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Black America is under siege.  Black faith institutions, particularly Black churches, are being undermined on a number of fronts – culturally, via disunity, via fear, paternalism and misogyny, and plain old bribes.  Though there is a historic precedent to undermine the lives of African-Americans, African-Americans are weathering new and continuing assaults on a number of fronts:

  • Lies regarding Social Security (privatization will help us gain more benefits);
  • Lies about Iraq (Weapons of Mass Destruction), which have cost over 1,500 American lives and has unnecessarily placed African-Americans and other over-represented groups in the military in harm’s way;
  • The continued weakening of affirmative action (someone please define “affirmative access” for me);

Propping up a new black “leadership” (consider Armstrong Williams, Janice Brown, Condoleeza Rice and other “pet negroes”) by white conservatives, and;

  • Higher rates of unemployment and underemployment;
  • The movement of white “Christian” fundamentalists, some conservatives, and those who voted for President Bush based on “moral values” to not only create a theocracy (with the overt and covert action of Bush and his cronies) but to shape God in their own image.  These are the same type of people that have historically told black people to be obedient to their masters during slavery, accept their poor lots in life, and to wait for the “sweet by and by.”

Perhaps the most insidious and evil affront to African-Americans has been to its children.  During the years of our first “Black” president, Bill Clinton, examine the following excerpt from the Monday, May 9 edition of the newsletter:

To gain access to hundreds of HIV-infected foster children, federally funded researchers promised in writing to provide an independent advocate to safeguard the kids' well-being as they tested potent AIDS drugs. But most of the time, that special protection never materialized, an Associated Press review has found.

(…) The practice ensured that foster children, mostly poor or minority, received care from world-class researchers at government expense, slowing their rate of death and extending their lives. But it also exposed a vulnerable population to the risks of medical research and drugs that were known to have serious side effects in adults and for which the safety for children was unknown.

This modern-day Tuskegee Experiment has been coupled with several other affronts to African-Americans:

1. The Undermining of Hip-Hop – as one of the originators (along with Latinos) of this movement or culture, control of the artistic side, rap music, is mainly controlled by white executives who have no problem promoting the most ignorant, most misogynist, and most materialist of performers in order to make money.  Granted, they do not hold a gun to these artists’ heads, but those artists will dance to the piper’s tune to create the music that sells.  Moreover, there is a more sinister (if inadvertent) result of promoting negative black artists: as Hip-Hop is promoted around the world, white promoters are creating a new cadre of “white” people in terms of attitudes towards African-Americans – the grinning, dancing, lazy, unaware, and violent African-Americans.  How can foreign visitors or immigrants think any differently of black people as Hip-Hop along with the other negative images of African-Americans via other forms of media are thrust upon them?

A quick example of how people from other countries perceive black people can be found via the May 19 edition of the newsletter:

[Mexico] President Vicente Fox tried to smooth relations with the U.S. black community yesterday after saying Mexican immigrants take jobs that "not even" blacks want, promising to work with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to improve labor rights for people of color in the United States.

President Fox’s comment reveals what he thinks of African-Americans – we are the lowest of the low.  What helped Fox’s perspective?  It is not necessarily Hip-Hop but, it is the same type of corporations that fuel American media.

2. The Bush Administration’s Approach to Gangs: explore the following commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson from the May 12 e-mail newsletter:

“The Congressional panic over gangs makes even less sense considering that juvenile crime, according to FBI crime figures, has dropped, and more states faced with ballooning deficits have scrapped their lock em up and toss the key measures. That approach has dumped more than 2 million prisoners in America's jails. That gives America the dubious distinction of running the world's largest prison warehouse system. States now opt for job training, drug treatment, and counseling programs as more cost effective ways to deal with crime. The bill also flies in the face of the much-touted anti-gang initiative that Bush unveiled in his State of the Union Address in January. Bush said that he'd shell out $150 million to youth education and violence prevention programs that target at-risk youth. Bush promptly dispatched wife, Laura, to several inner city neighborhoods to meet with community leaders, educators, and gang intervention specialists to get a White House handle on the problem.”

Laura Bush, a de facto “Anti-gang Czar?”  This scenario should cause The Black Church to pray and “just say no!”

3. Insults to and the Leasing of the Black Church: One of the biggest insults to The Black Church was committed by the athletic shoe giant Nike.  A commercial featuring basketball superstar LeBron James and comedian Bernie Mac has Mac as the “preacher” in a basketball court which is set up like a church made up of famous basketball players such as Jerry West and Julius “Dr. J” Erving as “congregants.”  Bernie Mac proclaims the coming of a “savior” and initiates the “call and response” style found in some black churches by asking the congregation “Can I get a lay-up?” which mocks black preachers asking the congregation “Can I get an amen?” James portrayed as a “savior” appears handling a basketball as the congregation “worships” (although exaggerated for a supposed comic effect) in awe with the type of music and dancing found in some black churches.  Nike felt it could get away with mocking elements of black worship given that the National Basketball Association is primarily black in terms of players and since Nike is an extremely popular brand with black youth.  Nevertheless, Nike would not do a series of commercials in a synagogue or mosque-type setting.  Nike seems to have this penchant for using or pandering to nonwhite people with its refusal to pay living wages to those (primarily Asian) making its shoes and taking for granted sales of its shoes to black people.

