“Whether their leaders repudiated the “curse of Ham,” embraced the revolutionary religious vision of Nat Turner, or preached the more reserved doctrine that “Jesus will fix it after a while,” Black churches have always accepted securing and guaranteeing the freedom of Black people as one of their central missions.”
—-Allison Calhoun Brown
I began this article with a question: The function of the Black church, is it viable today as it once were 50 – 60 years ago? Undoubtedly, I would report yes. However, there are a string of questions and concerns that tailgate this answer which needs to be addressed by those who belove the institution. As loved ones, we have to honestly look at the role that it once played in the Black community, investigate its correlation to the larger Black populace, and examine its direction for the current and next generation. Will I cover in detail all points – no. However, to begin, how do we define “Black church”?
In 2013, it’s hard to define a church as “black”. It’s almost an obvious fact that there are churches that serve majority all black congregation, reside in areas that has a high percentage of Black residents, and administered by all black leadership, yet these same churches will go out of their way to convey to the public that they aren’t “black”. Quite of few church institutions today, to a large extent will subscribe themselves to Black Liberation Theology, while in the same light deny any public/social black identity. I will not take this opportunity to go into deep definition of the socio-political nature of what ‘Black’ is or isn’t. However, it would be conducive to note: historically some Black churches were very overt towards their social mission to Black people i.e. African Methodist Episcopal, African Baptist Church etc,. Others aligned their conduct to addressing Black folk’s issues and serving that particular community. History offers us (Black people) an overwhelming amount of examples to demonstrate this fact.
The pinnacle of Black Church’s social obligation climaxed in the 1950 – 1960’s. During this decade segregated communities in the north and south were centered on these institutions that provided the spiritual and a cultural compass for a thriving Black community. The difference from today is that churches of this era provided the political will and social obligation that seems to be void in the current scheme. Ollie A. Johnson captured the role of Black church in his book “Political Organizations in the Post Civil Rights Era”.
“The Black Church is unique among Civil Rights organizations in that it is not a single organization, nor was it founded with the express purpose of addressing racism and discrimination. Black Church is a term that aggregates all predominantly Black Christian congregations whose primary purpose is to meet the spiritual needs of their parishioners. Yet perhaps no institution has been more central to the Black community or done more to uplift the race. The fact that thousands of disparate groupings can be referenced with meaning as a single unit is a testament to the integral role that the church has played.
Chronicling the origins of the Civil Rights Movement, Aldon Morris concluded that the Black church functioned as the “organizational hub of Black life” and as the “institutional center” of the Civil Rights Movement. This was not a new role. In large part due to the exigencies and indignities of slavery, for many people the Black church antedated even the Black home and family. This fact alone bears witness to the special place that the Black church has had in its community.”
If this assessment can be garnered, along with the previously stated aspects, as an essential element to defining the “Black” church, than it would be safe to say that social obligation is key. Direct accountability to the Black population is a must in defining the “Black church.” Evidence of this takes form in the movement of institutions such as: Sixteenth Street Chapel Baptist of Birmingham, Trinity United Church of Christ and Mount Olive Missionary Church of South Chicago, efforts of the Black Methodist for Church Renewal of Nashville, First Baptist Church and Bell Street Church of Montgomery, St. Jame A.M.E of St. Paul, and many others whom this essay could not highlight. History teaches that the Black church was a corner stone to the Black community because of it presence in spiritual needs, production of leadership, and its will to address the social dynamics and injustices facing Black folk.
Attempting to examine the role the Black church played in the affairs of Black people is a daunting and to a large extent useless task. I recognize that there are factors here much larger then the church. This entials questions such as: What is today’s ‘Black community’? What institutions support the thriving black identity and culture? What is black leadership? And there far more questions that follow this trail. However, the Black church has impacted and influenced all such topics. It once was the main center of all affairs alike. In regards to the Black church W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “this peculiar institution is the expression of the inner life of a people in a sense seldom true else where.” So, is the Black church at the core of black life today as it once was? Do the institution posses that same viability reported from our history? Is it really addressing the issues of Black people today? Is it living up to the social and moral obligation of Black folk? Or did it throw down the mantle of black cause and adopt a more “diverse” “multi-cultural” approach for humanity?
