Raleigh greeted us with more than one hundred degrees by the time we stationed ourselves across from Dr. Taylor’s desk. I felt myself ready to sweat from the heat, from the excitement, and from being in the man’s home. He sat with eyes wide and clear while I thanked him for inviting us, for allowing us to come.
He had explained during our first conversation over the phone a week prior that he didn’t do interviews any longer. I told him his conversation would be a gift to me personally–to which he interrupted to say that that was why he’d do it, to give me a gift. I caught myself in that earlier conversation and stumbled over the delight of the man’s immense grace in that act. I said something else about how much the magazine’s audience would gain from his experience. I brought that up again when we sat down in person. He nodded and welcomed us. Then Dr. Taylor accepted my belated birthday gifts, which Dawn helped me bundle in elegant ribbons. “Not belated,” he said. They would be for his next birthday, which made us all smile. “Yes,” I said, “so there just really early.” He opened the first part of the gift, scanned it, and said that he’d look very closely at things later. We launched into our conversation from here.
To the left is a picture Marshall took after our interview. Dr. Taylor was kind and humble enough to stand for this photo, after, I’m sure, we exhausted him with nearly two hours of questions and dialogue. That was at the end of our meeting.
In this post I want to reflect on a few of those things we actually discussed with Dr. Taylor. I will resist the urge to quote him or to tie hard connections to the interview. I want to wait for the printed version to do that. I don’t think I’ll be “over” this conversation for decades so it’s something I plan to come back to. That said, I am able to talk in broad strokes about my reflections of the feelings I had talking with this pastor. I can refer to the four or five areas he discussed without going into much detail before Leadership prints the interview in a few weeks.
There were several memorable areas we covered, not necessarily in the language we used in our conversation.
- Calling. There were several points when Dr. Taylor looked beyond us or through us and to another place and time. He got that way when we first talked of his call to ministry. He told a story that he has before, about a car accident early in his life, when he was a college student. He was moved once again at how God lured him to service. He recalled that tragic moment with gratitude that God would spare him. He was driving his college president’s car on errand, in Louisiana, and because of the accident was responsible for the death of a white man. He knew again, as we sat with him, the haunting moments of waiting in that long ago court room. I sensed his mind go back there as he looked over our shoulders and to that judge, to those lawyers, and to that witness, a white clergyman who God used to testify on his behalf. His life would change after that. His intentions would adjust away from the possibility of practicing law to preaching and leading in congregations.
- Praying. This was another topic that brought tears to Pastor Taylor’s face. He stroked away lines of water when he spoke of God hearing us. He spoke of the difficulty of praying, of his own “trying to pray.” When he talked about “praying in aridity,” I knew God was with us, not that I doubted that tangible sense of the Presence. You’ll have to wait to see a fuller description of that in the printed interview, though it won’t and I can’t express to you the depth of softness and comfort and ease which came as he spoke. It was as if the God he spoke of descended in that study. I do not put that forward lightly. I’ve heard that done before, and my stating this memory is only to give the best language to what really was without fabrication. It was as if our conversation was a prayer, as if the words we were speaking were less to one another and on behalf of a reading public and more in the ears of God.
- Preaching. If you know two things about Gardner Taylor, one of them is that he is undoubtedly among the greatest preachers to have served God’s Church since manuscripts were recorded and since the advent of voice-capturing media. He has been called the dean of Black preachers. He has been labeled among the best preachers of our time by secular sources. He is a preacher, and he has a lot to say about the work to which he dedicated his life. At many points in that exchange I heard myself saying “Amen.” My foot tapped. My eyes rolled from one side of the room to another, looking to see where the rest of the congregation was, as we tracked with this preacher. It was me, Marshall, and Gardner Taylor, but there were many others in that room, too. He was answering questions, being interviewed, but that man was preaching in just about every response. You can’t know the pleasure of that, but I can. It was bliss if you like preaching. I walked away, having come a preacher, wanting to be a preacher. Not a better preacher, not a wiser preacher. Just a preacher. I walked away after redefining what it meant to preach. I walked away hushed and hoping to maintain a gratitude for words so that I could use them in the same service of this man who clearly knew God well. I walked away grateful and thankful to hear him articulate in intimate terms the largeness, the boldness, and the simplicity of our task.
- Age. Dr. Taylor is 93 years old. His face is toward eternity. He told us that he “could almost feel the waters of that river lapping at his feet.” That’s a direct quote, one of the ones I have turned over for eight days. I’ll never forget the distant look in his eyes as he spoke about getting older. He talked of the drawbacks of his own health. He said things through his movements that feel like a mistreatment to mention in a blog. He answered his daughter’s call while we were there, and said that that was what mattered to him. He talked about his proud moments, what he missed as a pastor, where he failed, and how he was currently working with younger leaders and a few churches as they resolved particular conflicts. His life was open to us, and I felt the real strong sense that our tools were too small when pulling from the long list of experiences of the man. He had lived through all those decades. Marshall asked him about his worries, couching the economic woes and all the fears that people have because of them. Marshall said that he, Dr. Taylor, had lived through four or five similar seasons when no one thought progress would return. Dr. Taylor said that the preacher’s role remained during those phases and moments. I felt and feel, even while I recall this, an undeserved honor to have been in that room. I was in his study, and in being there, he allowed me access to all those other moments in his life, moments which formulated his lived truths-turned-answers.
- Discipline. He spoke of sin and temptation. He reintroduced the words of John when he mentioned the lusts with which ministers contended. “Are they the same or different?” I asked him with minimal introduction as he talked of sins we confront. “They are the same,” he said. He mentioned sexual sins and flesh and lust and pride. He was clear and focused. He was talking to me and to leaders like me when he spoke of humanity, of being human and real and authentic and, at the same time, holy. He was critical of prosperity preachers. He was unabashed in his hope that we would be generous and open and liberal with what God gave us for others. He spoke of silence, reading Scripture, solitude, and prayer as disciplines indispensable to the pastor’s life.