September 30th, 2019 3:17 PM
WHAT JESUS WOULD DO: Rev. Walter McCray at the pulpit of Greater Union Baptist Church. The longtime West Side resident calls himself a Gospelizer. McCray has authored numerous books on the African American religious experience. | BONNI McKEOWN/Contributor
Rev. Walter Arthur McCray, a longtime West Sider, terms himself a Gospelizer — someone practicing Jesus' message in Koinonia ("community," like the early Christians). He also teaches the Bible from an African perspective which contradicts European narratives that both black and white people have absorbed for years.
Rev. McCray and his wife, Rev. Thelma Lowe McCray, live in Garfield Park. They married in 1975 and started their publishing ministry, Black Light Fellowship, four years later. The first book was Black Biblical Studies by McCray's scholarly mentor, Charles B. Copher, a theologian from ITC in Georgia.
"The Lord hooked us up," said McCray. "I stood on his scholarly shoulders, but I'm writing as an evangelical, from the pulpit to the people."
His own pioneering two-volume Black Presence in the Bible series has sold over 100,000 copies since its release in 1989. His latest book, I Don't Sexually Abuse Black Females: Black Christian Brothers Affirm Mandate to Sexually Protect our Cultural Sisters, was published in 2018. In all, he's written and published 23 books.
His 2012 book Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-descended Evangelical Identity, addresses white evangelicals on the complete lack of Biblical basis for racism. For African Americans, the powerful liberation story of Moses and the love and justice shown by Jesus are central not only in church, but in culture.
McCray was interviewed two days after his installation, Sept. 8, as pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, 1956 W. Warren Blvd. After years as an itinerant preacher, he first pastored there in the late 1990s through 2002.
McCray was baptized early in life at Hopewell Missionary Baptist, the church of his parents, Magdalene and Sidney McCray. His mentor, Rev. Arthur D. Griffin, was one of the few black ministers brave enough to affiliate with Martin Luther King Jr. during his Chicago efforts for fair housing.
In 1971 as one of 30 students of color out of 800 at Trinity College in Deerfield, McCray led a chapel discussion on scripture and cultural differences.
"I reasoned that if I could show white students and faculty about the black and African people in the Bible and how God dealt with us, that might mitigate racism against black students," he said. "Some received the message, some didn't."
In the 1980s he preached around Chicago about black presence in the Bible. "It was sort of faddish, a good topic for Black History Month. It was tolerated by black people and a few whites who were into black things."
His research pinpoints Bible passages describing people having black characteristics such as "hair like wool" or who belonged to tribes based in Africa. Conclusion: contrary to the Euro-centric pictures hanging in many churches, Bible figures such as Noah, Moses and Jesus were black in color or based in Africa.
McCray has spoken at St. Sabina on Chicago's South Side — where a black portrait of Jesus dominates the front of the church — and at churches from Baton Rouge and New Orleans to England and Africa. Rarely, he said, has his research been factually challenged, but "there's still a whole world out there" still to inform about black Biblical identity.
His works exhort his community to rise up in liberation under the Gospel. "Black people have a love-hate relationship toward ourselves and the white community. Sometimes our people rail against God for cursing us with slavery and abuse, feeling like we've had enough crosses to bear."
Pastoring in the poverty-stricken rural black community of Pembroke, Illinois, he preached a sermon about Jesus on the Cross. He felt the Holy Spirit was also helping him define his cross.
"My cross," he discerned, "is to be authentically black and of Christ. You could go along and get along, but no, I'm gonna be pro-black."
"Some of life's suffering is natural," he said, "the body wears down. Some happens because you're disobedient. Some of it comes because you're in an ethnic group that some others don't like. But when you're doing what Jesus wants and you're obedient and suffer for it, that's your cross. There's value in suffering that leads to transformation and glorification.
"God gives you grace," he added. "God is faithful. Even if God tests you, God gives you grace to endure and not be crushed by your burden."
Today, he's drawn to address white evangelicals who support Trump's racism. "They have a perverted view of scripture. A lot of white young people are seeing those lies and leaving the church. Seeing the African/black people's presence in the Bible might help change minds."
Changing minds is never easy, but the McCrays have also faced economic obstacles. Recent recessions took their commercial buildings and almost their house. In the 1990s the mob painted a death symbol on their bookstore at Paulina and Adams: "They wanted the building, and didn't want nobody there talking about a Black Light Fellowship." The McCrays had to move publishing operations back into their basement.
"We don't really know how many of our books have been sold because some are bootlegged," he said. "Used and new copies are being sold on Amazon prime. I've protested. It's an injustice to deprive any author of an honest living. Right now, we've got more debt than we'd like. But the Lord gives me peace. He says, 'Don't worry, brother; the word's getting out."
Thelma has supplemented the publishing with her Department of Human Services job, and McCray took on guest preaching and 2010 census work. Not depending on any one income source has allowed the McCrays to write and publish independently. During a prosperous time, they donated to help employees pay their bills.
"I think God really will bless people who give to others. Prosperity gospel is a problem when it's centered on the individual — what can I do, what can I get, how it benefits me. We need to seek prosperity on behalf of the group. If God blesses you, you'll use it to bless others who have needs."
At Greater Union Baptist, he plans to partner with secular groups serving youth and returning prisoners, to meet their spiritual needs. The church had guest preachers for two years, and felt the need for a shepherd to personally tend to its small, scattered, aging flock, he said.
"I've had the growing sense of taking a group of people somewhere God wants us to go. We all have an ideal church in our minds, filled with growing young families, but our only church is whoever is in front of us. We have a good Sunday service (about 40 attending) and good Bible studies, Wednesday; it's happening. If we minister to these faithful older saints, God will take up the slack. Like Barnabas and Paul, God sends workers for the harvest of souls."
McCray has been president since 1999 of the Chicago-based National Black Evangelical Association, which formed in 1963 to promote Biblical and cultural integrity. Ahead he sees more preaching, pastoring, publishing and speaking as a servant of Church and community.
Find the McCrays at www.blacklightfellowship.com.