Rev. Brad Braxton

 

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a Lucky Severson report now on the divisions in one of the most prominent places of worship in the country—Riverside Church in New York. It’s affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ and was built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the late 1920s for its first and much admired senior pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Riverside became widely known for its great preaching, liberal theology, interracial congregation, and commitment to social justice. But now it’s also known for a bitter controversy surrounding its new senior minister, Brad Braxton.

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER (performing a blessing): Dear God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we now bring this servant of God, this man of God before you.

LUCKY SEVERSON: It has become an occasion worthy of note when the Riverside Church installs a new senior pastor. His name is Brad Braxton, and he has come a long way from his humble beginnings as the son of a Baptist preacher in rural Virginia.

Rev. BRAXTON: Pastoral ministry is a wonderful vocation. The opportunity to guide a community of faith amid its joys and sorrows is a significant and high calling.

SEVERSON: Riverside spans the blocks between the ivy-covered walls of Columbia University and the largely African-American Harlem neighborhood. Jennifer Hoult discovered Riverside when she was attending nearby Barnard College and has been coming to services for over 20 years.

bradbraxton-post05-hoult

JENNIFER HOULT (Member, Riverside Church): We have had some of the most extraordinary preachers leading this church. I mean Fosdick, Bill Coffin, Jim Forbes — these are extraordinary gentlemen in the clergy, and brilliant theologians and brilliant preachers, I can add.

SEVERSON: Dr. Braxton seems well prepared for the job. He’s a Rhodes Scholar, has a PhD in New Testament studies, and was a religion professor at Vanderbilt. Betty Davis says it’s the kind of resume that stood out among the 200 applicants for the job. She has been a member here for 19 years and was on the selection committee.

BETTY DAVIS (Member, Riverside Church): And what impressed me most about Dr. Braxton was, first of all, his deep spirituality combined with his masterful knowledge. So he really stood out. His energy stood out. He came prepared.

SEVERSON: It seems like a perfect fit. So why, on the day of his installation, did the new senior pastor speak about fear within the congregation?

Rev. BRAXTON (preaching to congregation): Fear not. Fear not. I’m going to preach it until the Holy Ghost tells me to stop.

SEVERSON: He is speaking of the fear some in the congregation have about their new senior minister. His selection has proved controversial, and division within the church is an issue he has not shied away from.

Rev. BRAXTON (speaking to congregation): Move the mountain of distrust and animosity in this congregation by speaking the truth in love.

Ms. DAVIS: As soon as his name was announced, the attacks started. One of the things that some people are afraid of is that the church will turn black. And, you know, I really resent that.

SEVERSON: Betty Davis says Dr. Braxton’s predecessor, Dr. James Forbes, a world-class preacher, also black, also suffered congregational harping, and that the elephant in the room people aren’t talking about is racism. Lois and David Carey have attended Riverside for over 35 years and have seen the church’s membership shift from predominately white to predominately black.

bradbraxton-post02-careys

DAVID CAREY (Member, Riverside Church): I feel that Dr. Braxton is getting a holdover from Dr. Forbes, who went through the same thing he’s going through. Only he was there taking it for 20 years.

SEVERSON: Racism have anything to do with it?

Mr. CAREY: I think so, yeah. I’m sad to say it but I think so, you know.

Rev. BRAXTON: I’m obviously dealing with, as did Dr. Forbes, some of the issues of what it means to guide an institution of this magnitude when this institution, like the United States of America, is still wrestling with the great hold that racism has on this country.

SEVERSON: But Jennifer Hoult says her problem with Dr. Braxton is not about color.

Ms. HOULT: My concerns about Dr. Braxton had nothing to do with his race or his personal history. They had to do with his theology.

Rev. BRAXTON (preaching to congregation): Listen again to a portion of James, chapter 3.

Ms. HOULT: What he says consistently in sermons is talking about the only way to God is through a particular fundamentalist path, which is to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and that’s a huge change in our theology. It’s a huge change in our openness and our inclusiveness.

SEVERSON: Braxton denies that he is changing the theology and says he has written articles critical of fundamentalism.

Rev. BRAXTON: I must say as a theologian it is laughable to me that someone would consider me a fundamentalist. My thinking on Scripture, my support of gay marriage, I mean, you roll it out, there is no way, shape, or form that I am a fundamentalist.

SEVERSON: But Braxton’s evangelical preaching, his focus on Scripture, and his leadership style has made some of the congregation ill at ease.

bradbraxton-post04-solomonglover

DIANA SOLOMON-GLOVER (Member, Riverside Church): What troubles me the most is that I feel the direction of the church with the new leadership is — has strayed or is straying from the mission of the church, which is open, affirming, and inclusive, interracial, interdenominational, and international.

