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Linking love and justice with Otis Moss III: Compass 110

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Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III reflects on his upbringing with parents involved in the civil rights movement and his journey towards identifying with the black prophetic and spiritual tradition within the black church. He also dives into everyday disruptions by stressing the importance of intentional, slow connections with God through activities like walks and bike rides in natural places. In the end we’re going to see that linking love and justice combats spiritual demons and positively impacts communities.

Otis is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is a preacher, poet, activist, author and filmmaker with an eye toward justice and equality, as evidenced through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr Moss’s most recent book is “Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times”... it offers some needed insights for our day and age.

Episode Notes

You can follow more musings and appearances from Otis through his website.

And a trailer for Dr. Moss's film: Otis' Dream.

And don't forget to check out his latest book: "Dancing in the Darkness"

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This episode posted on June 2, 2023

Episode Transcript:

Ryan Dunn [00:00:00]:

This is the Compass Podcast, where we disrupt the everyday with glimpses of the divine. My name is Ryan Dunn. Michelle Maldonado is off to Africa. Really looking forward to talking with her about her experiences when she returns. But In the meantime, we have a meaty, deep, soul-stirring episode right now as I got to talk with 1 of those inspirational people that I've admired from afar for quite a while and finally got an opportunity to connect with. That person being Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III. In this episode of Compass, Dr. Moss reflects on his upbringing with parents involved in the civil rights movement and his journeys towards identifying with the black prophetic and spiritual tradition within the black church. He also dives into everyday disruptions by stressing the importance of intentional, slow connections with God through activities like walks and bike rides in natural places. In the end, we're going to see that linking love and justice combat spiritual demons and positively impacts communities. Before we get to the conversation, let me ask a small favor. Leave a rating or review for Compass. It helps us in visibility, especially in connecting with the kinds of guests who bring fresh perspectives to our questions on faith and belief. Thanks so much for that. Now let me tell you a little bit about Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III. Otis is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is a preacher, poet, activist, author, and filmmaker with an eye towards justice and equality as evidenced through the gospel of Jesus. That's his official bio. I like his Twitter bio, which says that he is a jazz-influenced pastor with a hip-hop vibe, saved by Jesus, inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, blessed by Howard Thurman and amazed by August Wilson. Dr. Moss's most recent book is Dancing in the Darkness, Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times. It offers some needed insights for our day and age. And that was our jumping off point for this conversation on the Compass podcast.

Ryan Dunn [00:02:09]:

Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, thank you so much, first of all, for joining us. Love to know how goes it with your soul today.

Otis Moss III [00:02:17]:

Doing well. Thank you for asking and I'm delighted to be with you.

Ryan Dunn [00:02:24]:

Well, well, let's start at the very beginning. You speak within your book in a language that touches on superheroes and comic books and part of every superhero story is the origin story. So can we explore yours a little bit? Like when did you pass from being specifically Otis Moss, the mild mannered preacher, to being Otis Moss, the defeater of inner darkness and worry?

Otis Moss III [00:02:50]:

Well, I appreciate that question, but I guess my origin story really begins with my family narrative and the origin story of the mythology. I would say in and around my family that both of my parents were involved in the civil rights movement. That's where they met. My mother managed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in Atlanta. My father was a lieutenant in SCLC and they met in the movement and impressed upon their children, I being 1 of them, the importance of being deeply committed to your community and being deeply committed to your faith. And so I never understood this idea of denominations and things of that nature growing up. I just thought that there were churches that were committed to changing the world and churches that were living in an insular way that said that they're, you know, of the world, but not from the world or something that I always forget that get the phrasing wrong. Until I went to college, and start seeing them a much more Diverse population of people who saw the world in very different ways from very different traditions. And I was always out of that, what was called the black prophetic, black spiritual tradition within the black church. When you were 12 years old, were you imagining that you were going to grow up to be a preacher? Absolutely not. No. I want to be a filmmaker. That was my, I wanted to be a cinematographer. So I was a lover of all the things film. Everybody in it is very eclectic. George Romero, who did Night of the Living Dead. Right. Akira Kurosawa, who did

