Black Churches: Are They Addressing Our Concerns?
Church used to be the cornstone of all activity, what is it now?
In the past decade the black church’s image has been one of mega churches with its Bentley driving pastors. In addition to saving the souls of thousands, pastors branched out to embark on other endeavors outside of the church such as books, production companies, movies and columns in popular Black magazines. The visibility of the Pastor’s brand took precedence over the actual work being done by the church. But prior to the uber successful publicized mega churches, the black church has always been the cornerstone of the black community.
With the dire ills plaguing the black community—mass incarceration, institutionalized racism, HIV/AIDS infection rates, unemployment, health disparities, failing education systems—it’s hard not to wonder if the black church has abandoned the Social Gospel that was once the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 20th century the Social Gospel was popular throughout Protestant Christian churches where social issues were addressed with Christian principles. Due to the lack of resources and institutions blacks had in the 50s and 60s, the black church, in many ways, served as the hub for organizing and vocalizing the social, political and economic desires of blacks in their efforts to gain equality.
Rev. Dr. Jason Curry, Dean of Chapel at Fisk University in Nashville, TN thinks in asking if the black church has abandoned the Social Gospel of the CRM, it is important not to romanticize history. Not every minister was involved in protesting for our rights, he says.
“Dr. King and his followers were not very popular amongst the status quo at that time,” Dr. Curry said.
In the five decades since the CRM many things have changed for blacks. The issues of the right to vote, desegregation and equal schools have been replaced with a new set of challenges. Curry says the playing field has changed, and yes, he believes black churches are continuing to address those ills through community development programs such as housing, creating alternative education through charter schools and job training.
For 29-year-old Lyvonne Briggs, a Yale Divinity School graduate student, there is certainly work to be done by the church. But comparing the black church’s social and political involvement during the CRM versus now is slightly unfair. “It’s hard to compare because during the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s there was a particular moment where it seems like everyone was on the same accord,” said Briggs. “The black church has been the site for social change for so long it’s imperative that we keep that spirit and foster that spirit in our congregations for the sake of our prosperity and future generations because there are so many Black people who go to church.”
According to the PEW Research Center Landscape Survey conducted in 2007, 87 percent of blacks describe themselves as belonging to a religion with 59 percent belonging to historically black Protestant churches. The survey also found that eight in 10 blacks (79 percent) said religion is very important in their lives in comparison to 56 percent of all U.S. adults. With church being the common denominator for where black masses congregate, churches cannot afford to not be politically and socially involved.
Contrary to Curry’s belief that the church is incredibly active with the issues facing blacks today, Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr. pastor of The New Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis, TN says there is absolutely no question that the social and political consciousness of the black church is missing today. Whalum, also the author of “Hip Hop Is Not Our Enemy” referenced a quote he attributes to Dr. King before his assassination, “Preachers aren’t concerned with anybody but themselves.”
“I think Dr. King would be supremely disgusted with one group of people in particular: Black preachers,” said Dr. Whalum. “Black churches have, indeed, dropped the ball on economic empowerment of our own people. The results stare us in the face in cities across the United States, as we drive into and through dilapidated communities to get to our pristine sanctuaries.”
Like anything in life, it’s undeniable that some black churches are in the trenches while others are not. However, the silence of the collective black church is deafening. Even with the thorough research in Michelle Alexander’s brilliant book, “The New Jim Crow,” where is the outcry from the black church on the prison industrial complex? Where was the black church organizing and protesting against the execution of Troy Davis? And why hasn’t the black church en masse supported the Occupy Wall Street movement? Silence. Deafening.
“Members of black churches don’t have the privilege and luxury to miss work to Occupy Wall Street,” said Briggs. “They are underprivileged. They are disenfranchised, and they are silent because they can’t afford, literally and figuratively, to be a part of the movement.”
Curry says the Occupy Wall Street is still in its infantile stages, and once they are able to clearly define their goals more black churches will join. “Certainly there are black ministers front and center of the occupy movement,” said Curry. Rev. Steven Mark Haywood III, Youth Pastor of God’s Household of Faith church in Houston, TX said the Occupy Wall Street movement has both a message and image problem that keeps blacks en masse from joining.
“Regarding the message issue, the Black church has historically attacked concrete issues and turned those into concrete solutions. Blacks can’t vote – Voting Rights Act. Blacks face Jim Crow (de jure and de facto) – Civil Rights Act. So the message of the Civil Rights Movement had laser-like focus on issues with solutions in mind. The OWS movement, on the other hand hasn’t seemed to coalesce around specific issues to tackle, and seems to just exist under the 99% versus 1% mantra,” said Haywood.
Certain members of black churches believe the church’s mission is not to be socially and politically involved. Halimah Suad, 34, of Washington, DC is perfectly fine with the separation of church and state, while Charles Wilmore, 29, of Cumberland County, NJ believes his church does more than enough addressing social issues.
“There are a number of community programs and outreaches,” said Wilmore.
As Briggs pointed out in our interview, the black church itself is hard to define. The black experience is not monolithic. Ask 20 people their opinion on if the black church has abandoned the Social Gospel and you will get 20 different answers. What is clear is there is much work to be done. And as long as the black church remains the core institution for blacks in this country, it’s the church’s responsibility to roll up its sleeves to help solve the issues blacks face today.
“There’s work for our own hands and feet to do,” said Briggs. “The black church and her members are really counting on clergy people to step up and speak out.”