Rev. Dr. Michael E. Haynes Was A National Treasure, A Civil Rights Balm For Boston
By Kevin C. Peterson
It was a mild autumnal Sabbath morning and brilliantly streaming bars of sun light filled the large square-box sanctuary which sat on the corners of Washington and Park Streets in Dorchester. The Rev. Michael Haynes at first sat inconspicuously among the parishioners, seemingly lost in a repose of revery and reminiscence. He had relaxed his body into a somewhat stoic posture, but he was clearly taking in all he was seeing and sensing of the sacred vitality, the propulsive power and the high octane hum that generally animates the liturgy of black pentecostal churches.
Haynes’ visage was spotted immediately by congregants recognizing his presence, which caused the church’s pastor to invite him onto the pulpit from where he would eventually speak with such sustained charismatic ambience that it silenced most parishioners with its simplicity and beauty — except for the few who let fall, almost inaudibly from their lips, affirming “Amens, Yeses, and preach it please!”
Haynes mesmerized church members that Sunday morning not only because of what he was saying, but also in the light of the life he lived and what he represented to generations of blacks who, in Boston, incessantly sought comfort and balm in a mostly unforgiving city where racial animus had so often charred their skins and sucked life’s optimism from the lungs of their now bewildered children. In many ways Rev. Haynes, a son of Barbadoes and brother of the world reknown jazz drummer, Roy Haynes, embodied the wisdom Jesus communicated in the Sermon on the Mount where care for one another took precedent over self-regard, where mercy trumped bald individualism, where humility and goodness superceded the crudeness of solipsism everyday of the week.
Haynes died Thursday at aged 92 after a long battle with a complicated mix of ailments that he handled with amazing grace. For decades he was considered the dean of the black clergy in Boston. He served as senior pastor at the 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury for four decades. Among his many other accomplishments were his service in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the 1960s, his tenacious advocacy around public education and his work with Gordon-Conwell in developing an urban seminary in Roxbury.
The glorious and irrefutable aspects of Haynes’ life are surely evident to we who want to see them: Haynes walked without reticence among black giants in Boston which included people like Melnea Cass, Elma Lewis and Ruth Batson. This generation of blacks feared no evil in the valley of shadows of the social death that surrounded their community. They did not consign themselves to cheap compromise or political expediency on the race question in Boston. Instead, they pushed — sometimes politely and at other times with great verve — for equity, shared responsibility and high ethical and political comportment from within their own community.
Armed with these values as weapons, Haynes managed to transcend local politics and tap into national sentiment about race and justice during the 1960s. His friendship with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave evidence of Haynes’ impact within an enfolding national narrative of racial repair as the country slowly emerged from World War II. When he marched with King to the Boston Common in 1965, Haynes was affriming his affinity to the black social gospels that were embodied by contemporary luminaries in other cities like Boston — including the Rev. Gardner Taylor in Brooklyn, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Harlem, C.L. Franklin in Detroit and Ralph Abernathy in Atlanta.
Haynes practiced an assured, punctilious political and public theology. The intense battle he waged was engaged as much from the pulpit — as he weekly explained that the wages of sin were death — as they were confronted in the streets where where he rallied against the poignant, unrelenting effects of Boston apartheid. Haynes understood the salience of the high ethical expectations rendered in the Bible, and the necessity of applying those values across the city’s neighborhoods. His efforts at improving public education, reducing black poverty in the city and fueling economic developement were among the great marks of his leadership.
Clearly, Haynes’ political theology was not fortified with the manipulative artifices of the con man’s version of civic gamesmanship that we see often these days. Neither was it comprised of any desire for greedy power seeking or control.
Instead, Haynes sought a theology that was grounded in ideals around justice, mercy and human repair which has roots in the Biblical scriptures from which he drew wisdom his entire life. Haynes avoided the niceties and complexities of politics as mere sport. Instead he chose to lift people’s heart and their material conditions with a symmetry of purpose we can call soul power. Haynes’ out-sized and perpendicular efforts at kindness and grace were only matched by the expansive verticle reach of his human tenderness and splendid treatment of others.
The last time I talked with the Rev. Michael Haynes was in the pastor’s study at the Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury moments before I preached for the first time. While I had personally invited Haynes to my inaugural sermon, I was surprised to see him. I was exhilarated and intimidated by his looming presence.
Haynes was in good spirits that day, but looking more diminutive and slightly less vivacious than when I last saw him at that church in Dorchester. As he stood with me and the Rev. Dr. Evan Hines, who is the senior pastor at Eliot, we made small talk about church music, local politics in the black community and the ever present prospects for a revived black church mobilization in Boston. He spoke about his relationship with families who lived in the area. And he commented his displeasure about how Christian evangelicals had fallen to the sway of President Trump’s political influence.
Haynes presence was iconic as he stood — dapper and confident— in the preacher’s parlor. His posture suggested hints of what we can sometimes detect as natural royalty and wisdom and grace. He gesticulated with nuanced and magnificent flare as he spoke in quiet, dulcet tones that were dipped in pure and cognizant elegance.
Everyone who stood in Rev. Haynes’ luminous presence felt the passion of an extraordinary man who lived a life balanced with boundless generosity and acceptance.
Haynes’ human longevity was shaped as much by truth-telling as it was by unvarnished diffidence. He was fearless in the field of life, never cautious about his capacity to love. He was an incarnation of the answers that we, who are sensitive, often pose as questions about the very nature of our humanity.
The theologian Howard Thurman — who lived in Boston as Haynes was rising to public and preacherly prominence — has said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive,”
Haynes embodied this attitude over the course of nine decades of tireless travail and Boston and the nation are better because of him. He came alive for us. We are obligated to use his life as an example for ours moving forward.