Bishop Roy Lee Kossie-Celebrating 50 Years in Ministry
“So you’re writing a “Daddy dissertation?” a professor whom I met at a conference in Tenerife, Spain, teased when I told him my graduate studies focused on African American Pentecostalism. The professor knew my topic had been inspired by my father’s career as a pastor and his many stories about the early Pentecostal movement in the United States and the great stir it created throughout the country.
“A daddy dissertation?” I repeated laughing as I realized he or someone had created an entire “genre” for research like mine. The more I thought about his pronouncement and the obvious degree to which my father’s life and ministry meshed with my own, the more I realized just how important fathers are to their children’s perception of the worlds around them. His Pentecostal worldview, one that he and my mother interpreted together and lovingly so for their family of nine, became my own in ways that continue to inform my personal vision and life choices. Though I have read hundreds of books over my lengthy educational and professional career, one that has carried me to academic settings in the United States and abroad, none has exceeded the impact of the first book he gave to me: the Bible.
I remember vividly the day he transferred this perplexing yet fascinating book from his hands to mine. “Kay, K-a-y!” my second-grade ears perked up as I heard him call out my affectionate name from our two-car garage that doubled as dad’s workshop and prayer closet. As I bolted through the door, my eyes were met with a huge brown book, extended to me from my father’s right arm like a part of himself. “Here,” he added with a smile. I look up grinning at him wondering if I would be able to carry this colossal and unexpected gift. I brought it to my room and began to read the stories there.
I met boys like Joseph, Sampson, Samuel, and David, and young women like Esther and Ruth. The young women’s stories were good, but I preferred the guys’ adventures. They slew giants, killed thousands, and were awarded with power and prestige for their public displays of faith and obedience. Though they came from humble backgrounds, they became kings, prime ministers, and prophets simply because they were chosen by God. Joseph was my favorite; I could certainly relate to his position in the family line as I was number eight of my parents nine children. My affection with Joseph’s character was so pronounced that my mother actually made me a robe of many colors to match the one she imagined Joseph might have had. I so fell in love with this book that I slept with it under my pillow.
Some nights I would be roused from slumber as my father pulled it from my limp hands, placed it on the night table, and turned out the lights during his many midnight home-security checks, the ones he made to ensure the teenagers were all home and the little ones were fast asleep. Waking up with the adventures on my mind, I asked my father if I could take my storybook to school with me, and of course, he agreed. I then asked my second-grade teacher if I could read my stories when I finished my assignments early, and she too acquiesced. Thus began a relationship that I have never been able to shake, one that started when my then 39-year-old father placed a philosophy of life into my then seven-year-old hands.
When I became a teenager, he and my mother gave me an upgraded Bible, the real one full of the stories that had been deleted from my earlier children’s Bible. At this stage, the Bible became a portal to other people, places, and times. It held universal truths and shocking realities about human nature at its zenith and nadir. I bumped into horrific stories about rape and dismemberment, pain and prolonged suffering. The violence set me back. How could people be so cruel to each other? Troubled by the violent sections, I settle in on the Proverbs and Psalms. My musical ear appreciated the poeticism of the Psalms, while my desire to aspire to new heights led me to the proverbs. Because both books contained words of wisdom from a king to his son, I vowed to imbibe as many as I could since according to this book, I was part of a “royal priesthood” and “holy nation.” I would be the head and not the tail, the first and not the last. Whenever I got to that place of prominence, the wisdom and social grace gleaned from the Proverbs would get me through. Regardless of the subject, be it politics, sports, entertainment, nature, health, or a bully down the street, the Book was always there informing the introduction, enriching the body with anecdotes, or providing the conclusion.
Its pervasive presence notwithstanding, the Bible was not the only literature read in our house, although its messages of love, sacrifice, suffering, and hope were essential guideposts for the entire family. As my father was fiercely independent, largely self-educated, and necessarily frugal given his large family and young church, his desks and the shelves in the den were filled with “How-to” books: how to build a cabinet, how to cultivate a garden, how to build a church. My mother mirrored the same appreciation for self-reliance and thrift. She collected recipes, cookbooks, arts and crafts manuals, and magazines articles that detailed more efficient ways to handle one household chore or another. Dad also supplied the family library with Encyclopedia Britannica, Ebony magazine’s Black History series, and gobs of periodical literature including the local newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, my mom’s favorites—Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Ebony, Jet, and Southern Living, and my dad’s—Sports Illustrated (until the covers became to racy to appear in a preacher’s mailbox), Charisma, a host of newsletters from the desks of various national evangelists who rose and fell like shooting stars, and a coverless book on human sexuality that I discovered when I grew tall enough to dust the upper shelves. Now, that too was interesting reading.
