Quiet as a Church Mouse: The Pull of the Black Church and how it can Unify a Community.
By: Shannen Hinds
April 25, 2017
The altar and pulpit at College Park Baptist Church
The choir rises to sing the praises and goodness of God as the beginning of service takes place. People have filed in from the back of the chapel to claim the seats they usually occupy on Sundays at College Park Baptist Church. There are old people and young people; most of the young people are students at Savannah State University. There are very few children
As the singing continues, Pastor Charles O’Berry follows the presence of the Assistant Pastor Andre Young in the pulpit. The singing fades, and service has officially begun. During the course of the service, the congregation is led in prayer, tithes and offerings are collected, and scripture and passages from the Bible are read and analyzed. Finally, after a word from the church's assistant pastor, O'Berry takes to the podium. He's in a long black robe with a cross that hangs around his neck, nearly to his stomach. His voice booms throughout the small church and instantly resonates with his followers.
"Amen we give thanks unto God on this Sunday morning."
Being engulfed in the excitement of Sunday service at College Park, it’s easy to forget about the national discussion and debate of the waning black church.
Many compare the black church, in relevancy and in its power, to the Catholic Church in terms of sexual scandal and its declining influence as being a staple in the community. Many say the churches have failed to recruit young black people to carry on traditions and keep the idea of the black church in mainstream consciousness.
However, this church in Savannah, Ga., stands as the pillar and strength of the black community and what holds them together, the last bastion of black life that remains tried and true.
"I grew up in this church, my father was the pastor here in the 40s when I was a little girl." Mother Mattie Williams, now in her 80s says as she begins to stroke the keys on the piano, getting ready to lead the small Sunday school group in song. Eating her fill of breakfast, Mother Zora Corey also in her 80s and a pat of College Park since the 40s says, “Our church has been here over a hundred years, thank you for choosing to be with us.”
Sexual Abuse in the Church
Coming off the heels of the infamous Bishop Eddie Long's death, the topic of sexual abuse in the church seemed palpable. Churches that cater to the black community found themselves handling the sensitive topic in the same way Catholic churches throughout the country had a few years before.
Young reminds people of the act of forgiveness as part of the gospel, and the importance of asking for forgiveness for sins and transgressions.
“If anyone is abused, or misused, or if power is abused, the church has ways to take steps to remove that person or forgive them, either way there’s going to be forgiveness,” says Young.
More and more, the forgiveness trope has met skepticism and criticism.
The controversial Bishop Eddie Long died at age 63 on Jan.15, 2017, while many mourned the death of the now infamous bishop, there were those left confused on how to react to it. Some of these people took to Twitter to wish eternal damnation on his soul, others were more measured on how Long should be remembered, praising him for the good things he did while walking on Earth, yet criticizing for his 2010 accusations. Long led the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, according to NPR, having attained it in 1987. Long was responsible for growing the congregation from 300 to an estimated 25,000, making it one the largest mega-churches in the United States.
The funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was held, at Long's church, drawing mourners such as then-President George W. Bush and former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, according to NPR. "In 2004, he led a march in support of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. His church holds 'sexual reorientation' conferences, which are aimed at 'curing' gay men and lesbians," reported NPR. Just months before he died, photos of the once portly Eddie Long with a full head of hair showed him looking gaunt, frail, and very much bald. Long released a statement, saying his shocking appearance was due to a holistic approach of a new diet consisting of raw vegetables.
Empty pews before service
When news of his death hit just a few months later, many were skeptical about his cause of death, alluding to a more sinister sickness- one traditionally linked, oftentimes, to the very lifestyle he notably advocated against- homosexuality. The church and Eddie Long were also featured in playwright, actor and director, Tyler Perry's movie, "Daddy's Little Girls." However, Long was best known and dominated headlines for the sexual abuse allegations made against him in 2010. Four young men accused the bishop of sexual abuse, which came as shock to many including those that noted his supposed homophobia for the LGBT community. “Religion is composed of rituals such as order of service; types of music, and testimonials. In the case of Bishop Eddie Long, it appears that he interwove religious rituals with power and rewards that were designed to exert power, influence, and control over young men he is suspected of sexually abusing throughout the years,” said one article published in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Rural Child Sexual Abuse in the African American Church Community: A Forbidden Topic.
