Patterson's voice was his signature, a deep, resonant and flexible voice capable of expressing a wide range of emotions from solemn to sanctified. His voice had many modes, from “talk” to “preach,” from “whisper” to “quiver” to “sing.” He doesn't read Scripture, he transmits it. He doesn't carry a tune, he transports it. His sermons start off low and slow. He's in no hurry. He knows where he's going. The congregation knows he'll get there soon enough. Jesus told him not to change the world, but to preach the gospel. The gospel changes hearts. That changes the world.
“You got to feed on God's word...
...until that demon of self-pity that's ridin' your back...”
Yes.”...until you can get up enough strength to throw him
off...” Hallelujah! “...nobody can ride you when you're standin'
straight.” Amen! His sermon starts slowly, steadily, like a
steam locomotive lumbering out of the station. The tone and pace
of his voice are measured so carefully the words seem merely
able to crawl out of mouth. Don't be deceived. He's warming
up—clearing his windpipe, stretching his vocal chords, preparing
his voice box to receive and deliver the plain truth, the raw
gospel, the inspired, infallible, indestructible word of God.
Bishop G. E. Patterson of the Church of God in Christ doesn't
come to chat. He comes to preach. Patterson’s ministry is
growing locally and around the world.
John Cardinal O'Connor was entombed in St. Patrick's Cathedral Monday, May 8, 2000, as thousands of mourners — the president and first lady, a bevy of cardinals, dignitaries, and commoners — watched and took part in the solemn ceremony. The 80-year-old O'Connor, considered by many to be the most influential Catholic leader in the United States, died the week before after months of treatment for brain cancer. The funeral mass for John Cardinal O'Connor was an extraordinary national event, attended by an estimated 3,500 relatives, clergy, members of the archdiocesan staff, friends, and invited guests.
The funeral mass ended after almost two and a half hours with a procession to a crypt below the altar where Cardinal O'Connor's mortal remains will rest beside those of his predecessor Terrence Cardinal Cooke and other shepherds of the Archdiocese of New York.
The week Cardinal O’Connor died, you could scarcely turn on a television without hearing about it. The week Bishop Gilbert Earl Patterson died, you could scarcely turn on a television and find much of anything about it.
It never ceases to amaze me how utterly racist and unbalanced the news media is. How new about persons of color continues to be considered “black” news or fringe news of lesser importance than, well, any news at all that concerns white folk. Gilbert Earl Patterson was the leader of millions—with an “M”—of black people in this country. A strong man who built a vast ministry from virtually nothing and whose life was, to my knowledge, untouched by scandal. A virtuous and tireless servant of God, beloved by millions—with an “M.” And his passing has been, at best, a footnote on the national news.
Now, had Bishop Patterson, say, been indicted instead, the news media would have been all over it. Scandal, particularly among religious persons, political figures and persons of color—is utterly delicious for news outlets. Patterson being all three, a major scandal erupting in his life would have indeed been the talk of the town. But, alas, there was no scandal, at least not one big enough to make the news. And, so, the passing of a wonderful man, a man beloved by millions—with an “M”—has gone virtually ignored by the mainstream news media.
We’ve even scanned such bastions of African American activism as BET: their percentage of coverage of Patterson’s passing is no greater and seems even less than the mainstream outlets. Bishop Patterson held at least as much stature among blacks as Cardinal O’Conner had among Catholics. The news media wouldn’t shut up about O’Conner for a full week, but they remain utterly silent on Patterson.
The same year O’Connor died, Rev. H. J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc., pleaded guilty to making a false statement to a financial institution, bank fraud, making a false statement to a federal agency and two counts of tax evasion, for his income in 1995 and 1996. He acknowledged committing bank fraud, submitting forged documents to the federal government and failing to report $1.3-million in income from his deals with corporations eager to obtain church business. Lyons, 57, agreed to forfeit ill-gotten cash, cars, jewelry and property — including the Tierra Verde, Florida, house his wife, Deborah Lyons, set on fire two years before after discovering Lyons’ mistress’ name on the deed, an act that began the scrutiny of Lyons' finances.
This, the news media had a voracious appetite for. Scandal among Christian clergy is a serious aphrodisiac. Being able to freely criticize black folk for acting like, well, niggers, is simply a gift. The Lyons scandal was, therefore, the rare opportunity two-fer, an impassable opportunity to sling mud and sling it thick and low.
That same year, Bishop G.E. Patterson was elected as Presiding Bishop of the 6 million-member Church of God In Christ, Inc. That didn’t make the national news, either. The Bishop’s ambitious efforts with his international Bountiful Blessings Ministries and his tireless soul-winning preaching was routinely ignored by the New York Times as well.
Having been raised an apostolic Pentecostal (think Shiite Muslim with a haircut), I never knew what to think of COGIC folk. I more or less observed them at a distance. I liked them more than I ever liked Baptist folk, whom I was taught were going to hell (not kidding). We were hard-core, fundamentalist, orthodox Pentecostals, believing only those who spoke in tongues and lived sinless lives would make it into heaven. Baptists wore makeup and smoked cigarettes, so we knew they weren’t right. COGIC folk, however, were close enough to our belief system that we at least gave them a chance of actually being saved, but we regarded them with suspicion nonetheless.
Growing older and, hopefully, wiser in the Lord, I no longer think just a select few are going to heaven, and I’m no longer condemning women for wearing pants and makeup (though, seriously ladies, coming to church in tight pants with your bosoms’ tumbling out of your blouse is really disrespectful to God, but that’s another essay). And I now look upon my COGIC brothers and sisters with both admiration and consternation. Admiration for the strength of their unity and organizational structure, for their conservative doctrine (perhaps a bit too conservative so far as women clergy are concerned). I like that they wear clerical garb. Baptists seem almost ashamed to be caught dead in a robe or a collar these days, like they’re embarrassed to look like preachers or dress like preachers. I’m a preacher. I don’t mind dressing like one. I’m not embarrassed. I’m not hiding anything.
I’m frustrated, however, by the sheer amount of bickering and political maneuvering going on within the denomination. The naked ambition for offices and title and power, the obsession with position, the campaigning, the maneuvering, the handshake deals. Now, mind you, mine is the denomination that gave us Henry Lyons, so I’m the last one to cast stones at my COGIC brothers. But I think a lot of time and energy are squandered on matters that do not directly impact peoples’ lives with the love of Jesus Christ. And a lot of the fighting seems to be about power and money, when both should, ideally, belong to God.
I suppose that internal struggle is a reason why I’ve never seriously considered joining the COGIC. I am, for the moment, a (shudder) Southern Baptist, conservative in our own way and no friendlier to women clergy than the COGIC. And I do believe God has ordained me to toil a bit longer with the black Baptist community, calling it to repentance from its growing legacy of childish, backwards thinking.
I do, however, admire and respect the Church of God In Christ, looking past the things I find so sadly troubling and looking instead at the greater good the church does, at its sprawling growth and the strength of its organizational skill.
I admired Bishop Patterson, whose oratorical skill was rarely paralleled and who, among the “Mega” Bishops, seemed least like Elvis. Patterson projected strength and humility, stressed faith in Jesus Christ and abundant and faithful living and never seemed to promote himself so much as he promoted the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That, alone, is worth national news coverage.
Or, failing that, at least a moment of silence as yet another of God’s most faithful servants passes to his reward.
Christopher J. Priest
25 March 2007
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