Dr. Gardner C. Taylor – Known throughout the nation as America’s preeminent preacher of the gospel, at the magnificent age of 93, this significant giant in our world continues to provide insight and revelation. Retired pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Brooklyn, NY, he has recently released his latest book, “Faith in the Fire” from Smiley Books (ISBN: 78-1-4019-2962-6, $21.95, hardcover with CD). Dr. Taylor was one of the key architects of the Civil Rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. When we spoke, I asked what would make him happy about this present generation and its movement forward in faith, he replied, “I would be and will be happy to see a younger generation moving forward at the level of economics and education. In addition, a community that has decency and respect about it and believe that this is a major course today though there are some serious exceptions to it. I would hope that the new generation would be moving in those directions.”
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Given the title of your book, “Faith in the Fire: Wisdom for Life,” faith is a word sometimes loosely used. How do you suggest we (as Christians) harness, interpret and maximize the power of faith to live a more fulfilling life, a more Christ-like experience here on earth?
Dr. Taylor: Faith guides us; this book is an account of my faith during the 40 odd years as pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn; it is an account of my experiences.
Talk2SV: Equally hope is among our Christian creed though it is tested in many circumstances. In particular, in this book, you speak of hope in a way that almost parallels the conundrum that it can sometimes be. Would it be appropriate to paraphrase in that way?
Dr. Taylor: Yes, it can be a conundrum and sometimes hope is not based on creed. It may be an empty wish but not according to one’s faith.
Talk2SV: Do you view faith and hope as separate and apart?
Dr. Taylor: No, I think faith and hope are kin but they are not twins.
Talk2SV: I like that.
Dr. Taylor: Hope can be just a wish, that’s a hope. But it may not have anything to do with what a person really believes; it’s a wish of a moment, that’s a hope. But that’s not faith.
Talk2SV: You have influenced many and your impact is tremendous. What would you say is the measurement of your mentorship and leadership?
Dr. Taylor: I think that I was blessed to spend my ministry at a pretty good time as it relates to America and Black history. I took sides of course and I believe they were the right sides; all of that came together.
Talk2SV: Dr. Taylor, you are so modest…
Dr. Taylor: I’m not modest, I’m honest.
Talk2SV: I had a conversation about you and this book with Dr. J. Alfred Smith SR (Pastor Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, CA). We had a wonderful discussion in which he shared how he came to know you when he was a very young man; that you have been influential down through the years of his life…
Dr. Taylor: I’m glad.
Talk2SV: We acknowledged your imprint as one of the architects of the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King II. Are you pleased with the state of America’s civil rights, given your early involvement?
Dr. Taylor: I am encouraged. I think that all of America stands on three cornerstones and they are contained in the words we repeated as children: I believe in the Constitution of the United States and the republic for which it stands, one nation –I think George Washington began this tradition. Indivisible… I think that was Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War…with liberty and justice for all was the third cornerstone of our nation, seen in Martin Luther King. So, Washington, Lincoln and King formed the foundation of the nation.
Talk2SV: In your homage to them, respectfully, there still had to be the civil sergeants and lieutenants who further ignited what they started and helped it manifest. I see you as one of them.
Dr. Taylor: Well, thank you. I was a soldier in the army, let me put it that way but, yes, I was active in the civil rights struggle and I am glad I was because it has ushered in a new kind of America.
Talk2SV: In this new kind of America, Tavis Smiley is one of those who has taken up the mantle of Dr. King along with your legacy; you also share a special relationship with him. Would you share any of the advice you offer him in the way of civil rights and how we should carry on?
Dr. Taylor: Well, Tavis belongs to a later time than my own; he is an architect and a builder, a solidifier of the things that Dr. King stood for –that many of us stood for– and I think Tavis seeks to and succeeds in giving flesh to those ideas. I think that’s our stage right now –to put flesh on these ideas.
