Cleveland Pastor Talks About black/Jewish Relations

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Article reprinted with permission from Cleveland Jewish News.

Article originally published May 2, 2008.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., spiritual leader of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, discusses local and national issues.

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr.'s sermons have inspired generations of his congregants.

Q. The high point of black/Jewish relations was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. How does that compare with black/Jewish relations today?

A. The civil rights movement created an opportunity for interfaith, inter-ethnic, interracial cooperation beyond any period in our nation’s history. We are in a different place today in terms of daily communication and actions.

Q. Are you saying then, there is a falling off of those relations?

A. There is communication, but it’s not spotlighted in a way that we saw when Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Arthur Lelyveld marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr., and Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche. There have been some tensions today as well, and more attention is given to the tensions than the dialogue.

Q. What kind of black/Jewish relations exist in Cleveland?

A. There is no consistent week-to-week or month-to-month dialogue. What we do have is dialogue in the business and religious communities and in various organizations.

Q. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Mar-tin Luther King Jr. What part of his “I have a dream” vision has been realized?

A. Forty years ago, the first African-American mayors were elect-ed to major American cities (Carl Stokes in Cleveland and Richard Hatcher in Gary, Ind.) Today we have 10,000 African-American elected officials, with 40 in Congress.

Forty years ago, there was not a single African-American head of an Ivy League university and very few black faculty and staff. Today African-Americans are tenured faculty, deans and presidents at major educational institutions.

Q. What dreams have yet to be realized?

A. We still have major challenges in health disparities, employment and inclusion as well as severe economic challenges and a housing market crisis. (As a nation) we are still tragically tied down in our war in Iraq as we were 40 years ago in Vietnam.

Q. What about affirmative action?

A. Forty years ago, the concept of affirmative action was most promising. Now it’s a national backlash, and the word itself creates political repercussions, causing some to run from it.

Q. Can you comment on the current presidential election?

A. This is one of the most exciting and tension-packed primary races most of us have ever experienced. We have the possibility of electing an African American or a female to the highest office in the land. Each stands on the shoulders of the successes of the civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Q. A controversial issue in the Democratic primary is Barack Obama’s relation-ship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Why are people like Wright and Louis Farrakhan respected in the black community?

A. The African-American community and especially its leadership has never been afraid to communicate (our feelings) or challenge those whom we feel will do us harm. We seek to embrace people even if they speak words we find objectionable.

Q. Comment on your personal relationship with Rev. Wright.

A. I know his total ministry and won’t judge him from one sound bite or sermon taken out of context. For 36 years he has taught at universities and ministered to youth and people caught up in gang life and addiction. He uses language from time to time similar to the language of Amos, Micah, Malachi and John the Baptist. Just as their language in their day met offense and prosecution, when we use that language today it has the same effect.

We all have a responsibility not to search and destroy on the basis of words; we need to search for greater reconciliation and understanding. Martin Luther King (by contrast) used the language of love in every sentence, verb and noun he uttered ... yet he was assassinated.

Q. What advice do you give to your son, Otis Moss III, who took over Rev. Wright’s pulpit?

A. He’s at a stage of life when I go to him for advice!

Q. What is the church’s role in the African-American community?

A. (1) We have a pastoral role helping people establish a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. (2) We have to speak to social, economic and political conditions that impact our lives. (3) We have to keep the dialogue alive that helps to move people from hostility to hope, from strangers to neighbors.

Q. Jews often point to the fact that, like blacks, we, too, were slaves in the land of Egypt. Is that connection also on the radar of African-Americans?

A. Absolutely. The exodus (from slavery) is a part of Jewish history that Africans and African-Americans relate to in a special way. Our sermons and our music are tied to the exodus, as in “Go down Moses … Tell ’ol Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’” When we worked and walked together in the civil rights movement, we retold that narrative.

Q. Israel has been praised for bringing “home” its black coreligionists from Ethiopia. Does that factor into blacks’ perception of Jews?

A. I spent a day observing and communicating with Ethiopian Jews in Israel and came away with lasting impressions. Most (black) people have not had the orientation that I had. So people act out of misinformation, forming opinions without fact, let alone truth.

Q. What is on your own “I have a dream” wish list?

A. We need to reintroduce non-violence as a redeeming instrument for social change and racial, ethnic and international relations. On a more specific level, some years ago, my col-league, Rev. Marvin McMickle, shared a pilgrimage to Africa and Israel with black and Jewish youth.My prayer is that we can reintroduce this kind of cultural, spiritual and teaching experience. And the sooner it takes place, the better.

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