Forbes, James A., Jr.
James A. Forbes Jr.
As senior minister of the historic Riverside Church in New York City for nearly two decades, the Reverend James A. Forbes Jr. could not shy away from controversy—it is simply part of the job description. Throughout the church's progressive history, its leaders have used the pulpit as a national platform for advocating social justice and civil rights. Forbes continued that tradition during his tenure, speaking out as a vocal critic of President George W. Bush and as a proponent of gay marriage. Nevertheless, Forbes's greatest challenge would prove to be dissent within his own congregation over his financial leadership of the church's sizable endowment and his Pentecostal-influenced style of preaching—divisions that finally caused him to step down in 2007 from one of the most prestigious positions in the contemporary religious and political arena.
Valued Church and Community
James Alexander Forbes Jr. was born on September 6, 1935, in Burgaw, North Carolina, one of eight children. His parents, James A. Forbes Sr. and Mabel Clemons Forbes, were both deeply religious, and they raised their children in the traditions of the black Pentecostal church. The elder Forbes supported his large family by working as a candy salesman while serving as pastor of the Providence United Holy Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they lived together in a three-bedroom apartment on Bloodworth Street. Mabel Forbes worked as a domestic for a white family on the opposite side of town. As a child, the junior Forbes attended Sunday school and sang in the choir at his father's church.
Forbes's family life centered around the church, and he and his brothers and sisters were brought up to value community and, most important, service to the community. In an interview with Bill Moyers for PBS, Forbes recalled, "Church was the center of your social life. Church was the place where you developed your talent. This was the life. And every major holiday, there was a church festival, a convention, somewhere or another, designed to keep you out of mischief. But also, to keep you in a context where the values of the church, and your associates, were all of a common mind about what righteousness looks like, and what holiness looks like."
In 1953 Forbes left his community in Raleigh to study at Howard University in Washington, DC. Initially, he intended to become a doctor, believing that a career in medicine would allow him to combine his love of science with his love of people. By his junior year of college, however, Forbes was beginning to doubt his choice, feeling that he was being called in a more spiritual direction. As he questioned his life's purpose, Forbes told Moyers that he remembered thinking, "I think God wants me to be a healer but a healer of a different sort. Healing body, mind and spirit. Healing individuals and maybe healing in the culture as well." From that moment, Forbes knew that he would dedicate himself to the church.
Began a Life of Faith
Forbes finished his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1957, then returned to North Carolina to contemplate his path. He wished to attend the Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, but was turned down because of his race. Instead, he enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City—across the street from Riverside Church—where he earned a master of divinity degree.
At a Glance …
Born on September 6, 1935, in Burgaw, NC; son of James A. Forbes Sr. (a minister and candy salesman) and Mabel Clemons Forbes; married Bettye Franks Forbes; children: James A. Forbes III. Religion: Pentecostal Baptist. Education: Howard University, BS, chemistry, 1957; Union Theological Seminary, MDiv, 1962; Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, DMin, 1975.
Career: Holy Trinity Church, pastor, 1960-65; St. Paul's Holy Church, pastor, 1960-69; St. John's United Holy Church of America, pastor, 1965-73; Virginia Union University, campus minister, 1968-70; Union Theological Seminary, Brown and Sockman Associate Professor of Preaching, 1976-85, Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching, 1985-89; Riverside Church, senior minister, 1989-2007, senior minister emeritus, 2007—; Healing of the Nations Foundation, founder, 2007.
Memberships: Congress of National Black Churches; Martin Luther King Fellows, past president; Partnership of Faith; board of directors, Bertram M. Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty at Fordham University, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, Interfaith Alliance, Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, Manhattanville College, United Way, and Values Institute of America.
Awards: Earle B. Pleasant Clergy of the Year Award, Religion in American Life, 2000; Unitas Distinguished Alumni Award, Union Theological Seminary, 2001; Distinguished Service Medal, Teachers College of Columbia University, 2003; Cronkite Faith and Freedom Award Partnership of Faith, 2004; numerous honorary doctorates from colleges and universities, including Colgate University, DePauw University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Lehigh University, Princeton University, and Trinity College.
Addresses: Office—c/o Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Dr., New York, NY 10027-5788.
After finishing his degree, Forbes returned, once again, to North Carolina. As the civil rights struggle reached its peak in the racially segregated South, Forbes's brother, David, organized sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counters, where blacks were traditionally denied service. James Forbes participated in those protests. Recalling to Moyers the first time he was able to order a meal at the counter, Forbes said, "When I came into the store and sat down, there was a white woman who had just received her meal. As immediately upon my sitting down, she got up and ran out of the store." He went home and composed the following poem, which appeared in the New York Times on October 12, 2004:
Why did she move when I sat down?
