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An unlikely alliance: ADAM Clayton Powell Sr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the seeds of transformation.

new York City, Harlem, to be exact, and the year was 1930. Two strong forces were about to meet, one influencing the other in a transforming and ultimately historical way. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., then the prominent pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, was one of the most powerful African Americans in the nation at that time, but probably did not expect to come into contact with one Deitrich Bonhoeffer, then a Lutheran German visiting on a post-graduate fellowship at nearby Union Theological Seminary. Surely, the fact that the church he led would have a profound effect on someone from the other side of the globe--at least in part creating level of understanding and sensitivity that would lead Bonhoeffer to become a martyr in World War II--could not have been foreseen.

In reflecting upon his book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (2010) Eric Metaxas said: "For the first time Bonhoeffer saw the gospel preached and lived out in obedience to God's commands. He was entirely captivated, and for the rest of his time in New York he was there every Sunday to worship and teach a Sunday School class of boys; he was active in a number of groups in the church..."Bonhoeffer later shared the power the old Negro spirituals had on him and would even teach them to students in his native country. In his online column, "The Report from Washington," (2011) Ellis Washington wrote: "Bonhoeffer returned to Germany by late June 1931, where he was one of the first citizens to begin actively plotting against Hitler and Nazism with other courageous Germans."In 1945, Bonhoeffer was assassinated just before the end of the war.

Much has been written about Bonhoeffer's time in Harlem; yet, the results of that visit deserve further reflection, particularly, the effects of Abyssinian and its then, pastor, the elder Powell (and father of the more famous Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who succeeded his father as pastor before being elected to Congress.) Beyond Bonhoeffer's symbolic act of defiance in attending an African American church in 1930, Bonhoeffer and Powell exemplified what would now be given various labels, including cross-cultural communication and learning, a diversity case study, the difference an ally can make and the power of inclusion. Observers have noted that Bonhoeffer's ability to see and sympathize with "the other" at Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church undoubtedly played a role in his later resistance to Hitler.

"The black Baptist experience not only introduced him to an entirely new form of Christianity, but also provided the possibility for balancing the probable tensions in his own life and his central European Christianity between emotion and reason, between thought and action, between individual and group needs," wrote Ruth Zemer in Union Seminary Quarterly Review. (Summer, 1976) Zemer also noted:
  The life-affirming leitmotifs of black Christianity resounded with an
  emphasis upon the centrality of Jesus Christ and the supportive
  experience of community solidarity. The themes of Christ and
  community were familiar to Bonhoeffer, but novel was the unique,
  passionate exuberance with which they were expressed. Unforgettable
  for Bonhoeffer was the joyful, emotional liberation of Black Baptist
  worship, particularly in its music and audience participation. The
  action-oriented program of Abyssinian Baptist Church also could not
  have escaped Bonhoeffer's attention.

Abyssinian's pastor when Bonhoeffer attended, The Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., was born in May of 1865, the son of an African-Cherokee slave woman and a slave owner who wasP of German descent. Although a delinquent in his youth, Powell accepted Christ as a young man and eventually studied rigorously for the ministry. With Powell's light skin and straight, bushy hair, he could have passed for white, as many others of his era chose to do. Instead, he became an outspoken advocate for black people, with Abyssinian serving as his base. More than a place of rousing sermons and electrifying music, Powell's church during the time of Bonhoeffer's extended visit was an epicenter of community life, including not only Christian study, but educational, recreational, charitable, social and youth activities as well as a free food kitchen and employment service. (Powell, 1949) And although some members did not approve, Powell had an inter-racial church staff and worked to include white people into the life of the church. His goal was to "help all races understand each other better that they may love each other more."


Indeed, in the November 27, 1930 issue of The Watchman Examiner A National Baptist Paper, Powell wrote:
  The duty of the church is to meet the needs of the community whether
  those needs be social, economic or spiritual. It is the bounden duty
  of the church to help men and women to become economically efficient
  as well as to help them become spiritually fervent. It is just as
  much our duty to get men and women good positions during this
  wiemployment depression, as it is to get them into church. A poor man
  out of work will not serve God long. It is not only hard for a very
  rich man to live a Christian, but it is a mighty job for one who
  lives from hand to mouth to follow God.

