The Whole Church

Q&A with Otis Moss III

by Stacy Smith

Otis Moss III

A hip-hop pastor born of the civil rights movement, Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois. Embracing a holistic approach to ministry informed by Black liberation theology, Dr. Moss has led efforts to address social issues through the lens of community health. His recent book, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair (Westminster John Knox, 2015), is based on his lectures at the famous Lyman Beecher series at Yale University. Editor Stacy Smith spoke with Dr. Moss about his family’s influence on his ministry, the “blues” we face as a society, and how the church can approach the complex health issues prevalent among under-resourced communities.

Stacy Smith: How does your church approach health and health care?

Otis Moss: At Trinity we utilize a holistic approach, looking at health care as holistic and dynamic for the entire community. There is physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health. Then there is community health—how do we develop and design our communities to ensure people are living at full capacity? Under community health, you’re now talking about a just economy, mass incarceration and those impacts, eco-justice and education. These are the pillars for a health community, bound by the narrative and ethics that flow from the church.

In Scripture, where do you see the basis for that approach to health care?

In Mark 5, Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, this man who has a physical, mental and sociological challenges in his community. He is a person 1) who is not working; 2) who is living among the tombs, so in other words he is living in a community that is under-resourced; 3) he has mental health issues because he has been cutting himself; and 4) he’s formerly incarcerated because it says he was “in chains” but he broke those chains. Jesus comes in and releases him of this “Legion” of demons. So you could also go through the legion of demons that affect under-resourced communities—mental health issues, education issues, the list goes on.

Once Jesus releases that gentleman from those issues, he then is placed in a position to live fully as a human being. Scripture talks about him being in his right mind and in a teaching position. Christ demonstrates that when you heal people, you never just heal them physically, you affect them emotionally, psychologically and economically.

But more important, you also affect their families. Scholars of Scripture have discussed how this man is told to go home and communicate with his family. His family is impacted by his healing. When you minister to one individual, you are healing at least four or five other people that you do not see.

Your father has a long history of social and civil rights, including health issues, and there’s even a health center that bears his name! How did your family affect your understanding of the church and health?

The early vision of the Otis Moss, Jr. Health Center, which is connected with Case Western Reserve and University Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, asked, “How do we provide primary care in an underserved neighborhood?” My father spent a lot of time preaching and educating the congregation on holistic health—how to eat, how to advocate for yourself in reference to health care and policy, how policy is connected to your community’s health and individual health, and how you make decisions around what you put in your body. So I witnessed that growing up, having a pastor and a father who was preaching the good news not just spiritually, but also physically, emotionally and mentally.

You wrote a beautiful and tragic piece for Ebony magazine called “Losing Daphne” where you tell the story of your sister’s struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and her suicide. How has that experience translated into your ministry and your church’s approach to mental illness?

The experience of my sister’s illness and her eventual death transformed my theology—a theology of hiding to a theology of openness, a theology of ignoring to a theology of bearing witness. The first time I spoke on it publicaly might have been 2002, just two or three lines in a message. But the response was overwhelming. From that moment, I gained more courage to be able to share my story and, eventually, to being able to write the piece you reference. Once I wrote that piece, almost for a straight year, a week didn’t go by where I didn’t received a letter from someone who had a similar experience.

Your recent book Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World challenges preachers to speak directly to the tragedies in their congregations. What is blue note preaching, and, perhaps connected, what is healthy preaching to you?

Blue note preaching is preaching about tragedy but not falling into despair. The beauty of the blues narrative is the ability to face the tragedy, the pain, the trouble, the blues of one’s existential experience, but connect it also to the eschatological hope we bear witness to in relationship to Jesus Christ. This is witnessed in Scripture. Friday, what we call Calvary, is one of the greatest blues songs ever written. Sunday morning is the great gospel good news. The psalmists—Psalm 137, “by the rivers of Babylon we wept,” one of the greatest songs of the American lexicon, is demonstrated by Billie Holiday speaking about strange fruits, which is a sermon and a poem about the existential experience of Africans in America. But she is not calling for anyone to despair. She’s just stating that you have to face the blues if you ever want to reach the gospel.

