In Troubled Times, Does 'The Black Church' Still Matter?

Dec 7, 2014
Originally published on December 11, 2014 12:52 pm

African-American clergy, academics and activists will hold a march on Washington this week, protesting the grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City and call on the federal government to intervene in the prosecutions of police officers accused of unjustified use of force.

I talked with Reverend Raphael Warnock and Eddie Glaude, Jr., two prominent African-American religious thinkers, about the role of black churches in the wake of major protests and demonstrations inspired by events in Ferguson and New York City. Warnock is the senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. — a pulpit once held by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and was in Washington to attend a conference hosted by the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality. Glaude is a professor of religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. In 2010, he wrote an attention-grabbing essay called "The Black Church is Dead."

Interview Highlights

How did the black church form? Why is it significant that black churches stay involved right now?

Rev. Raphael Warnock: The black church, born fighting for freedom, is that church among the American churches that has seen justice-making as central to its Christian identity. Now, the black church, like most institutions has always been a mixed bag. And so even though I'm a leader and pastor in the black church and the church of Martin Luther King, Jr., there's a kind of radical trajectory that comes out of the black church that I do think is distinctive, and for obvious and good historic reasons. It literally is a church organized by slaves as they responded to that primary contradiction in their lives.

What is your response to the news that the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner won't be indicted?

Prof. Eddie Glaude, Jr.: I'm stunned. You know, I keep thinking about my son. He's a freshman at Brown. A few weeks ago, I got a text from my son saying that he was stopped by the police in Providence. He was doing an assignment and they stopped him and told him that he needed to get out of that park and they had their hands on their guns. So here we are with video footage of Eric Garner saying "I can't breathe," and I just go back to how vulnerable my child was and I'm just rageful. I can't put it in any other way. I feel like its open season and I'm trying to find resources to think carefully and deliberately about this moment, but I'm just worried about my baby and I'm worried about our babies. And it's hard to put it in words.

Rev. Warnock: It's a painful moment and somehow we've got to recognize where we are and how we respond in this minute. I don't have any easy answers to this. I heard the president say the other day that he's going to dedicate millions of dollars for more video cameras, for more body cameras, and this is on video tape. It doesn't matter if you're in Ferguson or New York; doesn't matter whether its on video tape or not; doesn't matter if you're running away from the police — Michael Brown — or literally standing there trying to reason with the police — Eric Garner. The message from both is that the life of a black man is less valuable than a handful of cigarillos. This is a slap in the face, a kick in the stomach because we're not talking about a conviction, we're talking about an indictment. I'm not a lawyer, but I paid attention in civics class; they told me in ninth grade that a good lawyer could indict a ham sandwich. And so apparently a black man's life is worth less than a ham sandwich.

What role do black clergy play given this news?

Prof. Glaude: I think to role of black churches in this moment is varied. One has to do with tending to the souls of people. These are trying times. I'm thinking about that wonderful line in Toni Morrison's Beloved, and I'm going to paraphrase here: "How much are we supposed to take?" So it's in these moments that churches and ministers ought to find a way to comfort the spirit, not to get us adjusted to the injustice, but to understand that we are justified in our rage and anger. Black churches have always been and continue to be wonderful resource institutions where we can build capacity in order to speak back and respond to crises. They should open their doors in order to provide folks a safe space in order to engage in the deliberative process. How are we going to mobilize in response to what seems to be open season on our babies?

Rev. Warnock: My role is not unlike it is at any other time; it's just that it's extremely difficult right now. We pastors have a two-fold role: priestly and prophetic. On the priestly side, our jobs is comfort the afflicted. On the prophetic side, our job is to afflict the comfortable. And the question becomes how can one remain true to both in this moment.

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The grand jury decisions in both Ferguson, Missouri and just this past week in New York over the killing of two unarmed black men have provoked a lot of soul-searching around this country. That's happening in African-American churches as well.

Last week, a prominent group of African-American clergy and religious thinkers gathered at a church just outside Washington, D.C. They were there to talk about the future of the black church in America; a meeting that took on a new emotional weight with the events in Ferguson and New York.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with some of those leaders. She joins me now in the studio. Hi, Michel. Thanks for being with us.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

R. MARTIN: Michel, this was an event that had, as we said, it had been in the works for a long time. And it was coincidental that it happened right as the grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict an officer in the death of Eric Garner. How did that end up affecting your conversations with religious leaders at this particular moment?

