Preacher invokes angry God in support of truth process
Rev. Herbert Nelson, a powerful orator who presided over St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro for more than a decade, told hundreds of worshipers on June 16 that the city’s truth and reconciliation process belongs to a prophetic Biblical tradition.
Nelson is now the pastor of Liberation Presbyterian Church in Memphis.
The service, held at Genesis Baptist Church, was co-sponsored by the Beloved Community Center, the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project and other groups.
Herbert Nelson framed his sermon around the story of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who according to scripture was shunned by his own people for warning that Israel would be destroyed if the nation did not repent as a society for its sins. Behind him on the pulpit sat Rev. Nelson Johnson, a former member of the Communist Workers Party who survived the 1979 Morningside Massacre and later augmented his Marxist orientation with Christian theology when he attended seminary and founded Faith Community Church.
Like the organizers of the prayer service, whose program stated its purpose as supporting ‘“the first truth and community reconciliation process of its kind in the United States,’” Herbert Nelson elided over distinctions between the survivors of the massacre calling for a public reckoning of the killings and the independent commission charged with drafting an objective report.
‘“In this city there is a unique opportunity to become a prophetic community to confront the death of power-mongering,’” he said. ‘“Preachers who retreat should be called out.’” He added politicians such as Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Council members Claudette Burroughs-White and Dianne Bellamy-Small to his list of leaders who should be pressured to demonstrate support for the truth process.
Herbert Nelson cited the story of how Jeremiah was beaten by one of the priests of the Jewish temple and scorned for speaking out, subtly evoking Nelson Johnson and other survivors of the massacre whose militant civil rights and labor organizing gradually carried them outside the mainstream of the political process.
‘“Do you think after Jeremiah was beaten, there was a long line of people wanting to apply to be prophets?’” he asked. ‘“It has a psychological effect.’”
The sermon built to a thunderous crescendo as Nelson outlined his vision of ‘“old-fashioned Biblical constructive righteousness,’” prompting foot stomping and calls from the pews of, ‘“Preach!’”
‘“Like Jeremiah, we must overcome the fears and challenges of truth telling,’” he said. ‘“God is on your side.’”