For most of my life, I have been in and out of the black church, and it has been a spiritually formative and resonant space. The dynamism of the preaching, the soul of the music, the embodiment of worship, the scents of soft peppermints or smoking gold balls (yeah, they exist) — all these characteristics combine to create the black church experience. Even when I have turned my back on it, the black church beckons me with her call to justice and endurance in the black community.
So here’s a list of what I wish everyone knew about the black church, some of it born out of personal experience and some contributions from friends and colleagues.
1. Not all black church pastors whoop.
When children play church, especially black children, one of the things they know how to do well is to be a whooping preacher. They scream, they shout, they sing, and they breathe heavy and hard into their faux microphones. Yet, as popular as the style is in some black church pulpits, it isn’t style of all black church pastors. As a CNN article noted, some in the black church are divided on the efficacy of whooping, so just because you’re in a black church, don’t expect to hear a whoop.
2. The black church is not a bastion of prosperity gospel preaching.
Reality television and televangelists aside, the black church is not all about the prosperity gospel. At its roots, the black church is an institution founded on social justice principles — it carried us through slavery, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Era, and our so-called post-racial state. While aspects of prosperity teaching have been an underlying philosophy that delivered/delivers us out of all of those stages, its current usage and parlance is misguided and not representative of the whole black church experience.
3. Some black churches have white pastors.
Four days after 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot by a white police officer, Renita Lamkin took a rubber bullet as she attempted to mediate between the police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Lamkin is the pastor of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she is a white woman. She is one of a few other white people who are in pastoral leadership over a black congregation. One of the first documented instances of a white person over a black church congregation was Dedra Ann Kimensky, who was the first white woman ordained as pastor to an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.
4. Black women keep the black church going.
Black women are often relegated to the periphery of the church, yet these same women have been integral to sustaining the church. In the early days of the black church, women’s ingenuity in fundraising helped to build and sustain churches, schools, and social services. In more recent decades, black women have led the church further, including Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first woman appointed as bishop in the AME church, and Bishop Yvette Flunder, who has been one of the most visible and vocal pioneers of radical inclusivity in the black church.
5. Black churches are beginning to shake off homophobia.
In a 2009 survey, 46 percent of members of historically black churches said that homosexuality should be discouraged by society (compared to 40 percent of the total population). People in black churches will tell you that those numbers are probably low, given current attitudes. But things are changing. While it is rare to find an open and affirming black church, churches such as the City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, Covenant Baptist in Washington, D.C., Trinity UCC in Chicago, and Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia are the early sites of change.
6. Some black churches are Catholic.
Newsflash: not all black churches are Protestant. Up until five years ago, I didn’t know there were black Catholics, let alone black parishes — the black Protestant church can be a seriously isolated space. My first encounter with a black Catholic parish was St. Anthony of Padua in Atlanta’s West End. Little did I know that a black Catholic parish would pull on my heartstrings as I was in the midst of my theological education. I now am a frequent visitor of Our Lady of Lourdes, a 102-year-old black parish located in the heart of the Martin Luther King historic district of Atlanta.
7. Black church choirs sing contemporary Christian music.
The black church is the birthplace of some of our most treasured voices in both gospel and popular music. It was the place where Negro Spirituals were redemption songs and remains the place where church chorales take on those historic works. But among spirituals, hymns, and contemporary gospel songs, black churches also take on the works of white contemporary Christian artists, from Michael W. Smith’s “Here I Am To Worship” to Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” — although you should expect those songs to be remixed to fit the music minister’s tastes.
8. Non-black people attend black churches.
Black churches are still some of the most segregated spaces in religion — just like white churches, Asian churches, and so on. But white people do worship at black congregations, often as members and not just outliers.
9. Millennials aren’t leaving the black church.
The much-reported mass exodus from Christianity isn’t happening is the black church or among black people of faith. One reason, as Bryan T. Calvin has written, is the church’s status as the locus for social justice organizing, and another is that it is a primary place of refuge for those who work in predominantly white settings. Also, black Millennials are starting their own churches, ones that are steeped in the historical consciousness of the black church, but that also pay special attention to other marginalized groups within the church.
10. The black church is all around us.
I can say a great many things about what I wish people knew about the black church, but I will leave you with this last thought: the black church has touched the world beyond its walls. From its bent toward social justice, which has helped mobilized people for decades, to its soulful music, which has moved people of all races and ethnicities, to its compelling preaching style, which has shaped the course of American history, traces of the black church can be felt all around us.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.