The Rev. Frank A. Thomas is no stranger to Chautauqua — he served as chaplain of the week, preaching from the Amphitheater stage in 2021, and as a speaker for the African American Heritage House in 2019. Now, he returns to the grounds to give the Week Five installment of the AAHH Chautauqua Speaker Series at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 27, in the Hall of Philosophy.
Thomas is the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics and director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and, among his many degrees, holds a doctorate in communications (rhetoric) from the University of Memphis.
So when he took the Amp pulpit last summer, he offered up some vocabulary words for the Chautauqua congregation: “hesed,” Hebrew for steadfast love or faithfulness, and “epiousios,” or daily — among others. In demonstrating hesed, Thomas cited Eric Garner’s wife and daughter, who laid a wreath at the site where two police officers were shot in their squad car, after Garner was killed in 2014 by another New York City police officer.
“They propped up the world,” Thomas said in 2021. “When people who are hated show that kind of love, they are God’s hesed. Heaven did not make a mistake. Hesed is greater than human mistakes. We have to slide mercy underneath what is wobbly. Steadfast love never ceases; it is new every morning. Heaven did not make a mistake.”
This afternoon, Thomas will be speaking to the Week Five theme, “The Vote and Democracy.” A member of the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers of Morehouse College, Thomas is also a member of the International Board of Societas Homiletica. In addition to his academic work, he served as senior pastor at New Faith Baptist Church of Matteson, Illinois, for 18 years, and of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church of Memphis, Tennessee, for 13 years.
The author or co-editor of numerous books, his works include How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon, American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession, and Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present.
In studying African American preachers, Thomas told the Daily in 2019 that he found a common denominator: hope, specifically encouraging hope in times of crisis.
“When the world and the American nation said that we were slaves and we were nothing, nobody, (a preacher I heard when I was young) stood up and told the people, ‘And you are a child of God.’ ”
Preaching has been able to encourage and sustain the African American people through mass incarceration, slavery, Jim Crow and persisting racism, Thomas said in 2019.
“Ultimately, (a sermon) inspires and encourages people,” Thomas said then. “It challenges them, lifts them and helps people to make a better world.”
When he preached in 2021, he noted that he was “hurt and angry that we have discarded what is civil and peaceful. We just do our own thing. We have fits of rage and want to do things on our own without consequences to ourselves or our neighbors. We don’t know what we do want, we are just ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.’ ”
The issues that have informed African American preaching for centuries still abound, he said, so “we will march and vote and argue, but we will not hate.”