The books in our home library were complemented by the hundreds of oral texts my father shared with me as a dad, pastor, in-house prophet, and friend. When I told him my dream to write a book on the African American Pentecostal movement that he described in his sermons over the years, he confessed that God had told him to write a book about his experiences in ministry, but with a large family and a young church, he could hardly find the time. Like any good daddy’s girl, I offered, “Well, dad. I can write the book for you. After all, I am an extension of you.” He smiled as we initiated another phase of our mutual intellectual sharing. His oral texts, lifted from his hand-written preacher’s notes, were archived in his near photographic memory. In fact, the historical narratives he weaved from the pulpit were far richer than those found in the academic literature. It was the sincerity and excitement he expressed that led me to dedicated more than ten years to intense reading and research. In fact, the pages that he did manage to write when just a twenty-seven-year old pastor of an independent church provided just the information I needed to write the last chapter of my dissertation, a project he was more than proud I completed. When I asked him a few years ago to pray for my effort to turn it into a book, he said as he held the tome, “There is more than one book here,” a prophetic statement that has also proven true. As I work even now to transform my dissertation into a book, I have resolved that it contains the seeds of many books, some of which I hope to write.
Just as he has always encouraged me through my many projects, he has also been careful to affirm the dreams of others and the shared humanity of those he met. He provided us with ample opportunities to appreciate and connect with people from throughout the world. While ministers from various ethnic backgrounds visited our congregation, the African Diaspora was particularly well represented at our church, where black male and female missionaries, evangelists, preachers, and teachers from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Americas were welcomed to share their conversations with God from the sacred desk—a huge sturdy pulpit that my father had built with his hands. We listened in as their living epistles unfolded in accented English and sometimes in their native tongues. Even though we did not always have a translator on hand, we trusted the spirit to help us connect intrinsically with the message delivered. During such moments, a shared sense of rhythm and energetic “Hallelujahs” became our common bond.
I especially loved it when dad invited international missionaries
to our home. I paid attention to their demeanors and especially
their diets. I will never forget Mother McCoy’s love for
“Ah-vah-CAH-does,” which she pronounced with a crisp,
clean British Caribbean accent. Regardless of our visitors’
preferences, they were all tempted to break their fasts to enjoy
my dad’s homemade biscuits, barbecue, and barbecue sauce,
whose delectable quality has been approved by an international
array of palates—African, European, and Eurasian alike.
(In fact, my brothers and sisters and I have been waiting for
years for “God” to “release” my father
to market his recipe.)
I appreciated my father’s visitors and the cultural experiences they brought to our house, but it was years before I had the professional background to weigh their perception of themselves against the descriptions of them found in the academic literature. My father and his colleagues were an optimistic group, always expecting bigger and better things, even the impossible, from their walk of faith, but they were not described as such in the academic literature. The static descriptions of Black Pentecostals as “poor,” “ignorant,” “otherworldly,” “dispossessed,” or “emotional,” were out of sink with the colorful, well-meaning practitioners I had observed over the years.
Again, I turned to my father for an explanation. A native Houstonian, born on July 4, 1932, Independence Day, he was confronted yearly if not daily with the controversial definition of freedom that permeated the United States southwest. As he had watched his father and uncles struggle against a rigid backdrop of discrimination with varying degrees of success or failure, he was more than capable of providing me with a historical overview of race.
His observations were later substantiated by graduate readings at Rice University. Despite limited access to knowledge and little support, he encouraged his nine children to “get all you can and can all you get.” I tried my best to heed his advice by earning a dual B.A., two M.A.’s, and a Ph.D. Obtaining multiple degrees at predominantly white institutions, three of them from Rice University, was my way of making up for the degrees that neither my father nor mother could have obtained upon completing their studies at Houston’s historic but segregated Phyllis Wheatley High School. For Rice University, established in 1906 to educate poor white males, did not open its doors to blacks until 1968. Little would dad have imagined that on May 9, 1998, his eighth child would become the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. in History from Rice, a telling story about the rate of change given that Harvard University’s first African American Ph.D. in History, W.E.B. Du Bois, was graduated 100 years earlier in 1898.