SEVERSON: Diana Solomon-Glover is in the Riverside choir, has a master’s degree in voice, and works with children with special needs. She’s been a member over 20 years and says Riverside is no stranger to controversy and contentiousness.

Ms. SOLOMON-GLOVER: I look at it as a laboratory experiment. This is the place where we find out if people of varying backgrounds and faiths can actually come together and figure out how to be one people.

SEVERSON: But, she says, the experiment does not seem to be working very well. Riverside has long been known for its concern with diversity and social justice. Braxton agrees he may bring a new take on those issues, but pushes back at critics who think he is not committed to the church’s longstanding mission.

Rev. BRAXTON: I just think that’s patently false, and I think as a pastor, though, it’s born, again, out of fear. What I believe we are actually trying to do in our best moments is to suggest that if in fact we are going to be who we are — that is, a Christian congregation — we must take seriously Jesus and Scripture. Those are non-negotiables for Christian congregations.

SEVERSON: It’s not just theological concerns that Braxton faces. Solomon-Glover was among four church members who filed suit over what they alleged was a violation of Riverside’s bylaws. Among their claims was that Braxton’s compensation package included a $250,000 salary, a housing allowance, and other benefits totaling over $600,000. The church says in reality that package is actually closer to $460,000 and is comparable to that of other leaders of large churches in New York City.

Ms. HOULT: The argument has been made by the council that the reason we’re paying so much is because this is what everyone else does, and what I would say is Riverside has never been about doing what everyone else does.

bradbraxton-post01-braxton

Rev. BRAXTON: What my family and I were simply trying to do was to respond to a significant calling and one that had significant burdens and liabilities associated with it, and I think it was sensationalized in a way that’s very unfortunate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (handing Rev. Braxton a bouquet of flowers): We love you so much. We appreciate you.

SEVERSON: There’s no doubt that many members are quite fond of the new senior pastor, and he of them. But the congenial atmosphere apparently does not extend throughout the congregation, and his critics argue there is a substantial voice of dissent.

Ms. SOLOMON-GLOVER: Those who look at us as dissenters would like to believe that we are small in number. But there are a lot of people who have left the church because of what’s going on in the church, and there are a lot of people who have watched others of us be marginalized and who are sort of in the shadows.

Ms. HOULT: What’s happening right now at Riverside is contentious, hateful. You know, not only do we go and get called names, but we get screamed at by groups of people out of control. There’s no effort by Dr. Braxton to rein it in.

SEVERSON: In a recent Sunday sermon entitled “Speaking in Tongues,” Dr. Braxton appeared to be calling out his detractors on what he called fearful and mean tongues.

Rev. BRAXTON (preaching to congregation): Some days we speak in merciful tongues, other days in mean tongues. We all speak in tongues, and we all one day will have to give an account to God for the kind of tongues we used when dealing with other people.

SEVERSON: The one area of agreement we found among most everyone we spoke with is there is still a lot of healing to be done on both sides. Dr. Braxton says he is hopeful.

Rev. BRAXTON: Amid all of the rancor, much of which has been directed to me, I think unfairly, you keep loving, you keep preaching, you keep teaching, you keep serving, and after awhile maybe some of that fear will dissipate.

SEVERSON: While Dr. Braxton keeps preaching, it is still unclear where Riverside will go from here. Both he and his divided congregation share a hope that the church will continue to stand out, not just as the tallest church in the US, but as a beacon for mainline Protestants everywhere.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in New York.

  • Audrey

    I did not see the entire interview, nor have I had a chance to read other comments. However, based on what I saw in the clips of Dr. Braxton’s sermons, I would suggest to this talented preacher that he focus his sermons on biblical messages. He is versed in scripture and should serve to nourish his congregation; teaching scripture, enlightenment and the like. These comments about fear and responding to division within his church are topics better suited for an all-members meeting and not Sunday morning service.

    Church is for feeding, enlightenment and encouragement. I would not appreciate going to church to listen to responses to conflict within the congregation. For this, I fault the reverend and suggest that he stays on course and on message as it pertains to teaching the word of God from the pulpit.

    Warm regards,
    Audrey

  • Elijah Saunders

    I think the culture of TRC and the theology of Dr.Braxton do not mix.The Search Comtg did a poor job in making this selection.Now,they will have to live with it,at great cost.

  • Sean Esterline

    I find it refreshing that Rev. Braxton gladly points out that he’s not a fundamentalist theologian at all. Of course, it’s also a sad commentary on the state of our church-going people today when someone with his liberal theology could even be mistaken for a fundamentalist. (Apparently Ms. Hoult is so far into the liberal camp that someone as liberal as Rev. Braxton looks like a “fundamentalist” in comparison.) Just how far from the Bible do we have to get before we realize that we’ve taken things too far?!?