Long infamously addressed his congregation about the allegations in the pulpit of his church saying, “I feel like David and Goliath, but I've got five rocks and I haven't thrown one yet." In May of 2011 it was revealed that Long had settled out of court with all four men, but the terms of the settlement were never made public.
Church-goers believe it is their duty to forgive those who have done or have been accused of doing wrong. The church serves as a house of conditioning that breeds the pathology of forgiveness. The devout say they believe that forgiving those who have committed sin is the only way to a clear conscious and healthy life, that denying forgiveness from the guilty adds burden to the one who denied it.
Within the black community, this theme of forgiveness play out in popular culture. For example, in Tyler Perry’s “Madea," the woman must forgive the man who has abused or mistreated her.
According to Cassandra Chaney in, Who is David and who is Goliath? Mental Health, Religion and Culture, "For these men and women, since no man is perfect (which includes religious leaders), they may regard religious
scandal as part and parcel of the religious experience, and that these individuals, even if guilty, are deserving of God’s forgiveness."
“Forgiveness is not for the individual who has done the offending, forgiveness is for the person who was hurt, so that they can be free," said Young.
People who are not strongly affiliated with church see fault with the ideology.
Is there and Significance left to the Black Church?
Eddie Glaude Jr., Ph.D. suggests in his 2010 op-ed published by the Huffington Post that the black church is dead. “The idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared," says Glaude.
Marilyn Mellowes, in her article for PBS "The Black Church," says that no rule can apply to all in the religious black community.
“Many African Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to "the Negro church," but rather described themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even 'Saint' of the Sanctified tradition. African-American Christians were never monolithic; they have always been diverse and their churches highly decentralized,” Mellowes wrote.
According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, African-Americans are more religious than the United States as a whole. African-Americans more likely to identify themselves as part of a formal religious affiliation than other segments of America. Latinos are just slightly less likely than African-Americans to affiliate in the same way.
Out of those surveyed, 59 percent of African-Americans identified as members of an historically black Protestant church. Nearly 80 percent said religion is very important to their lives, compared to about 60 percent of all U.S. adults. Even those African-Americans who say they are unaffiliated with a specific church are more likely to say they are religious than not.
However, younger African-Americans are more likely than their elders to say they are unaffiliated with a religion. Among those polled under the age of 30, 19 percent were unaffiliated compared to only 7 percent of those over the age of 65.
Young black people are questioning aspects of religion and black church life more than any other time.
“They come up with worldly excuses to keep from coming from coming,” says Gerald Carthon, the Superintendent of Sunday school at College Park, referring to young black people who fall short of attending church. Deacon Ronald Williams, who has been attending College Park since his teen years says, “To those who feel that way, the only thing I would do is encourage them, to let them realize that everything that they have, everything that they’ve done in life, there had to be someone watching over them.” Williams says to those young people who may not be believers, interestingly he brings up the differences between young black men and young black women attending church. While longtime member Robert Deacon Lamar says that there are no differences between the
attendance of young men and women at church, “I don’t believe there’s a difference, I believe that both groups make an effort to attend church at the same rates,” Williams states differently. “We have to find fault in ourselves, if we do not instill into these young men the importance of Christianity, and the importance of a relationship with God, then it’s partially our fault,” he says. Williams also makes mentions of the many obstacles and distractions that young black are being met with, saying they get caught up in the image of glory and fame in the fast life that they become confused and that because of this is why young black men’s attendance in the church generally, could be in decline.
Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Savannah State, Dr. Kameelah Martin cannot determine why young black men are failing to show up to worship, however she does offer her insight as to why young black continue to feel the pews at churches across the nation. “Women are just more spiritual beings, I think that’s because we have the ability to produce life, which is a very spiritual act. We carry life, we nurture our community, whether it’s our children, our men, and so I think were more innately drawn to spirit.” Dr. Martin also emphasizes the need for black women to have and maintain a safe space where black women can be themselves and express their need for support, whether it’s rejoicing, prayer, singing, or crying. Dr. Martin rounds up her thoughts on the matter ending saying, “That’s not to say that men aren’t participating, because I think they are.”
The History of the "Black Church"
The black church once served the community well when it was most needed, especially in the days of slavery and reconstruction. The black church served as a safe place for worship to lay pain and anguish at the horrors of slavery at the altar. It was there to pray for better days. Even after slavery, this institution of hope continued to serve the black community well, acting as a meeting place for plans to combat the ongoing oppression of black people.