Ryan Dunn [00:04:47]:


Otis Moss III [00:04:48]:

7 Samurai. Also none other than Francis Ford Coppola, the Godfather, Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life, Spike Lee, And then another person by the name of Julie Dash, who did Daughters of the Dust and Charles Burnett who did To Sleep With Anger. These were, you know, kind of the superheroes for me. I just loved what they what they did on screen and the ideas that they put forth. So what then led you into ministry? Well, I was in Morehouse College and I was planning to be a cinematographer. I was an athlete, I ran track, thought maybe I would be going toward the Olympic route and all of that. And, you know, that's when I got my call to ministry, but I was not going to be a pastor, I said, maybe I'll do academics, I could be a lawyer. But I'm still trying to pursue this cinematography film aspect more in the vein of, of documentary film. And it was more progressive for me. Over time, it evolved organically, then just 1 particular moment that said you move from film you go into to ministry, I was always trying to merge the 2. Okay.

Ryan Dunn [00:06:05]:

And is that come out in a practical way in your in your ministry now? Yeah, yeah, I'm making movies now.

Otis Moss III [00:06:12]:

So we did a recent film that So far has received 22 awards and film festivals across the nation and even in England entitled Otis's Dream. It is about my grandfather's unsuccessful attempt to vote in 1946 in the Western part of Georgia known as Troop County, Georgia. And it was used in the campaign for Senate, the Senatorial campaign of Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff and has become a very quiet, how should I say it, viral hit throughout the southeastern portion of the United States where churches use this as a motivation and a teaching tool about the importance of voting. Hmm. Do you consider that a kind of preaching for you? Yes. Yes, without a doubt. Yeah. I consider film and sermonic films, documentary films, all a form of preaching.

Ryan Dunn [00:07:15]:

Oh, cool. Well, you've gotten engaged in some authoring and book writing as well. And within your book, you make a line of, if your demons are spiritual, learn to link love and justice. This is where we're gonna get into the theology stuff because so often we come with a preposition or may even hear from voices within the church that would say the thought of, if your demons are spiritual,

Otis Moss III [00:07:46]:

learn to pray more. Or if your demons are spiritual, learn to expel sin from your life. So why do you say if your demons are spiritual, link love and justice? Well, I think that within the American construct and within the church, we have failed to link these 2 together. And I think that love and justice is the heart of the gospel. But love and justice together, love without justice is sentimentality. Justice without love is a legalism or can move into brutality as my father says, but when you merge these 2 together, love and justice always produce children, 1 child named liberation, the other transformation. And that is the core values for our internal development, that we've got to take hold of this radical idea of love and this beautiful idea of justice. That's what the gospel is saying to us. That's the gospel speaking to us. We take hold of those ideals internally. We are then able to create a framework of what we can do externally in our democratic experiment. These are 2 elements that never bump into each other when we're talking policy or politics. We're always pushing these things aside. Love doesn't belong here. And the justice that we conceive of is essentially a form of legalism or a form of retribution. But love makes sure justice is not retribution. And justice makes sure that love is not going to be a sentimental action. So let's merge those things together and transform our democratic experiment.

Ryan Dunn [00:09:40]:

Often we equate justice with punishment, but you seem to be talking about justice in a little different way. Can you help put a working definition on justice for us?

Otis Moss III [00:09:51]:

So justice often is viewed as a form of retribution. Jesus is dealing with distributive justice. The idea, how do I create a world, a society, a kingdom where all human beings can flourish? How do I hold you accountable, but at the same time put you in a position to be restored and redeemed. That's the justice that we're talking about. Not the justice of pure punishment that just simply says, I want revenge for your action. The justice that we're speaking about is a justice that demands that I want you to be better than what you were.