Surely she could not tell so soon that my Saturday bath had worn away,
Or that savage passion had pushed me for a rape.
Perhaps it was the cash she carried in her purse.
She could not risk a theft so early in the month.
And who knows that on tomorrow t'would fall her lot
To drink her coffee from a cup my darkened hands had clutched?
So horrible was that moment, I too should have run away,
For prejudice has the odor of a dying beast.
Whether racist or rapist, both fall into the savage class.
And the greatest theft of all is to rob one's right to be.
Forbes began his career in the church as pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He went on to minister at St. Paul's Holy Church in Roxboro, North Carolina, and at St. John's United Holy Church of America in Richmond, Virginia, while completing a doctor of ministry degree at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. In 1976 he returned to New York to take a position at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary, where he taught homiletics (the art of preaching) for thirteen years.
Took the National Pulpit
By 1989 Forbes had developed a reputation as an inspiring preacher and a sought-after lecturer. That year, he was selected from more than two hundred applicants to become senior minister of the well-known Riverside Church in New York, replacing the outgoing William Sloane Coffin. Only the fifth senior minister in the church's nearly sixty-year history, Forbes was also its first African-American leader.
The Riverside Church, located at the intersection of Morningstar Heights and Harlem on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was established in 1930 with the support of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Today, it is an interdenominational, interracial, and international church affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ. Long known for its commitment to progressive causes, Riverside was described by the New York Times in 2008 as "a stronghold of activism and political debate," with its pulpit considered one of the most "influential on the nation's religious and political landscapes."
As senior minister of Riverside Church, Forbes became one of the leading voices in American religion, known as a "preacher's preacher" for his charismatic style. In 1993 Ebony magazine named him one of the nation's greatest black preachers, and in 1996 Newsweek recognized him as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.
Like his predecessors, Forbes did not shy away from the political fray. He welcomed gays and lesbians into the church and spoke out in support of gay marriage, setting himself apart from most other black clergy. During the 2004 presidential election, he openly criticized the policies of the Bush administration and promoted the candidacy of John Kerry, delivering an important address at the Democratic National Convention that year.
Brought Down by Internal Conflict
Despite his record of activism, Forbes's tenure as senior minister was marked by internal conflict almost from the beginning. In 1992 the congregation divided over Forbes's leadership and manner of preaching. Some parishioners objected to his lengthy and interactive sermons, a hallmark of the oral tradition of the black Pentecostal church in which Forbes was raised. Others cited declining attendance and donations, noting that many white members had left the congregation, turned off by what they perceived as Forbes's fundamentalism. Still others were dismayed when Forbes attempted to fire the church's number-two man, the Reverend David Dyson, without consulting the church council. The situation became so heated that a professional mediator was called in to help resolve the disputes.
In 2002, once again, a group of parishioners questioned Forbes's leadership, this time charging mismanagement of church funds. Critics, led by longtime parishioner and former budget committee chair George Bynoe, claimed that Forbes had taken money from the church's endowment to finance operations and that his administration "[did] not follow, deliberately and with malicious intent, proper church governance," the New York Times reported. After a court-appointed receiver examined the church's accounts and found no evidence of wrongdoing, the case was dismissed. Nonetheless, several vocal opponents within the congregation continued to challenge Forbes.
Divisions within the church, it seemed, could not be healed. In September of 2006 Forbes announced that he would step down the next year as senior minister—after eighteen years of service—citing a desire to start a new ministry "aimed at maximizing the witness for spiritual revitalization," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. Forbes retired from Riverside on June 1, 2007, though he retained the title of senior minister emeritus. Later that year he established the Healing of the Nations Foundation, which is dedicated to the "spiritual revitalization and healing of our country," according to the organization's Web site, and hosted the program The Time Is Now on Air America Radio.
New York Times, February 6, 1989; May 18, 1992; July 21, 2002; October 12, 2004; September 18, 2006; August 4, 2008.
Healing of the Nations Foundation, http://www.healingofthenations.com (accessed August 25, 2008)
James A. Forbes Jr., interview by Bill Moyers, NOW with Bill Moyers, PBS, December 26, 2003, http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript248_full.html (accessed August 25, 2008).
"Senior Minister Emeritus," Riverside Church, http://www.theriversidechurchny.org/about/?minister-emeritus (accessed August 25, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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