In its earlier stages the church, or Christianity was not always used to the advantage of black people in the United States. Christianity was originally used to keep black people complicit and obedient in their horrid and cruel condition. Slave masters and overseers would teach slaves they trusted to read the bible and teach to other slaves certain passages that would keep them oblivious to their own oppression. As time went on these black preachers began to take the word into their own hands, and instead of keeping slaves in a stupor they decided to liberate them and preach freedom. According to writer, Marilyn Mellowes from PBS.org "In the North, black ministers and members of the African American community joined white abolitionists in organizing the Underground Railroad, an informal network that helped persons escaping bondage to make their way to freedom," says Mellowes. Abolition began to sweep the south and advocates for the movement such as Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman took the lead in the fight for freedom. After they were freed northern churches began to reach out to free blacks and helped them build the skills needed to survive in America as a free person.
Education was the most important factor in black life during this time, and working to build a life for their families. White worship groups like Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian, also reached out to freed blacks to teach them
further reading, writing and math. During this time, two distinctive qualities began to define the "black church" and that was the emotive preaching that is now strongly identifiable with churches in the black community, and the preacher being the center pillar of the church. The structure of the familial black church also began to form, Mellowes points out that, "It was the lay members -- deacons, ushers, choirs, song leaders, Sunday school teachers and "mothers" of the congregation -- who gave the churches their vitality and strength. Church socials, Sunday picnics, Bible study and praise meetings encouraged social cohesion, heightened a sense of community and nurtured hope in the face of discrimination and violence," she writes. In E. Parajuli’s collection of essays, writer, Raphael Warnock writes in, The Divided Mind of the Black Church, says, “Black theology is a logical result of the history of the black church’s creatively linking personal salvation with the radical protest that prioritizes social salvation from the racial oppression of slavery," Warnock says.
During the Civil Rights era, the church played an even bigger role in the anti-segregation of black people. Martin Luther King Jr. with the help of other black church leaders created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
"Churches played a pivotal role in protests. In crowded basements and cramped offices, plans were made, strategies formulated, people assembled. Decades of providing social services now paid off in organized political protest. Marches took on the characteristics of religious services, with prayers, short sermons and songs." Says Mellowes.
“But such a church loses it power," Glaude of the Huffington Post writes. "Memory becomes its currency. Its soul withers from neglect. The result is all too often church services and liturgies that entertain, but lack a spirit that transforms, and preachers who deign for followers instead of fellow travelers in God," he says.
For the people at College Park, the debate seems almost foreign concept. Deacon Ronald Williams who has been a part of the church since he was thirteen says the church, and is the son of one of the mothers of the church says, church is “a place where we find friendship, love, and togetherness.”
First Lady Carla O’Berry shared the same sentiment, “From the time you walk in the door, to when you sit in the pews, to even my husband bringing forth the word, it was nothing but love, and that’s what God gives us. God gave his only begotten son, that whoever say love him should come to him, and I thank God for the love that he’s shown is displayed here at College Park.”
Improving the Church
“Churches need to reach out. We shouldn’t have 12 failing schools in Chatham County, not when we have all these resources,” says College Park Financial Committee President Marilyn Butler. Butler said she believed the churches in the black community should come together with the resources that they have and set up opportunities for black children to get ahead.
Butler suggests that churches be open for tutoring and Bible study at least 2-3 days a week. “It should be a community-wide thing, because there’s no way that our children should be failing like this and we should leave it up to the state to come in and to take over the community schools like, because most of these schools are in the black community. I just wish we were more involved," she said.
Carthon agrees. “I do agree, I didn’t see it too much from her [Butler’s] perspective, because she’s retired teacher looking at it from a teacher’s perspective. I do believe that our church can do more for the kids, we can make a connection with a school and do after school tutoring, so I agree we can do so much more than what were doing.”
Pastor O’Berry believes in the church he leads, and as long
as they keep their eyes on God, they’ll continue to prosper, saying, “We are a church that’s not perfect, but we serve a perfect God, and one thing we do, do we serve God to the fullest. God looks past all our faults that everyone has, and supplies our needs. So that’s the kind of message that we send out to everybody, we try our best to do everything in love, were not perfect, but we serve a perfect God."