Tough questions? Sure! Do we bring our own bias to the table? I know I do. But lets get specific. Twin Cities has roughly 30 – 40 different institutions that fit the “profile” of a “Black Church”. This is not to be interpreted as exclusive to Black people. Its simply an alliance with Black progress and addressing the social issues. My limited observation has brought up a few points to take note of:
Point1. In the eyes of the public, not one will profess to say that they are a “Black Church”.
Point2. Outside of being aware of the issues, none will go so far to champion a cause that affects primarily the Black community (we know what affect Black folk impacts everyone else).
Point3. The obsession with my “own” congregation has done more to discourage any attempts at a unified collaboration than to encourage it.
Point4. Too few actually climb out the walls of their actual building and do church amongst the community.
Point5. The leadership amongst these churches (icon on Black) has divorced themselves from the role they have once historically played in the community leaving their conduct to remedial actions that will not extent beyond their partnering social service agencies.
In highlighting the listed elements, I argue that they are not universal, however; there are few to many that share these facts. There has to be a tremendous focus on addressing these concerns and those I haven’t discovered in order to get to the root of the church’s role in the Black community.
We all know that Pastors of L.A. is not an accurate depiction of Black clergy across the nation, but it raises some eyebrows about nature of finanical gain and religious life. Has the Black church bought into the notion of prosperity – in secular terms? Further, can we conclude that the mainstream trend of churches to non-profits have captivated the Black church leaving its missions, visions, actions, and communal connections at the influence of corporates/foundations? This is debatable. Justification has been argued on both sides whether churches should or should not gain the material wealth they “believe” God has blessed them with. Ironically, if God sanctions such riches in the church, why is the community that supports the church suffer such large disparities? The few that stake their institutions on “well to do” Blacks create these empires also known as mega churches. How is it that these prosperous Black churches can develop an economic system to create substantial wealth for the black leadership but cannot create one for the community? I’m seriously curious – has Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Randy Morrison, or Frederick Price proposed an economic plan that has benefited Black progress, save for proper tithing? Carter G. Woodson in his book, “Mis-Education of the Negro” criticized the Black church leadership of the early 1900’s, charging them of ‘fleecing the flock’,
“We must feel equally discouraged when we see a minister driving up on Sunday morning in a Cadillac. He does not come to feed the multitude spiritually. He comes to fleece the flock. The appeal he makes is usually emotional. While the people are feeling happy the expensive machine is granted, the prolonged vacation to use it is easily financed.” –Woodson, Mis-Education of the Negro
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Woodson’s observation parallels the contemporary, but it sure is hard to ignore the Jaguars, the two houses, boats, and expensive vacations that to few of the Black church leadership enjoys.
At this point I might be making you uncomfortable, I hope so because I’m uncomfortable. But as loved ones of this institution we have to have that James Baldwin courage and stare the truth down and speak on it. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Baldwin, Speech in Harlem 1951.
Maybe the lack of social obligation to the Black community rests upon the distilled, paralysis created from “non-profitism”. There are benefits to communities when businesses, corporations, foundations, and sponsorships can offer financial support to church programming and their missions. Mainly, it supports the church’s capacity to do what it does. The problem develops when the Black church navigates its mission, conduct, programming, and services to seek funding. Much of the work becomes dictated by the “trend”. What’s hot what’s not? Who are potential allies? Who can be a detrimental association? What programming can we create that can be funded? The service to the Black populace is put on the back burner and the priority is to maintain enough neutrality to obtain the support. The Black church becomes an institution that isn’t for the community, but to use the community. The difference is not subtle. Dis-tastefully we have to ask ourselves the hard question, who is actually more obliged to the Black community? The foundations or the Black church?
I’ll conclude on this notion, if anyone knows a hair fraction of history, the respect, reverence, and deep admiration for the Black church would be a given. It is inter-woven in the fabric of Black activist’ organizing and leadership which was the catalyst for democracy in American less then five decades ago. This institution has to be loved and honored. I contend that it remains to be an oasis of guidance and moral contingency for the Black community. However, it is clear that we have some issues that need to be addressed.