June was a tragicomic month for black churches. The racially motivated terrorist attack at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine saints dead and countless others in mourning. Soon thereafter reports of church arsons throughout the South flooded social media. Though some of these church burnings were allegedly ignited by electrical fires, there is still the eerie sense that black churches are under attack. Then, again in South Carolina, women pastors of AME churches received death threat letters. All of these events happened within days of each other. The last two weeks of June were tragic for black churches.
But these tragic moments have renewed interests in defining and defending the history and contemporary significance of churches predominated by black Christians. For one, the fact that so much attention has been placed on AME churches should remind us of how that denomination was established. Free blacks praying at the altar of St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were thrown out of the sanctuary because of the color of their skin. Prior to that experience these freed blacks engaged with religious zeal in helping their people with spiritual, social, and material welfare through the Free African Society. That zeal was greatly emboldened after the loveless scene that occurred at St George’s. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born praying on its knees and called Christian Africans to stand up for “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit our Comforter, humankind our family” in the face of idol of racism.
The AME tradition wasn’t alone in reforming the Church in America. Movements like the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., and the Church of God in Christ contributed to protests against racism and religious drift. Sometimes these movements were formed to address missionary and educational needs for Africans in America and in the Motherland. Others came into being as protests within the black church tradition, calling churches to holiness of life even as they fought for justice in the nation.
To be sure, the term “black church” is grossly misleading. Though it’s shorthand for those churches and collection of churches led, founded by and largely serving black communities, the term can obscure the intrinsic, inherent, and dynamic theological, cultural, and social diversity within and between churches so called. For instance, a Church of God in Christ in rural Mississippi may be very different from an urbane AME church in Connecticut. Together these churches exist in creative tension, offering the Body of Christ accents and distinctives that nourish the global Church’s identity and mission.
Usually these debates happen within the holy nation within the nation. The black church is often seen as a subculture maybe relevant during Black History Month. But since running for and being elected to the office of President, Barack Obama has brought the black church debate into the mainstream at least twice. During his 2008 campaign then Senator Obama had to respond to a soundbite from his now former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. The black church and black liberation theology were taken up in discourse around the dinner table and in front of the TV scene following Wright’s 15 minutes of defamation and Obama’s initial defense of and later distancing from Pastor Wright. The uninitiated questioned the theological integrity of black churches and the validity of their Christianity. Others still defended the black church’s social and political witness during the Civil Rights movement, giving little attention to the pastoral and spiritual dimensions of the church that are seemingly irrelevant for those who don’t have time for old time religion. Though fruitful in many ways, the national debate around the black church that extended from 2008 to about 2010 was reactionary, stereotyped, and in many ways unhelpful.
Most recently President Obama has again stepped into the conversation about black churches with his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The funeral itself and the President’s garce message (along with his extemporaneous singing of “Amazing Grace”) were seen voyeuristically by cable news pundits and black academics alike. Everyone tried to interpret the moment without actually asking the people present, especially the bereaved family, how they received that moment in time. Nevertheless, once again the nation tried to sort out the unique liturgical and theological content and context of a black church and its slain. I’m not sure if we did any better in 2015 than we did in 2008. But I am glad that through the tragedies of June has come a brighter sun shining light on black churches and why they matter still.
Hopefully the ensuing months will reinvigorate our appreciation and challenge of the black church tradition, in all its diversity, so that present and future generations can know the God of our weary years through it. We indeed need revival and reform so that God may be glorified through us and that the nation receive again, as always, our prophetic witness. And as we check the nation, let’s also call ourselves to repentance.
We cannot miss this moment to remind ourselves and to tell the world that #BlackChurchesMatter.