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Posted by on Jul 26, 2014 in About Blackacre, Blackacre, Charity, Leadership, Progressive policy, Progressive Think Tank, Public Policy, Religion, social welfare, Socio Economics, Uncategorized | 11 comments

Reconciling Faith and the Challenges Facing the Black Church

I have a confession to make. When it comes to faith and religion I am deeply conflicted. Like many middle-aged African-Americans, I come from a faith-based background. Those who raised me were and still are deeply religious. My youth as a alter boy in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, sitting on the side of the minister as he delivered his sermon and extinguishing the candles at the end of the service has forever marked me. Try as I might I cannot ignore my heritage.

In addition, 90% of the people I interact with, including my best friends are people of faith. And as I near my own mortality, I find myself praying all the time; with increasing frequency. In the last year I have implored “Dear Father, please help your son” on more than one occasion.

Still, I am torn. Something appears to be fundamentally wrong with at least some of our faith-based institutions. So bear with me as I try to sort this out.

First, we grow increasingly concerned about the corporatization; the capitalization of the church, many of which resemble less houses of worship than for-profit business. With a business model of company growth and expansion of the church’s sphere of influence, they come replete with a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer, marketing departments, quality control functions, phone banks, investment portfolios, advertising budgets and customer service divisions.

The only difference between many a church and many a business is that where a manufacturer produces widgets, churches sell religion. This is especially true of the mega churches as well as the small and medium sized institutions who wish to mimic them.

We are also apprehensive about the priorities of the church. We know that no person or institution is perfect. We all fall short of God’s grace, none more so than I. Nonetheless, many a congregation lavish untold wealth and attention on buildings, equipment and things rather than the people they serve. And some church services are nothing short of “Holywood”; all show and glitz. Essentially social clubs, they are long on  entertainment and short on salvation.

Other congregations are so concerned about the hereafter as to be of no earthly good. Yes, preserving church assets is important and saving souls is critical. But saving a life, and preserving a family, a neighborhood and a community are equally significant.

By one estimate there are 100,000 predominately black churches in America. We believe this to be a conservative estimate. In the most densely populated African-American communities it is not uncommon to find as many as three churches per block.

Poverty, unemployment and homelessness, black on black crime, teen age/single parenthood, dysfunctional families and cultural decline threaten our very existence. Yet, for all of this religion, the church has been largely ineffective in arresting these problems.

Please note, that this is not a question of effort or input. It is instead a matter of impact and outcomes. And while we welcome the effort, positive results have yet to be achieved. In fact, our situation worsens with each passing day.

Nor can we ignore the reality of greed and exploitation. The Atlanta Black Star recently reveled that several pastors are making 200 times more than the people they serve. One pastor had a net worth of $27 million while the community he serves has an average annual income of only $29,000. As Jeremiah Camara, the Director of the documentary “Contradiction” observed, [W]hile looking at the financial numbers, it is easy to believe that some preachers are using religion for monetary gain.

Hypocrisy is easily the moral cancer of any faith. Hence, church leaders cannot say one thing and do another. They cannot request our meager resources in the form of tithes and labor while possessed of wealth and privilege gained by their positions in the church. They cannot demand our humility; our unqualified fidelity while offering none of their own.

Likewise, church members cannot profess kindness and then turn “kind-less” at the drop of a hat. We have all experienced the hot mess that exists in some churches. We have all seen one of the devout cut someone to shreds, as effectively yet nonchalantly as a butcher works a ham. In short, we hear what you say, but see what you do.

We question no one’s faith. Nor is the purpose to excoriate the church. There are however, two essential questions we must pose. First, in addition to saving souls, is the church also morally obligated to offer practical solutions to the social problems that plague us? And second, is the church further obligated to lead not by words, but by example?