Talk2SV: He and Dr. Cornel West are working to put flesh on the status of poverty in this country, a social malady that has been with us since the beginning of time. What do you see as something other Americans can do, particularly those who do not have the same platform as Tavis Smiley. What can everyday citizens do to address and remedy the issue of poverty?
Dr. Taylor: I think that we must recognize that poverty is not inevitable, that’s the first thing. Moreover, that our job is to eradicate as much of it as we can; that is done by economics and by the attitude of the nation, the attitude of individual people. I think that all of our communities have to be working on that.
Talk2SV: Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement paved way; now, we must get young people to continue to do. Looking to your leadership and example, how should the younger generations continue this fight and at the same time, should our perspective on racism –today, in this century– adjust itself?
Dr. Taylor: Yes, we have made advancements, no question about that. I think that there are still areas that need critical and serious attention. The economic one is, I suppose, the major one and the President has spoken about it. Of course, the country is going to be hard-put to live up to what it needs to do in terms of the economics of the country and the economics of individuals, but I think all of us have to set ourselves to that task through our own efforts, through our legislation and congress. But it is not a promising and happy time for prosperity.
Talk2SV: Are we too focused on prosperity within the Christian community?
Dr. Taylor: Yes, I think some are and do not go down to the root of the human need. If the life of our Lord is to be any example, it is not a success gospel in human terms and yet it is the standard for all of these 20th centuries by which the Christian faith has lived and will live on forever. So prosperity is not having things, prosperity is doing things and being something and, of course, with that comes some measure of comfort and financial returns, I am sure. But, to make those the standards by which we live is not.
Talk2SV: What will you ask of us now? What would make you happy about this generation and our movement forward in faith?
Dr. Taylor: I would be and will be happy to see a younger generation moving forward at the level of economics and education and a community that has decency and respect about it and in it. I would hope that the new generation would be moving in those directions.
Dr. J. Alfred Smith SR – is Pastor Emeritus of the Allen Temple Baptist Church of Oakland, CA, also regarded as one of the nation’s top scholars, authors, lecturers and ministers of the gospel with emphasis on theology that uplifts and empowers. Dr. Smith, SR is too a student of Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. When we spoke, I asked him to comment on the unique qualities shared by him and his mentor. He states, “Well, both of us grew up within [an era of] injustice in the south. I believe that the gospel is not about ‘the sweet by and by’ rather it is about addressing ‘the nasty now and now.’ Both of us would admit that we know nothing about the ‘furniture of heaven’ or ‘the temperature of hell.’ We will probably find out before we’re ready to leave this earth but we know a great deal about the human hells that people live in [today]. As preachers of good news, we were endeavoring to be good news people in a bad news world.”
Talk2SV: You’ve had a long standing relationship with Dr. Taylor who many would say is a giant among men, a prince among preachers. How were you introduced, how has he influenced your life and your ministry?
Dr. Smith: Well I’m excited and honored to be asked to say a word about the dean of preachers; to me, he’s not just a dean of black preachers rather he is a dean of the preachers of this era. When I was a pastoral student living in Kansas City, Missouri, I listened to the radio pulpit of the air –radio sermons– this was before television. There would be great white preachers who led mega churches on the air to speak and then one morning, I heard a very cultured voice. I could tell from the intonation that it hailed from the state of Louisiana even though the preacher was now a pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, then perhaps the largest black church in America. That was my introduction to Dr. Taylor, the first black to preach on the radio pulpit. His word choices were so mesmerizing and the contemporariness of his application of scripture was so fresh and invigorating; I became a student of his from a distance.
I had a chance to meet him. I was a young pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Columbia, Missouri, and had been invited to drive up to Des Moines, Iowa, where the American Baptist Convention was meeting to be interviewed for a position. It was serendipitous. When I arrived at the convention center, lost in a maze of faces that didn’t look like mine, I saw this tall, majestic African American young minister striding across the floor. I stopped him and recognized he was the great Gardner Taylor. I said, ‘Sir can you tell me where the American Baptist Home Missions booth is, I am to be interviewed for a position by Dr. E.B. Hicks?’ He said, “I know Dr. Hicks, I’ll take you to him. That was the beginning of our relationship.