  • Michele

    I have been a mamber of TRC since 1995. I agree with what Elijah has stated above. I stopped contibuting and attending TRC because Dr. Braxton’s theology and style of preaching at (yes I mean at) people is not what I am used to or what I care to be a part of. It is a sad turn of events because Riverside has been such an important part of my life. I always felt welcomed there. I no longer feel that way. I am hoping that Dr. Braxton leaves at some point in the near future so that our congregation can heal and once again become a more open and inclusive inter-denominational congregation. It is a far cry from that now…..very sad.

  • Nia

    I caught this segment midstream, but it took all of about that time for me to see strong parallels to the same thing happening in my own church. The challenge to a comment that Elijah has said is for a church NOT to feel that “since they’ve made their bed, they have to lie in it.” I do realize that the depth of the concerns at Riverside could not be properly presented in such a short time; that one shouldn’t take the extended interview (where were the questions that prompted the “answers”- it was more of an essay) for face value, either. My church is not as large as Riverside, nor is it as racially diverse (I do realize that as I direct concerned members to this site to watch the video, they will also read the comments, see my name and put it together), but I am seeing long time members leave, whole families dissolved to the point that one to two representatives of these clans exist; I’m hearing frustration. No one -be it individual or within a congregation- should develop and accept a self-defeatist morale; watching a church begin to implode (especially when requests for spiritual help from higher conference levels seem to go ignored)is beyond frustration.

  • Deacon Ernest Norman

    It’s to bad people don’t want to hear the truth! The only way to God is to accept His son Jesus as our personal savior. I know anything about this church but it seems to me they need to let this pastor do what he was called to do (preach and teach God’s holy word). If it takes preaching at the membership, then so be it. I know this pastor will tell you he is not perfect, but the members act as though they are perfect, and can’t be addressed in any manner than what they are use to. They need to get to know who God is, and develope a relationship for themselves with Him.

  • Fr Gary Daniels

    One finds it hard to find where Riverside Church was “a more open and inclusive inter-denominational congregation.” And what theology is preached? It certainly strays from orthodoxy. Tragically, when one preaches as liberal or conservative, we end up with a lack of spiritual growth and an absence of a biblically-based foundation for our Christian walk. Aside from the claims of racism, it is very easy to see how it has become a divided congregation. The theology is divided. Where is the expository preaching and the historical biblical truths – articulated in the rich creeds and confessions?

    A sense of social justice derives from theology and not theology from social justice. Where is the church leadership? St. Paul always spoke in terms of doing things decently in orderly. With all of the brilliance in the credentials of man in the pulpit, we still lack the power of the gospel. That’s what is sad.

    Let us go back to the cross and put the death, burial and resurrection of Christ back into the equation.

    In The Service of Christ I Remain

  • Eugene Pistorese

    Interestingly enough, he could actually be a fundamentalist and not know it. Fundamentalism, not to be confused with the modern-day politicized version, is about belief in seven tenets of the Christian faith, the atoning work of Christ on the cross as the most important, in my view. The idea that one has to be opposed to the state allowing gays to marry is not a tenet of Fundamentalism–only of crackpot-ism.

  • Ally

    I find it very interesting that a Christian congregation would have a problem with a pastor who put emphasis on Jesus and on scripture. Since when is stressing a personal relationship with Christ fundamentalism? These folks have a faulty idea of what fundamentalism is. Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same thing. The terms are not interchangeable. An evangelical can be politically liberal and still focus on the Atonement. He or she can even take a less that literal view of scripture. A fundamentalist believes that the Bible is both infallible and inerrant. There is no room for debate. One can believe that knowing Jesus as Savior and uphold the tenets of Scripture without believing it’s entirely inerrant. That person can still be fervantly evangelical. But biblical inerrancy is essential to fundamentalism. If some members of Riverside are going to throw the word fundamentalism around, they should be sure they even know what the meaning of the word. It appears they do not.

  • Reverend Kenneth Wheeler

    As an African-American pastor in a predominantly white church body I watched this special with interest. What was encouraging was to see an African-American leader at the helm of a large multi-racial congregation but the sadness was reflected in the division that is now evident because in part I think it is difficult for some whites to accept such leadership especially when it is strong, powerful and prophetic. I was struck by the comment of a member who said that people were afraid that Dr, Braxton was going to turn the church black. That comment alone would indicate that here is a church or at least some people within the church who have a problem with identity. I am currently serving in a culturally contextual congregation very similar to Riverside though considerably smaller. I am the first African-American pastor in the 140 year history of this congregation and I have heard very similar comments. My Counsel to Reverend Braxton,
    continue to love the people, preach prophetically and lead with a pastor’s heart.
    The Reverend Kenneth Wheeler

  • MEL

    Three articles on one congregation in one city on the entire planet. Lots attention given to one preacher. How about giving this much attention to how the church fights the pandemic of AIDS through its missionary medical efforts? No, that would mean having to deal with the failure of condoms and the shocking reality of abstinence programs being embraced with gratitude and relief by African and Asian communities. Liberal theology and the media have a nice love affair, but the reality of human suffering is not solved by the “preaching” of the American media.