Speaking of taking things for granted; politically, the Democratic Party has taken black votes for granted for decades with little in return for black communities.  Progressive and black voices within the party are being pushed aside in order to make the Party a light version of the Republican Party by directing its energies to win the votes of those in the “Red States,” “Soccer Moms,” and “NASCAR Dads,” which are code words for white lower- or middle-class voters.  The Democratic Party has so much disrespect for black communities they believe if they make some cursory or last-minute visit to churches, the NAACP, Urban League, or black neighborhoods, blacks will come out in large numbers and vote for their candidates.  Historically, African-Americans have responded to these weak overtures; but according to the May 25 edition of the newsletter, Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, Howard Dean feels a rising tide of black resentment:

Black voters are upset with the Democratic Party for coming around just weeks before elections seeking their votes, party chairman Howard Dean said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

Taking black voters for granted is a long-standing problem for the party that dates to the 1960s, said Dean, who promised changes in strategy even as he cited diversity at the top of the Democratic National Committee.

"Blacks are annoyed with the Democratic Party because we ask them for their votes four weeks before the election instead of being in the community now and that's a mistake I'm trying to fix," he said. "There's a new generation of African-American leaders and a new generation of African Americans. We can't go out and say could you vote for us because we were so helpful during the civil-rights era." 

In terms of politics, some black churches are being rented via faith-based grants to help them develop or maintain programs.  On the surface, this looks like normal, everyday resource development for nonprofit corporations (many churches have the Internal Revenue Service [IRS] designation 501 (c) 3).  However, when the Bush administration uses these ministers as “photo-ops” and these ministers sing Bush’s praises because they got grant money or because he resonates their concerns regarding gay rights issues or abortion, it creates a number of illusions: that significant numbers of black people support him and that George Bush cares about nonwhite and/or poor people.  Conversely, these illusions are far from the truth, especially since he does not support any raises in the minimum wage and believes in a new type of “voodoo economics” (a term used by Ronald Reagan criticizing George Herbert Walker Bush’s [“Dubya’s” father] approach to address the nation’s economy during the 1980 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination) to craft a budget with deep cuts to social programs while making the budget to fund the occupation of Iraq a separate document.

My own commitment

As a faith-based organization advocate and consultant for over eleven years, all I wanted to do is to make sure the community development corporations (CDCs) associated with or developed by faith institutions (not the faith institution itself) to have more opportunities to secure grants.  For the faith institution itself, I wanted it to have representation on more corporate and nonprofit boards and be involved or have access to any community economic development projects initiated by the public and private sectors.  In short, I wanted it to serve as a community watchdog and address equity and justice issues while speaking for the powerless or the ignored. 

President Bush, white conservatives, and their black flunkies have bastardized the faith-based (which is not just Christian) movement to control particularly black churches and create a white-controlled, fundamentalist Christian “New World Order.”  Essentially, Bush, et al have become self-appointed, Koran-desecrating, Christian prophets and begun a religious/social/cultural Armageddon with the premise that “our (Christian, conservative, white) God is better than your God (insert your choice here).”  Some black ministers are pawns in this war and are allowing a new sort of blasphemy to surface.  Nevertheless, this does not mean that black faith-based organizations should not seek government grant money because it is our tax money; it is just that this money should be sought and accepted with extreme caution.  Any mistakes in the use of this money make have serious consequences for our black religious leaders, especially if they are unafraid to challenge the president’s policies.  And for those black conservative leaders that, in addition to getting government grant money, believe that they also have access and influence with the president remember this: just because you can walk through the front door of the White House does not mean you are IN the White House!

For better or worse, America, unwittingly, has made Black America its conscience; America speaks of freedom, yet African-Americans have known Massa’s lash and Jim Crow, America speaks of justice, yet is committed to making black people the overwhelming population in its justice system, America speaks of opportunity, yet undermines black children by not properly investing in its public education system (which could be a major influence on low black and Latino high school graduation rates).  In short, as in the movie, The Matrix, black people are the “glitch in the system” and points out when the system changes things unfairly or without warning towards its citizens.  The Black Church, as Black America’s most stable and prominent institution, bears the brunt of speaking out against the daily indignities leveled at African-Americans.

