Remembering an Adventist icon during Black History Month
Published on: 02-19-2021
The late C. D. Brooks preached this message at Oakwood University many years ago (when the campus was still called Oakwood College). We hope you will enjoy this sermon as much as we did.—Editors.
Today, October 22, is a very significant day in the history of our beginnings. More than a half-century ago when I was finishing my work here at Oakwood College, my fellow ministerial students asked me to design a place for the old slave bell. That bell had toppled from its wooden tower when we were sophomores. We made a decision and decided we would make our contribution of Brandeis stone to match the most notable building on the campus at that time, Moran Hall. I did three designs for consideration. The simplest was chosen because it simply was the most affordable.
Those of us in the class were financially challenged. And so, this thing that we did became the point of interest for Oakwood College and remained so for more than 54 years. Someone poured concrete on the inner circle, and I believe it was a concession to laziness more than aesthetics. I sat musing recently, and I wondered how many prayers had been prayed from that place. There must have been hundreds of marriage proposals, and I suppose hundreds of rejections.
I thought of groups cramming for exams. There was meditating and communing and debating and foolishness and laughter and trash-talking and courting and picture-taking. And all of it added up to good memories of Oakwood College. I always hope that the greatest of one time or another sat on the circle of benches: Eva Dykes, Galvin Mosley, Earnest Rogers, Otis Edwidge, C. T. Richards, Natelka Burrell, and others.
In 1953, I saw Dr. Modekiah Johnson pause to take a look and then step inside the circle to read our plaque. In case you never knew, I want to tell you, the class of 1951 had class. Elder John Wagner was our president. The president of the student body was Harold Cleveland, and Russell Bates and Leonard Newton were vice presidents of the student union. Lovey Davis Fardune, Minnie Ola Dabney Dixon, and other luminaries were in this group.
There was a favorite spot or a favorite memory for me concerning that spot. When Elder Bates and I were digging the foundation and piling dirt to the outside, a conference president walked over, stood on top of the pile, and invited me to be an intern in his conference on the very day that we dug the foundation.
Mr. president, pastor, Dr. Rock, Elder Harold Lee, Elder Don Schneider, Attorney and Mrs. Cologne, Mr. Allen Collins, and all the rest of you who are on the rostrum today, members of the staff, friends of God. It is a great privilege for me to be here and a sincere pleasure to have this privilege.
For today, we plan to unveil our new point of interest on these hallowed grounds. The campus center has shifted in the intervening years. Growth and progress are stamped on everything. And today in this auditorium we range from old to new. I straddle three generations, and yet the same motto that greeted me as I entered this campus in 1947 is still there at the gate today: “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” It is still a profound and powerful challenge.
Several of our sister institutions have long had significantly emblematic statuary—these points of interest on campus. At one, as you have heard, is the good Samaritan, and the thing that caught my eye is this: that improbable Samaritan, low-cashed and cold bronzed, is obviously hermetic. Then the prodigal son and the J. N. Andrews statue. I have felt most profoundly that the idea of the crossbar was most appropriate and deeply meaningful; inspired thought went into the planning, along with sparkling generosity and excellent craftsmanship.
Over the centuries through brush and chisel, poetry and song, artists it seems have always tried to claim all positive Bible characters as Europeans. I have studied these in the ancient cathedrals and museums on several continents. I have smiled at the bright blue eyes of Moses and his black wife and the Queen of Sheba and Queen Hatshepsut, who took Moses from the Nile, even the Ethiopian eunuch, and of course Christ Himself. This is not sinful; it’s just not correct.
Simon of Cyrene
Now there is very little information about Simon of Cyrene in the Bible, the sacred writings, or even in the commentaries. Most just say he was there on that fateful day. And they grabbed him and compelled him to bear the cross. And as I look from book to book, many references take pains to point out that there was a Jewish settlement in Cyrene. So Simon was probably a Jew. Well, hold on here.
Christ had suffered unspeakably. He had been betrayed, arrested, unmercifully beaten, crowned with the canvas reef, beaten some more, stripped of his robe. He had had no food, no water. The procession of death is now moving toward Golgotha.
And Christ is bearing the cross. Some historians insist for some reason that it wasn’t the full cross. Only the cross beam. I don’t believe that. In my mind’s eye I see Him bearing the whole thing. I can hear the dull dragging thud of the lone beam bumping along over cobble stone. I can see Him impeded by debris and things thrown at him. And Christ became too weak in his human body to bear it.
Now, I say that for a reason, because He had the power to levitate the cross. He could have made the thing float about four feet off the ground, all the way to Calvary. No, He would bear all of the weight and all of the shame would bear down on Him, make no mistake about it. Jesus was the Crossbearer, but it came to a point where He would share this burden with one who would prove worthy.
Now there were three groups represented there, and the Romans weren’t about to touch the cross. They were the masters in charge, not cumbered with pity and compassion. They shortened their swords and extended their empire by being tough and cold and hard and mean.
The fifth procurator of that part of the world had made it clear. He wanted nothing to do with these pesky Jews. The volatility of the region had already stuck in Caesar’s craw. So he said to them, I want you to be careful how you handle this. Now the Jews were there, but they weren’t going to touch it either. They had cleaned themselves up for the Passover, and ceremonies had begun.
Now, if Simon were a Jew, he wouldn’t have touched it either. It is suggested that maybe he was a merchant, or a tradesman, or someone just bringing in wood for the altar fires of the holiday. One thing is clear to me, however: he was one of us, just ordinary. An author by the name of Colin in his work The Handbook of the Bible said he well could have been a Negro. I don’t believe he was seeking a place in history, yet wherever the evangelist has gone, the name of Simon is inextricably bound to the Savior’s name.
Christ Will Never Forget
I ask you today, who knows the name of the nail driver? I ask you today, who knows the name of the cross crafter or the wheel slinger? They are forgotten in history, but this son of Ham is well known. And we in a special sense have been crossbearers for a long, long time. Disagreeable duties have devolved upon us for centuries. And something tells me in my mind that Christ will never forget the dark hand that curled under the cross and relieved Him. The hand of Simon the Cyrenian.
The procession stalled and a pall hung over the maddened crowd. There’s a dilemma; something has gone wrong. Who can or shall help with the cross? There’s this dreadfully audible silence as they look around asking, Who? What’s happening here? Can we get this thing done? The sun will be cresting and weaning soon. Sunset is coming. You’ve got to get it over with. Christ was murdered by Sabbathkeepers, health reformers, those who were heavily religious.
And perhaps from the back of a steed came the command: “You black fella, come here. Lift this thing.” Even reluctantly, his hand curled under the cross. And the other was offered to the poor, unfortunate specimen of manhood, now so horrendously crumpled beneath this heavy killing machine. I read that it probably weighed about 350 pounds—rough, hard wood.
Perhaps Simon was a bit indifferent when he was told to do this, until he made eye contact. When he took a good look at the One he was relieving, he saw what Mary Magdalene saw. When he looked and saw that face, he saw what the woman at the well had seen, what blind Bartimaeus saw when he regained his sight, what the thief on the cross would see. He saw what his own sons had been excited about. And there is a powerful song that could have been sung right there: “I have just seen Jesus.” He’s the One, the Lion and the Lamb, purity personified, love unbounded, divinity revealed, and above all, a moving compassion that encircles the entire globe. There was blood on the cross, and it was smeared all over Simon.
It’s a common name in the Bible, Simon. One, a denier; the other a crossbearer. Of course, I refer to Simon Peter, who had a terrible experience until he was arrested by the crowing of a rooster. The rooster had perceived the light of day approaching while he was in shrouded in darkness. And then there was Simon the Zealot, the fanatical opponent of Rome. That’s about all we know about him. Simon the brother of Jesus, who needed a finishing touch, bless the Lord. Then there was Simon the leper, who was rebuked by Jesus’ powerful parable when he, a former leper, felt offended by the presence of a degraded woman. Then there was Simon the sorcerer, who thought he could buy the Holy Ghost and was bitterly denounced by Peter. Then Simon the tanner at Joppa, to whose house Cornelius sent that he might learn more about this Jesus.
There are many Simons, but there is this African. The procession was not long halted. The horses’ hooves were grinding the pebbles in frustration. The body of Jesus, that human body prepared for Him, where divinity was housed in the tenement of flesh; that body was weak now, not having food, having been beaten and unable to sleep, and thirsty and covered with spit and blood and dirt. That body could carry the cross it seemed no longer. I wonder what the angels must have felt and fought. Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all these folks go free? In The Desire of Ages, page 742,1 we read that Simon had heard the taunts and ribaldry of the crowd when he expressed compassion. And I had to stop right there.
Express compassion. Do you know it’s a virtue to be able to do that? And I want to tell you something else about it. We know how to do it. We have been oppressed and enslaved and mistreated since the day we were born. We know how to cry, Lord have mercy. And we cry easily at the sight of pain and blood and injustice. Some people almost generally, hot and cold and warlike, but there’s nobility planted in the blood of Ham’s children.
The Desire of Ages continues that when Simon expressed compassion, they seized him, a sympathizer. They seized him and compelled him. But later on, Ellen White says he considered his being chosen a blessing and was grateful for provenance. He stands beneath the burden, Simon of Cyrene. In Early Writings, page 175,2 it says that three times the cross was laid on Jesus’ shoulder. Then a man was seized and bore it to that painful spot. I like words and don’t want to cut them off. I read them and think about them, cogitate on them. He didn’t go part of the way and say, now, I’ve helped you out thus far. I have to cut and leave you. No, no, no! We’re told that Jesus took it all the way across barriers.
I had graying hair when I learned of some of the mighty works of Ham’s children. The filament for Edison’s lightbulb was done by a Black man. When you stop at a red light, that thing that often irritates us prevents chaos and facilitates traffic flow—it was invented by a Black man. I had walked miles behind the lawnmower before I knew a Black man had invented it. And then ice cream and potato chips, something we dearly love. Just a few days ago, train number 92 was headed to New York from Miami, and we were onboard. We came into a wilderness outside of Jacksonville. We heard an almost imperceptible thud, and then a gradual measured breaking of this giant behemoth.
And after a half-hour sitting there in the wilderness, the train conductor said over the speaker, “Folks, we just struck a car.” A foolish driver was trying to beat the train to the crossing. We were glad to hear that there were no fatalities, although the people were injured. Two and a half hours later, we were still there. The brakeman said we didn’t dare brake suddenly, lest we cast hundreds of unsteady passengers about like bowling pins. And I thought, Thank God for the Black man who invented air brakes.
My nephew, whom I had the privilege of baptizing, died in the famous John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, in Dr. Blaylock’s lab. But a Black man named Vivian Thomas was responsible for most of his successes with blue babies and heart surgery. And finally, after many years, they awarded Vivian an honorary degree and had his portrait painted, and it hangs beside Dr. Blaylock’s now in the rotunda of Johns Hopkins Hospital. What I remember about this man from Reader’s Digest is that his salary had to be that of service people because no Black professionals were allowed to do anything at Johns Hopkins in those days.
So, he was paid the same as a janitor. He was a crossbearer with little credit, little fortune. That’s what crossbearers are. The Spirit of Prophecy says that a man is blessed when he does what God wants him to do without consideration of who gets graded for it.
We are crossbearers. Unheralded. In 1848, Jay Hawkins invented a metal oven rack. In 1884, Johnson invented the eggbeater; and Lee, a kneading machine to facilitate the making of bread. And for the train, the principal conveyor of those days, Black folk invented smokestacks, a switching machine, and car coupling. Elkins improved refrigerators, and a seed planter was invented by Blair. A shoe lacing machine was invented by a Black man. The telegraph system for trains was done by Granville Woods. And in 1935, Fred Jones came up with an idea for refrigerating trucks, so that fresh vegetables and fruits could take the long haul.