The more I studied, particularly from my southwestern location, the more I understood the impact of class, race, and region on the scholarly treatment of African American Pentecostals. Their collective identity markers alone made them likely candidates for dismissal as viable subjects of history; they were “black,” “southern,” and “Pentecostal.” And like other blacks in America, their experience bore the deep, complex marks of Europe’s dramatic clash with Africa, the reverberations of which are ever present and profound. In fact, the same Bible that had become the philosophical and spiritual cornerstone of black churches and many black families was the same tool colonizers and enslavers had misused to forward their campaigns of domination. Blacks in slave societies and the colonies of various intruders nonetheless interpreted the text to their own liking, finding narratives of freedom to champion their cause. History has proven their interpretation to be just as resilient.
Given this historical context, my father’s insistence on God’s plan for his life and ministry approached an epic drama. He was not simply my father, although I was perfectly satisfied with how masterfully he fulfilled this role, but he was also an African American male from the south who had defied the odds by insisting on his interpretation of the divine and establishing a church in the heart of the ghetto despite banks’ refusal to lend him money to make a down payment on the vacated and then segregated Lyons Theater, now our church home. He loves to tell the story of how a neighborhood detractor challenged, “I’d like to see you get any souls saved between The Black Cat and Briscoe’s,” two famous night clubs in what was then called “The Bloody Fifth,” when the Houston’s Fifth Ward region was on the decline. Dad recalls with pride, “Well, the church now owns the Black Cat and the church owns Briscoe’s.” Patience, hard-work, and endurance won out in my father’s now 50-year journey in ministry and his congregation’s near forty-year course through an inner-city wilderness, which is slowly being transformed into an urban oasis thanks to pioneering pastors like my father and other members of the Fifth Ward Coalition of Churches.
When the concrete floors in our sanctuary were covered with water and debris, the ceiling with pigeons’ nests, and the infrastructure with termite-eaten framework, Dad recalled, “God said, ‘Son, don’t let anyone melt or pour you out of this area. This area is going to be revitalized. I am telling my story through the way I am developing this ministry. You cannot tell your story. I am telling mine.’” As I loved narratives and adventures, I vowed to stick around to see what story God would tell. The organ was my perch—my “divine” place; it remains one of the best seats in the sanctuary, offering me a clear view of everything. Once I was firmly planted on the organ, working with the choir, and playing for services, my father and mother told me that a missionary had foretold my contribution to the church when my legs were too short to touch the linoleum beneath the piano bench. Hoping that one of my older siblings would play, my father paid for my oldest brother and sister to take private music lessons, but neither desired to play. After one rap too many across the knuckles, the two made a clean get away never to return.
Drawn to music by its beauty and rhythm, I had taught myself to play by age eight and to compose by my teenage years, to the amazement of my neighborhood music teacher, now the Reverend Bonnie Green, as well as to Rice University’s late Paul Cooper, who summoned me to find out how I composed music in the style of Berlioz and used the twelve-tone series without having studied music theory extensively. With my musical talent doubly affirmed by the saints and the academics, I played for the church throughout my undergraduate career at Rice, and intermittently throughout studies abroad in France and Spain, throughout my graduate studies at Michigan State and my dissertation on African American Pentecostals in the Southwest, the first to offer a purely historical treatment of African American Pentecostalism in the country.
I particularly enjoyed providing my father with “gravy,” the musical accompaniment many African American preachers like to have when they “tune up,” i.e., after they have developed their sermon and are “bringing it home,” or bringing the message to a joyful close. I also loved to help usher in the “shout,” the highpoint in any African American Pentecostal service when members lose themselves in fervent and rhythmic praise. Their songs and dances were equally expressive texts complementing their oral narratives of triumph over adversity—food for my soul during periodic journeys to various countries and institutions.
They, along with my musical accompaniment and my father’s many messages, affirmed our individual and collective desires to transcend and foster the transformational experiences of others. I have my father to thank for initiating my spiritual and intellectual transformation by placing the Good Book in my elementary-school hands, modeling for me the need to read other books, and inspiring me to write my own. My “daddy dissertation” is only the initial expression of my heartfelt appreciation for my father’s priceless contribution to the abundant life I now enjoy.
Karen Kossie-Chernyshev is an associate professor of History at Texas Southern University in Houston, where she teaches African American and American History. Her current research focuses on African American Pentecostalism in the Southwest.
Copyright © 2005 by Karen Kossie-Chernyshev. All Rights
Used by permission, BlackandChristian.com.