a Negro infidel quest for freedom, justice and equality

Organized Black Religion is Failing

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

“Like most Black men of my generation, I grew up in the Black church. Most certainly, my youthful values, worldview and spiritual existence were fundamentally shaped in the storefront Baptist church on the East Side of Detroit, where my stepgrandfather ministered. At 13, I left his church and organized religion for reasons too close and complicated to explore in this short essay. However, millions of Black men and, to a far lesser extent, Black women are departing the church as if it has a deadly, contagious disease. Yet, a majority of these men and women remain profoundly committed to the substance of Christianity and other faith traditions.

I had been taught to fear my imperfections and that only hell and eternal damnation awaited me if I didn’t repent and follow this minister or join that church. Fortunately, in my youthful quest for meaning and selfhood, I discovered Black culture in the form of literature, music, history and psychology. Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, W.E.B. DuBois, Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, Margaret Burroughs, Carter G. Woodson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes and a preacher-thinker named Howard Thurman, among many others. They saved and redirected my young life.

It must be clearly understood that there are multiple and highly personal reasons that millions of Black people, mainly men, are not members of Black churches. I matured in the 1960s as a foot soldier in the U.S. Army, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Arts Movement and the Black-African Empowerment and Liberation Movements. My dedication was, as it is today, total, unshakable, all-giving, developmental and forever questioning. Much of the grass-roots organizing was actualized and perfected within the walls of Black churches. In fact, much of the early leadership in the Civil Rights Movement emerged out of the church and Black colleges and universities. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (Albert B. Cleage Jr.), Benjamin E. Mays and countless others used Christianity in part as an inclusive rallying call, and we all listened and acted. The point is that the Black church was socially determinate, politically progressive, economically growing, educationally forward, spiritually relevant and visionary.

Between 1860 and 1910, as Black people of African ancestry fought their way out of chattel enslavement, the two institutions built from the ground up mostly using their own meager resources were churches and schools. Today the Black church is the largest, richest, most influential institution in the African-American community. Nationally, the major capital development in the Black community is the building of new churches and their economic and cultural spin-offs. Black megachurches have produced pastors who are celebrities in their own right and demand salaries and economic perks that exceed most CEOs of Black companies and some White ones. Many of these church structures are geared toward making money. And the mission that many of my generation believed in exists in too few churches today.

We are a nation within a nation of more than 40 million Black people. Each Sunday morning too many of us are treated to excellent music, comfortable seats and ministers who, when they speak, embarrassingly contribute to the lessening of human knowledge. It’s like ignorant people talking about how ignorant other people are. Many, if not most, of the sermons are anti-intellectual, anti-rational and totally committed to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible in 21st century reality. There is indeed a crisis of faith in Black America.

As Stephen Prothero writes in his recently published Religious Literacy, it is absolutely clear that the overwhelming majority of American churchgoers, Blacks included, are religious but know very little about religion.

I have no doubt that the Black church, nationally, is fairing. As we move through 2008, more than 1.5 million Black men are in prisons and jails in this nation. Another 3 million-plus are under probation and on parole, making the number of Black men caught in the criminal justice system in excess of 5 million–and this is a conservative estimate. To compound this damage, more than 400,000 Black men are released back into our communities each year without any serious support, and most of them can’t read at a fourth-grade level. Black men across the nation are finding grace and peace where possible. Yet many young Black males see little if any hope. We have too many drive-by leaders, religious and secular, who don’t have a clue what to do, or are too conflicted in making deals with the devil that they cannot open their mouths without choking on their own lies. I remain an optimistic realist who understands that if we can build these temples for the self-righteously toxic among us, we too can demand a cleansing of our overly weeded gardens. Remember, it’s much easier to believe than think.”

Haki R. Madhubuti is a poet, founder and publisher of Third World Press, and he is University Distinguished Professor and director of the Master of Fine Arts Program at Chicago State University.

  1. Organized Religion failing is music to my ears!

  2. Now I had to save this one so I can comeback and read it. Wonderful!

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