The Role of the Black Church in the 21st Century

I dedicate this piece to my father, who celebrates 26 years in the ministry this year. 

Over the past twenty-three years, the church has been one of the most influential aspects of my development. My parents were raised in the Baptist faith, and they met at a church in Winston-Salem, NC. They continued this tradition for me and my sister as we progressed through our childhoods. My experiences at sunday school, bible study and vacation bible school constitute a great deal of warm memories from my early years. The church allowed me to strengthen my passion for reading, develop my oratorical skills and form life-long friendships in a nurturing environment.

From a historical perspective, the Black church has played a significant role in the narrative of Black Americans and our empowerment. I completed The Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin Frazier a few weeks ago, and this point was emphasized throughout the text. One passage in the book eloquently illustrates this concept:

“Although much of the religious life of the slaves was under the supervision of their masters and even shared with their masters, they were allowed some freedom. Thus the ‘invisible institution’ of the Negro church grew up where the slaves were permitted to conduct their religious services with a Negro preacher. Under such circumstances, there was greater freedom of religious expression on the part of the slaves.”

During the antebellum period of American history, the Black church almost exclusively provided a place where Black men and women could assert autonomy over their lives. In the face of severe dehumanization, the Black church established a place where sociological independence could exist for enslaved Americans. It can be successfully argued that the  church still maintains this role within the Black community in modern times.

I consider myself to be a supporter of the Black church and its purpose within the community. However, I am cognizant of some of the issues within the church that make people reluctant to offer their full support to the institution. Gender equality may be considered one of the largest issues faced by the modern Black church. Even in current times, well-qualified women are denied the opportunity to preach simply because of their gender. Economic discrepancies also make potential parishioners hesitant about joining a church. The leaders of some congregations, who drive luxury cars and own expensive homes, fervently solicit tithes from members who struggle to make ends meet from month to month. Finally, the traditional nature of the church provides an environment that could be deemed as hostile by young adults. The older members of some churches can be notoriously judgmental and scathing in their remarks to young men and women who choose not to dress conservatively during services.

Despite these undesirable characteristics, I believe that the Black church provides benefits that far exceed any critiques that can be articulated against it. As I alluded to earlier, this institution provides a space in which children can come and flourish. Various ministries in the church require children to read and speak. If a child previously struggled with either skill, it can be addressed by reading a passage of scripture during children’s church or reciting a James Weldon Johnson poem during Easter. The result is a sense of self-worth that cannot be taken from him or her.

Although the church is a spiritual center first and foremost, it is also a business. The biblical principle of tithing, which advises a church member to donate 10% of his or her income to the church per year, provides one of the first opportunities to support a Black business that many people may experience. Donating funds to the church creates an avenue to make a good investment and has a direct effect upon the community-building efforts in which the church engages.

In addition to the confidence it instills and the economic lessons it teaches, the church fosters a space where those who are going through adversity can be uplifted. Although monetary donations are primarily used to pay for the costs associated with operating the building, and to compensate the church’s staff members, they can also be used to alleviate financial burdens that the congregants are experiencing. During the time I’ve spent in the church, I’ve seen numerous ways that the church can assist those who are in need. Food pantries, school supply drives and gift cards are just a few examples of how the Black church ensures that its members have the necessary tools to live a good life.

Finally, the church can serve as an epicenter of political activity. This function is paramount for a demographic of the U.S. population that has been and continues to be disenfranchised. A notable example of the Black church’s influence on this front is the historic election of Barack H. Obama as the 44th President of the U.S. in 2008. The church played an integral role in carrying a young Black Senator from the halls of Congress to the Oval Office. In the face of Supreme Court Decisions like Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the church must renew its commitment to educating the community about the importance of political advocacy and participation. If it utilizes its resources correctly, the Black church can mobilize its members to raise their voices and impact the political climate of the country through active voting.

Like the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, the Black church is a Black-owned and Black-operated business that is deeply entrenched in the Black American narrative. It is an imperfect organization, but that should not dissuade believers from offering their support to it. In 2014 and beyond, I envision the Black church as a spiritual place that creates opportunities for political activism, economic productivity and social support. I owe a great deal of my success to the Black church, and I hope you will look past its faults and give it a chance.

– Andrew Hairston

About andrewrhairston

Andrew Reginald Hairston is a civil rights attorney and writer based in Austin, TX. He is presently the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project Director of Texas Appleseed. Mr. Hairston is also the secretary of the board of Learn Together, Live Together - a school integration non-profit based in Washington, DC. He earned his law degree from Louisiana State University in May 2016, where he was a Faculty Scholar. During his time at LSU, he served as the President of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) from 2014 to 2015, as well as the 1L Representative of the organization from 2013 to 2014. While he was the president of LSU BLSA, he served as a member of the Law Center's Diversity Task Force. Mr. Hairston refined his commitment to racial justice work as a law student. He worked as a law clerk for the LSU Parole and Reentry Clinic, and he subsequently served as a student attorney for the LSU Juvenile Defense Clinic. As a third-year student, he was appointed to the Trial Advocacy Board, and he won the Dean's Cup Senior Appellate Challenge during his final semester at the LSU Law Center. Mr. Hairston received his bachelor's degree, cum laude, from Howard University. At Howard, he was actively involved in the Alternative Spring Break program. He worked as a site coordinator to develop and execute the initiative's first trip to Baltimore in the spring of 2013. From 2017 to 2019, Mr. Hairston served as a staff attorney at Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization in Washington, D.C. He began his legal career as the George N. Lindsay Fellow and Associate Counsel at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law from 2016 to 2017. He is licensed to practice law in Louisiana.
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