However, as one of the main defenders and advocates of Black America, it stands to “clean its own house” to solidify its stature as a leader and advocate in black communities.  First, it must remain prophetic.  But the main challenge to one of its greatest functions is government money; receiving grant money is fine to support programs, however, it should not purchase silence to administrations that are counterproductive to Black America.  The Black Church must remain vigilant in telling America when it is right and when it is wrong.  It cannot mimic much of the news media and cower to Bush.  Consider the following quote by Reverend Grayland Hagler, national president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice and is pastor at the Plymouth Congregational Church UCC in Washington, D.C.:

”Bush is able to portray himself as 'pro-life' while his policies have killed people. He has sent folks into harm's way in Iraq and his waging war has killed we don't know how many Iraqis. When Bush was governor of Texas he signed more death warrants than any other governor. If you have principles and moral standards that are real then they apply in all cases. If you don't, then it is simple hypocrisy."

This quote raises a number of important questions:

  • Could black ministers make a similarly bold statement?
  • How can black churches call to task the Bush administration’s lies regarding Iraq and supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction or other lies when taking government money?
  • Could some black churches weather the storm or dare risk being distanced by Bush when receiving government grants?

In relation to the third question, we should all be cognizant of President Bush’s uncanny ability to distance people or institutions that do not agree or follow his ideology (or the ideology given to him by Republican strategist, Karl Rove) without sanction.  Mull over his association with former Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Whenever Powell used his own ideas or failed to follow the company line, the administration seemed to “keep him out of the loop,” so to speak.  Notice that Mr. Powell has become more critical of the administration since he has resigned.  (Now, if only the Church can intellectually “lay hands” on new Secretary of State Rice but then, I guess there are some things even The Black Church cannot do.  We can always pray for her enlightenment.) 

Moreover, within its ability to be prophetic The Black Church must be able to decipher and challenge American myth.  America likes to sell dreams and illusions.  To its citizens it promotes the “self-made” man or woman, where an individual rises above all odds to individual success.  It is an extension “if one works hard, one will succeed” illusion.  In reality, there is no such thing as the “self-made” person; “successful” people are supported by the people around them whether it is moral support, financial support, or informational support.  Many people get jobs because they “know somebody” or part of some informal network comprising of friends, neighbors and relatives.  In essence, many people succeed because of communal relationships.  Churches create community; churches are communities.  Churches, especially black churches, must remind America that many people work hard and do not “succeed” as they work without health insurance, low wages, and the like.  It must also be wary of the African-Americans it likes to promote.  For example, America loves Oprah Winfrey – she is safe because she refuses to challenge systems or speak out on anything that truly harms Black America.  However, there is something Oprah “preaches” that could be viewed as the antithesis of The Black Church.  To highlight this observation Nelson (2002) notes the following:

At the center of Oprah's mission, of course, is her daily TV talk show, which entered its 17th season this fall. Amid its hodgepodge of topics - female war correspondents, the decorating challenged, moms who are mean to their kids, crime victims who forgive their assailants, and, oh yes, the quest to lose weight – Oprah stresses a message: Make yourself happy.

Oprah's work is about maximizing happiness for oneself and thereby for others. Make yourself happier, make your family happier, make your community happy, and better, by "using" your life. Far from being distinct, "happier" and "better" are pretty much synonymous in Oprah's world. From a biblical standpoint, her teaching is idiosyncratic, like her name – a misspelling of Orpah, Naomi's other daughter-in-law in the Book of Ruth.

From a Black Church perspective, Oprah’s ideas could be viewed as “out of sync” with African-Americans because, the strength of the black community lies in its connectedness—and seeking personal satisfaction first goes against beliefs that we can also gain redemption and happiness by helping others.  If we follow Oprah Winfrey’s perspective, we would never help other people because we would be so consumed with our own personal happiness.  This is the ultimate hubris of what has been called “The ‘Me’ Generation.”  But then, perhaps she is only reflecting the desires or mores of white America – most of Oprah’s viewers are white women.  Similarly, The Black Church must remain ever-vigilant in defining and re-defining what it is to be successful and remind America there are only four things in life in which we will be remembered: our faith, our family, our friends, and our works, NOT our bank accounts, houses, cars, or jobs.

The Black Church must go beyond reactionary politics and using conflict models to address indignities leveled at Black America.  At times, it seems like the only time that black church leaders get together is when some insanely egregious act or slight has been leveled within black communities such as senseless murders and other acts of overt racism.  Using conflict models of change such as protest marches, boycotts, and making statements of righteous anger will continue to be needed and are effective but, we in the church must create systems and partnerships that examine inequalities and affronts to Black life on a daily basis.  Perhaps that way we, in the church, may be able to head off or predict when a major affront will happen.

