NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a man Newsweek magazine once named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English speaking world: the senior minister of the Riverside Church, Reverend James Forbes.
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It's Sunday morning and the voice of Reverend James Forbes is filling up Riverside Church. What's the key behind his inspiring sermons? Is it his beautiful voice? The wealth of knowledge from years of study? His childhood growing up as the son of a preacher?
Would you believe, a chair?
“I will sit in this chair with the intention of being in a meditative mood, and about an hour later I will wake up,” he says.
After a nap in a chair he calls “The Hand of God,” Reverend Forbes is ready to write.
And when you're looking for a little hope and inspiration in the world, that prized piece of New York real estate - a little outdoor space - never hurts.
"Sometimes in order to get in touch with that hope you have to remove yourself from the cacophony of the traffic and the internecine warfare that often takes place in the city and sometimes even in church," he says.
The view atop Riverside Church has inspired Reverend Forbes since he became the church's spiritual leader in 1989. The view inside is rather special too.
“Architecture I think helps, but then the experiences which have taken place here, it’s almost as if every intense experience leaves a residue of grace behind it," he says. "If you were here when Nelson Mandela was first released from prison and he marched down this aisle, when he leaves he doesn't take all of himself or the special quality of that moment. Dr. [Martin Luther] King gave his famous speech ÎA Time To Break Silence’ from right there in the center of that nave. I think that we would say the walls seem to become the repository of sacred moments.”
Reverend Forbes is 65. He and his wife Betty have one grown son. When he was named senior minister in 1989, he became the first African-American to lead Riverside Church, which he describes as a multi-racial, interdenominational, international church.
I asked him if he had to sacrifice anything to become Riverside's leader.
“The truth is, I enjoyed the good old days, but most of my life was lived within a Christian community,” he says. “When it was a black Christian community we had our way, our culture, but I was called to participate in the creation of a new world in which race and religion did not serve as a barrier between people, and I am happy for the choice. But people need to know, as I think most people understand, that when you commit yourself to inclusiveness, there are the inconveniences in the inclusiveness. You give up some of the naturalness of your own accustomed ways to explore together what the new ways would be.”
Newsweek magazine once recognized James Forbes as one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English speaking world. And yet this son of a preacher came close to becoming a doctor.
“I did not like that my father had to work so hard to make a decent living, and I thought if you want to make some money, don't go into the ministry - that's not the way to go," he says.
And he did not exactly embrace how the community held the preacher up as a paragon of virtue.
“I knew that being a preacher meant that you're in the limelight,” he says. “It was not always glory - sometimes it could get kind of gory dealing with the problems of trying to represent high ideals and also to help people. So I thought I'd try to escape from that. I wanted a life that was freer and more remunerative."
Forbes studied chemistry at Howard University. He worked at a hospital and went to church, torn between pursuing medicine and the ministry.
“I went home and played my music - Tchaikovsky Symphony Number 4 in F-minor - and I was beginning to feel pretty good that the tension was relaxed a little bit,” he says. “Then the music said, ÎDa-da-da-da-da,’ and I thought I heard, ÎJim Forbes, don't you know I have called you? Jim Forbes, don't you know I have called you?’"
That calling may have resolved his internal dilemma. The greatest external issue in his life? Growing up in the Jim Crow south.
Forbes says his most painful moment came in 1961 when he joined the sit-in movement to desegregate lunch counters. A white woman sitting next to him got up and ran out of the store. Forbes went home and wrote down his feelings.
“So horrible was that moment that I too should have run away, for prejudice has the odor of a dying beast,” he says. “Whether rapist or racist, both fall in the savage class, and the greatest theft of all is to rob one's right to be."
Forbes came to New York to study at the Union Theological Seminary. He learned in class, and on the street too.
“As you lived in New York you discovered that New York is not like the South - a white section of town or in a black section of town - that New York did its segregation in fancy patterns. And we discovered that there are barriers," he says.
After some three decades of teaching and preaching, Forbes was called to Riverside's pulpit in 1989. The church had long had a reputation for activism, a stage for a wide variety of voices to be heard. Forbes has carried on that tradition.
It's a time now when politicians often discuss their religious views in the public sector.
“I'm always glad for a person to say the reason I vote for humanitarian policies is because my religion urges me to do so. That's fine,” he says. “On the other hand, if somebody says my religion urges me to get rid of everybody that is not like me, I wouldn't like that. So basically, let's do it this way. Let's when we're talking in the public square, let's let religion be a more implicit aspect - rather than explicit - if I'm a politician."
And Forbes has a rather unusual perspective about the current debate over intelligent design, as a man who studied religion and science.
“I don't think the Bible ever wanted itself to be used as a scientific description of how things happened,” he says. “On the other hand, if you're going to do science, I think we need to recognize that science itself also requires a certain faith, because many of the things that we're talking about are part of theories.”
And Forbes has never shied away from taking a public stand on political issues.
“This year America is in real trouble because in some way we have come to a point at which there is a fairly serious class conflict moving between the have and have nots," he says.
Politicians may often come to Riverside, but Forbes says he's never had the urge to get into the political arena himself. He's serene in the decision he made, or was made for him, all those years ago.
“The hound of Heaven, my destiny, caught up with me and I have not regretted one day that I decided to say yes to what I thought God wanted me to do with my life,” he says.
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: