Calm Witness in the Midst of Crisis

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The Rev. Dr. Arthur Whitaker, STB '52. Photo: Steve Gilbert

Six decades into a career notable for careful synthesis of the often-conflicting realms of pastoral ministry and psychological counseling, the Rev. Dr. Arthur Whitaker, STB ’52, continues to sail according to the apostolic contention that the truth will set you free.

“I have always believed that searching for the truth—being committed to the kingdom of God—allows us to confront the real problems that engage society,” he says, summing up his years of pastoral care and public service via interdenominational work among inner-city churches.

One of the first African American graduates of HDS, Whitaker is an advocate of a “strong, Bible-based Christian church,” although he is not one to utter “strong” and “Bible” in tandem and mean rigid, doctrinaire, or exclusionary.

“Being a good Christian is achievable both inside the church and outside the church,” says this lifelong Baptist, who began adulthood in a segregated army and whose career has traced the contours of the civil rights movement and Great Society era—from the exuberant hopes of planners in the 1950s to the courageous acts of nonviolent protest in the early 1960s to the tumult and discord later in that decade.

Through his numerous pastoral roles—especially those at the Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the American Baptist Home Mission in New York City, Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, and the Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota—Whitaker has been able to correlate the behavioral problems he has observed among his congregants and those on the streets with deeper institutional problems.

Nowhere was this association more evident to him than during and after the race riots that erupted in Rochester in July 1964 while he was serving Mount Olivet and continuing his research on crowd behavior and social/racial unrest that he’d begun while a lecturer at the University of Rochester in the late 1950s.

Commissioned by the NAACP to report on the riots, Whitaker went into the streets and “actually looked at how people were hurting, how this hurting led to violence and destruction.” As a social researcher, he was attempting to trace the unrest to underlying economic problems.

As a minister, however, his eyes and ears were open to pain and suffering: “A lot of these people who were hurting were not in the church,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, they did not see the church as a viable option to resolve their problems—they were living in crisis.”

The result of Whitaker’s research, “Anatomy of a Riot,” was read into The Congressional Record and published in Rochester newspapers and the NAACP publication The Crisis in January 1965.

The anger and outrage that fueled urban riots throughout the United States in the 1960s and 1970s—from Rochester to Detroit to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles—was to Whitaker a tragic yet inevitable outcome of the way American society treated blacks in the aftermath of World War II. It was his time stationed overseas in the Army that had nudged him into counseling, where he learned not to bristle at institutional racism, but rather to maintain objectivity by “trying to listen to both sides.”

Given his chosen vocation, it comes as no surprise that Whitaker became deeply involved in the civil rights movement.

Developing strategies and coordinated platforms, he explains, forged a unique bond among members of the black church who were in training in the Boston area in the 1950s. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a close friend and ally of Whitaker’s when the former was completing his graduate work at Boston University.

“The church was simply the center,” Whitaker says with fond recollection. “We all had the feeling that the church was the arena for bringing about equality and change.”

And yet by 1966, when Whitaker was preaching at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, the Black Panthers attempted to take over his pulpit. “Those were rough times,” he recalls. There had also been rioting in St. Paul, where the Panthers were emerging.

An “old man” by their standards (he was in his forties at the time), Whitaker stood firm at the Pilgrim Baptist Church and refused to yield the pulpit: “I told them, ‘You cannot use this kind of language in God’s house.’ “

Dealing with black militant groups and people outside the church has given Whitaker “a stronger sense of my own faith,” although he takes care to remain “acutely aware of other views.” He explains, “When people seek psychological counseling, I let them know I am a Christian.”

Choosing between teaching and ministry as his principal vocation was difficult, Whitaker recalls, for he fell in love with teaching at the University of Rochester, where he was given the opportunity to be a full-time lecturer on the history and philosophy of religion.

After receiving his STB at HDS, he went on to Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, studying for his STM and DMin. It was there that he was introduced to pastoral and psychological counseling; he continued his clinical studies at Tufts University Medical Center and Boston City Hospital.

Over his career, Whitaker has applied the same skills he developed serving individuals as a minister and mental healthcare provider at the institutional level, notably in executive positions at the American Baptist Churches corporations of Massachusetts and New York through the 1970s and 1980s and as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of the USA (New York State Region). He is also a diplomate of the International Academy of Behavioral Medicine.

He continues to preach, though admittedly “at a retiree’s pace,” at the First Baptist Church in Boston and remains a keen observer of the national religious scene and various political incursions therein, such as the Bush administration’s faithbased initiatives program.

“I put a big question mark over that program,” he says with concern. “I have always believed deeply in the separation of church and state.”

He looks back to the 1950s when he believed that “the church was the arena for bringing about equality and change”—but never, he stresses, for implementing government policy. “I look at then and now,” he concedes, “and see that we have a long way to go.”

And is he optimistic?

“As I will say again and again, the broader thing we are searching for is truth.”