Ryan Dunn [00:10:37]:

Wonderful. All right. Well, you do note that prayer is a part of your life. You also noted that there's this kind of ongoing, well, what we would call in the Methodist tradition, a continuing quest towards perfection or movement towards perfection, but that we may never get there. You wrote that the day may never come when we're done with our spiritual obligations. We're always moving forward. But even things like our phones need updates. Is prayer a part of your personal update? And if so, what does it look like or sound like for you? Absolutely. That, you know, that you should be getting continual updates

Otis Moss III [00:11:18]:

in reference to your spiritual journey through the discipline of prayer. But we operate with a modern definition of prayer that distorts our ability to download. And so this modern definition is just kind of a request, you know, God do, let me tell you, you know, here's my checklist, you know, hook your brother up is essentially what prayer is. This idea of prayer as listening and prayer being silent and prayer opening yourself up, this contemplative aspect is challenging for modern society because modern society wants something material. Give me something now. And it is this evolved, mature aspect of prayer where you might not say anything but just be in silence, where you might listen, where you might repeat not the entire 23rd Psalm or just say the Lord is and don't even get to shepherd yet. The Lord is. And haven't even gotten to my. Is a beautiful way to deepen your spirit and open yourself up to fully breathe before God.

Ryan Dunn [00:12:52]:

So for a practice like that, are you carving out some, I don't know, say some time in the morning where you are just sitting in silence? Oh, absolutely. Just sitting

Otis Moss III [00:13:04]:

in silence before even offering anything before God. Reading with a contemplative ear where each word, and that's the beautiful thing that I love about the contemplative tradition, where you read each word, but you can read it, each word in a very different way, because you can say the Lord is my shepherd, or you can say the Lord is my shepherd. And each word in the manner in which it is spoken since we come out of an oral tradition changes what is spoken to you in the process. This, the 23rd Psalm has been around for such a long time, but yet we don't say, hey, you know, we need to change, we need to get rid of it, we need something new. No, we keep reading it over and over again, and something new comes about, something new comes about in the gospel when we read it over and over again, and the contemplative tradition demands that we do that. This is what happens with Howard Thurman, who comes out of that tradition, where you sit in silence before you speak. You may never speak or you may speak. It's all the beauty of that contemplative tradition.

Ryan Dunn [00:14:26]:

Yeah, it's so counter-cultural because we're conditioned to be looking for results and really looking immediately. You noted that Howard Thurman would sometimes take what, like 2 minutes?

Otis Moss III [00:14:43]:

I mean, it can be, You know, I've, I've heard about him doing something up to like 10 minutes being silent and making everybody uncomfortable and then allowing people to rest in the discomfort and then. All of a sudden something else happens just absolutely, you know, beyond their description in the process.

Ryan Dunn [00:15:03]:

So how do you guard that time then since it does seem kind of counterproductive, at least, you know, how we're accustomed to thinking about productivity, where results are coming back right away, you know, listening does not yield immediate results, Are the ways that you kind of put some boundaries around this time? Yeah, you put boundaries around the time

Otis Moss III [00:15:23]:

when whatever is, you know, functioning best for for for an individual, maybe it's in the morning, the evening, morning, evening are great for me. And then also connection to creation becomes important when it's warm enough when it's not a snowstorm. But taking these walks, and runs, and rides, bike rides, through, you know, an arboretum, a forest, a path, whatever it may be. And then putting the headphones on and hearing someone recite scripture as you are walking is absolutely wondrous, can be extremely powerful, or music in those moments. And it does something to your spirit. It changes everything. It's a slow way of connecting with God versus, as you mentioned, the results-centered way. What results? And farmers are very good at this because they don't ever expect that what they plant is going to show up next week. It's like, this is a slow process. And every morning I get up and I do work, even though the seeds have been planted. Yeah, I make sure things are taken care of. I'm taking the weeds out. I'm ensuring that there is no type of animal that's destroying what has been planted. This slow process. And in the process, things may not come out the way that they are hoping. And I love the way that the farmers usually say this. They said, I don't grow anything. I just put things in position for growth. That's it. Only the earth and only God can do that. I'm just a servant who just stands by and I witness the work. I think that's a great analogy for ministry.