Long before Bonhoeffer entered the imposing structure of Abyssinian Baptist Church, Powell frequently preached about the importance of social justice. In an address Powell delivered at the National Urban League Conference in Pittsburgh on October 20, 1922, he had expounded a similar message, telling the assembly:
  The purpose of the Christianity of Jesus as revealed in the New
  Testament is to supply men's social as well as his spiritual needs.
  The church is being called upon to give the world a Christianity of
  deeds as well as a Christianity of creeds. Very few people are asking
  any more what the church believes but what is the church doing for
  the amelioration of mankind ... The church which does not go through
  the community relieving hunger, loneliness, oppression, and all
  social injustices will soon be gone and ought to be gone into the
  outer regions of darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of

It could be said that Bonhoeffer was perhaps unknowingly prepared and poised to empathize with the African American people he encountered at Abyssinian even before arriving in Harlem, and then--once exposed to that community--his developing awareness of and sensitivity to oppression soared. In the book, Christ-centered Empathic Resistance, the Influence of Harlem Renaissance Theology on the Incantational Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (2011) author Reggie L. Williams states:
  As a German coming of age during the First World War, Bonhoeffer was
  familiar with post-war suffering, and the shame of having a negative
  assessment assigned to his national identity ... At some level, he
  could empathize with African Americans, as well as Jews of his era
  who had shame attached to their identities ... The experience of
  seeing through others' experiences and contexts provided him
  with the ability to respond with insight to the social, political
  and theological crises that were engulfing Germany upon his return
  home from New York in 1931. Hence, the narrative of Bon-hoeffer's
  time in New York is a story of a transformation. I am using the
  narrative of Bonhoeffer's New York transformation to illustrate
  my claim that the Christian ethics we derive from a hermeneutic
  of Jesus can aid in the struggle against oppression and injustice
  only when we are capable, like Bonhoeffer, of overcoming our
  biases and empathically entering into the situation of another
  with the ability to reflect on the other's experience.

Although Bonhoeffer was not impressed with the theology he was being taught as a post-graduate fellow at Union Theological Seminary, he was eager to take the course, "Ethical Viewpoints in Modern Literature."(Holland 2000) The reading list for that course included James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, W.E.B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folks as well as the collected poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. "This was perhaps the first class in an American seminary to turn to literature as a source for doing applied theology."(Holland) And it was at Union that Bonhoeffer met Albert Franklin Fisher, an African American student, the son of a prominent Baptist preacher from Birmingham, Alabama who became his friend and subsequently introduced Bonhoeffer to Abyssinian and allowed him share teaching a 2:30 p.m. boy's Sunday School class there. (Zemer, 2000) Bonhoeffer admired the excitement of African American worship and related his experience of preaching in a black pulpit, probably at Abyssinian, as exhilarating, telling another friend that the congregation had expressed agreement and support with "Amens" and "Hallelujahs."(Zerner)

"After learning from Powell, (Bonhoeffer) calls others to work against cheap grace in a world come of age because they love Jesus, phrases he hears Powell use in spite of death threats from Fundamentalists during the six months he attends Abyssinian Baptist Church with Union Seminary classmate Frank Fisher," writes Richard Clingan in Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell, 18651953, (2002). Although Bonhoeffer had favored Fundamentalism as a theology over Liberal or Social Gospel alternatives, his time at Powell's church is what caused him to be influenced by the Social Gospel, Clingan points out.

