Scott Black Johnston: Cleo LaRue
Last Sunday, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church welcomed back to its pulpit the Rev. Dr. Cleophus LaRue.
Dr. LaRue has written seven books and numerous articles on preaching and currently holds the Francis Landey Patton Professorship of Homiletics at Princeton Seminary. He is America's foremost expert on African American preaching and an honest-to-goodness "stem-winder" in the pulpit.
Cleo is also my dear friend.
I have known this fine pastor for 25 years. We have been through a lot together. I first met Cleo in a PhD seminar at Princeton Seminary. Cleo had already served two churches in Texas and worked with the legendary Dr. Gardner Taylor here in New York.
I was in awe of his wisdom and experience. I was new to doctoral work, had never served a church before, and like so many 20-somethings, I was eager to prove myself.
During these early days, Cleo and I had a running debate that went like this: I would ask, "Cleo, do you think I am capable of teaching black students how to preach?" Cleo would respond, "Yes, but I can do it better." "Oh, really!" I would reply, and we were off and running.
Eventually, I figured out that my friend was teaching me an important lesson about context. He was arguing that he knew the context of certain students better than I did, and because of that, it made him a better instructor for those students.
It wasn't until a few years later that I really understood his point. This time, I was sitting with Cleo in the office of the senior pastor of an African American church in Austin, Texas. It was Martin Luther King weekend, and Cleo was going to be preaching in a few minutes. As we sat there, I looked around and remarked on the odd fact that there were no windows in the pastor's office.
Cleo smiled. Then he taught me again.
"Scott," he said, "during Jim Crow and throughout the Civil Rights movement, black pastors were looked upon as leaders who might have influence over their communities. If you want to intimidate a community, you had best start by intimidating its leaders. So it was not uncommon for a brick to come smashing through a sanctuary window, or for someone to drive by and aim a shotgun blast at a church. A lot of congregations decided it was safer if the pastor's office did not have any windows."
My friend Cleo never scolded me, never made me feel ashamed at my ignorance. In his gracious way, for 25 years, he has taught me and held me to a higher standard for what it means to preach the gospel in a complicated and not always very nice world.