Magazine article The Christian Century

Forbes Leaves Famed Pulpit, Not Prophetic Role

Magazine article The Christian Century

Forbes Leaves Famed Pulpit, Not Prophetic Role

Article excerpt

MAKE NO MISTAKE: Take James A. Forbes Jr. away from a pulpit and he is not himself. Forbes's old friend the late African-American church historian James Melvin Washington used to kid the senior minister of Manhattan's Riverside Church by saying Forbes "would preach to clear his sinuses."

"He was fight: If I don't preach, I won't be well," Forbes mused one morning recently in an office overlooking the church where he has presided, implored and, yes, preached for the better part of two decades.

But as Forbes reflected on his 18 years in one of the country's most prestigious and visible pulpits, he hardly sounded wistful. In fact, Forbes, 71, who will officially retire in June, seems fully ready for what he calls the next great chapter--setting his sights on nothing less than the spiritual renewal of the nation.

"I'd like to contribute to another 'Great Awakening,"' Forbes said, recalling the cycles of religious and spiritual renewal in the United States. "I want to use my energy, my voice, for spiritual revitalization. Whatever I do next is designed to call the nation to moral sensitivity; to challenge the nation to address the gap between the haves and the have-nots."

Those ambitious goals won't surprise those who have observed Forbes at Riverside, a 2,500-member church with ties to the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA.

Forbes has been viewed, by turns, as a trailblazer (he is Riverside's first black senior minister), a figure of controversy (he freely admits that his leadership has not always endeared him to some in the congregation) and an angry prophet (he says the United States is in danger of being in thrall to the market and to "arrogant pride").

Forbes describes himself as a theological radical and political progressive who, with his black Pentecostal roots, feels that he can challenge theological conservatives and liberals alike and find ways to bring them together. He hopes to do that through an organization he recently formed--the Healing of the Nations Foundation, dedicated to the spiritual revitalization he believes is essential to a nation experiencing a pronounced "God gap."

Such a gap, he says, exists not so much between Democrats and Republicans as between the experiencing of God, or the sacred, and the living of everyday life. …

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