Being raised in a Baptist church ( Convent Avenue Baptist Church ) for the early part of my life has undoubtedly impacted my thinking as an adult. This impact exists through both my adherence to certain religious beliefs and my rejection or reformation of them. As a free-thinking and political-minded adult, I’ve come to question and challenge certain principles and practices I learned in the church. Nevertheless, the Black church played an important part in my personal development. And I still credit the church for helping me develop leadership skills, a moral code, and for helping me cultivate a compassion for serving my community and for appreciating Black leadership and institutions.
I often hear conscious Black people attack the Black church for being disconnected,corrupt, and irrelevant to Black liberation. I too am critical of the Black
church for various reasons, ( and rightly so) but I recognize both the important historical and contemporary importance of Black religious institutions toward providing us with hope, organization, and an inclination to fight for Black liberation.
With this article, I hope to stimulate a more balanced view of the Black church and help us begin exploring ways to work with the religious elements of our community rather than isolating and dismissing them altogether. I became heavily involved in the church from my childhood through young adult years; I attended Sunday School from first grade through high school which provided my first structured introduction to the concepts of God, morality, and universal laws; Of equal importance, I saw intelligent and caring Black men, women and young adults in positions of authority running an effective all-Black institution.
Concurrently, I attended the children’s and youth services every Sunday at 11 am, where I listened to sermons which catered to young people, and sometimes participated in such services (reading scripture, performing in presentations). In addition to receiving religious instruction, I developed confidence and experience speaking before audiences. I learned and observed the power of words to inform and inspire people. During elementary school I began serving on the youth usher board. I and my fellow ushers were responsible for collecting tithes and offering, and for disseminating the crackers and grape juice during Communion services. I eventually became president of the youth usher board where I made sure everyone was in proper position, maintained proper pacing as they collected money, and helped direct late-coming worshipers to available seats. From this experience I learned how to pleasantly interact with people, delegate authority, and assist people.
I joined the young people’s choir in middle school where I remained until I went off to college. This experience gave me confidence performing before crowds, following instruction, and working with other people to accomplish shared goals. I also joined the church football team for a number of years where I played linebacker and fullback. We lost nearly every game, partially because opposing teams often failed to observe age regulations. However this athletic experience developed the foundation of my appreciation for physical fitness and healthy competition. In addition, as any football player knows, I learned invaluable lessons about discipline, teamwork, being adequately prepared, aspiring toward excellence, and yes…losing with dignity! I brought these same lessons with me to high school where I made the junior varsity and varsity football teams.
During middle and high school years I also participated in the Baptist Youth Fellowship. Led by motivational and youth-friendly church leaders, the BYF sponsored field trips, retreats, educational activities, and dynamic “rap sessions” where we discussed and debated any number of fun and informative topics. All of us learned to articulate and defend our points of view, and develop an interest in the world around us. During my senior year of high school up until my sophomore year in college, I and some of my friends became youth leaders of the BYF, teaching and mentoring people younger than ourselves, continuing the cycle of leadership we received.
Church reinforced the concept of thinking beyond my own needs and want to those of my larger community; it provided much of my basic leadership training and taught me to have faith, not only in God, but in myself and my people. It is precisely because I’ve personally benefited from the church that I am often so critical of it. When I challenge church beliefs and practices, I do so from an informed and personal position, not as an outsider who views all religions and religious institutions in only the most negative ways. I experienced firsthand the tremendous resources and power the church wields, in addition to the enormous potential influence it has to develop competent and committed leaders and problem-solvers in the Black community and beyond.
Even today – despite increasing stories of church corruption and scandal – the Black
church remains one of our few autonomous Black institutions that owns property and serves wide and varied congregations. Those that are predatory and disingenuous are one thing. But how can we work with progressive churches to better serve and advance our community? What church issues and interests intersect with our own? Can we find room to collaborate and share resources? How do we get church leaders more involved in discussions/activities concerning race, gender, politics and economics? How do we work with those that are? How do we move from scriptural discussion to community empowerment? What about Black liberation theology espoused by Ministers like Jeremiah Wright, Charles G. Adams and the late Albert Cleage? (a.k.a. Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman). My own general critiques of the Black church include the tendency to portray Jesus as a white man, the failure to make scripture relevant to contemporary times and issues, the failure to speak to and explore issues of race, gender and politics, lack of a Black-centered perspective or voice, and the tendency to mistake allegory for fact. But I also realize that the church is not monolithic; some are quite progressive and political while others more conservative and orthodox. And again I must remember what role the church played in my own life.
Clearly, the challenge for we that are critical of the church goes beyond simple denunciations of its ineffectiveness or religious orthodoxy. Besides, any accusations hurled against some manifestations of the Black church (including cult worship,sexual and financial improprieties in addition to allegations of being “brainwashed,” counterproductive, and unrepresentative of truth), we can apply equally to tons of non-religious people and institutions in our community…including those deemed political or “conscious.” Therefore we must broaden our discussion of the church, find ways to develop relationships with the religious/spiritual segments of our community, and work with them to empower us all, for in the words of Rev. Charles G. Adams, “if we don’t work and fight together, we will most certainly be destroyed separately as fools.”
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.