There are yet additional reasons for this analysis. From a social perspective our community is at a historic crossroads. Seldom has there been a greater need for constructive behavior and ethical clarity. Far too many are lost, alienated and alone. They search not for the heavy hand of fire and brimstone but the gentle touch of love and compassion. If they cannot find this love, this grace, this compassion at home they will look to the streets. The church is one of the few viable institutions remaining to us. Thus, the church cannot and must not fail.

And on a personal level, I need faith. I need to believe that there is a greater purpose to this thing called life; that there is a higher power that is beneficent and caring; that is connected to me and connects me to all. I need to know that the divine is with me. If God has a plan for me then I will follow his will. But I would appreciate the armor, the shield and the cover of faith to see me through.

Could I make it without some form of faith, yes I could. However, as the journey of life is made more difficult without it, I choose to believe. So regardless of my doubts and hesitations I will probably partner with a church. Assuming of course I can find one that will take me, unrepentant heathen that I am.

Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum




  1. My faith in GOD is strong. The belief that GOD the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit represent “the superior being that oversees all things; the Son as the example of Love and a life of sacrifice and finally the Holy Spirit as a means to communicate with GOD, your feeling, thoughts, ideas and anxieties” keeps me focus on my own existence. This includes my Father, Family and Friends.
    The role I must manage during my transience through this time and space helps me keep my faith strong. Accepting that only Jesus is/was perfect, or lead a perfect life establishes boundaries for everyone who has this religious belief that are also living in this same time and space that I exist. That confirms some of the actions, ideas and behaviors we see has flaws that one can see, but not necessarily support. “CHURCH” is/are the people who believe “where two or more are gathered in his name”. But the process of monitoring, managing, motivating and moving these believers to action is not a requirement to establish the business called CHURCH! A NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANIZATION for the purpose of providing a place for groups to gather, is not, and does not mean benefiting the general public just because it is needed or a wise use of the funds. Money they are so willingly give to the organizers and planners.
    My faith in GOD is the beginning of the relationship for how I live. That faith is not the end all for every decision or action that I take. But it is a constant factor that, in my opinion, sets guidelines for decision making. My CHURCH, or the one that I attend regularly, tithe, work, support and use my most valuable resource, which is my time, give me all the things that I need or want from that Leadership, Organizational Structure, Social Inter-Action, Community Involvement and Person Growth Opportunities for my faith to continue to develop!
    This does not state that I don’t have Religious issues that impact me! But it does establish the things which are important to me that have the greatest impact on me being a HAPPY MAN!
    Thanks for the opportunity to share these thoughts. Keep up the good work!

    • First, as always thanks for your comments. Second, I envy you your certainty. Lastly as to public policy and beyond the individual, what do you see as the role of the church in addressing some of the problems which affect us? Thanks.

  2. Leo, I also grew up in the Episcopal Church. We have that in common. I was fortunate enough while at college to have been a part of the Episcopal student organization on campus called Canterbury. The chaplin was a Dallas Cowboy football player in his early days back in 1960/61 when the team first formed. And the rector was a former FBI agent. That is how it is with Episcopalians. Often the priests have experience in the real world before becoming priests. I loved the community we shared in the youth group. It was a real haven for students. We felt accepted and loved, and the Chaplin was very non-judgmental of our faults. I stole money from the treasury (I was the treasurer) like a Judas, but I confessed to the Chaplin and he was very understanding and made me feel no condemnation. Another time I slept with a woman and felt I had done wrong as I believed sex outside of marriage was sin. The Chaplin told me he thought it was good for me. That this woman met my needs. I still thought in my heart I had done wrong, but I sure appreciated his attitude towards me. Not sure it would have helped for him to have come down hard on me or been preachy with me. Remember how Jesus reacted to the woman at the well (Samaritan women) whom Jesus asked to give him a drink of water. Jesus told her, “Go and call your husband, and come back.” The Samaritan woman relied, “I haven’t got a husband”. Jesus told the woman, “You are right, the fact is that you have been married 5 times and the man you are living with now is not really you’re husband. You have told me the truth”. Then jesus went on to talk about worshipping God, but said nothing to her such as, “Get rid of the dude you are living with”. The fact, Eternal Life is not about removing the sin from your life but instead about knowing God/Jesus and believing that Jesus came from God and is God’s only Son. Read Gospel of John chapter 3. Being “Born Again” is the terminology Jesus uses. Having a reborn spirit that can see that Jesus is the Bread of Life that came down from Heaven. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the desert for the people to look at and be healed, so those who focus/look upon the Son of God and believe have already passed from death unto life.

