ColumnistsMarian Wright EdelmanOp-EdOpinion

Child Watch: The Power of ‘Prophetic Grief’


By Marian Wright Edelman
NNPA Columnist


Recently, Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., pastor emeritus at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, and former co-pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and his son, Rev. Otis Moss, III, Senior Pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, preached together at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.

The terroristic murders of nine Black worshipers during Bible study at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church had broken everyone’s hearts, and father and son spoke on how all of us could use this moment to move forward together through “prophetic” grief.

Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. explained this is different from being overcome by “pathetic” grief in the face of such a tragedy.

“Pathetic grief is that kind of grief that causes you to be blinded by bitterness, hate, despair—the kind of grief that puts you in the class of the one who caused the grief,” he explained. “Pathetic grief sends you into a scale of darkness where Langston Hughes says ‘there ain’t been no light.’ It leaves you diminished, degraded, and in cooperation with the one who diminishes and the one who degrades.”

He said we are called to something else. Prophetic grief can spur action and change, and Rev. Moss, Jr. urged that instead of focusing on the murderer we need to focus on the larger culture that fosters hatred and violence.

“It’s easier to deal with the ‘who’ and singularize, if you will, the vastness of the crime and make one person responsible and thereby excuse ourselves. We like to deal with the ‘who,’ but we are not ready to deal with the ‘what’ . . . I think we have to lift up the fact that we live in a culture that has made guns our god. We have to deal with the ‘what.’

Rev. Moss, Jr. continued, “Let me hurry on to say I believe the 21-year-old alleged killer was born not out of a creative process controlled by God, but born into a destructive process and culture created by human beings. What kind of lessons are we going to give to our children? What are we feeding them? What is the diet we are giving them? What is it that makes guns objects of worship where people will kill you about a gun? What is it that creates this kind of climate for children?”

Rev. Moss III added that this kind of prophetic grief that turns pain into power has always been a hallmark of the Black faith experience.

“The very nature of our faith is carved from the splintered wood of an unfinished democracy . . . This is a faith where miracles are not anomalies, redemption is not a fairy tale, and deliverance is more than a descriptive adjective, but an active verb permeating the soul of every believer. This is a faith where [Harriet] Tubman learned her freedom, [Sojourner Truth] discovered abolition, [W.E.B.] DuBois discovered intellect, Zora [Neale Hurston] found her literary power, Langston [Hughes] crafted poems, and Ida B. Wells discovered her journalistic integrity.”

When another murderer killed two journalists in August in Virginia and blamed his actions partly on his deep rage at the Charleston murders, it was a misguided claim of diminished, degraded, pathetic grief.

But when reporter Alison Parker’s father chose to use his great personal tragedy as an opportunity to speak out in favor of “whatever it takes” to end the crisis of gun violence in America and pass common sense gun safety laws, it was a powerful lesson in prophetic grief and turning pain into power and overwhelming sadness and anger into action.

Days after his daughter was murdered Parker wrote in the Washington Post: “In recent years we have witnessed similar tragedies unfold on TV: the shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut and of churchgoers in South Carolina. We have to ask ourselves: What do we need to do to stop this insanity? In my case, the answer is: ‘Whatever it takes.’ I plan to devote all of my strength and resources to seeing that some good comes from this evil.”

Let’s all heed and follow his example and the Rev. Mosses’ call. In a nation that has more guns as people; when the United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the global population but owns an estimated 35 to 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world; and when American companies manufacture enough bullets each year to fire 31 rounds into every one of our citizens, let’s stay focused on this urgent challenge to embrace prophetic grief and use it to do whatever it takes to transform our national culture of violence into one of nonviolence and respect for human life.


Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to


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Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. The Children's Defense Fund’s Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. Mrs. Edelman served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College which she chaired from 1976 to 1987 and was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation on which she served from 1971 to 1977. She has received over a hundred honorary degrees and many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings which include: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; Stand for Children; Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors; Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind; I'm Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children; I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children; and The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.

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