I went on to work for American Baptist for a number of years and while working for them in Northern California, I was asked to be an interim minister to fill the pulpit for Allen Temple Baptist Church until they found a pastor. They went on a national search. It was my job just to be there to fill the pulpit when they didn’t have a candidate preaching. Somehow, the members fell in love with me. I had to resign (from American Baptist) and couldn’t continue, I then became a candidate. When they offered me the position it meant that I had to take a great reduction in salary. I didn’t know whether that was the wisest thing to do because I was going to have three children in college at the same time.
So, I went to Brooklyn and had a counseling session with Dr. Taylor. From that session, I felt that the Holy Spirit was leading me to come to Oakland. From there, our relationship got stronger and I went on to become president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, of which he was one of the founders. That member organization numbered around 1.5 million; he was there to counsel me and say to me, “young man, don’t worry about leading the group just govern yourself.” He has been a blessing to my life.
Talk2SV: So he has been in your life from high school.
Dr. Smith: Yes, to the present.
Talk2SV: You and Dr. Taylor share many attributes, namely, your fierce commitment to civil rights and your footsteps toward social justice. As well, both of you have an amazing sense of humor. Do you have any particular anecdotes you can share with me?
Dr. Smith: Well, he believes that preachers take themselves too seriously…that’s what he told me the last time I talked with him. He said we’re attempting to be angels when God made us to be humans so one of the ways of maintaining your humanity is through humor. He has an alive sense of humor and I’ve discovered that since I don’t have the money to pay a therapist the best way to treat my “disfunctionalism” is with humor.
Talk2SV: How do you perceive what he is doing with this new book, “Faith in the Fire,” and where would you rate it within the chronicles of everything he’s done?
Dr. Smith: I think this book is at the apex of what he has written because it contains all that he’s done across the years. If one were not able to purchase all six volumes of the “Words of Gardner Taylor published by Judson Press, you could get a sampling of what he has done through the purchase of this book. Secondly, since we are now living in a firestorm, a firestorm that younger people have never known. Those of us who can remember the days of the depression feel that this firestorm may even be hotter than the firestorm of the depression will find some clues or hints as to how to survive it from reading this book.
Talk2SV: I refer to Dr. Taylor as one of the architects of the civil rights movement. Is that too limiting of a description for him?
Dr. Smith: Oh no, I would say that he participated in demonstrations in Brooklyn, New York, and went to jail more than once. He was a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr.. When Dr. King was wounded, discouraged and wanted to give up, he would call Dr. Gardner Taylor and find great solace and great comfort from his elder (spiritual) brother, who always had the right words for the right occasion.
Talk2SV: In summary, realizing you encountered Dr. Taylor as a young man, in what ways do you think today’s young people can connect to and learn from him, now at his tender age of 93?
Dr. Smith: I would say that only a fool would attempt to reinvent the wheel when we now have before us a classic wheel, recognized not only by the preaching community of the United States but also around the world. Preachers and scholars read the work of Gardner Taylor. He has preached many times in the Baptist World Alliance; if we had a pope, he would have been our pope. To think that he stands in the halls of history with a hallowed view, there are few names. Once every 100 years, we get a Gardner Taylor, a spiritual genius who happens to be African American but whose legacy is claimed by the world. One student today would be burying one’s head in the sand not to recognize the richness of the Gardner Taylor genius.
Editor’s footnote: Imagine my surprise to learn that Dr. Gardner C. Taylor knew my great uncle, Rev. P. C. Keal of Monroe, LA, one of his mentors. Uncle Keal, as we called him, passed away in 1975 at the age of 100, too, a great minister who lent his support to the political winds of change in Louisiana.