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