Ryan Dunn [00:17:28]:

Yeah. Well, and for justice seeking as well, because there's a temptation that, you know, we have to be people of action and that's good. Right. I don't, I don't want to dispel that, you know, yes. Do you need to take action, but we can burn out so easily on the other end of it and feeling like, you know, where are the results? Right? Yes, yes, absolutely. So do you find yourself moving then into a rhythm or seasons of action and then contemplation? Are there times when you might spend, I don't know, weeks in the

Otis Moss III [00:18:06]:

contemplative space? So that is a challenging word. Or times in an action oriented space? You know, I don't think it's an exact science of action and inaction. It is, to borrow from the song, waiting in the water and being immersed in the water and then experiencing the rhythms of the water. So for example, in Chicago, 1 of the rhythms that we have been working through is the creation of an office of gun violence prevention. It's never been done in the history of Chicago. The idea to have an office specific to gun violence prevention that is not centered around the police, but is centered on prevention. It's funded in a way that focuses on mental health and education and violence interrupters, and it's incredibly effective. It's not expensive, but we lean into the results oriented, and let me be honest, the police issue really doesn't lead to great results. We have arrest rates that react to after someone is injured, or killed. It's just like, you know, an ambulance, you know, you know, what are your what are your rates of preventing heart attacks? They don't have any. Oh yeah. Yeah.

Ryan Dunn [00:19:37]:

Yeah. They can just say, well, we transported,

Otis Moss III [00:19:39]:

yeah. It's 20 heart attack victims last month, but yeah. That's right. They don't, they don't have that. So we have this weird way of viewing public safety, and it really shouldn't be called public safety, it should be called public health. How do you create healthy communities? And so 1 of the rhythms right now is the creation of this office and fund what we have the office but funding the office appropriately. And then balancing that with the contemplative aspect, the prayer, the silence, the study becomes important in order to be able to communicate effectively to your community. Not only why do we need this, but I know this is something different. This is, these are the results that can come about as doing things in that matter. And I believe that when those 2 things are merged together, you have a sensitivity to be able to communicate effectively with people who are struggling with the vocabulary of what does a healthy community look like? What does safety mean? What is flourishing mean in my community? I don't have the words for it. But I know that I want it. Yeah.

Ryan Dunn [00:21:09]:


Otis Moss III [00:21:10]:

how long has that project been going on? It's been going on for several years. We've been doing that prior to COVID. And we just we got the office now. Now we're attempting to get the city of Chicago to fund it at a minimum of $250 million. And that may sound a lot to the to the to those who are listening. I mean, when you think that just police alone in Chicago is like a billion,

Ryan Dunn [00:21:39]:

it's something insane.

Otis Moss III [00:21:41]:

We just said $250 to prevent instead of just the billion to react. We think that that's money well spent and that's money that would go toward mental health, to social workers, dealing with domestic violence, preparing young families, helping young men and women, what does it mean to to be a parent so you can service and help your your child? It means investing in jobs and it means putting what are called violence interrupters on the ground. Just like you would have a beat cop, we would have beat violence interrupters who are walking the street, building relationships, and all of the data demonstrates it is ridiculously successful. Not just marginally. We're talking ridiculously successful. And that's the only word that I can use because every small sample size that we have are like, wait a minute, we're talking about 50% 60% reductions. So why won't we just engage in the investment?

