I was speaking with a colleague recently about the issue of White and Black Churches and God’s intention for humanity. At the beginning of this conversation, he stated that he had recently visited a Lutheran church that was located in “the hood” and the congregation was 98% Black (from what he could see). So far, nothing surprising right? Well, as he continued to tell me about his visit, he told me that the pastor of this majority Black congregation was White. Instantly, a red flag (or maybe it was a Black fist, not sure) went up. How is it that a majority Black congregation, located in an urban environment is being led by a White man? I interrupted his story with the comment, “Slave-master/slave relationship.” By this, I meant that the sight, or even notion, of a majority Black congregation being led by a White man was problematic for me? How can he, a White man who, regardless of upbringing, is set in a place of priveledge when juxtaposed against his congregation, speak the people on a “soul level.” How can he speak to the social issues being dealt by members of his congregation? How can he identify with the true needs of the congregation? Sure, he can deliver a message on Sunday that sounds real nice, probably throw some quotes from Joel Osteen in there, and conclude with “Jesus Loves You,” but where does it go from there? Jurgen Moltmann posits,
[W]e can take our bearing from the simple, visible procedure: the community gathers to hear the proclamation, or for a baptism, for the common meal, for the feast and to talk together. Then one person or more gets up in front of the congregation in order to preach the Gospel, to baptize, to prepare the meal, to arrange the feast, and to make his contribution to the discussion. These people come from the community but come forward in front of it to act in Christ’s name. (from The Church in the Power of the Spirit)
Moltmann posits that the leader comes from the community, or in other words, is able to identify with the community. That is how the leader is able to act in Christ’s name, because like Christ, the leader is able to feel the pulse of the community. Well where does this leave the White pastor of this majority Black congregation? How is one who walks in privilege able to identify with the struggles of his congregants? This conversation instantly raised a question for me. Is there still a need for Black and White churches?
Let me start by stating that at this point in my faith journey, I do not ascribe to the “We Are the World” Theology, that promotes the unity of God and creation by erasing our differences. We are different. Black people are different than white people. Any racial dialectic that does not begin with this basic precept is not helpful to the worldwide discussion of race. In his address to the Detroit branch of the NAACP the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright pointed out the major differences between Black people and White people. Among the litany of differences, he included pedagogical differences, cultural differences, and musical differences. However, after rattling of this list of differences, Dr. Wright followed with the assertion, “Different does not mean deficient.” In our society, we have given a negative label to the word “different” and anything that falls into that category. Anything that differs from that norm of society is deemed deviant and this consciousness has even carried over into our understanding of self and community. We have adopted an assimilationist mentality and (throughout history) have attempted to eradicate anything that differs from the norm of America, including basic tenets of our culture. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be Black in a White society. Our Blackness does not make up inferior to White people, it just makes us Black.
The Black experience in America is drastically different than the White experience in America. I won’t insult your intelligence by listing all the differences between the Black and White experience; however, I will highlight a few events to make my point. The spurious interpretation of Christianity that formed the backbone of American Chattel Slavery and the primal foundation of “Black Christianity” continues to affect our communities today. The violation of the “self,” which originated when the first African became a “nigger” and was lowered to the position of an animal, is a ghost that refuses to be vanquished from the modern Black consciousness. Currently, our communities are in limbo between the communal identity of Africa and the individualistic (materialistic, capitalistic) identity of America (originally a European construct). The Black experience and White experience are on two opposite ends of the spectrum.
