. She came to the endeavor on her on. And I came on my own. But we both supported the Mayor and we won because we felt the Democratic candidate took African-American support for granted. And I think that Fulani, and many people understand – Sharpton understands it. But I don’t believe that Sharpton has done as much as he says he has done, differently than Rev. Jackson. I don’t believe that when it was his moment he did anything really different than Rev. Jackson did. And that is to raise issues, to try and leverage whatever power they had. But unless you are credible in your threat to deal with anther party you are ultimately not believable. What makes the Latino vote such a hard sought-after vote, what makes the Jewish vote so up for grabs is that it is completely believable to both parties and plausible to both parties that those constituencies could go either way. With the African-American community there is an understanding essentially that we ain’t going nowhere. We may huff and puff. (The Democrats know they might have to) give this one (Black leader) a plane, give this one some money, or a TV show, but at the end of the day we (Black voters) are not going anywhere. We have got to change that equation.

Cedric Muhammad: What was your position on President Bush’s faith-based initiative? Do you think in any ways there has been a line that has been crossed, as some people have said, that preachers have been bought off by politicians through that program?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Let me say this – I believe President Bush is a man of faith. I really do. I believe that he is a man of faith. I believe that he is a fundamentalist, which for me, I think is a blind spot for him that does not allow him to see other perspectives, which I think is always a problem when you talk about fundamentalism. But, I do believe that Bush was sincere. And I think the greatest mistake that the Democrats have made is the Democrats have had such an anti-religious posture that it was only inevitable that folk of faith would organize in an opposite party. The only really religious constituency that the Democrats can count on for certain is the Black Church and the Black community. And even we are changing now because there is a split now among Black preachers. Many support the faith-based initiative, many support the Constitutional ban on homosexual marriage. And I understand and support them in many respects. I do believe, as a Baptist, in separation of Church and State, but I do believe that for religious non-profits, there should not be any unique obstacles to getting government money. However, I am very suspicious of any Pastor or any leaders that rubber stamp what a party says. And I think that when you look at all of the Black preacher-politicians today, Dr. King still stands above them in that he never got too close to either party, so that he could continue to be a clarion, moral voice to the nation, and I think that the mistake that many of our Black leaders and preachers have made is that they have ended up in the camp of one party or the other, and I am trying desperately, as I grow and develop, not to do that. Because when you do that your people end up suffering because you have placed all of your support in one party. And that is bad. When you do that you have to stand and watch a war that you believe is unjustified and immoral. When you do that you have to watch a President do all kinds of things that degrade the office and degrade what you believe in and you have to be quiet. And so while I believe that we have to be involved in the political process, we have to be careful that we are not in the pocket of either party.

Cedric Muhammad: That was a topic of discussion. You could see it and it permeated the air during Tavis Smiley’s State of The Black Union Forum. I don’t know if you saw that.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yes I did.

Cedric Muhammad: But Bishop Eddie Long, I thought was in somewhat of an uncomfortable position there…

Rev. Conrad Tillard: yeah, he shouldn’t have been. I would have advised him not to be.

Cedric Muhammad: That was very revealing - the comments directed at him. What did you make of all of that?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: See the mistake that Bishop Long makes, and a lot of the evangelicals, is that they don’t get out among African-American leaders enough. And the bottom line is that everybody on that stage knew each other and Bishop Long was the new kid on the block and that is partly his fault, because he should be engaging his people at a higher level. But at the same time, you know, what right does Jesse or Sharpton have to attack Bishop Long and a group of leaders who are going to meet with a Republican President when they get invitations when the Democrats are in office? So that was, in my judgment, political posturing, and I hope that the Black Republican Pastors, and the Black Conservative Pastors will be emboldened and realize and (think and say to their Democratic peers in clergy) , ‘Look, if that’s your point of view and you work well with that administration, that’s fine. When the Democrats are in Jesse and Sharpton have access, but if we can respect each other and work together, Black people’s interest are always being served.’ How can you make one group feel that they are Uncle Toms because they go meet with the President, when the Democrats are in or at their convention everywhere you turn Jesse and Sharpton have access passes?

