Politics & Race
We Need To Talk About: The Black Church

Each Thursday NegusWhoRead will take on a different issue in our “We Need To Talk…” column.

By Michael Harriot

When learned intellectuals with letters and prestigious university bona fides begin dissecting the ills of the Black community the brainstormed resolutions always land somewhere near the intersection of “Black unity” and “economic empowerment.” These conversations invariably devolve into a game of “Mad Libs” with sentences that always begin with “Black People need to _____.” We fill it in with the same predictable variation of multiple choice answers:

A. Come together
B. Create economic independence
C. Concentrate on education
D. Focus on a universal agenda to move forward

Only a couple of generations ago there was an institution that historically offered an “all of the above” while congealing the welfare and well-being of Black people.  What used to be the backbone, savior and de facto advocate for all things Black has now become a decaying house in disrepair that Black people insist on pumping time, money and energy into because it feels like home. It is time for us to collectively wake up and ask if this house is still worth living in. Does it need remodeling or is it in such a state of disrepair that it needs to be gutted, torn down and replaced with something else?

Before we begin, let me tell you what you shouldn’t expect when you read further:

This will not be anti-religious.
This won’t be about scripture or the Bible.
This won’t be about how “the white man” bamboozled Africans into accepting their God.

There is a time and a place for all of those discussions. This is not one of them.

No other institution deserves as much praise and accolades for the progress of a people as does the Black Church. When Demnark Vessey organized his slave revolts he did it inside Emmanuel AME in Charleston, SC. When Harriet Tubman talks about stops on the Underground Railroad, much of what she was referring to were the basements and sancturary of Black Churches. The organization, force and bodies in lockstep behind Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were Black churches. Watchnight services, The Freedom Rides and every social and political movement that advanced a Black agenda began in a Black Church. Aside from unshakeable faith and passed-down tradition, these are the reasons we remain loyal to the foundation, but progress demands a constant honest  assessment, and the question we should be asking the Black Church is:

“What have you done for me lately?”

My mother attended a renowned all-black boarding school called Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy which closed in 1983. They eventually turned the site into a bank. When it was time for me to start school, she didn’t send me to the old site of Mather Academy with books, papers and pencil and tell me to get an education. She has fond memories of the place they called an “oasis for race relations” and a “factory for Black geniuses, but she knows it is not a school anymore–it is a bank now. That would have been insane, but that is what we have done with the Black Church.

Many churchgoers will read this with the subconscious caveat of “…but not my church.”

Yes, your church too.

According to a Gallup Poll, Black people are the most religious group in the US. 86% of African Americans describe themselves as at least “moderately religious.  More than half attend church services at least once a week and a large percentage describe themselves as regular tithes payers according to Pew Research. This is the Black intellectual “Mad Lib” come true. If someone created a network of organizations that 85% of Black people felt connected to and half of all black people attended the meetings and willingly donated 10 percent of their incomes to it, that organization should be able to address almost every social and economic problem in the Black community. Israel offers open arms and borders to every Jewish person in the world, and it has a gross domestic product of 320 billion. The Black church has collected $450 billion in tithes and donations since 1980. Where are the free church-supported colleges? Where are the black scholarships? Where are the Black business loans? Where are the community schools? Where are the free day cares?

Yes, your church too.

The Black Church has hypnotized us into believing Vacation Bible School summers and basement tutoring sessions are enough community outreach. Your home State can fix roads, provide schools, police your neighborhoods, extinguish fires with less than 10 percent of your income, and if you run into a pothole or go to an overcrowded school, you wonder where your tax money went, but Black churches are immune from criticism. If your preacher drives a Benz, shame on you. If you put your offering in gold-plated offering plates, shame on you. If you have given a lifetime of tithes to a place that can’t send your children to college or invest in a member’s business idea, shame on you.

The black church hasn’t played a significant role in Black America since the Civil Rights Movement. Where is the Black Church in the movement for Black Lives? Why are Black churches in poor neighborhoods nicer than the schools? Where are the Black church libraries? How many Black churches have funded technology centers? Why aren’t church vans trolling neighborhoods on election day?

Yes, your church too.

Perhaps I am too ambitious and my idea of the Black Church is outdated. I am not religious but I am also not immune to pageantry, tradition and good gospel music. Maybe Black churches haven’t devolved. Maybe they have just evolved into  ornate boxes for Sunday choirs to sing, saints shouting and  preachers  who give motivational speeches on spirituality that uplift congregations until the next week. I can get good music, dancing and a feel-good from a nightclub, though, and somehow they miraculously survive off the  $20 at the door.

I wouldn’t tell anyone to stop going to church, nor do I think there is no space in the Black community for houses of worship. I believe religion is a personal matter, but it is impossible to address the needs and agenda for the Black population without examining the institution siphoning off billions without a single soul questioning the invisible return on our investment. They put Bernie Madoff in jail for that, but we blindly follow the same tradition without questioning the outcome because of old school faith, never knowing…

It’s just a bank now.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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