The Mis-Education of the Black Church
“I am of the sound mind and perspective that the severe trauma and emotional sufferings of African American people based on living in this society is deep and generational...These wounds are deep. However, African Americans as a community have not healed from these wounds. Instead...I believe that our churches have served in many cases to put a balm over our suffering, but the alarming trends in our communities indicate that our churches have been very ineffective in addressing the psychological and emotional legacies of pain and sorrow of African Americans..”
- Rev. Tamara Lewis
The black church is no longer the respected haven for community action and social/political change that it once was.
I grew up in church. Sunday school, Sunday morning service as a junior deacon, after church youth meetings, Monday night church meetings, Tuesday night's gender-specific/youth bible study, Wednesday night's mass bible study, Thursday night mass choir rehearsal, Friday night Praise & Worship rehearsal and youth outing, Saturday afternoon car washes preceded by youth choir and Praise & Worship rehearsals - there was always some reason I found myself in church. My required involvement - thanks to my mother - progressed to voluntary and then mandatory. My desire to invest in my own personal growth was always compounded by the oxymoron of being a Christian Black boy. I grew up believing that staying in church, being spiritually strong and consciously virtuous, would keep me out of trouble and out of harm's way.
The church, though, is a mere steeple in the countryside of the 'hood'. Urban, desolate Detroit could not have felt more widespread and rural; the source of my fortitude felt light years away when I was at school. I actually craved church, yearning for the place I knew I didn't have to fight, shoot, or be cornered into defending myself and my sister. The older I got though, the more I felt myself being the initiator in the relationship. Church drama, as all are guilty of, tinted the once-welcoming stained glass windows smeared with a "Come As You Are" decal. Eventually, the place that I sought-after no longer sought me.
It is imperative for the black church of 2015 and beyond to innovate if it plans to save itself and its young people. Many churches served as "stations" for slaves attempting to escape via the Underground Railroad. Many churches were burned down during the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror against African Americans. Through community perseverance and a powerful sense of unity, the black church was home to one of the greatest movements for social and political equality in history - the Civil Rights Movement. Communities prayed together, respected each other, uplifted each other, and even fought and died together. That unity and communal respect is dead, and I’m not sorry to announce that the youth did not kill it. Just as racism and hatred have to be taught to kids by adults for them act on it, unity, service, forgiveness, and overall morality obviously starts at home, but can definitely be reinforced and emulated in church. The church is more consumed with its own problems instead of investing time and values into youth that are hungry for change, guidance, and love. Schools get blamed unfairly for contributing to the downfall of the new generation, but the church must assume some responsibility.
I’ve had personal conversations with adults from a wide range of ages that unanimously agree that the youth of today and tomorrow are in trouble. Social media, rap music, peer pressure, pop culture, and technology are the culprits blamed for the apathy, insensitivity, fearlessness, defiance and dysfunction of today’s youth. People feel that kids should have common sense for this and be responsible for that. As a teacher though, I feel sorry for kids. They spend upwards of 3 hours (round trip) on school buses, 8-9 hours in a school day with only the state-mandated 90 minutes a week of physical activity, and who knows how many hours on homework, especially if they have to figure out how to do it. Kids don't have time to be kids anymore, and instead of opening its doors to them, the church finger points, shakes its head, criticizes, judges, humiliates, and - worst of all - ignores them. Therefore, kids and young adults alike turn to the world, each other, and away from the church. A lot of times adults can't look past their own issues and end up ignoring or being blind to that of the youth around them (but we can't seem to figure out why kids are so socially awkward or why teen suicide rates are so high). Young people are just trying to get by, and a lot of them are raising themselves and each other. If they (we) are the future, then we are in serious trouble, because the church has done a poor job of modeling the behavior it unfairly expects from young people.
So what happened? Did unity and nonviolence die with MLK at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968? Was it the militant Black Power Movement that stripped the church of its influence? Did the spread of hip-hop culture during the 70s, 80s, and 90s subside the church’s relevance? Has the church contradicted itself with its support of the fight against bullying in schools and its vehement (and public) anti-gay message? Are scholarship programs enough if there are few systems in place to make sure youth graduate (both from high school and from college) or even know how to fill out a FAFSA? Are reality shows featuring your favorite pastor or gospel singer making a public mockery of church? Has the financial burden, or the fiscal responsibility beyond the required 10% of tithes rubbed too many people the wrong way? Is a $65 million jet something we should even be having a conversation about? Have youth pushed church away, or has the church ignored the youth?
We won’t know unless we ask. So here I am asking…..what do you think? Let's start the dialogue, but let it end in change. I ask these constructively, not destructively, because I believe in the power of community and the special role church has in it. What role should the institution of church, or any religious entity for that matter, play in the community? What resources, support, and organizational consultation does it need to be a support and not a hindrance to the community? The answer is complex, but I am sure the solution is not what the church has become.