Fran Davis-Harris spoke with FTE Alumnus the Rev. Dr. Forbes (‘61) about his life and work. He shared his thoughts on being the first African American pastor of The Riverside Church. Read on to learn his major influences and how the purchase of three tangerines helped connect him with FTE as a student.

"> 10 Questions with The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes (‘61) | Forum for Theological Exploration

10 Questions with The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes (‘61)

By: Laura Mariko Cheifetz
June 04, 2012

Fran Davis-Harris spoke with FTE Alumnus the Rev. Dr. Forbes about his life and work. He shared his thoughts on being the first African American pastor of The Riverside Church. Read on to learn his major influences and how the purchase of three tangerines helped connect him with FTE as a student.

Quick Facts:
Birthplace Burgaw, NC
Seminary Union Theological Seminary
Current Position President, Healing of the Nations Foundation
Current Reading

Surprising Fact

They call me the “rapping preacher.”


I am called upon to be a radical relationist with a rectifying and a reconciling impulse and that is going to come as I promote spiritual renewal of the nation.


Mother, Father, Bishop Hairston, Martin Luther King Jr., Gardner C. Taylor, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Neibuhr, Marian Wright Edelman, Dorothy Height and Eleanor Roosevelt

1. Tell me about your call to ministry.

I knew sooner that I didn’t want to be a preacher than I knew that I did want to be one. Everyone around me was preaching. My daddy was a preacher. My granddaddy was a preacher. I had aunts and uncles who were also preachers and when I was a little kid they’d stand me on a coffee table, let me gesture like my father and they’d say, “Ah, he’s going to be a preacher just like his daddy.”

I wanted to be a medical doctor because preaching didn’t pay enough and with the little you were paid, they tried to run your life and I didn’t like that. But one day I had a call to ministry. I went to a revival one night and the preacher was preaching on Isaiah chapter six. He got down to the part where Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am undone,” and the preacher described “undone.” He said, “You know, the kids eat a lot of molasses in the country and mama can’t keep biscuits on the table. The kids cried out, ‘Mom we need biscuits.’ She said, ‘You gotta wait. The biscuits are in there but they ain’t done yet.’” The preacher said that there are people like that—and I recognized that he was talking to me. In my effort to be a medical doctor I wasn’t done yet. The Lord had other things in mind for me, so I accepted the call to ministry under protest during my senior year of college. God said, “You can be a healer but it will not be primarily medical. It will be a different kind.” It was not a bad decision.

2. As a leader, what do you value most in ministry and in theological education?

I value every place in which the grace of God can find manifestation. I believe that I have found my place and that’s important. When a person finds his or her place in God’s plan, it is likely the most grace-filled, productive place to be and it will bring your highest satisfaction even though it will also bring challenge, sometimes pain, sometimes repression and sometimes death. The truth is, if you find your place in God’s plan, then that is the place in which you can flourish most. That’s true for ministry and for theological education. Every age has to find its assignment.

3. What was your experience as the first African-American pastor of the Riverside Church?

Well, the answer to that question should come later when I finally write the book entitled, The Dubious Distinction of Being First. This idea of being first and its honor is a wonderful thing, but remember that traditions have gotten accustomed to excluding those who become the first. And just by election or appointment does not erase the conditioned thought and reaction to those who emerge as the first.

It was a wonderful experience to be the first African American pastor of Riverside. I loved that there were preachers from all over the country, especially a large number of Black pastors, at my installation. My going in was not just as Jim Forbes but also as a representation of my tradition, my racial group and even my regional group. However, in being the first you encounter the ingrained patterns of thought and reaction. After I became the first African-American pastor at Riverside, which at the time was 60 percent white and 40 percent black, I had the distinct impression that after the excitement wore off from the installation, some people were saying “Oh my gosh, we have a real Black man. What have we done?” I have some sense that most people got over it, but there continued to be persons for whom it felt like it might have been a disappointment for them to allow a Black man to stand in that post even until the day I left. But that’s the minority. However, the minority can make great havoc in the context of ministry.

How could a man ever complain if in my 18 years (at Riverside) Nelson Mandela who gets out of prison makes his first stop by Riverside and I had the opportunity to preside over that event? I suspect I will not experience an event like that again until I get to heaven or experience Mandela’s last trip to the country.
I had some bitter and I had some sweet and I think both of them continue to help shape what I am now and what I will be. If I live to be a hundred or only ninety-nine years old, I will be significantly impacted by the experience that I had at the Riverside Church.

4. What has been most impactful or challenging in your work as a pastor and educator?

I remember Professor Jim Washington saying that Winston Churchill was asked the question of what had made the most impact in his work as the prime minister. And he said, “Events.”

When you go to work you can steady yourself according to your basic principles, but events have a way of testing, sometimes transforming and even restraining that which is within you. What is most impactful are things that happen on the way to you trying to be faithful to your calling. You have to stop and ask, “What is the relevance of the faith that I have committed myself to?” In addition to events, people and behavior have been impactful in my work. People impact the quality of your ministry in ways that are perplexing, inspiring and empowering.

5. How do you feel about church leadership in today’s climate?

I would characterize today’s climate as a time of the advanced age of secularization where even though we continue to carry on churchy activities, the secular context is more powerful than the spiritual vision that most of us have. There has been the triumph of materialism and conversation about how you can’t serve God and mammon, but in the United States of America mammon, by any stroke of the imagination, has won out in terms of more decisions made on the basis of money in our country than on the basis of love, faith, hope, charity and even the mandate for justice.

