"Prayer is not enough. It’s a start, though."

-Maya King

By Maya King

For more than two centuries, religious institutions have sat at the intersection of pain and liberation within African-American communities. Churches like Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist and Atlanta’s Ebenezer exemplified this, giving birth to the people and movements that defined the Civil Rights Era while providing political capital and a sense of stability to those in its pews. In the absence of mass media and mobile technology, there were few forces stronger than the pulpit.

Today, the Sunday morning charge to take action in the face of injustice does not carry the same power it once did. Black clergy have entered a new era of social change alongside their congregations, forcing them to consider the responsibilities they have to those they serve outside of spiritual guidance. It has ushered in an identity crisis of sorts among a number of Black church leaders as they determine the role fellowship will play in social movements, especially for those in search of more strategy than faith.

“In many ways the church can get in the way of movement work,” said Jason Ajiake, a student activist at Howard University who spoke with me about activism and the Black church. “There’s often the tension that’s between the interests of the organizers and the church. I think that people go to church for guidance on how to live their life. And I think in a lot of ways that guidance comes from a political place. Instead of pushing people to resist that which oppresses them, often the solution [among religious leaders] is for people to show more faith in order to remedy their conditions.”

Organizers like Ajiake understand that the current relationship among churches and social justice movements is a complicated one. It can come with tension, animosity, and above all things, the general misconception thateven if religious and secular leaders are working togetherone could function more successfully in the absence of the other.

“We live in a capitalist, imperialist and white supremacist society. Black people face the brunt of that,” Aijake continued. “People are coming into the church with very political conditions. And I think people are leaving the church with non-political solutions.”

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Yet, the role that the Black church plays as a source of healing and support remains a critical aspect in the lives of organizers and parishioners alike. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 91% of African-Americans find religion important in their lives and 83% attend services semi-regularly.

“To be able to go to a place where you can just be vulnerable is critical. Waking up in a black body is stressful,” said Randi Gloss, an Oakland-based activist and founder of the GLOSSRAGS clothing line. “I can go to church and cry and not feel bad about it. Identity politics, respectability politics can be a barrier to that, but in the house of God, there aren’t supposed to be barriers.”

I spoke with Pastor Michael McBride, National Director for the LIVE FREE Action Network and advisor to the Dream Defenders. “Congregation members are the ones with the closest proximity to loved ones who are directly impacted by mass criminalization, police violence, terrible schools, [or] the vulnerability of Black women and girls,” He remarked. “Black congregation members are the ones who will most likely be in poverty; most likely be living check to check and month to month.”

But as demographics and ideologies shift among Black congregations, the biggest wedge between social justice advocates and church members is not age or ideology—it is a matter of time.

Delman Coates, Senior Pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Maryland, said his activism is informed by an all-inclusive approach to ministry. “When we talk about the Black church, we’re not just talking about the Black preachers. I believe that the power’s in the pews and the power’s in the people,” he said. “People have greater mobility, and as a result of that, faith institutions now are a part of the marketplace with a range of other institutions or organizations as well.”

The Black church is losing relevance among social justice advocates, in part, because they now have access to a wider array of options to explore. Moreover, the rapid rise of mobile technology contrasts sharply with what could be perceived as a general unwillingness among churches to keep up with the change. The power of the pulpit now pales in comparison to that of a tweet or a Facebook post in sending messages.

“There is definitely a needed conversation and acknowledgement around the gap of relationship and alignment between the millennial generation and Black religious institutions,” McBride said. “We have to continue show up, we have to continue to be present, we have to be in alignment and deep conversation, and if we do that, then I think we can quickly overcome this gap.”

Where does this gap begin, though? Perhaps the largest barrier between social justice advocates and church leaders lies in the fact that not all Black religious institutions are willing to make themselves available on the frontline of social reform.

However, a love for Black people and—at least on public platforms—a desire to help them lies at the heart of the work on both sides of this issue. Though, sometimes, it is a struggle to do so in a tangible way on the church’s part. The church leaders that I spoke with expressed their concern about the fact that, while the Black church has not been completely absent, these religious institutions are not doing everything that they could be doing to help move towards Black liberation.

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Prayer is not enough. It’s a start, though, according to Marc Philpart, Senior Director at PolicyLink. “I think that it’s time for the church to look outside of itself and demonstrate greater leadership in society,” he said. “Folks could benefit from the leadership of a church that is not bound by its own faults and that is fervently pursuing justice in a way that is focused on policy and systems change, and that also doesn’t put the pastor or the clergy in a position where they have to be experts somehow.”

There is no denying the accessibility and repute of the Black church’s role in Black communities. However, as public accessibility to knowledge and information increases through technology and as the stakes continue to rise in the fight to protect Black lives, we can see a stark contrast between efforts made during the 1960’s and those now.

But this has ushered in a new opportunity for more dynamic leadership among those who support the institution to reach across the aisle to combine the sanctified with the secular. It’s especially imperative today, as current events call for unprecedented action for the sake of protecting Black lives.

Pastor McBride told me that this divide and failure to work together is a strategic mistake. “[W]hite supremacy is coming for all of us, both old and young, agnostic or believer, rich or poor, we must all figure out a way to coalesce our black collective power.”

Growing up in a Black church leaves little room for debate for many believers, regardless of their level of interest or disinterest in social justice. But the greatest issues of the day ought not to be defined as biblical or secular—they are human.

The Black church is a place where one can find history, scripture, and controversy under the same roof. Like its people, it does not exist in a vacuum. In order for the Black church to restore itself as a vehicle for social and political change, Black Americans must first acknowledge that the Black church as we once knew it—as the cornerstone of the community and civil rights—is effectively dead, and it is time to breathe new life into it.


Maya King is a journalism student at Howard University. Her writing has been featured on the Howard University News Service, Cognitive Dissident and Howard’s student-run newspaper, “The Hilltop.” She is a former Temp on National Public Radio’s Diversity Desk where she managed its “Source of the Week” database that aims to include more people of color on air and in stories. Find her on Twitter at @mayaaliah.

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