By Norris Burkes, October 17, 2021
If you’ve seen my photo, you probably have reason to doubt that I once pastored an African American congregation.
But I did.
During the last two years of the twentieth century, I served as an active-duty chaplain stationed at Izmir Air Station, Turkey. Inside this New Testament city of Smyrna, (Rev. 2:8,) the Air Force leased our chapel space at the 170-year-old St. John’s Catholic Cathedral.
My duties included the 1 p.m. Gospel service which was made up primarily of African American service members from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) or Progressive Baptist traditions. The gospel services kicked off with two hours of vibrant testimonies and thrilling music followed by, sadly, my preaching.
During the week, I often used my spacious third floor office much like civilian pastors. I hosted meetings with Sunday school teachers, choir members and worship ushers.
One Sunday, I held a meeting with our lay preachers. These were volunteers who rotated preaching duties one Sunday each month, allowing me a day off. I concluded the afternoon gathering by suggesting they check their email for the “lay-preaching schedule.”
“Why do you call us ‘lay preachers?” asked Keith Theory, a short, stocky Army sergeant.
“Uh, I uh, well….” I stammered. “None of you have been to seminary or held a paid pastoral position. This means that you are laymen.”
Quiet assumed its position in the room.
“It’s just a title,” I shrugged.
Theory looked around at the others in the room and found his breath.
“Chaplain, our folks address us as ‘Minister.’ If you call us lay preachers, you might as well just call us nig***!”
The room dropped several degrees. I had no response until I finally tossed out the often-used chaplain standby, “Can you say more about that?”
That’s when Theory’s tall friend, Sergeant Johnson, stood.
“In our tradition, everyone who feels called to preach assumes the title of ‘Minister.’ We don’t need a diploma,” he said nodding toward my Master of Divinity tilting on the wall behind us. “If someone believes themselves to be a preacher, we call them ‘Minister.’
“Calling us anything less than ‘minister’ means you are calling us …. Well, I’m sure you see where this is going.”
There are many ways in which I could have insisted that professional education combined with ministry experience is crucial to church leadership.
But to say that would discount their point. In fact, it would have been the wrong point altogether.
The ministers needed to hear their chaplain say that their contribution to God’s work mattered.
Twenty years before it became a movement, these men were saying that their lives — black lives — mattered.
Today, I hear folks reply to people of color with, “All Lives Matter.”
But that discounts and lessens the real message.
That’s why it’s often suggested that the phrase BLM could be clarified by adding the letter “T” — Black Lives Matter Too.
My ministers weren’t questioning my chaplain authority. They were saying, “We love God too. Please include us too. We are ministers too.”
A few weeks later, Theory took the pulpit and seemed pleased to read his name listed in the program as “Minister Theory.”
With a nod toward me, he began the service as the ministers often did — with John’s words to the Church at Smyrna, the current day Izmir.
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev 2:11)
I’m beginning to hear, Minister.
Visit Norris’ website at www.thechaplain.net where you can read past columns and order his books. Contact Chaplain Norris at email@example.com or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.