Q&A with Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III
Known as the jazz-influenced Pastor with a hip-hop vibe, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III is the Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s south side. Nearly six years ago, the young Pastor accepted his assignment to succeed the fiery Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright in the former church home to Oprah Winfrey and then-Senator Barack Obama.
Whether preaching one of the three Sunday services or sharing the mic with church member and rapper, Common, Moss’s core message is love and justice.
“Love without justice is nothing but sentimental and justice without love can become naked brutally,” Pastor Moss explains to JET. “When married together they produce twins by the name of liberation and transformation. You must have love in everything you do rooted in Christ and it must demonstrate through actions. We believe the cross is horizontal and vertical. If all you have is vertical praise and no horizontal outreach and commitment,you have a stick and not a cross.”
Recently, the author and second generational Pastor talked about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio with parents who were active in the Civil Rights movements. He explains how that helped shape his theology. Check out our one-on-one with this man of God.
JET: When did you know you were called to the ministry?
Pastor Otis Moss: “I was 19 and part of the Morehouse College track and field team. My call came while I was literally running. I called my girlfriend, Monica who is now my wife, and told her that I was called to the ministry. I struggled with the call. It was very clear that God said ‘stop running in circles.’”
JET: How long did it take you to walk in your calling?
OM: “I was planning after graduation to do Ph.D. work and still figure out how I could do Ph.D. work and film. So I gave up the film piece and went directly to the theology at Yale and focused on (theology, ethics and culture). Once I left Yale and went to University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology, I worked with Professor Vincent Harding—a close associate of Dr. King, who was my mentor and a historian. I got a job in Denver at New Hope Baptist Church as a youth pastor that put me on the path of accepting ministry completely and not trying to wiggle out of what I wanted to do.”
JET: How did growing up with a father involved in the fight for civil rights impact your life?
OM: “It had a huge impact on me. I grew up believing it was the call of the church to make an impact in the immediate community and in the world. I also grew up thinking most churches were highly into the community and politically active. It wasn’t until I got to college and realized that there were some churches that didn’t engage at all and was a part of their theology. There were other churches that didn’t have any concept of prophetic ministry—they thought prophetic ministry was telling the future versus speaking truth to power. That was a shocker to me growing up knowing Andrew Young, John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, Daddy King and Wyatt T. Walker. Every person involved in organizing the Civil Rights movement was part of our extended family and they were connected to the church. I thought it was normal…until I went to college. I assumed the only way you could love Jesus was to demonstrate your love instead of speaking your love. Demonstrate it through how you love those who were the most vulnerable in the community. I did not know there were other concepts in the Black church.”
JET: The modern church looks at prophetic ministry as seeing into the future—how do you define it?
POM: “When you read the prophets—the prophets are not fortune telling or speaking to the future. The prophets are always speaking to God’s people about what God called them to do. Whether you read Jeremiah, Isaiah or Amos—all of them raise one central message— you’ve turned from God, you’ve oppressed the poor and cast aside the widow and mistreated orphans. Amos famously addressed it when he said ‘Let justice roll down and righteousness like a mighty river and a mighty stream.’ That is the traditional role of the prophet is to speak to those in power who turned away from God by hurting those most vulnerable. It was much later when we came to the idea—we are really talking about a western idea roughly around the 18th century saying it’s foretelling the future—the black church picked that up. If you look at the Jewish tradition—they always believed how the prophets told them of how the community was to get back in line with God.”
JET: Was your understanding of prophetic ministry a deciding factor in coming to TUCC?
POM: “Very much so. I grew up with a liberation theology meaning God speaks to those who have their backs against the wall—that’s what Howard Thurman said.
TUCC has been a proponent and premiere institution in speaking about liberation theology. We have to speak for those in South Africa. We have to raise questions about racism, mass incarceration and if the church doesn’t do it—who will? Our greatest prophet produced in the 20th century was Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. There is no other preacher that has the impact. He preached a liberation theology’ that spoke to the issues of the day and deeply related to the bible. He called us to personal and public account…how do we create world and society and community in line with the world of God.”
JET: How would you describe TUCC?
POM: “We are a church committed to Christ, community and culture. We are unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian. We are a church that has the heart of the community and we are forever seeking the community’s heart. If you want a ministry concerned not only about the immediate community but about the global community—come to Trinity. If you are concerned about the major challenges in our neighborhood—Trinity speaks to that. We are a global community and village serving a mighty God.”
JET: Define ‘unashamedly Black’?
POM: “Every race has been given space to celebrate their uniqueness culturally except African Americans. Black people are the only people who have been denied of saying ‘God made us African descent and there is nothing wrong with who we are, our culture or the shape of our nose. God made us who God made us to be.’ Everybody else celebrates it (ethnicity) but us. Others don’t have to say unashamedly because we live in a culture where they don’t have to. If the Irish and the Greek and the Polish are unashamed—why should we be ashamed?
JET: What is the greatest misunderstanding about TUCC?
POM: “Our incredible diversity. We have people who speak 30-40 different languages globally. We are very much a southern style church in terms of our worship and engagement, we are diverse church racially, ethnically and gender wise.”
JET: What are some of your outreach ministries?
POM: “We have about 70 ministries including HIV AIDS. We have a major crisis because we refuse to talk about sex. If we are called to live out the love of Christ then we have to speak to it. These are our sons, daughters, now our mothers and grandmothers taking major medications as a result of sex.
Incarceration is a huge prison ministry—that’s one of our premiere ministries. We do the typical visits and pray with people and bring people to Christ. We also do advocacy through The Next Movement. We are working on removing the stigma or laws that hurt our returning citizen population. If you have been incarcerated for 2 weeks or 2 years—you can no longer get a federal loan to go to school or federal housing must be listed on the job application. That’s discrimination and racism for someone’s access to capital.
Decriminalizing the war on drugs has been one of the biggest attacks on black and brown and has increased our prison population. The only aspect of policing where there is an incentive to arrest more people is interest to war on drug. Every city is given a federal grant and they must continue to arrest more people each year. In order to get that grant again—they must arrest more people and the easiest people to arrest are young men on corner. There is a different way that we view people of color. The job of the church is to dismantle and destroy America’s original sin—racism.”
(Photo Credit: Dawn Stephens)
In other “Giving You the Gospel” news, I’d like to end with condolences for Pastor Shirley Caesar and her family in loss of her sister “GG” who recently passed away. Also, we are sending thoughts and prayers to Kurt Carr and family in loss of his mother, Mrs. Deloris Carr.
About Effie Rolfe
Effie Rolfe is a media consultant, personality and speaker. For years, she was the “voice of inspiration” each Sunday morning and middays on Chicago radio. She also speaks at schools, churches and workshops. Effie writes for several publications and is the author of The K(N)ots Prayer. Visit her Website effierolfe.com; like her on mseffierolfe.com and follow her via @effiedrolfe.