Cedric Muhammad: Three issues I want to get your take on: same-sex marriages, reparations and abortion.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well I absolutely oppose same-sex marriage, as a preacher of the Gospel, it is not Biblical. I don’t condemn anyone. I subscribe to the belief that we all are sinners. There is not one of us that is worthy of judging anybody. God is good. We are fallen man. And we have all received the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in my view. And so I don’t condemn anybody. I don’t consider myself the moral superior to anyone. But that is a different matter, dealing with someone’s lifestyle which is a sin, but no greater sin or no different sin than anyone else’s sin; but to sanction, to consecrate a marriage between two men or women is certainly not something that I would ever do. And I would certainly advocate against that. I think that is a tremendous mistake. I don’t think it is a matter of civil rights, I think it is simply a matter of what society has established as the precedent and the only logical precedent, and that is, that marriage is between a man and a woman. Furthermore, it is just symptomatic of where we are going in society. If we are not clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, what else could be less complicated than that? But yet we have found a way to make that an issue. So I absolutely categorically oppose that And I am proud that that the Black preachers in Massachusetts - the Black Ministerial Alliance, which is made up of ministers from every denomination – took a strong position. Not against gay people, because they are our Brothers and Sisters. We love them. They are broken. We are broken. They sin and we sin, but homosexual marriage – the ministers took a strong position against.

Cedric Muhammad: Have you heard about the position that many in the gay rights community have taken towards Dancehall music?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: No. What is it, just so I know?

Cedric Muhammad: Essentially they call the music homophobic, and what they were able to do…

Rev. Conrad Tillard:…well I know for years they have attacked it and Shabba Ranks and all of them.

Cedric Muhammad: …yeah but this time they sat the major labels down and they got them to agree to change the lyrics and what not.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Now, see, what’s ironic, again, is the Gays have sense enough to say, ‘we don’t want lyrics that condemn us’. But Black people have not done that yet. And that is very ironic to me that they could sit down with the labels as an organized body, advocating for their dignity and demanding their dignity. Jews have done it. Women have done it. But as a people African-Americans don’t see anything wrong with our degradation in the industry.

Cedric Muhammad: Is that a political problem or a spiritual problem?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: I think it is both. It is a spiritual problem, number one because we don’t see it. And we can’t even ascertain what is wrong with it. And it is a political problem because unfortunately all of our political and social organizations have placed themselves in a position where much of their money comes from the entertainment industry.

Cedric Muhammad: Ok, now I interrupted. There were two other issues - reparations and abortion.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Reparations is something that I have always supported. I support reparations because it is the right thing to do. I support affirmative action for the same reason. You have to redress grievances. However, though, I qualify that. See I think until we get ourselves together as a people, even reparations are not going to help us, though I support it. Now, the Jews can get reparations from Germany, and they can get reparations from the various European countries that stole their property and stole their lives. And that reparations only accentuates what they are already doing as a people. It only adds to their storehouse. They are not looking for that to rescue them, you see. And I think that the mistake that many in our community make when they talk about reparations is that they look at reparations as a means of rescuing us. It won’t do that. We’ve got to change our culture. You know, one day I was doing a radio show in New York City and this White racist called in one day. And it really brought home so many things that I believed and it really affected me. This was when we were fighting for Amadou Diallo and I went to jail about three or four times. And he was a racist because he meant this for evil, but I looked into what he said and dealt with the atom’s weight of truth in it. He said, ‘The police didn’t kill Amadou Diallo. Black culture killed Amadou Diallo. The criminals …and the attitudes’. Now he meant that as an indictment of African-American people. But I wrestled with that statement, man. I couldn’t go to sleep for weeks dealing with that. This was about 1998. And I compared that to what Booker T. Washington and DuBois talked about. DuBois talkin' about the talented tenth. Booker T. Washington talkin' about a technical education. I weighed it with what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad talked about in terms of reforming ourselves and how he made sure he told his followers how to carry themselves and act. And then I thought about the Black Church and the dignity of our churches and how we were always taught to put our best foot forward. And I thought to myself and that really changed me and set in motion some things. We’ve got to admit, Cedric that there are some things that we have done or that we have started to do, that maybe came out of our pain, our suffering and our rebellion, that is furthering and complicating and aggravating the condition that we are in. And reparations is not going to change that. It can add to us but it can’t make us. Because, we did, as I said earlier, more in days gone by with less. And until we get back to that, we will wrestle with it. There is a war going on for the souls of Black folk, as DuBois talked about, almost 100 years ago.