George Washington Carver made more than 100 products from the peanut alone. And I ought to put this in: Marjorie Joyner invented a hair-weaving machine.
But I want you to catch this scene. Clouds of bloodthirsty insects were doing their frenzy dance in the foul air above the cross. While the demon-driven mob tormented Jesus with a cacophony of blasphemous blather, a delirium of insane and hellish brutality hung over as Christ was near death. And He had been there since Gethsemane, because He said to His disciples then, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even under death” (Matt. 26:38, KJV). If Christ said that anywhere along the way, He still would have been our Savior for the system of justice, which is universal. But it required that only the blood of One equal with God could atone for the sins of men. And He shed that blood in Gethsemane, and in Pilate’s judgment hall, and in Herod’s parlor.
Paul took note of this and said that Jesus endured even the death of the cross, indicating that maybe He went farther than He actually had to go. He was the crossbearer, but he shared the burden with the son of Ham, Simon of Cyrene. He said to you and me, “Bear the cross.” We hear it almost every time I see folks arrested on television—they all have a cross. I wonder what it means to them. Probably it means nothing more than a crusting cheap or expensive bit of bling.
The Body and the Head in Dialogue
Today, I am so glad to tell you again that Jesus lives. Bill Gaither has a song on one of his programs that says that Jesus died, but He’s not dead. And He’s coming back again. He is the head of the body according to Paul’s matchless metaphor; the body is still human. That’s you and me. That’s this crowd here today in every way throughout the world, red and yellow, black and white, we are the body and Christ is the head. Today, He is the head, the church is the body, and some within the church are saying we’re arrogant players. There is no sanctuary in heaven. But the Head says there’s one there, which the Lord made and not man. The body has sometimes said, “Don’t say, ‘Amen.’ It’s unsophisticated.” The Head says, “Let all the people say, ‘Amen.’”
The body lusts for popular acceptance. The Head says, “The world will hate you—it hated Me.” The body is flattered when nominal religion is saying, “Oh, you’re just like us.” By the way, that’s not a compliment. Because the Head says you’re to be a peculiar people, and peculiar doesn’t mean “weird”; it means “distinguishable” and “distinctive.”
The body shrinks from that, because it fears being labeled a cult. The Head says, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you” (Luke 6:26, KJV). The body is discouraged by apparent successes of false prophets. The Head says, “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20, KJV). I’ve been to places where the body is saying, “Go to the beach on the Sabbath and stretch out in the sun. Buy your dinner in a restaurant. Play a little golf.” But the Head says the difference you make between the true Sabbath and other days, pretty much determines the difference between you and just nominal churchgoers.
Another group says, “The Spirit of Prophecy gets in the wayl let’s do it without it.” The Head says you can’t find your way through the wilderness of these last days without it. It isn’t a problem; it’s a privilege. It was given to us; it’s a gift of love from the Heavenly Father. And most who feel cool or denigrated have never read it. They’re down on what they’re not up on.
The body is lazy and philosophical and wants to finish the work from an easy chair and with gimmicks of this kind or another, but the Head says, “Work while it is day, for the night cometh” (see John 9:4). Soon, most of us will realize the night will settle upon us, and what we fail to do in a time of peace we’ll have to do in a time of dire opposition and trouble. And so, I want to say to you and to everybody here, regardless, in a special way, we are crossbearers.
While we are told about it by the pen of inspiration, let’s go get God’s work done by His spirit and not worry about money. If you go into the ministry for money, you’ve made a mistake. And I’m going to say something unusual: I approve of it. I was in a country once where our workers were paid on par with the colonels in the army. You never heard of such corruption in ministry. If we had giant salaries, everyone would try to get in.