Because of the drastic differences between Black Americans and White Americans I would postulate that our communities need a church that speaks to our issues and a leader who can truly feel the pulse of our communities because their heart beats with the same rhythm. We need a church that is able to restore the integrity of Christianity and save it from the tragic transfiguration it has undergone at the hands of societies bent on oppressing and subjugating people. I state that “we need a church who is able to restore the integrity of Christianity” because Christianity has undergone a variety of changes throughout its history. Brief History Lesson: What began as a radical message, from a radical messenger, who possessed radical love became watered down when Rome adopted Christianity as it official religion (313 AD by Emperor Constantine). How is it that a religion that critiqued the basic ideals of Roman society (the Roman Imperial cult, oppressive political system, and corrupt economic system) became its religious backbone? Easily, the message was changed, tailored to become less radical. As the center of Christianity shifted towards Europe, even the image of Jesus became more Europeanized. Olive skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed Jesus became the alabaster-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Christ. By removing Jesus from his social context, Europeans removed the radicality of his message. Black theologues must take seriously the task of restoring the true integrity of the Christian faith in order to make the Christian message applicable to Black Americans. Our churches and church leaders must take seriously the task of preaching a relevant word and constructing a relevant theology – not just simply regurgitating the bastard theology of fundamentalist, evangelical, White America.
What is the Black Church? The Black Church is the corpus of Black Christianity that arose out of amalgamation of West African religion and Christianity. Somehow slaves were able to reframe the oppressive interpretation of Christianity into a theology that made it possible to value self, value community, and value God. This form (and I hesitate to call it a singular form because even within the bounds of the Black Church, there are a variety of faith traditions, denominations, and histories) of Christianity sustained the slaves through the darkest days of slavery. This form of Christianity sustained the progeny through the days immediately following emancipation before the dark days of Jim Crow. This form of Christianity provided the moral and religious foundation upon which the Civil Rights Movement was built. This form of Christianity continues to keep watch over our communities, guarding against nihilism, moral decay, and helplessness
Now, I am not racist (as Black people cannot be racist, but that’s another post), not all Black Church leaders are capable of feeling the pulse of their black congregants, and not all White churches promote a bastard Christian theology. Some of our leaders are so concerned with amassing wealth (and thereby buying in to the dominant society) that they are incapable of identifying with the struggles and contentious existence of their congregants. The drive their BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexuses from their gated communities, through the hood to their churches, preach a “word” and leave with a check (pimping the community…hmm…that’s another post too). Never do they stop their luxury cars, roll down their tinted windows, and even attempt to identify with the issues plaguing the community such as poverty, illiteracy, nihilism, violence, and hopelessness. Church, we have work to do.
So do I think we should hang “Colored Only” or “Whites Only” signs from our steeples? No. I believe Thurman when he states, “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile not Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God (Creative Encounter).” I believe whole-heartedly that God intends for humanity to be united in worship as well as united in fellowship. Realistically, however, that day is not here, nor is it near. There is a long way to go before all of humanity can sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” around God’s throne. Furthermore, I believe that the Black Church is not dead, nor is her mission complete. Even in all her drama, her dirt, her struggles, and her insufficiencies the Black Church is beautiful. President Barack Obama refers to the contentious dichotomy of the Black Church when he states,
The [black church] contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
The Black church is still one of the most stable institutions in our communities (those that still remain in our communities and have not forsaken the community for the lure of the suburbs and a more financial stable congregant base). The Black church still serves as an advocate for our communities, speaking out against inadequate police coverage, police brutality, gentrification, dilapidated infrastructure, inferior schools, crime, decay, and more. The Black church still serves as the center of many communities. Even in communities where people don’t attend service, people can still remember when momma nem’ drug them down the street to church. The Black church still serves as the central meeting place of our communities. Even those Black Americans that have left the communities, lured by materialism and individualism, return to the communities to worship, fellowship, and on the occasion, give back.
I believe in unity. I believe in the common thread of humanity. However, until the day comes that humanity is truly united the Black Church has a mission to do. Until the day Black and White is truly reconciled (and there is much reconciliation work that needs to be done), the Black Church still has a mission to do. The Black Church still needs to educate those whom society would throw away. The Black Church needs to empower a community stripped of its power from 400 years of chattel slavery, segregation, and oppression. The Black church still needs to emancipate the minds of her people, lest they become slaves to individualism, drugs, and violence.
The Word of Marcus for the People of God…