ABOVE: Rev. Jasper Williams, Pastor Emeritus of the Salem Missionary Baptist Church of Georgia
The Eulogy for the Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin was painful and disappointing after a week of waiting, and then a week of elegance of preparation and presentation by the Swanson Funeral Home of Detroit, the collaboration of city, state, and federal agencies, the Detroit African American Museum, city wide music directors, musicians, publicists, stylists and the precious Franklin Family.
What a high rising crescendo of preparation. The star- studded A-list performers, the 7-hour program, the private jets, secret service sweeps, the venue of Greater Grace Temple and all of the glorious music that would adorn this event had all Detroiters and the world expecting a service of tribute like no other, and well deserving to our Queen; but the ultimate height and thrill came when the Eulogist was announced – the one and only Rev. Jasper Williams, Pastor Emeritus of the Salem Missionary Baptist Church of Georgia and long-time friend of the Franklin family. He had been the Eulogist for her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin 30 plus years ago, and the cords of time have not erased that phenomenal download of that powerful sermon – “A GOOD SOLDIER.”
We all knew this would surely be an EPIC homiletical moment, with all the bells and whistles of a revivalist’s fire and power, coupled with the compassion and sensitivity of a Pastor of over 50 years. Not only would the family get the comfort they needed for their broken hearts, but the city and the world would see and hear the Black Faith Experience at its finest. Rev. Williams is no stranger to Detroit, so every preacher and “wanna-be preacher” spent a week talking on social media, in churches, on the telephones and through text messages about how he was gonna RIP this, and that we had better be ready, and that this was no novice preacher, and about how he was GONNA show out and preach the Gospel like never before. The expectancy was beyond high. He was gonna show us how to do a eulogy of a Queen. I even heard comments that “Greater Grace will need fire insurance this message will be so hot.”
The primary job of the Preacher-Eulogist is to first comfort the family and talk about Aretha’s life, the gift she was to her family, to all of us, to the community, about her creativity, and yes, about her faith. Secondly, it is to offer Christ as the only way to prepare for our own impending moments of transition. Finally, it is to PREACH a WORD that all will hold onto in the days, months and years to come, by integrating the Gospel message, the life and service of the decedent, and then stirring the faith of the faithful.
But, as I watched the funeral, my heart soared and then was crushed by the cruel, patriarchal politics, insults and inaccurate assessment of Black social injustices and economic disparities offered as a Eulogy.
The Preaching Moment, known as the ‘Kerygma’, begins with some basic rules and guidelines known as the ‘occasion’ or the reason why we are here. You are to understand YOUR role in the midst of this context. There were political figures, social justice leaders and multiple respected voices of activists who brought to the moment the rhetoric we are accustomed to hearing from them. The PREACHER is not expected to repeat their well-known dialogue of social reform unless it ties very nicely back to the Scripture and subject of your message. Know the context, know the audience.
So, didn’t Aretha raise four male men? Why talk about women unable to raise Black men when the deceased is a woman who raised 4 sons? Are they not sitting in front of you grieving their only mother? Did you forget Rev. Williams? And in your explanation after the service, you repeated your concern for the Black man missing in the home and the village, but yet you repeated the possibility that a woman cannot teach a boy to be a man. You justified your inadequacies as a Eulogist, and quoted statistics about the Black community that may be true, and your passion was obvious, but a family that needed comfort, a city, a state, an industry, a world, is yet waiting on the message about Aretha and the text and narrative of that text that will offer Christ and remedy.
I’ve heard too many really good Eulogies across the Black faith experience to know that what was said was not only unnecessary, it was malpractice and ungodly. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong moment, wrong scripture, and wrong sermon. Just wrong, and Williams could not recover even after people began to leave in droves.
This was theological injury, pre-packaged in the same old male centric pulpiteering that has injured women through the ages. The same old boys club back handed political diatribe that is often framed as “Divine or Spirit Given.” But in reality it was foolish, arrogant and cruel.
This Eulogy for the Queen of Soul was embarrassing to all the preachers present and watching from all over the world. At the beginning of his time of preaching, after the song, the expectation was so high, the audience was loud and supportive, saying Amen to almost every word in rhythm and time, almost rehearsed and syncopated. For many male preachers in the audience, Williams was their idol, heralded, they imitated him, and were there to see him rise again on the wings of the articulate, well prepared execution of the Spoken Word, but little by little, the Amens died, and the waves crashed and their hopes dashed. It was painful. His tangents and disconnected sentences had nothing to do with his scripture, nor the subject, nor the grieving family who needed comfort.
What was obvious to me was that these issues are passionate concerns of this preacher and there is no argument that in the right context he would be celebrated for the discourse. It just was NOT the place for his passion or flesh to be seen or heard. It was not a proper Eulogy for Aretha Franklin. It did not provide comfort. It did not speak well of her works, and service, nor her faith. It did not offer Christ to the audience.
The desperate ending of a pitiful whoop, attached to a message that made no sense in the moment, was more than any could bear. As clergy professionals, this is as unspiritual as it gets; to misdiagnosis the situation and to apply the wrong spiritual balm is malpractice and reckless endangerment of the flock.
Stevie Wonder, who was up next, had to come out and clean up the message of Black Lives Matter and love and offer respect back to the Queen. The Clergy Police in PreacherVille should have arrested him within 20 minutes of his opening. Although I am sorry for the Franklin family, I pray that all members of the Gospel Ministry Profession would take note and do not repeat what we saw at Aretha Franklin’s funeral.
This wasn’t just a bad sermon; this was much more than that. We must learn from it, and not be caught in this space while the world watches.