Ryan Dunn [00:22:54]:

No, you tell a couple great stories and dancing in the darkness, where they are moments of confrontation. But where violence is interrupted. I mean, specifically, you're addressing some protesters and you're worried that this could erupt into something. And yet there's this confrontation that happens that is centered in love that just disarms the whole thing. It's a wonderful witness. And I don't want to, I don't want to reveal it because I think it's, you know, it's worth reading the book to hear those kinds of stories. But in that I do want to get to this idea of cultivating practices of love and peace. And where do you, I don't know, I've moved by where do you creatively come up with these ideas? And as we start talking about people who are wandering the streets to interrupt violence, what does that look like? How do we become people of interruption in that kind of way? I think that we have to become

Otis Moss III [00:24:00]:

listeners. We have to become students. Howard Thurman, every student at Morehouse College where I attended a quote from Howard Thurman was drilled into us, who was a graduate of Morehouse College. He was also 1 of the spiritual mentors of Martin Luther King Jr. Just a tremendous mystic, theologian, contemplative, however you want to define it, philosopher. I mean, he's got all these different categories that people define him by. And the quote that we learned, we had to go to chapel on Tuesday and Thursday. And there's a quote that is engraved into the chapel wall. And also a quote that we would hear from our chaplain, our dean, Dean Lawrence Carter. And the quote was this. God has placed above your head a crown that you will spend the rest of your life growing tall enough to wear. Then the Dean would say to us, I hope tomorrow you will be taller, but you will never wear the crown. That idea, listening to an ancestor, an elder, rested in many of the students who attended. And so the ideas, the creative ideas, or the creative edge, comes from the willingness to be a student who will never wear the crown. It comes from the willingness to listen to ancestral wisdom, elder wisdom, the work of obviously great writers and poets and artists, all of that. But there is a tradition of people who've walked the path that we're currently walking who have some pretty good ideas that we ought to listen to, and that we ought to study, and that we ought to contemplate, and that we ought to engage and ingest and raise the question, what does it mean for us today?

Ryan Dunn [00:26:24]:

I'm curious about how a greater faith community is involved in some of these movements that you've lifted up. Was the church a part of the development of the Office of... Around gun violence? Yes, yes.

Otis Moss III [00:26:45]:

The group is called Live Free. It's a national organization and we're part of Live Free Illinois, specifically the Live Free campaign in Chicago. And it's a wonderful organization, faith-based groups that are focused on violence, reduction, and violence, obliteration in terms of its engagement around with young people. And our church specifically has been involved in a variety of justice-centered actions, because that's part of our DNA, that's part of our culture, that's what we do, it goes hand in hand in our practice and in our worship, that we consider ourselves to be out of the Black prophetic stream of the Black church, of what some call the Black Social Gospel, others call liberation theology, there's a variety of names that you can use, but we're in that stream, and we deeply believe in this work that we do. Very cool.

Ryan Dunn [00:28:04]:

Well, final question I'll throw at you then. In light of some of the work that the church is doing, how might you define church in the world? So you'd given us the statement before about God is, or the Lord is. How might you complete the sentence, the church is? Church is the beautiful, wonderful, the

Otis Moss III [00:28:32]:

beautiful, wonderful, brokenness of community and the songs that broken people bring to the altar. That's church. That if we can bring our brokenness and our songs, When we bring our songs to the altar, with all of the off-key and miscues, a new song is created. And that's church at its best. And that's humanity at its best. And we can bring those collective pieces to the table.

Ryan Dunn [00:29:39]:

All right, we're ready to go and disrupt the cycles of oppression and darkness, right? If you could use a little more inspiration, then check out our special Faith in Action episode from April of 2023. It's a story of some serious disruption. In our episode titled Jubilee Apocalypse and the Politics of Jesus featuring Christian Collins Wynn, it gets pretty deep into disrupting systems of brokenness as well. Again, while you're listening, leave a rating and or review. The Compass Podcast is brought to you by United Methodist Communications. We'll be back with a new episode in 2 weeks. Chat at you then, peace.

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