In such a time, I think our churches will have to be asking for updated understandings of what it means to be the church and permission to jettison aspects of our past practices that no longer seem to serve in a liberating way. We have to learn to be experts in our dual citizenships. We’re citizens of heaven. How do you do that if you live on the earth where heaven is not calling the shots or dictating the terms of exchange? At this point, I believe that churches will need to participate in the next great awakening. Apart from a great awakening, which I have in mind as a widespread recovery of the energy of faith in religion, a re-establishment of values is also an area of concern. We need to challenge people who say they are of faith to discern how that manifests itself toward transforming our society to a more caring, democratic and respectful arrangement.

Some leaders are convinced that they don’t have the answer and are desperate to have discernment from the spirit about what do we do now. Some people can coast onto the golden sunset without changing a thing, leaving corpses along the way. Others, if they can find the courage, will dare to tell the truth about how it isn’t working like it used to and that God has not abandoned the commitment to justice and righteousness. We probably have to do a whole lot of remedial ecclesiology to figure out how the church can be strong and relevant in these difficult times.

6. What kind of leader would be able to fulfill the mission you just spoke about?

The leadership we need has to involve people who are see-ers and say-ers. And by seeing, I do not intend to talk about what kind of eyeglasses people have on and how well they are doing when they go to their ophthalmologist. I’m talking about spiritual depth of insight—the ability to see in the prophetic sense of that word and see into the heart of things. To be see-ers requires having a critical capacity to read the book of the heart.

We also need say-ers. Say-ers are people who are in touch linguistically with the ways to translate the fruit of their analysis into that which commends itself to rationality as well as to the hearts of people. I want people who have gifts of communication and also that rare gift of enablement where a person through what he or she sees, hears and says imparts energy of action to people. It’s called inspiration, empowerment and enablement.

7. Did your desire to be a doctor before your call to ministry influence the birth of your foundation Healing of the Nations?

As a matter of fact, preaching helped me to understand the kind of healing that I was supposed to be involved in. Upon my retirement from Riverside I asked myself, “What is the focus of my work now?” I came to believe that every human being of life is a leaf on the tree of life and that the leaves through the process of photosynthesis provide food for the plant and give off oxygen as a byproduct, which I view as a healing agent. I wanted to urge people across the country to understand that we are leaves and that each of us has the capacity to kill or to heal, even just by the way we relate to other people. I was proposing that we become a channel of healing grace to others in the oxygen that we produce through photosynthesis. If people would live according to this analysis, we’d actually have enough money to institute universal healthcare for everyone because each of us has more healing power in ourselves than we would imagine.

8. As a 1961 FTE Fellow, how did you come to know about FTE?

Well, this is one of my preaching stories. When I went to Howard University I did not have money. My parents had eight kids and it was hard to keep us all in school, so I had to work hard while attending Howard. I worked beyond what was wise, just to keep a little money, but I ended up with no money at all.

One day I went down to the corner store with one quarter and bought three tangerines. I was going to eat a tangerine for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then head home. I was on the verge of being a college dropout, but I received word that there was a job in the dean’s office. I went down to Dean Snowden’s office, got a job and met Mrs. Bradley. Mrs. Bradley took a liking to me and introduced me to her pastor, which was Shelby Rooks, who was the pastor then of the Lincoln Congregational Church. Shelby talked to me and encouraged me to come to Union Theological Seminary (UTS) for a conference on ministry. I was still broke but came up with a Greyhound bus ticket to UTS and as I got here I was still really quite hard pressed for adequate resources. Shortly thereafter, Shelby Rooks became the president of FTE. I got to know him and later on I applied and managed to be able to finally get out of seminary without leaving the full indebtedness that I might have had to leave behind. That’s my tangerine story.

9. What does being an FTE Fellow mean to you?

I always say, “Guess what folks? I was trained with Rockefeller money, I reported to UTS through my relationship with FTE and I became the pastor of the Rockefeller church, so it looks like I’m all up in the Rockefeller and FTE experience.” Not only did I receive money, but there were programs and opportunities for the exchange about the meaning of theological education and I think it was a kind of enculturation in a spirit of excellence for ministry. You don’t just take the money and do anything. And this is not to suggest any elitism at all unless it is the elitism of excellence in the pursuit of ministry. And that is not a bad kind of elitism.

10. What is your best piece of advice for emerging leaders of the church and the academy?

We live between faithfulness to God and faithfulness to our perceived self-interest for thriving. I think that every leader needs to see if he or she can be conscientious in seeking to believe that faithfulness to the call of God carries with it a prospect of flourishing, feeding family and taking care of needs. There needs to be restoration in the confidence that faith is feasible. You can have a decent quality of life and still be faithful to the call of God.

Emerging leaders also have to believe that while the ways in which God reveals God’s self may not be as hocus-pocus as it was in the so-called “Bible days,” God still communicates with those that are prepared to give the same listening in the midst of meditation, devotion, public worship and service. As stated before, we need a revival of a sense of the reality of spirit. We need a broadened sense of what spirit is. It’s not just 99 verses of Halleluiah, getting a good shout on or getting in five more stanzas to a praise song. We need to know the spirit of the age that Dr. King talked about; the zeitgeist that there is a spirit at work in the world and that same spirit is connected to the spirit inside of ourselves.

Tags...: Inspired Leaders, Innovation in Ministry, Shaping the Future

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