How African-American Church Leaders Are Responding To New Challenges
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Black churches yesterday were focusing on the violence of the previous week, not surprisingly because in times of crisis, the black church has often played a key role. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten on how African-American church leaders are responding to these new challenges.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Many traditionally white Christian churches in America have seen their membership plummet in recent years. But black churches are still flourishing.
DELMAN COATES: God, I pray right now.
GJELTEN: Yesterday, about a thousand worshippers showed up for the 9:30 service at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., to hear how Pastor Delman Coates would refer to last week's shootings as he prayed to God.
COATES: When we feel a sense of anger right now and frustration, remind us that in the end, you're going to win. Remind us that you have not given us a spirit of fear, but you've given us a spirit of love and of power.
GJELTEN: The congregation has 9,000 members. Pastor Coates recognizes that his worshipers could go to interracial churches. But here, he says, they get a message that relates to the African-American experience.
COATES: The role of the black church, in my mind, is to equip those in the African-American community with the tools to understand and to explain the social, political and economic pain that they experience during the week. Also, the role of the black church is to galvanize and to organize the foot soldiers to get up from their knees in prayer and to protest in the streets.
GJELTEN: There's nothing new here. The civil rights movement took root in black churches. The spirit came from gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho...
GJELTEN: ...Here at a church in Chicago where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Chicago freedom movement.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: If there is any doubt in anybody's mind concerning whether we have a movement here in Chicago, you ought to be in this church tonight.
GJELTEN: In fact, from the earliest days of the struggle for racial justice in America, the black church has been key.
ALBERT RABOTEAU: It's the only social institution that black people have had control over.
GJELTEN: Albert Raboteau of Princeton University has written widely on the history of the black church.
RABOTEAU: We didn't have control of banks. We didn't have control of the political organization. So the one institution where black people have had autonomy has been the black church.
GJELTEN: But the leadership of racial justice struggles these days is dispersed. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is only partially tied to black churches. The Reverend Nicole Gladden who pastors an African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, church in Marion, Ind., thinks black churches these days should get closer to the people.
NICOLE GLADDEN: We see that with Black Lives Matter movement is that more of a community-based organized movement.
GJELTEN: Speaking at an AME conference this weekend, Gladden said the black church needs to re-imagine itself.
GLADDEN: Where it's not one big building where everyone congregates on a Sunday morning only, but being the body of Christ. And recentering the movement of the spirit where the people are, as opposed to trying to bring the people to where the church is.
GJELTEN: Pastor Gladden says the historic black church in which she was raised was a core of the black community. Those churches today are still full. But she says if they are to serve their people, they need to be with them in the streets if necessary, as Martin Luther King was. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE")
MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Just a closer walk with thee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.