But our church is good. If you get sick, they’ll help you with that. If you have a car wreck, they’ll help you fix your car. If your teeth go bad, they’ll help pay the dental bill. But you don’t go into it for money. Jesus said, You got to deny yourself. That’s what crossbearers do. That’s what keeps these highly prepared men on a campus like this when they could be somewhere else—crossbearers. Jesus said, “Unless you do it, you cannot be my disciple” (see Luke 14:33). Our hearts ring with the words from the mouth of Charles Spurgeon long ago. He said, “Alas, poor African, thou hast been compelled to carry the cross until now. He or you despise children of the sun. Ye follow first after the king in the march of war. Oh, I remind you in my shelf there’s a task to do. And we have been told if we suffer with Him, we will reign with Him.”
Jesus has this law of compensation in His mind. He’s going to remember you. Just like He will remember Simon. You gave up on Jesus? Look what He has offered us. A little boy was lost in a huge crowd. Maybe you’ve heard this illustration. It just fits in right here. He didn’t know what to do. And they saw him crying, and the police came and gently tried to help. The little boy was trying to explain his address and couldn’t, but he remembered there was a church nearby with a huge cross that went way up into the air. And he began to describe the cross. And he said to the policeman, “If you get me to the cross, I can find my way home.”
That’s the only way home. You come here to learn, you depart to serve and to become with Him a crossbearer. Go where the hurt is and soothe that; go where the darkness is and enlighten it. Go to where death is and talk about everlasting life. Bear it if it smacks of primitive godliness; bear it if it requires us to abstain from carnal delights; bear it if we’re told to mortify unholy desires; bear it if you have to forsake your own will in order to do God’s; bear it when it imposes hard duty.
People call me from all over the world. They’ve gotten calls themselves and they want advice. I tell them first and foremost that my advice is: Find out what God wants you to do and do that. If you have a chance to go to paradise, and God says, go to Siberia, you better go where God told you to go. Bear it if you have to suffer reproach; bear it no matter what the future holds, because the future doesn’t hold very much right now.
“Perplexity.” I did a sermon 30 years ago on that word. It comes from a Greek idea that means “stuck in the mud.” Leaders today are stuck in the mud. They don’t know whether to go forward or backward. They don’t know what to do. And Satan got them right where he wants them. Well, I want to leave you with an idea that when you bear the cross, there’s Somebody who knows how to take care of you.
There was a little girl in Ethiopia, 12 years old. She was abducted one day by a band of sinners. They took that little girl and misused her and abused her and raped her and beat her. The idea was that she would become the wife of one of them. And this article said that many of the women in that part of Ethiopia who were wives were first abducted. You know, there are some people who do right because the Spirit deals with them directly. They haven’t been taught; they haven’t had any Bible studies. But something made her decide, “This is not for me.” And so they mistreated her and kept it up for a long, long time.
They were out in the wilderness, and they started again. Suddenly three lions walked out of the wilderness. Now I have driven through Kruger National Park in South Africa. I have seen the lions that match the color of the grass. And they have something to say. I have gone to places in Kenya, and I have seen them there, but the lions of Ethiopia are different. They have black curly manes—the national symbol of the country. Haile Selassie owned one and called himself the lion of the tribe of Judah.
Three lions walked out of the wilderness and made an announcement. And when the lions spoke, these nefarious men took off and left the girl close to unconsciousness, and the lions laid down. The article said they must have guarded her body over three hours. Finally, along came the police with members of the family searching for that little girl. When they drove up the lions simply got up and walked back into the wilderness. Now, aren’t you impressed with that? My Lord, there’s somebody watching over me. The load gets heavy and crushes me down, but there’s Somebody there. And the only reason He doesn’t pick me up is that He wants me to do it by faith.
If it’s too heavy He interferes and then opposes danger Himself, for He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. We are the crossbearers, and until the body is united for eternity with the Head, let’s be faithful to the ideals and creed of Oakwood College and the Lord’s church.
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 742.
2 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1945), p. 175.
Charles D. Brooks served the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a pastor, administrator, and evangelist. He was the founding speaker of the Breath of Life media ministry, and died in 2016, at the age of 85.