    • I make no pretenses at knowing scripture. But your personal story moved me. I fully understand the mistakes we make in life and the need to be forgiven and made whole. Thanks for sharing.

  3. We all need faith Mr Hicks. The question is, “in what”…

    I do not personally see a need to address the hypocrisy of the church establishment because it simply speaks for itself. That’s not the black churches, but pretty much most of them. I will, however, offer two perspectives on that subject:

    1. You mentioned church growth, marketing, portfolios, etc…but remember this; any corporation veiled by no tax liability is not only going to growth like a cancer, but it’s also going to have no checks and balances. Imagine what Apple, google, General Motors , and other top 500 companies would do with no tax liability.
    2. In the wild, a lion has a mane and a peacock has its fantastic plumage to attract lesser lionesses and peacocks to them. Well, if I have the biggest, gaudiest church and a VIP row and wear fine suits and jewelry what is it you think I am doing…

    Church behavior and disregard is pretty much in line with peoples behavior and disregard. So sad since we are all connected whether we like it or not.

    Now for me I have always thought it was interesting how people follow and subscribe to other peoples interpretation of “the word”. Same way some believe others interpretation of beauty, success, wealth, etc. Following is so much easier than leading.

    Now, if we give the church responsibility for bettering the neighborhoods, what is our responsibility to ourselves? And if we expect the church to lead, well, attitudes reflect leadership. So how the general “religious” public act in reality is in line with how the church acts.

    You are right, churches are corporations, very profitable non taxed corporations. Corporations market with plumage and receive no public oversight. But remember this, when people work for a bad company, they can quit. But usually they stay because its comfortable and moving on would require work. The same work it takes to better themselves and their neighborhood. The same work it takes to make a difference. Much easier to follow…especially when it’s free.

    Your beliefs are personal, as they should be. How could we have faith in the interpretations of people who are NO BETTER than us? Put in the work and we will find all our own answers. And we will believe those answers because WE found them.

    “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”- Vince Lombardi

    • No one offers commentary as comprehensive and salient as you. And I agree wholeheartedly with your comments regarding the interpretation of religion. Like you, I have a difficult time taking moral instructions from one who is just as flawed as me.

      I do however believe that love is the answer. I just wish there was more of it in organized religion.

    • I don’t think organized religion can ever meet the needs of individuals because small intimate groups of people: eating together, meeting with each other to discuss the Gospel and their own lives/testimony, and sharing with each other their: time, material gifts, and talent; that is what Jesus intended for us. Jesus demonstrated this by living with the 12 Disciples. People need to feel part of a family. We grow up in families, then leave these families in young adulthood. For some, unfortunately sooner. Being part of the “masses”, a number, is no better than being alone. Pastors are but on stages high above the crowd and placed on electronic big screens (like the Wizard of Oz) in order to come across larger than life, yet inaccessible, untouchable. Jesus was down into the crowd, being touched, himself touching, making eye contact, and providing for the physical needs of those following him. Love is the answer. Jesus describes himself as the husband and we the bride. Yet Pastors present themselves differently. How could a marriage, for example, survive with the husband standing on a stage, projecting on a big screen, always demanding of the wife/bride her: money, time, work effort, obedience, allegiance(sp), etc., yet he never touches her or spends personal time with her accept for in a large group of people while on stage?

    • I agree with you at least as to this extent. I am more comfortable in a small or medium sized church than I am in a large congregation. Thanks for your comments.

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