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, citywide music directors, musicians, publicists, stylists and the precious Franklin Family. What a high rising crescendo of preparation. The star-studded A-list performers, the seven-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 none 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”. This will 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 will the family get the comfort they need for their broken hearts, but the city and the world will 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, He’s gonna RIP this, we better be ready, this is no novice preacher, He is GONNA show out and preach the Gospel like never before; and the expectancy was beyond high. He will 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 first to comfort the family and talk about Franklin’s life, the gift she was to her family, to all of us, to the community, about her creativity, and yes, about her faith. Secondarily, to offer Christ as the only way to prepare for our impending moments of transition, and finally, preach, PREACH a WORD that all will hold on to in the days, months and years to come. Integrate the Gospel message, the life and service of the decedent, and stir the faith of the faithful.
As I watched today my heart soared and then was crushed, by the cruel, patriarchal politics, the 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 know the “occasion,” or why we are here and 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 dialog 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 Franklin raise four men? Why talk about women unable to raise black men when the deceased is a woman who raised four 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 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 Franklin and the text and narrative of that text that will offer Christ and remedy. I’ve heard too many 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 backhanded 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, herald, they imitated him, and were there to see him rise again on the wings of 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 need comfort.
What was obvious to me, is 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 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 at 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 on last Friday. This wasn’t just a bad sermon, and this was much more than that. We must learn from it, and not be caught in this space while the world watches.