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Laying Out to Stand Up: How Arkansas Judge Wendell Griffen Has Always Led By Example

By Rashod Ollison

Judge Wendell Griffen
Photo credit: Judge Wendell Griffen/Twitter

It didn’t surprise me to see him in the news.

Back home in central Arkansas where I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, Judge Wendell Griffen has long been a respected presence in the local press. But this week as he faces impeachment for a Good Friday protest against the death penalty, in which he lay strapped to a gurney in front of the Governor’s mansion, Griffen’s story has made national headlines. He was featured in a segment on Democracy Now! that aired on Monday, May 8.

A regular follower of the program, I was shocked to see the still shot of Griffen’s face in my Facebook newsfeed, the Democracy Now! link shared by my sister Reagan. He’s clean-shaven these days, his face fuller, hair silver. It jars me to see an aged but still-robust Griffen, because in my mind I clearly see the man he was a quarter century ago whose presence is pivotal in Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl, my memoir Beacon published last year.

Back then, Griffen was bearded with hardly any gray, slim, and in his thirties, but seemed older with his dignified ways. Griffen was one of the city’s most successful and visible black attorneys at the time, and he also was the pastor of my church, Emmanuel Baptist over on 12th Street, the spiritual home for Mama, Reagan, and me shortly after we moved from Hot Springs to Little Rock at the dawn of the ’90s. I had just entered my teens. Bloody bullet-ridden bodies of boys my age and a few years older appeared often on the local nightly news, victims of gang wars that plagued the city.

I don’t remember back then Griffen using the pulpit as a platform for political activism. There seemed to be a distinct separation of church and state, so to speak. He and his wife Patricia, a well-known black clinical psychologist in Little Rock, and their sons Martyn and Elliott, lived on the moneyed west side. But Griffen wasn’t out of touch with the devastation on the gritty East End or in the neighborhoods that ringed Emmanuel, streets that had gone from safe to seedy in a generation. Instead of appropriating hip-hop lingo and affectations to appeal to us young folks, a condescending method used by flashier preachers back then and today, Griffen was something of a throwback even in the 1990s.

He had been raised among sharecropping elders, folks who trusted the Earth and whose relationship with God was intimate and unassailable. Old folk ways and biblical mythology informed almost every aspect of their lives, and Griffen never forgot those rustic beginnings. But he is also a sophisticate and an astute intellectual whose preaching style, deliberate and methodical, made his sermons feel as though he were teaching a class on the Constitution. That full-bodied Southern breeze sweeping through his burnished baritone, Griffen always engaged the congregation, a mix of haughty professionals and down-to-earth working-class folks that packed Emmanuel every Sunday.

Soul Serenade pbWhat some may see as a reflection of “respectability politics”—how Griffen constantly and firmly corrected the boys’ posture, admonishing us to pull our pants up, to enunciate our words and project our voices—was really an act of love. Correcting speech and posture wasn’t to privilege the white gaze or make “them” see us as any less “inferior,” which was a lie anyway. And their lie never had anything to do with us, he said. You announce your self-worth to anyone as you enter a room. You come from strong people who died so that you could live. So walk like you’re somebody; that’s a way of loving and respecting yourself. Shoulders back, gaze direct. Look a man in the eye when you shake his hand. Grip it tightly. “Let them know who you are,” he’d say.

That’s one of the most memorable lessons I took from Griffen. Several other impressionable boys at Emmanuel had no fathers at home. Every Sunday, Griffen exemplified hard-earned “success”: looming over the Bible in the pulpit, dressed in a tailored suit, speaking expertly, confidently with one hand in his pocket, a dignified sophisticate who never forgot his country roots. At that point in my life, with my own father strung out on drugs and missing in action, I needed to see a black man “be somebody.”   

Away at a creative and performing arts camp in the summer of ’92, I was isolated and lonely. Griffen was busy at a meeting for federal judges in Minneapolis. Still, he mailed me a four-page letter, written on both sides of the stationery from Hyatt Hotels & Resorts. It was the most affirming letter I’ve ever received: “I am convinced that your writing ability and spiritual insight are God-given gifts,” he wrote. I was fourteen, insecure and depressed. Nobody had ever written such beautiful words to me. I copied the entire letter in Soul Serenade. While on tour with the book (Griffen attended two of my appearances in Arkansas) I couldn’t bring myself to read that portion aloud. It still makes me cry.

July 23, 1992

Hello Rashod,

I hope that you receive this letter in good health and spirit as you continue the wonderful adventure afforded you to participate in the creative writing program. I’m writing from Minneapolis, where I am attending a meeting of federal judges, so I know how being away from home and familiar sights and sounds can tear at the heart. In fact, I have known that experience for quite a while now having experienced my first such trip when I was 8 years old. I still get homesick, believe it or not. And of the several hundred people here I am one of less than 5 Black lawyers. Yes, I know very well how tough it is to be away from home in your situation.

Please let me share some Bible truths that sustain and strengthen me in any way of faith. I do so hoping that you will be strengthened and comforted.

  1. God knows how you feel! Your anxieties, fears, and homesickness are well-known to Him. Since Adam and Eve had to face the alien world outside the Garden of Eden, God has sustained and guided humanity.
  2. Your experience is part of God’s mission for your life. God’s plan for your life includes granting you the insight to write as well as giving you opportunities to grow as a writer and person. As painful as this may seem now, God intends for you to grow as a person and writer in many ways that cannot happen if you never leave home and family. You must accept the challenge of confronting homesickness and its load of anxieties as part of the pilgrimage you take with God in faith.
  3. You can trust God’s presence and power in every setting—even in Mena! After Moses died, God called Joshua to lead Israel. God’s words to Joshua at Joshua 1:1–9 have comforted me many times. At Joshua 1:5–6 God is quoted: “Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous . . .” And at Joshua 1:9, God said to Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Rashod, you are not alone. You are not abandoned. Trust God’s presence and power for strength to grow in this adventure of faith.

I am convinced that your writing ability and spiritual insight are God-given gifts. I believe that God is using you and those gifts to bless people. I believe that you can not only grow as a person and writer through attending this writer’s retreat, but that God will also use you to bless others in the process. Will you trust God to empower you to receive that growth and to be that blessing?

I will close this letter now before I bore you too much. Before I do, let me thank you for sharing your anxiety and homesickness with me and with your family at Emmanuel. Let me encourage you to follow Jesus’ example at Gethsemane when he prayed and was strengthened. Trust God’s mission. Trust His promise to be present and powerful with you. And expect His loving strength as you continue this adventure in your pilgrimage. My prayer for you is that God will give you His peace and the assurance of His presence in this experience, and always, and that you will someday recall this experience with great joy! May God strengthen you!

Your pastor and friend,
Wendell L. Griffen
Ephesians 3:20–21

Seeing Griffen on Democracy Now! and the protest pictures of him strapped to a gurney in front of the Governor’s mansion, I can’t imagine the man I knew thirty years ago doing such a thing. He was much younger then, accomplished but still climbing in his career and had two young sons, now well-adjusted young men. But that “prophetic fire” still burns in him, crackling even more with age. He still stands firmly in what’s morally sound, giving voice to the voiceless in Arkansas, including openly embracing the LGBTQ community, a bold stance for such a high profile black man in the conservative religious and legal circles of Arkansas. On the gurney several feet away from the governor’s front door, Griffen lay to stand in his truth, dignified in his defiance, motivated by love. That’s the man I always knew.


About the Author 

image from www.beaconbroadside.comRashod Ollison is an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He has been a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News,Philadelphia InquirerJournal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lives in Virginia Beach. Follow him on Twitter at @rashodollison and visit his website.