Former head of NAACP issues a call for grace from Johnson Chapel pulpit at Amherst College

  • Johnson Chapel, Amherst College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 08, 2018

AMHERST — With rhetoric from the White House casting aspersions on immigrants and minorities, the United States is facing a dangerous and peculiar era, says the former president and CEO of the NAACP.

“We find ourselves this afternoon in the midst of a morally perilous time in the history of our nation,” the Rev. Cornell William Brooks said Sunday during a sermon at an African-American Christian worship service on the Amherst College campus.

But even significant challenges, Brooks said, including those identified by the Black Lives Matter and the “Me Too” movements, can be overcome through love and grace.

“This is not a time to engage in biblical nostalgia, to talk about what happened way back when,” said Brooks, who led the NAACP from 2014 to 2017.

The worship service, held in the tradition of the African-American experience, was one of a series at Johnson Chapel. They have been held periodically on campus since 1994. In 2003, the series was named after Hermenia T. Gardner, the retired college affirmative action officer.

During Sunday’s service, there were readings from the Bible, musical performances by the Remnant Worship Team and neighbor-to-neighbor greetings with hugs and handshakes.

Brooks is an ordained minister at the Boston University School of Theology, where he is a visiting professor of social ethics, law and justice movements. In his “For Such a Time as Now” talk, Brooks referenced a reading from Esther, a book in the Bible’s Old Testament, comparing the Jews after their time of exile to the way African-Americans, immigrants and others lead what he said continues to be a post-exile existence.

“We find people whose traditions aren’t honored and whose cultures are not respected,” Brooks said.

Brooks also noted that this is the Twitter age of civil rights, and that many wonder whether God will show up for people.

But he expressed confidence in seeing around 100 people in the chapel, and praised those who performed.

“We find ourselves on this Sabbath day honoring the African-American worship tradition,” Brooks said.

Norm Jones, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the college, said having Brooks as the main speaker at the service was important because he tells the truth, is unflappable and helps to inspire others.

“If ever we need inspiration, it’s now,” Jones said.​​​​​​

At each of the worship services, an offertory is made to an organization. Sunday’s will go to Amherst Regional High School and to A Better Chance Amherst, the home on North Prospect Street that houses children of color who come from educationally underserved communities, typically urban areas.

The Rev. Thomas Synan, pastor at Grace Episcopal Church, said the ABC program transforms lives and generations of students.

He also offered a blessing to schools, colleges and universities in the face of recent school violence.

“Keep all schools safe,” Synan said. “Children are meant to come home from school.”

JoDeanne Francis, associate adviser for black campus ministries, was passionate in her appeal to have God pour love and healing on everyone.

“We need your joy, we need your love, we need your peace,” Francis said.

The two-hour service concluded with a fellowship dinner and soul food reception at Valentine Hall.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com