The Challenger

One of the best sermons I heard the Rev. Marvin McMickle deliver wasn't from the pulpit at Antioch Baptist Church, where he was pastor for 24 years.

Instead, he was on stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, backed up by Antioch's gospel choir and a quartet of musicians, including me on electric bass.

Our appearance was billed as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert, but the audience knew we were having "Church," the kind of spirited service where the music unites the audience and performers because everyone has experienced the songs' stories. When we rocked, they rocked. When we clapped, they joined us.

And when McMickle stepped forward, we quieted down. We expected to hear another talk extolling King's virtues. But he sidestepped the stereotypical musings on The Dream.

Instead, McMickle took us on a virtual tour of the Rock Hall. Starting with James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" and moving from Edwin Starr's "War" to Bob Dylan's and Joan Baez's protest songs, he explained how rock, soul, and rhythm and blues musicians responded to the turmoil of their times. Audience members chuckled as McMickle winked broadly and asked how a preacher knew so much about secular music.

I'd been a member of Antioch for two years, yet I still was surprised at McMickle's talent for crafting eye-opening and entertaining messages. After his talk, I toured the Rock Hall more thoughtfully than before. The day itself became more meaningful. It's an experience I'll remember when he's gone and a fitting image of a man who often challenged my expectations of him as a minister, much like he challenged Cleveland's conscience.

This Christmas, McMickle was scheduled to preach his last sermon as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. He's been named president of the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.

He leaves a legacy as one of the city's most consistent voices on social justice. In 1987, he assumed leadership of a church with a long commitment to activism — Antioch created a credit union in 1945, after returning veterans couldn't get bank mortgages — and took it further. He's headed the NAACP and the Shaker Heights School Board and run for the U.S. House and Senate.

But his real gift has been his ability to challenge and change the status quo. Take his work on HIV and AIDS.

The disease has long impacted the African-American community, but black churches have largely tip-toed around the epidemic's edges. McMickle and Antioch confronted it. In 1999, Antioch launched the country's only church-based African-American AIDS service organization, the AGAPE outreach program. Five years later, the church began training Cleveland students as peer educators on the disease. McMickle has written A Time to Speak: How Black Pastors Can Respond to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. It's one of 14 books to his credit.

McMickle has also been a leader in supporting an increased role for women in the church.

When it comes to supporting their places of worship, African-American women are unparalleled. A 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that they were more likely than any other group to say that religion is very important to them and that they attend a service weekly. Still, it's rare to see women serving as deacons, trustees or preachers. Male ministers speak in the pulpit; female evangelists speak from the floor.

Yet at Antioch's Good Friday service last year, the roles were flipped. Seven women preached sermons from the pulpit based on the last words Jesus spoke while on the cross. The men who introduced them spoke from the floor. The service was vibrant, the pews were packed, and women were leading the worship.

That kind of service doesn't happen often here in Cleveland. It, too, is part of McMickle's legacy.

His departure leaves a lesson for all leaders. Even before Crozer hired him, McMickle had announced his retirement from Antioch because he felt he'd "topped out."

"There's this rule of thumb that says churches tend to attract new members who are 10 years older or 10 years younger than the pastor," McMickle says. "But the church needs an infusion of new and younger families. And the data simply doesn't support the idea that a pastor at 63 is going to have much success at that."

In other words, the church has members who grew up on Etta James and The Temptations. It needs members who grew up on Common and Jill Scott and listen to Chrisette Michele.

McMickle knows it's simply time for him to move on. That's a mindset I'm not used to. I grew up in churches where the minister retired when he got too old to stand on his feet. One minister I knew died in the pulpit. The final thing I've learned from McMickle is that no matter how much you've done, when you've done all you can, don't be afraid to go.

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