The Black Church and Activism: Do the Two Co-Exist?
Updated: Jan 7, 2022
By Kyla L. Wright, BCERC Journalist-in-Residence
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.