In an earlier article, I discussed how I grew up in the Baptist church, was actively involved in its several programs, and how I benefited immensely from my involvement. I insisted that I supported the Black church despite my critiques of the institution. I stand by my claim, namely because of all our traditional institutions, the church is one of our most powerful, organized and wealthy. What other independent Black institutions feature almost all Black leadership and staff, own property, make autonomous decisions, and impact youth and community development?
Yet with all its strengths, the church – like any institution – is imperfect and has much room to improve. This article will outline some of these areas.
- Some people attending church live in very real poverty. For these brothers and sisters, getting “dressed up” is difficult if not impossible and creates great conflict and discomfort in the home. Churches can show sensitivity on this issue by relaxing the dress code and welcoming visitors as they are. Far too often I get the sense that worship wardrobe reflects our own vanity and pretentiousness more so than respect for God or spiritual growth. Putting less emphasis on clothing would keep our priorities right and possibly help us avoid the disturbing pattern of financial mismanagement in our community
- Some of my brothers and sisters suffer from farsightedness when it comes to truth, spiritual or otherwise. It is foolish and naive of us to think that only the preacher is qualified to teach us spiritually. Some of us ignore and pay lip service to empowering and life-changing messages from relatives and friends we see every day; then when we hear the same messages from the preacher, there we are nodding our heads in agreement, and bearing witness to the preacher. Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. If we only accept truth and wise counsel from religious leaders, we are certain to forfeit many blessings and opportunities for growth. Church leadership should try to reinforce the concept that “saints,” mentors, and positive spiritual influences exist both within and outside of the church, in the form of relatives, mates, children, neighbors and co-workers
- While I understand the need for mythology and symbolism in our religious traditions, I also know that our people are the continued victims of societal tricknology and deception; Instead of increasing the mysticism and coding, the church must play a primary role in de-coding and de-mystifying the world so that Black people can walk upright and understand/be empowered in the Earthly world we live in. The Biblical stories, parables and teachings of ancient figures MUST be made relevant to contemporary times and circumstances.
- Despite real progress in the areas of education, entrepreneurship, personal wealth, and political empowerment, Black people by and large still suffer in various ways. The Lord’s Prayer includes the phrase, “Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in heaven.” So the church has to have a theology that helps Black people to make our Earthly existence empowered and fulfilling. This implies that the Black church must address contemporary issues confronting us and provides ministries that equip and inspire us to confront poverty, physical and mental health, racism, sexism and class issues. Some pioneering churches for example hold conflict mediation, parenting, financial management, literacy and fitness classes. Others operate schools and have ministries that target prisoners, (wasn’t Jesus a political prisoner?) and drug addicts
- My understanding of Jesus the Christ, based on my former church training and independent study, is that he was not a conformist, but a social critic who challenged both arrogant and corrupt church officials, improper priorities, and negative practices. The Black church, which looks to Jesus as its example, should emulate not only his critical nature, but his distaste for vanity, narcissism, injustice and elitism. This means that by definition, the church MUST be politically conscious and involved in the critical issues of our day. The church must take a stand against police brutality, failing schools, unjust incarceration/political prisoners, etc. In fact, the Black church should take the lead in exposing and challenging American imperialism and warmongering. In other words, the church must embody and implement the social gospel of Jesus Christ: heal the sick, clothe the naked, give “vision” to the blind, “resurrect” the dead, and so on.
In conclusion, I must stress that while I don’t subscribe to any religion now, I was raised in the church and was quite active. My perspective therefore is not that of an uninformed outsider. I personally bear witness to the tremendous power and impact the church can have on the community. I simply want the church to remain true to its moral and spiritual mandates. I also recognize that many churches are quite progressive and involved in the community. My critiques only apply to those churches that are elitist, isolated from the larger community, uninterested in Earthly affairs, and that teach outdated and sterile theology that fails to inspire and organize Black people in contemporary times.
The following sermon by Dr. Charles G. Adams represents in my opinion, the spirit and tone of a relevant and inspiring church message that blends spiritual edification, historical understanding, political consciousness (He begins 15 minutes into the video):
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 email@example.com.