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The Black Church and Activism: Do the Two Co-Exist?

Updated: Jan 7

By Kyla L. Wright, BCERC Journalist-in-Residence

Photo by Life Matters

Growing up, I always remember hearing two key points: never discuss politics or religion in polite company, and there is a separation between church and state. Now, as a Black, Christian, twenty-something, I respectfully disagree (sorry, Mark Twain). Let’s say I were to separate from my church: I’d walk away seemingly unscathed; but I cannot do the same with the “state,” which refers to the government; but to me, it boils down simply as my blackness. To my parents’ and grandparents’ generations and those preceding, this is likely seen as a radical way of thinking, as millennials are seen as “the radical generation.” From the Black Lives Matter Movement, LGBTQ+ rights, and #MeToo, to social media networking and walking away from our jobs and churches, millennials have “shaken the table” in the way the world looks, thinks and potentially acts not only in the outside world, but in the confines of the Black church.


The 3rd Annual Michael E. Haynes Symposium, held earlier this month, focused on "Activism and the Black Church", where three millennial leaders: Jaronzie L. Harris, Kristen Halbert and Danny Rivera, Jr. discussed how – and if – the Black Church and Activism can truly mix.


For some, it’s not that simple: you, as the church, don’t want to offend or step on toes, so it may be easier to keep church in the church and leave it at that. For others, it’s more straightforward: yes, they can; yes, they do mix. I am a part of the latter. What I believe many don’t realize, is that when Blackness is in play, all bets are off; because I think that we, as Blacks, are walking political statements – to political entities, that is. Whether it be Black people taking up space in education, financial matters, fights for inclusion and equity, and of course, interactions with police, there’s always a “but,” or a need for debate. So, how could the same Black body fighting for inclusion in the workplace, safe spaces on campus or the hope to have a peaceful police interaction, walk into the church – one of the places of Black solace – without that burden? This is how the Black church and politics, or activism for that matter, have no choice but to intertwine. When a 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in Georgia, I’m sure he didn’t lace up his shoes that day with the intention on being hunted by three racists. I’m also sure that Black pastors from around the nation didn’t watch, or even travel to Brunswick, Georgia to be ostracized for simply existing in the courtroom during the trial of Arbery’s murder, by, of one of said racist’s defense attorney.


“The Black church has an inextricable part for it to be active in the community to be serving the spiritual needs of folks, but also the social needs of Black folks. I also recognize that looking around, we can all reflect and say that legacy is being threatened and is not being fulfilled in the 21stcentury,” said Harris, who is a Networking & Research Associate for the Black Church Vitality Project. “There is a greater need to be able to point to more examples and for the average person who might not identify as being Christian or as being Black to understand that, that is the role of the institution.”


Rivera, who is a singer-songwriter & Social Advocate for Social Impact, Equity & Empowerment, agreed, saying that the Black church’s role is to play a central part in community. “When we think about activism, when we think about advocacy, and reaching the lost – the hurting – the weary – that are in and out of the church, that is something that should go without even saying,” said Rivera, who questioned if the Black church, specifically in Boston, has been active in that commitment.


Halbert continued the conversation, raising points that align with what’s likely looked at as one from a typical millennial, but what it really is, is realistic. “If you ask me about how I feel when you put the Black church and activism in the same phrase, it’s as natural to me as light and salt being in the same phrase,” she said, referencing Matthew 5:13-16. “Historically, it just goes together, because that’s where we’ve always come together, traditionally, historically – in a place where our needs are met not just physically, but our needs are met spiritually. Our needs are met in community, with people that we trust, that are all undergirded by the same morality and values that we come together on Sundays to express.” Halbert continued, saying that the problem actually lies there, though, as only coming together on Sunday and not throughout the rest of the week causes people to raise questions such as this one; because the foundation of the Black church is deep, relational work, and activism is included in that work.


Photo by Paddy O'Sullivan

Similar to Halbert’s point, the late Dr. Michael E. Haynes laid a blueprint for the Black church, saying that it isn’t and shouldn’t simply be a building, but also an actively engaged community that’s operating seven days a week. With most churches not operating in their physical buildings since March 2020, many now question if we, as the Black church, have lost our way now operating as Facebook Live, ZOOM and YouTube sanctuaries.


Harris says that though COVID compounded many familiar church realities, fellowship in the building is, and should be, the last piece of that reality. Halbert echoed those sentiments, saying that either churches were already on point with such a transition, while others who may have been lax, were faced with questions about their preparedness – or lack thereof. Rivera expounded on both points, saying that there were two types of churches at the beginning of the pandemic: “there were the ones who were committed to supplying resources to community members and congregants and to those in need, and then there were churches who were a lot more concerned – still – about their Sunday morning worship experience, and how they were going to translate that onto a virtual screen,” he said. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with both of those; but it shouldn’t have been either/or. It should’ve been both/and.” Rivera said he noticed smaller churches doing grassroots work: feeding people, providing resources, while larger churches were focused on the lights, audio and quality of the image on camera. This, he says, exposes the priorities of our churches.


Photo by Sora Shimazaki

Continuing into topics such as the need for pastoral care, millennials leaving the church and what Black churches should be demanding, it is likely that the three panelists along with Dr. Emmett G. Price III, founder and CEO of The Black Christian Experience Resource Center, had a conversation that a lot of seasoned Black Christians aren’t quite ready for. Not because they aren’t important topics, but because these ideals seem as if they may change the framework that many traditional Black churches were built upon. But the question they, and I, ask is: what’s so wrong with change?


As someone who found her voice in the Black church, I expect the Black church to voice their opinions about more than Sunday decorum and internal committee planning. I know that without the foundation my childhood church laid, I wouldn’t be who I am today; so, the energy that our churches put into the church body and youth on Easter Sunday and Christmas plays should also go into the issues and improvement of the church community, the inner community, and the Black community. Then, the question of activism and the Black church will no longer be a question, but a fact – a proud one, at that.

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