You got out of the projects or the little box house with a septic tank on the street with no sidewalk. A decent supermarket was not close and in a different world then. Your black school was decrepit, with ancient books. And you dodged all manners of dilemmas brought to your doorstep by inequality and poverty. You made it!
It doesn’t seem to bother, though, that while churches dominate black neighborhoods – I would argue in a nefarious way – the people tend to be more desperate, poorer and devoid of uplift, spiritually or otherwise. Over and over again, churches can be found side by side and across from one another and also in clusters of five to six within three to four short blocks of one another.
Church is a tax-free business. Many have barbed-wire fences or metal gates surrounding church property and, unless money is being gathered – mostly on Sundays – or business meetings or rehearsals are held, most black churches are closed. When black churches are open and the pastor is present, I guarantee that his or her car is big, new or no more than a year old. Preachers live way better than most of their church members.
No logic can justify an institution that ostensibly teaches what it calls Christianity yet impoverishes people while it maintains building funds, mandates tithing, holds annual Pastor Appreciation Day and birthday affairs and finds other ways to milk scarce monetary resources from mostly poor and near-poor people.
At the same time, black churches lock out the neighborhood. Many black school-age youths are unsupervised after school. Locked churches surround these kids when they re-enter their neighborhoods. What is Christian about abrogating the responsibility to care for children?
Gluts of black preachers constantly stream to jails and prisons where, unfortunately, many black men, women and teenagers reside. It is a proven way to occasionally recruit a member and inspire the church congregation. What these pastors and the “Prison Ministry” of each church will not do is organize against the rape and sodomy that authorities allow to proliferate throughout penal systems everywhere.
In the main, preachers rarely engage in activities where the focus of attention is not on them: They must always lead. Consequently, ego, tradition, fear or business often complicates coming together, be it across denominations or across the street. So let the schools rot and let social services lag, let the neighborhoods deteriorate.
You and I could blame white folks for this dilemma but we would have to dig down deep to try to justify why black people cannot arrest this craziness, this sinfulness. And, yes, we must constantly celebrate the many black preachers and congregations across the country. Here’s the thing, though: In the midst of such a colossal conglomerate that the black church actually is, but at the same time is not, there is that sacred minority, a minute fraction that builds people and neighborhoods and fights the evils of negative interests that plague the people.
During the 1960s civil rights movement heyday, much was said and written about the key role played by black churches. Nothing was mentioned, however, about the super majority of black preachers and their churches that rejected involvement in the movement.
Can you get your mind around what could have happened then, and what could happen today, if the black church army (yes, that conglomerate!) got busy in the cause for righteousness, for truth, for God?
There is only one thing that can stop positive social change for black people from happening: We can no longer accept black flight from reality. We must organize churches and everything else around the people’s needs. “God helps those who help themselves.”
Al Calloway is a longtime journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle. He is writing a book of essays. He may be reached at Al_Calloway@verizon.net