In Praise of the Black Church
The Black or African-American Church is a great, but largely unsung, spiritual force and tradition in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. Day seems a good day to honor the black church, from which King himself emerged.
I am grateful to my own church experience in the Congregational/ United Church of Christ for providing points of connection to the black church tradition and experience. It began early, when I was a young person growing up in the Washington, D. C. area at the time of the Civil Rights Movement. My own Congregational Church introduced me to the worship of the black church as partnerships were formed between different faith communities.
More recently, when I was at Plymouth Church in Seattle we had a significant partnership with Seattle’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church. I had the privilege of preaching at Mt. Zion a number of times over the years. It took me a while to figure out that the standard 20 minute sermon of the white church didn’t cut it. But after I did it was a great joy to be there and to work together in a variety of ways with Mt. Zion pastors, Samuel B. McKinney and Leslie David Braxton.
There have been other points of intersection for me with this tradition, some occasioned by our daughter, Laura, going to seminary in Atlanta. At Candler Divinity School (Emory) the majority of the students are African-American. In addition, I’ve been friends for a number of years with Atlanta area pastor, Kenneth Samuel, founder of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. And another friendship, with Joyce and Aaron Johnson, has drawn us into the world of Morehouse and Spelman Colleges there in Atlanta.
What I have found so compelling in the black church is its holding together a deep sense of the power of the living God and a commitment to justice. Too often justice-oriented white congregations lack the vivid sense of a living and active God, while more conservative white churches that may be stronger in that respect. but are weak on justice and social awareness.
In one of my friend, Fleming Rutledge’s books, And God Spoke to Abraham, Fleming quotes from a remarkable source, an FBI tape of a service at Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church during the Civil Rights Movement. The FBI was looking for Communists and others they thought of as threats and so infiltrated churches. Fleming’s friend, the biblical scholar J. Lewis Martyn, heard one such tape, archived at the Riverside Church in New York, and reported on it as follows:
“On the evening in question, the freedom songs had been sung and the gospel preached with the contagious emotions found in the midst of the struggle. Now it was time to hear from the visitors who have flown in during the afternoon to add their encouragement. One of these is a greatly and justly loved figure from the sports world [Jackie Robinson]. He begins his speech by remarking, ‘You people are doing a great thing here in Birmingham.” At this, one hears a few feet shuffling back and forth. After three or four sentences he says again, ‘It is a great thing you people are doing here.” Shufflings of the feet, to which is added a few clearings of the throat. Several sentences later, he returns to what is now obviously his theme: ‘. . . You are doing a great thing here in Birmingham.’ Now shufflings of the feet and clearings of the throat will no longer suffice. One of the old deacons interrupts the speaker, politely but firmly, by calling out ‘We are not doing this! God is doing this!”
A living and active God — amid the struggle for justice and change. This is the great legacy of the black church as I have experienced it.
Some will of course wonder, even protest, that church continues to be as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “the most segregated hour of the week.” That is a tough thing. But whites have to recognize that the black church has sustained a people in the face of great suffering and challenge and so holds a very special place in black culture. Moreover, many white churches and denominations have historically barred African-Americans from participation. Today more churches are working today at being authentically multi-racial and multi-cultural. That isn’t easy, but it is being done, for which we can be grateful.
But we can also be grateful for the wonderful continuing tradition of the black church and its many gifts to the whole church and to our society. Life every voice and sing!