M. MARTIN: Really hard to overstate just what an emotional punch in the gut this was for this gathering of thinkers and leaders and activists, many of whom were actually still traveling to the meeting site as this news was delivered. I just want to play a short clip from a conversation that I had with Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. He's a professor of religious studies and the chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University. He was not an attendee. But the reason I called him is that he's been a very kind of outspoken critic of the black church. And this is what he said to me.


EDDIE GLAUDE JR.: I'm just rageful. I can't put it in any other way. You know, I feel like it's open season. And I'm trying to find resources, to think carefully and deliberately about this moment. But I'm just worried about my baby, and I'm worried about our babies.

M. MARTIN: Well, the importance of this, and just the back story here is that Professor Glaude's son, who is a student at Brown University, very prestigious Ivy League institution, was doing an assignment in the area of the university, had been stopped by the police and was told to leave and had called his father to tell him about that.

And I think that the importance of this is that that was the crux of the conversation for these clergy and activists. I mean, they live in a moment and they are in a time when segregation is no more. People have lots of different lifestyles. They have access to some of the elite institutions and neighborhoods in our country. And yet, they still find themselves experiencing these things. And so the mission of this conversation was to ask, you know, what's our job at a moment like this?

R. MARTIN: So what was the answer? I mean, this was a meeting about the role - the future of the black church in America. What does that mean?

M. MARTIN: That was, in fact, the purpose of their convening. And important to note that the black church, as we understand it - you know, the traditions, the - kind of the sense of the church - arose at a time of vicious segregation. There was no way to really buy your way out of the circumstances that affected most African-Americans. And so there was kind of a tradition of prophetic voice that has a very specific religious meaning as well as kind of a layperson's meaning of speaking truth to power. And part of the reason for this convening was a sense that the church is not playing a role in the society that it could be and should be right now.

R. MARTIN: So what does that mean? That there's no longer a unifying mission that unites black churches as it once did?

M. MARTIN: The people who participated in this convening would say that there is a unifying mission, but that the people who should be the missionaries have lost their way. I'll play a short clip from Reverend Rafael Warnock. He was a participant in this weekend's gathering. He is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Now that is a pulpit once filled by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. so you can imagine, you know, that's a very prominent pulpit. And this is what he said.


REVEREND RAPHAEL WARNOCK: If you are a church that's never in good trouble with the powers, then you're probably in bed with the powers. And the American church - I don't see any signs that abusive power that those who would maintain the status quo and the broadening gap between the haves and have-nots, those who continue to build this massive, increasingly privatized prison industrial complex are worried about the church because we're doing precious little to actually dismantle the American prison industrial complex, which is the new Jim Crow.

R. MARTIN: He said that there's a new prison industrial complex that he sees as the new Jim Crow. I mean, this directly relates to this moment in the wake of these grand jury decisions.

M. MARTIN: These were some of the kinds of things that you hear other participants in society talk about. I mean, you hear, perhaps, you know, members of Congress talking about these things. You hear, perhaps, state lawmakers talking about these things. But what I think you saw with this convening is a group of clergy of a certain age, a certain kind of post-civil rights generation, not people who have to this point come to, perhaps, national prominence in the way that a Martin Luther King or Andy Young or John Lewis and people of that era.

But this is a new generation coming forward. And what I think I see here are a group of people saying that they are not living up to the tradition that these forbearers laid out for them. And part of what they're saying is these criminal justice issues are too important to be left just to the policymakers. These are things that effects their families and their children. And what they're saying is that they feel that these are issues that cry out for moral leadership. And they are planning to provide that moral leadership.

R. MARTIN: That's NPR's Michel Martin. To read more about the future of the black church in America and Michel's conversations, go to npr.org. You can also follow Michel on Twitter and Facebook @NPRMichel. That's M-I-C-H-E-L. Michel Martin, thanks so much for talking with us.

M. MARTIN: Rachel, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.