  • Lucille

    As an African Amercan member of Riverside, I believe the resistance to Dr. Braxton that was expressed throughout this video clip is not based on his theology or on the fact that he is “straying away from Riverside’s mission”. For example, when people are making such claims it he video, they do not give examples. Ms. Glover, for example, does not name any action of Dr. Braxton which works against diversity. The fear that has been expressed is that he will, indeed bring about more diversity in worship and preaching that is the real issue. The “diversity” that most “anti-Braxton” people are against is the integration of other cultural worship expressions than European-American, which is now the case. Perhaps some of the resistance is headed by Ms. Glover (on the tape), and others who are trained in the European classical tradition of music, and who want that tradition to dominate all others (African American, Hispanis, Asian, American white folk/Christian, American youth, Caribbean, Afican). That is selfish and unfair, and not worth going to the courts and the press over.
    Regarding his salary of $250,000 plus various packages, it was announced the same salary was enjoyed by Braxton’s white predecessor Dr. Stiers, and no protest was raised. Dr. Forbes, the black pastor who preceeded Stiers, did not make that type salary, it was announced. Where was the protest over the increase for Stiers? It may be that the real opposition to Braxton has to do with internalized racism and racism, based on the old “curse of Ham” theology that says Black people and culture) should stay in their places. If that is true, the “anti-Braxton” coalition that is in and out of court for this purpose really is the real fundamentalist/conservative wing of Riverside, who may be subconsciously promoting the sentiments of the pro-slavery beliefs plantation theology of the old South.

  • Mimsey

    What in the world??? Riverside was so amazingly blessed to have such a preacher and it squabbles like kindergartners? I have listened online from North Carolina and on Pride Sunday, I thought I had heard the best sermon of my life and I live in Will Willamon country! People, come together! Don’t do this to yourselves. Read the Scriptures, “follow the bandit Jesus.” I would be over the moon if I could attend a church with a pastor like Braxton.

  • chae s. sone

    Riverside Church, New York 9/19/2009

    I and my wife are occasional worshipers at the church for many years. It is very heartwarming and inspirational church, especially. whenever I read the inscription that the Rockefeller family dedicated the church in the memory of their beloved Mother.

    It strongly reminded me that someday our family too could have a blessing to rebuild the church that our grand father of my mother’s side once built in a farming village in the North Korea, in early days of the first generation missionaries came to Korea.

    Some years ago our first daughter had a beautiful wedding at the Riverside church. it was the memorable occasion for our family.

    Now this lovely, honored Riverside church officers seem to have disputes on the operation and went to the court for an advice. The honorable judge wisely advised them to resolve the matter within the congregation which was most proper, according to information. The growth rate of it appears to be not so significant at the age. If the staff members of this size of the historic congregation is lacked such wisdom, it is surely a problematic in faith. Once the news reported that there were also irregularities for the financial management in the church, which appeared to be another lack.

    The loosing ethnic balance is not without distress with an ability to pay the highest salary to the pastor in the world.

    Following the activists’ era, even the White House color is changed. More significantly it is not occupied by the posterity of a slave family but a fatherless son of the first generation temporary immigrant – a remarkable achievement of American dream with a diligent work.

    But the church should be able to maintain its balance along the changing social mood. Sadly she seems to have lost once her highly vociferous inspiring free speeches today. Let her voice to be heard again in a timely manner.

    Now, it is the time for the Riversiders to be retrospective. it needs to rethink Jesus and family, revisit the soft words of each one’s loving mother’s voice as the Rockefeller remembered theirs for a guidance. For the church is based upon the family values. I believe even the Sunday school children would have better ideas for the church’s progress too. Their vision may be in more advanced than their elderly.

    She has enough members and money, may be blind money. But the vision seems to be very foggy for the leadership under the rich rays of Dollar signs.

    Remember each of the Jesus’ disciples had the different personal characteristics from a moderate to the radical ones. However, their harmonious work for the highest goal led the posterity to inherit the faith in Christ to date, even to those who in the Riverside Church.

    Let us pray God’s grace would help the leaders
    find a harmony for better days in good grace for the congregation.

    Chae s. Sone