Speaking specifically about mental health and blues within the African American community: we have witnessed what feels, at least in certain circles, to be an increase in violence. It seems like when a white person commits a violent act we often conclude that it is somehow connected to mental illness, but when a person of color does, we tend to blame religion, most likely Islam, or character itself, calling the person a “thug” or something similar. Can you speak to that observation, and how this increasing violence influences your church’s approach to mental health in the African American community?

There’s something known as the racialized imagination, or the mythos of race which we live out in America. This myth is the idea that for people who are not of European descent, any form of violence or tragic experience is considered to be an inherent character flaw, culturally or genetically bound, whereas the same action for someone of European descent is viewed as a mental issue or an anomaly. Because of the racialized imagination, we then design policy that seeks treatment for one group and punishment for another group.

Yet crime is based on two things: proximity and poverty. You are a victim of crime based on proximity to poverty, and you end up committing crime based on proximity to poverty. That is a greater indicator than someone’s racial classification. Reducing violence and crime requires income, opportunity, access to jobs, and home ownership. Communities with the highest home ownership always have the lowest violent crime rates.

Let me give you an example in Chicago: the Cook County jail has 8,000 or so people in the system, and about a third of those are receiving treatment for mental health issues.[1] So this is the largest mental health facility in the United States, because we have closed 22 mental health facilities over the last five years. We now use the criminal justice system to house people who need treatment.

This is the way we talk about mental health at Trinity. We talk about policy issues and restorative justice practices that decrease trauma and engage people who have experienced trauma. When people who have experienced trauma, or have victimized other people as a result of trauma, are involved in restorative justice, you end up reducing recidivism. You reduce the number of people in this revolving door of the mass incarceration system that destroys the mental health of individuals and decreases their ability to be productive in society when they return as citizens.

You’ve spoken about your church’s approach to those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, and the importance of healthy talk about sex in the church. What does that look like in your congregation?

It is still a challenging topic in mixed company in general and certainly in the church. For one, we need servant leaders who can openly talk about sex and sexual activity as something that has been created by God, but also demands greater responsibility—that it’s a health issue. It may be good doctrine to tell children “Just say no,” but it’s poor policy if we want to save lives. We have a large population of people who are engaging in all kinds of intimate activity and we must begin to have open discussions about not only the consequences but how you protect yourself. What are the forms of birth control, my goodness—talking about condoms in church! Can we have that conversation? To have those conversations in the context of Bible study is important.

Let’s be grown-up parents and talk about this, and when I say parents I mean the pastor, the deacon, the ministerial teams. We need to say that we are going to be grown-up as we talk about it with each other. And not just with young people, but those over 55 who have the higher incidence of HIV because they assume they are not going to get it.

You’ve been called the hip-hop pastor, but often health care or health ministry is seen as an older person’s problem. How can advocates of health care ministries reach out to younger people?

I believe that we have to design the kind of curriculum and materials that speak to each generation and their developmental need. If you’re between the age of 18 and 26, there are some major health care issues—public health and personal health—that we need to deal with. If you are a young man, we have to start talking about prostate health, especially for African American men. You can’t wait until you’re in your forties! For African American women, we have to talk about breast health. This is not something that needs to wait until you’re a grandmother. We need to demystify the human body and recognize that it is sacred, mysterious and wonderful, but also that we have some great, skilled professionals who can share with us how our body functions. We should not operate with shame around our bodies and what God has provided for us.

Finally, what is your biggest hope for the church in your lifetime?

That it will break out of the walls. When I say the walls I mean literally the building—that the building will not be the centerpiece but people will be the centerpiece, that people will have meals and gather in that space, allowing the Spirit to rest there, versus the caretaking of buildings that are falling apart. I like buildings and I like architecture, but I’m more excited when ten or thirty or a hundred or a thousand people gather in a space and decide that they are going to claim this block or this community and focus on this issue. I believe that boutique ministry, not mega ministry, is the future of the church. This ministry over here, maybe 300 people, might focus on the homeless population, another ministry over here is focused on mass incarceration, and over here on food justice. Churches are then picking their specific issues and they are pouring their hearts into them. Then the walls will come down.

[1] See “America’s Largest Mental Health Hospital is a Jail” by Matt Ford, The Atlantic, June 8, 2015.

This article was awarded a 2016 Award of Merit for Reporting and Writing: Interview by Associated Church Press.

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