Cedric Muhammad: And lastly, abortion.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: I do not believe in abortion. But I say this, I am pro-life. But at the same time, I realize the subtleties of that question. I was talking to a young woman not too long ago, who was a college student and she got pregnant and she’s trying to better her life and so forth and so on. And she made the decision to get an abortion and I was pastoring to her. And as a pastor, and someone who has to minister to people, I know what my belief is, but also, I understand the brokenness of human beings and it made me really be sensitive to what women feel on that question. I don’t think that from a societal standpoint, we’ve really grown yet. Let’s put it this way. I think there is great movement on the part of those in left political circles – Democratic political circles – to realize that even if you are going to be pro-choice, I hear a lot of them advocating now that they want a society where abortions are non-existent or rare. And that’s a shift from the euphoria of Roe V. Wade, where we callously believe that, you know, Tupac said, in his song, “Keep Your Head Up”, ‘since a man can’t make one, he has no right to tell a woman when or where to create one’. I said that was a function of Tupac growing up with only a mother and no father because I wondered how he thought the woman got ‘em – it was the men that helped them get ‘em. But the point I am making is this is a complicated issue. I don not believe in abortion and I hope that we can encourage our young people to not get folk pregnant before they are ready to take care of them. But, again, I’m sensitive to the situation that young people find themselves in. And I just pray for people. On most issues, Cedric, I try to avoid absolutism. Because life has shown, and I’ve grown to see that there are a lot of grey areas and I’m not God. I am not in the position of judgment of anyone. I’m trying to do the best I can as a servant of God, but I am a human being too. And my own mistakes and failings have certainly educated me and helped me mature. And it just made me appreciate this great concept of the Grace of God. There but for the grace of God go I. And so I’m firm in my convictions but I don’t ever want to put people in a position where they think I am trying to place judgment upon them. There are things that are clear. There are things that we all should strive for – the dignity of our people; and to be the best people we can be. But there are always extenuating circumstances, you know.

Cedric Muhammad: Well Brother I think that is about thirty questions that I have asked you.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, alright.

Cedric Muhammad: And in a forward looking fashion, however you would like to (answer), you know, God knows best, but what might we expect from you? What are your intentions and some of your plans?

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, you know it is very interesting I can only say that my hope is built on less than nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I don’t know where the future leads me or will lead me. And the reason why I don’t know, Cedric, is because you never could have told me I would be where I am now. And so I have learned to trust in the Lord. I’ve learned to hear the voice of God. I’ve learned to drown out people’s opinions and try to focus on the direction in which the Lord is leading me. I am serving a wonderful congregation here in Boston, as the interim pastor, and so I don’t know whether the Lord will keep me in Boston or whether God will bring me back to Harlem, where my heart is and my love. But let me say that wherever I am, I will be consistent in this regard, I will serve God. I will preach His Word. And I will try to do things that uplift African-American people and lift up the humanity and the dignity of all human beings. I don’t know that I will ever be a rich man. I don’t ever know that I’ll be a powerful man, but I’ve tried to always live my life on principles and say things that when my children and my grandchildren go back and read what I said, or when people talk to them about what I said and what I did, I’ve tried to live my life where they will know that I tried to make the world a better place, for them. I thank God for my family. I thank God for the communities that nurtured me. I thank for the leaders – Rev. Jackson, Minister Farrakhan, Sharpton and all of the leaders that I have worked with over the years. And I thank God for my pastor Dr. Butts, and Frank Madison Reid of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Because between Dr. Butts and Dr. Reid - two Brothers that were just tremendously important in helping me to make my way back into the church. I thank the Abyssinian family for receiving me as the prodigal son. And I am just grateful, I am just really grateful to be standing where I am now. And I wish my Brothers in the Nation of Islam well. I don’t talk to a lot of them but there are some that I have very close relationship with and I pray for everyone’s success because we are going to do this thing together. We are not going to do it apart. And I hope to reconcile with Russell, and Puffy and the Hip-Hop world, but I just want to do it on a principled basis, that’s all. That’s really it.

Cedric Muhammad: Well Reverend I just want to say that I am very grateful, for you accepting my invitation, my request to interview you, and beyond that, thankful that you have been so gracious with your time, it is approaching four hours…

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Wow…

Cedric Muhammad:…and I know we only agreed to 45 minutes to an hour, so I want to thank you.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Keep being blessed and I look forward to hearing what comes out of it (the interview)

Cedric Muhammad:: Thank You Brother, so much.

Rev. Conrad Tillard: Alright my Brother.

Cedric Muhammad: Take Care Reverend.

Monday, March 28, 2005

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