Call Received

Rev. Sekou preaching at KtB's Tin Anniversary Spectacular in 2010. Photo by Aslan Chalom.

In his new collection of essays, gods, Gays, and Guns, Buddha-killer Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou reveals himself to be a pastor for the whole world—in Haiti, on Wall Street, among London’s impoverished suburbs, and in his own life. This is what the gospel of the twenty-first century looks like—globalized, radicalized, and often seemingly heretical.

You travel a lot. What is it that makes you know you should be somewhere when you do?

Usually, I am invited or feel a deep sense of calling. Like in New Orleans, I saw the terrible images and was moved. There were a number of organizers who were in conversation about what to do, and I was sent down by a national union and began to build a network. Eventually, I was recruited to go down and start a worker center. Haiti simply broke my heart, but I was a new pastor and was reluctant to travel. I simply prayed an angry prayer: “god, if you are there, I am not going to Haiti unless you call me on the fucking phone.” A day later a colleague called me from the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture where I was a fellow and asked me if I wanted to go to Haiti!

How do you think black churches and communities have changed since the civil rights movement? Do you think a modern-day MLK would still be a preacher—or would he become a politician or some kind of secular professional?

The prophetic tradition is on the edges of the black church, and it claims the heart of the faith has been eclipsed—to say the least—by prosperity theology and a spineless liberal Protestantism. The scandals of Eddie Long and the like, combined with the televisual culture dominating the worship life of the church, mean that genuine theological reflection and spiritual formation, which are the hallmarks of social justice in the prophetic tradition, are hard to come by. I am not sure if we are going to get modern-day MLK, but I do understand the question. I think there is still space to carve out a theological praxis in the tradition of King. There are some possible stirrings for a reemergence of a social movement like Occupy that can produce lots of MLKs.

The nature of King’s profession is more about it choosing him rather than him choosing it. The vocation of the preacher is not something one chooses to do; King’s profession was a vocation. He would have had the same calling, I suspect, in this moment.

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Tell us about how you started preaching. Once I posted a video of a kid preacher on KtB and you wrote to me saying you did that too.

In the Arkansas Delta, where I was raised, the life of the mind was celebrated and public speaking emphasized. So I have been speaking to church audiences since I was four years old, which was the same age I learned to read. My grandfather was an elder in the Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal denomination. I got it earnest, so to speak. I “received my calling” at 15 years old, through an older woman who dreamed and prophesied that I would preach. But I was not having it. Through a series of dreams, I answered the call and officially started preaching at 23.

How did you end up in New York—to say nothing of everywhere else?

I was recruited to run an interfaith organization in the lead-up to the Republican Convention in 2004. After the election, I co-founded Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq in partnership with United for Peace and Justice. I have been blessed to travel and around the world to sites of disaster and hope.

What is it like to go home now? How does the preacher-to-the-world play in Arkansas these days?

The first thing I do is go straight to my grandmother’s grave and talk to her. I usually cry a lot. I miss her terribly. She loved me deeply. She saved me from alcoholic parents and a world that no child should grow up in. I am the only one of my brothers to graduate from high school. So I go and keep her up on things. Then I head over to my cousins’ and aunts’ homes. They reminisce about how spoiled I was. (I say, “well taken care of.”) They are very proud of me. I am known as “Mrs. Houston’s boy.” Folks in the community have caught glimpses of me on television and their grandchildren show them things on “the internets,” as they call it.

The community that raised me is no more. There were eleven houses in Zent when I lived there until the late ’80s. There are only five now. Most folks have died or moved away. But it is full in my heart. I have been asked to preach a few times, just never have. I wonder what that is about.

Mrs. Houston’s boy? That raises the question of how you got your name…

In the 1990s I was working closely with Kwame Ture (nee Stokley Carmichael)—who, by the way, helped to break the back of American apartheid during Freedom Summer, only to be betrayed at the Democratic Convention of 1964, which I believe caused his move to Black Power. Kwame was hard teacher and lifelong revolutionary. He named me. I took my name from the same people that he worked with and was named for: Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana and Sekou Ture, first president of Guinea. I was born Michael Braselman, and legally changed my name on December 17, 1992.

What do they think down in Arkansas about some of your more radical tendencies? For instance, your advocacy for LGBTQ folks?

Both Arkansas and my family remain religiously conservative in a way that mediates social conservatism around sexuality. But the fact that I have been faithful in my service of the prophetic tradition, people tend to give me some discursive room to wrestle with these questions in deep ways. They may not agree, but they are open to the conversation.

Is there such a thing as a religious left? Should there be?

I stand in the left wing of the prophetic tradition of the black church. But there are fewer and fewer making that choice. Actually, I tend not use the words “left,” “liberal,” or “radical” when preaching. Rather, I argue that to be faithful to Jesus is to engage the political discourse and public policy in a way that is the traditional domain of socialists and progressives. The heart of the gospel for me is commitment to serving the historically “othered”—a more expansive and material term for Jesus’ notion of “the least of these.”

When the churches finally come to terms with homosexuality, what do you think they’ll be reactionary and terrified about next?

Who knows? But I will struggle against it!

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.