Next, the Black Church must do a better job in “tooting its own horn.”  In Black churches across America, there are tens of thousands of wonderful programs such as tutorial programs, job training, health clinics, housing developments, and businesses being operated with tremendous results.  It must highlight these achievements, especially ecumenical or interfaith activities, through videos, books, submitting articles to the press, and the like.  The Black Church must reaffirm and validate itself.  Moreover, The Black Church must reaffirm itself through writing.  Pastors must write more books and articles, especially academic journals and Christian magazines.  Black pastors must explain and continue to define black theology.  Theology is the study of faith seeking understanding.  The way Black pastors interpret the Word, define our faith, and live our faith is our gift to the world.  Theology has, for too long, been defined by white males; their work is considered “valid” and “scholarly.” Black theology is special because it has been forged and developed via hope, oppression, anger, and vision.  It is a special perspective that must be shared.  God gave us many gifts including the gifts of intellect, passion, and prophecy; we must share this perspective with the world because black theology is a freeing and revolutionary theology.

Black Church validation has to also take place via its structures, particularly when it comes to the role of women. In many Black churches, there are men in the pulpit and women in the pews.  Black churches must nurture and develop female ministers in order to survive for if women left black churches en masse there would be no Black Church!  Sisters have the word of God and light of Christ in them so, we in the church, must encourage them to proclaim their faith via leadership positions within the church, especially as pastor.  The Black Church can revolutionize Christianity if more women took their rightful place in the pulpit.

The Black Church must address a number of issues to remain relevant, including:

Sex: Sex is not “the nasty” or any other derogatory name.  Granted, people do things to defile sex instead of it being part of a committed, loving relationship.  Humans are sexual beings, however, it is up to the church to create and facilitate open dialogues about sex, particularly when it comes to young people.  Sex goes way beyond the physical; there are also mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial aspects to it in which the church must highlight and make cognizant within black communities.  This will not be an easy task but, black churches must address it because if it does not, society will continue to define sex and sexual mores which could be to the detriment to any community, especially black communities.  Nevertheless, as black churches engage in facilitating discussion and addressing sexual issues, it must do so in a loving, non-punitive environment.  Failure to do so may get in the way of arriving at truth, making corrections to negative behaviors, and passing out needed information.

Drugs: Drug abuse of legal and illegal substances is tearing at the American social fabric in terms of crime, the destruction of relationships, disease, mental health, and lost productivity.  The Black Church must continue and/or develop partnerships with the medical and mental health communities to address drug abuse and misuse.  The Church must particularly explore the issue of drugs as it relates to prescription drugs and children.  Drugs could be inadvertently prescribed to children to quiet them when, in reality, they may need more structure and attention from their parents, their communities, and their schools.

Education: Black churches since their inception have been leading advocates for education in terms of providing scholarships, training, defining policy, supplying cultural development, and advocacy.  However, it should strengthen its efforts in terms of advocacy regarding student labeling.  Racism within the American educational system has led to steering black students away from college prep courses and into special education, vocational education, and learning disabled programs when, at times, it is unnecessary.  These actions can be viewed as one of the greatest threats to black communities because it will determine our future leadership. 

Health: Black people overall, have poorer health and less access to quality health care than our white counterparts.  Black churches have been in the forefront in addressing black community health needs via health clinics, health screenings, food/nutrition programs and the like.  Nevertheless, greater emphases can be placed on mental health and addressing HIV/AIDS.  The Church must help to remove the stigma associated with these diseases and must remove the stigma or fear in our community in terms of seeking mental health counseling.  Seeking mental health counseling does not suggest one is “crazy.”  In fact, black churches would do well in being part of an effort to help people with their issues; it will not only open the door to healing but allow people to be more productive.  For example, my church, Tried Stone Baptist Church in Detroit, has developed a concept called “Social Renurturing.”  We believe in holistic community development and redemption, where the individual, despite his or her past, or the institutions that have failed him or her, will rise above it all to be spiritually empowered, psychologically whole, and professionally able to function in the community.  In turn, the community is healed and revitalized.  Nonetheless, this community revitalization cannot begin until the individual confronts his or her past.

Ultimately, The Black Church must take the lead in addressing black America’s issues; the times demand that it use its vast financial, social, organizational, and political resources to ward off the national and even international indignities leveled at Black communities.  With that responsibility, it must nurture and retool itself to maintain its vibrancy and legitimacy.  Of course, there are numerous other issues The Black Church is and should be addressing and will be explored in future articles.

Reverend Reynard Blake, Jr. is a Baptist minister from East Lansing, Michigan and president of Community Development Associates, a firm committed to faith-based and nonprofit training and research.  He serves as minister of community development at Tried Stone Baptist Church in Detroit.  He is also a graduate student in Pastoral Ministry at Marygrove College in Detroit.  He can be reached at [email protected] .


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June 23 2005
Issue 143

is published every Thursday.

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