However, it was Fisher who helped Bonhoeffer discover Harlem life and joined him in discussions about the injustice black people faced in the United States. (Young, 1998) In No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Racism, author Josiah Young retells the story of the two friends attempting to dine at a restaurant. When it became clear that Fisher was not going to be served, the two men walked out. "Both in racist America and in racist Germany, Bonhoeffer's actions have shown that he paid more than lip-service to the claim he made in his first doctoral dissertation: 'the Thou-form is to be defined as the other who places before me a moral decision..."(Young) Indeed, Bonhoeffer was troubled by the treatment of African Americans that he witnessed during his visit, once remarking, "It is a bit unnerving that in a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected."(Flowers 2012)

In Living Faith: Haw Faith Inspires Social Justice, (2007) Curtiss DeYoung notes how Bonhoeffer "eagerly immersed himself in many aspects of the African-American experience of the 1930s."DeYoung states that not only did he and Fisher spend time together in Harlem, but also visited African-American communities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., where they made their way to the prestigious African-American institution, Howard University.

"The German scholar's enthusiasm for African-American culture, the ethos of the Black church, and its music was not a passing fancy," states Mark Ellingsen in Bonhoeffer, Racism and a Communal Model for Healing. (2001) "Reports from his students in Germany indicate that he sought to have the suffering of American Blacks become known in his homeland and that he taught African-American Gospel music to them."Yet, as Ellingsen notes, Bonhoeffer's experiences and the insight gained from interacting with the African American community goes much deeper and offers some possibilities for the ongoing challenge of race relations in the United States. Bonhoeffer's analysis would suggest that members of different ethnic groups and with different experiences will have different ways of "being" in the world. (Ellingsen) Moreover, as different communities do not understand a common community or view themselves as secular communities they will become more and more isolated and fractured. (Ellingsen) But, Ellingsen says, Bonhoeffer's vision continues to provide hope:
  Bonhoeffer's analysis implies that the Church is in a particularly
  strategic position to help heal America's racial tensions. The
  church, like all communities, can be a place in which we become who
  we are meant to be. And in our largely fragmented contemporary
  situation, it is the one community that, at least in principle, can
  cut across racial lines and so provide opportunities for nurturing
  whole human beings who know and interact with each as beloved Thous.
  In making this proposal. again in the spirit of Martin Luther King,
  Jr., and of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., whom Bonhoeffer regularly heard
  preach at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, I am not naive about
  present realities in the American church. However, is there any other
  American social institution which has as good a chance to create
  opportunities for sharing and mutual understanding among Black and

Throughout history, conflict between groups, particularly Blacks and Whites, is well documented. What is not as well documented are those moments when people and groups come together, often transcending the tensions around them to create alliances and influence that lead to true transformation on many levels. Although the conversations and personal interactions between Powell and Bonhoeffer do not appear to have been documented, the influence the former had on the latter is clear. That influence, that alliance, had a major impact on Bonhoeffer, created a model for personal, cross-cultural growth that led to his later work and efforts to overthrow the Nazi regime and ultimately leaving a legacy of the triumph of the human spirit.

Works Cited Clingan, Ralph Carlin, 2002, Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell, New York Peter Lang Academic Publishers, pp. 1865-953.

DeYoung, Curtiss Paul, 2007, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, pp. 25-47.

Ellingsen, Mark, 2001, "Bonhoeffer, Racism, and a Communal Model for Heathy," Journal of Church & State, 43(2), Spring, pp. 235-49.

Flowers, David D., 2012. "Christ, Community & Christian Ethics: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer," The Website 8r Blog of David D. Flowers, May 4.

Holland, Scott, 2000, "First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin: Bonhoeffer's New York," Cross Currents, 50, fall, pp. 373.

Metaxas, Eric, 2010, "The Authentic Bonhoeffer," Christianity Today 54(7), July, pp. 54. Powell, A. Clayton, 1922, "The Church in Social Work," Delivered at the National Urban League," October 22 (speech).

Powell, A. Clayton, 1930, "The Model Church," The Watchman Examiner, November 27. Washington, Ellis, 2011, "Bonhoeffer in Harlem," The Report from Washington, 18(48), pp. 1517-18.

Williams, Reggie L., 2011, Christ-centered Empathic Resistance, the Influence of Harlem Renaissance Theology on the Incamational Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dissertation Fuller School of Theology.

Zemer, Ruth, 1976, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's American Experiences: People, Letters and Papers from Union Seminary," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 31(4), summer, pp. 261-282.
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Author:Porter, Louis II
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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