Which Black Lives Matter to the Black Church?
By Olivia Smarr
When I came home from college for winter break I noticed a flyer on my church’s Facebook page that said December 14th was designated as “Black Lives Matter” Sunday. It was a couple weeks after the Grand Jury decision to not indict the killer of Eric Garner was made public and tensions surrounding the constant attacks on Black lives were very high. I was excited that my church was apart of a coalition of Black churches that were taking a stand for justice on that Sunday. However, when I scrolled down on the flyer I saw a line in fine print that disappointed me: “The black church refuses to be silent with injustice facing our black males.” I was confused. Since when was the Black Lives Matter movement only about Black men? Why is the church only proclaiming to be committed to fighting injustice facing them?
I grew up going to church *almost* every Sunday. I was in the dance ministry and the youth choir, and consequently my church became more than just a place I visited once a week. I was there Sunday, Monday, Friday, Saturday, and sometimes other days as well. I’m still friends with some of the kids who were in the ministry with me. My pastors have watched me and my sisters grow up since we were very little. For myself and so many others, the Black Church is more than just a place—it is a family. Going to church and being apart of it is more than just a spiritual experience, it is a cultural and social one as well. There is so much about the Black Church that is unique: the rhythm and the passion with which we worship, the incorporation of Black history into every sermon, and, of course, the commitment to social justice for our people.
It was in the church that I first discovered my passion for justice, and my involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement today is rooted in the liberation theology I learned in my church’s sermons. There are others like me within this movement, who grew up in the church and then went away to college and further developed our activism. There are some who stayed local and began work in grassroots organizing in their community. Others are new to the church and are attracted to it because of its commitment to fighting for the rights of our people. Regardless of our specific history with the church, we are united in our love for God’s people and for justice.
I admire the intent of “Black Lives Matter” Sunday and other examples of the Black Church’s desire to be involved in this work. However, it is important to know that although the Black Lives Matter movement spans generations it is undeniable that young people are a driving force within it. And in order to really become apart of it the church must listen to us. Because had you asked us, you would have realized that we aren’t just marching for Eric Garner. We’re marching for Aiyana Stanley-Jones. For Rekia Boyd. For Renisha McBride. For Tanesha Anderson. We march for our trans sisters, too. Already in 2015 three Black trans women have been murdered. We speak their names: Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard, Yazmin Payne. We march in solidarity with Marissa Alexander and other victims of domestic violence. This movement is about all of us. There is no “watered down” version of the movement for Black liberation. You cannot fight for justice for only the people that you know, or the people that you like, or the people who’s lives don’t challenge your own privilege. You cannot commit to fighting for justice for some and not for others. After all, the Black Lives Matter ideology was created by three Black queer women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. How could you use the term they coined on your flyer without asserting that their lives matter too?
For those of us who are young people of faith knee-deep in the movement, who have been protesting, marching, tweeting, organizing, participating in die-ins and Black Brunches, this is an opportunity for us to speak up and take leadership in the church. We have to demand that our voices be heard. We have to demand that our faith leaders commit to fighting for justice for ALL Black lives. And we have to become leaders ourselves. We are the church—the living, breathing body of Christ. Our longing for justice stems from our love for Christ. We understand that Christ’s love knows no bounds, so if we are to really believe that Black lives matter than we cannot only commit to fighting for justice for cis hetero Black men’s lives. Black women’s lives matter too. Black queer people’s lives matter too.
The Black Church has a long legacy of being committed to justice. I pledge to hold my faith leaders accountable to the integrity of this movement, and I hope that others within my generation will do the same.