Dean of Amer­i­can preaches con­fronts ag­ing

Black preacher looks back on years in min­istry

The Covington News - - RELIGION - By Rachel Zoll

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Rev. Gard­ner C. Tay­lor is giv­ing away most of his books.

He’s gath­er­ing copies of all his ser­mons — about 2,000 of them — for an ar­chive. He has al­ready sent his Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom to an At­lanta school for dis­play there.

“You come to a time,” Tay­lor said, “when you want to be shed­ding and un­load­ing.”

At age 89, the black pas­tor known as the dean of Amer­i­can preach­ing is wind­ing down his life’s work. His pub­lic ap­pear­ances are rare now, af­ter decades of trav­el­ing the world to speak, and he is strug­gling with his new lim­i­ta­tions.

“ Since my health is not what it was and I had to give up en­gage­ments, I at first felt rather crest­fallen,” Tay­lor said in a re­cent in­ter­view at his Raleigh home. “I forced my­self, or led my­self, to be­lieve that there are sea­sons and eras, and we have to see what they are as best as we can and to find what is pos­i­tive in them.”

For his many ad­mir­ers both inside and out­side the black com­mu­nity, Tay­lor is not only a role model but also a liv­ing link to 20th cen­tury black his­tory.

The grand­son of slaves, Tay­lor over­came the seg­re­gated South of his child­hood to earn a bach­e­lor’s de­gree at Ober­lin Col­lege. He moved eas­ily among white Chris­tians at a time when it was un­usual for a black Amer­i­can to do so. He prod­ded white church­go­ers, us­ing his elo­quence and deep knowl­edge of Scrip­ture, to live up to their avowed re­li­gious be­liefs and fight racism.

He was a friend and con­fi­dant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped found the Pro­gres­sive Na­tional Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, which gave King a na­tional re­li­gious base for his ad­vo­cacy at a time when sev­eral older black Bap­tist lead­ers had re­jected his tac­tics.

When Tay­lor moved North, like so many of his gen­er­a­tion, he turned a New York con­gre­ga­tion — the Con­cord Bap­tist Church of Christ — into a cen­ter of black eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment. In 2000, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton awarded him the Medal of Free­dom.

With his pow­er­ful voice, de­scribed by one preach­ing ex­pert as an or­gan with all the stops pulled out, he in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions of preach­ers from all back­grounds.

Last month, the In­ter­de­nom­i­na­tional The­o­log­i­cal Cen­ter in At­lanta, a con­sor­tium of pre­dom­i­nantly black sem­i­nar­ies, opened the Gard­ner C. Tay­lor Ar­chive and Preach­ing Lab­o­ra­tory, with au­dio, video and text of his ser­mons. Record­ings of his preach­ing are still top-sell­ers at Con­cord Bap­tist, 17 years af­ter Tay­lor re­tired as se­nior pas­tor.

“This man is equally gifted, if not more so, as a Billy Gra­ham,” said Cleo LaRue, a pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and au­thor of “The Heart of Black Preach­ing.” But Tay­lor isn’t nearly as well-known as the evan­ge­list “ow­ing to the frac­tures of race,” LaRue said.

Tay­lor uses a cane now, but is still im­pos­ing at 6-foot1. His crown of gray curls is thin and a weari­ness has crept into his voice. Yet, when he speaks, even in ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion, the rum­ble and rhyth­mic flow that won him so many ac­co­lades re­mains. Richard Lis­cher, a pro­fes­sor of preach­ing at Duke Di­vin­ity School, said Tay­lor could win ap­plause just by read­ing out loud and “de­liver it up with­out mak­ing him­self the cen­ter of at­ten­tion.”

The pas­tor and his wife, Phillis, live on a cul de sac in a sub­di­vi­sion of brick homes and two-car garages, where the only sound break­ing the quiet on a re­cent week­day was the caw­ing of birds. De­spite his sur­round­ings, he has been trou­bled lately by what he calls a “ner­vous­ness.”

“The strangest thing about it is it at­tacks me as the week­end comes, be­cause I was so long at this. I think it’s an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard,” Tay­lor said. “Since I’ve had this, I’ve talked to a num­ber of pas­tors who tell me that they have a rest­less­ness on Satur­day. They don’t sleep well, which I knew all of my years.”

Re­searchers who study his preach­ing call him a walk­ing the­saurus.

In his in­ter­view with the AP, he de­scribed the Bi­ble as a “doc­u­ment for the out­cast” that “only an op­pressed peo­ple can more eas­ily grasp.” The seg­re­gated South was a “ a strange kind of en­tity.” And the Gospel “has been cap­tured by the cul­ture, so it has be­come some­times a pale re­flec­tion, some­times an all too vivid re­flec­tion, of what the cul­ture is.”

As a preacher, he of­ten reached back to his child­hood in Ba­ton Rouge, La., to un­der­score the eth­i­cal ab­sur­dity of seg­re­ga­tion to white au­di­ences. He said that when city lead­ers wanted to kill dis­ease-car­ry­ing mos­qui­toes, they sprayed pes­ti­cide al­most ex­clu­sively in white neigh­bor­hoods, stop­ping at a street that was an un­of­fi­cial border be­tween the white and black ar­eas. Tay­lor said it made his un­cle laugh.

“He said, ‘What do th­ese peo­ple think? They think th­ese mos­qui­toes will stop at Reddy Street,’” Tay­lor said. “Over and over again, I had that kind of ex­pe­ri­ence to use.”

The clos­est Tay­lor came to hav­ing a na­tional plat­form was when NBC ra­dio broad­cast his ser­mons start­ing in the 1950s. He said many of the lis­ten­ers had no idea he was Black. One Mis­sis­sippi wo­man wrote to him, say­ing she was the daugh­ter of a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier and her maiden name was Tay­lor and she won­dered if they were re­lated.

“I did not send her a pic­ture of my­self,” he said, laugh­ing. “But I wrote and told her I doubted it.”

Tay­lor is work­ing with his doc­tors to get well enough to preach more of­ten, but likely won’t re­turn to the full sched­ule of teach­ing, lec­tur­ing and speak­ing that filled the early years of his re­tire­ment. De­spite a life­time of ac­com­plish­ments, he said he is both “ea­ger and scared” about the prospect of preach­ing now.

“ I haven’t done it in a while,” he said. “I have the fear that I guess all peo­ple have of ‘How com­pe­tent am I?’ I don’t want, to be hon­est, to mar the face of what I’ve tried to do or say be­cause I am weaker. I don’t want to do that.”

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