In this Sunday, July 10, 2016 file photo, parishioners clap during a worship service at the First Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation, in Macon, Ga. There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon _ one black and one white. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)
Most religious Black Americans say understanding the role of religion in the lives of Black people is essential for understanding the African American experience, a new Barna Group survey finds.
Four out of five Black adults in the U.S. who have ties to a faith group agree to some extent (41% “strongly” and 38% “somewhat”) that “to understand the African American experience, it is necessary to understand the role of religious faith in the lives of Black people.”
The percentage of religious Black Americans who agree with that statement has grown to 79% today from 71% in 1996.
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Half of Black church attendees — defined in the study as African Americans who attend a majority Black church — agree “strongly” that faith is a crucial dimension of the Black experience. Additionally, almost 4 in 10 (38%) agree “somewhat” about that.
But a larger percentage of Black church attendees — 69% — agree that pastors of Black churches are the Black community’s most important leaders. A lower percentage — 63% — agreed with that statement in 1996.
Not unexpectedly, a higher percentage of Black church attendees (77%) agree in 2020 about the role of these pastors in Black communities. But Barna noted that “perhaps surprisingly,” higher percentages of some young Black church attendees agree “strongly” compared to Boomers.
The study found that Black church attendees tend to have stronger positive views about the Black church than African American adults in general. When asked, “When you hear ‘The Black Church’ mentioned, what is your immediate response?” Black church attendees selected “important” and “safe” most often. But about one-third of the general Black population chose “old-fashioned,” and about one-fifth chose “stifling.”
There was a noticeable drop in the percentage of respondents who said church involvement was “desirable.” While 90% of Black adults agreed with that description in 1996, only 74% agreed in 2020. The question did not specify Black church involvement, but a higher percentage of Black church attendees (94%) said in 2020 that they consider being active in a church to be desirable.
Two-thirds of Boomers (66%) who are Black church attendees say church involvement is “very desirable,” compared to about half of younger Black church attendees (55% Gen Xers, 51% millennials, 46% Gen Zers). All of the generational numbers are lower among the general Black adult population (49% Boomers, 44% Gen Xers, 39% millennials, 41% Gen Zers).
“The data speak to the challenge and opportunity facing Black faith leaders as they steward the influence of their Church communities for a new era,” the research firm said as it announced its second report.
The findings were based on an online survey, conducted April 22 to May 6, of 1,083 U.S. Black adults and an additional 822 Black church attendees. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
The 1996 findings were based on a phone survey of 802 U.S. Black adults and have a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.
UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.) announced today that its founder Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., died on Saturday, February 13, at 86. Dr. Banks launched UMI in 1970 to provide African American churches and individuals with images reflecting their congregations and relatable, Christ-centered content from an urban perspective.
“Dr. Banks was a revolutionary publisher and giant for the African American church and community,” said C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UMI. “He was the first to create contextualized content that portrayed positive images of African Americans in the Bible. Because of his innovation, UMI has reached millions of Black churches and individuals with the Gospel.”
For the last 50 years, under Dr. Banks’ leadership, UMI has developed Christian education resources, including Bible studies, Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School curriculum, websites, magazines, books, and videos for its 40,000+ strong customer base. He wrote a number of books and devotionals and hosted a two-minute daily podcast called Daily Direction. In 1995, he brought on Mr. Wright as CEO to take on the day-to-day management of the company. Many evangelical organizations have recognized his pioneering work, including the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which presented him with its inaugural Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
“So many people have been introduced to the life-changing message of Jesus because of Dr. Banks’ ground-breaking initiatives,” said Terri Hannett, Vice President of UMI. “For 50 years, UMI has produced discipleship content that was intellectually rigorous and uniquely relevant for the Black experience.”
Dr. Banks was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1934 and made a commitment to salvation at the age of 9 years old. He graduated from Moody Bible College in Chicago in 1955 and attended Wheaton College, earning a B.A. degree in theology in 1958 and his master’s degree in biblical studies in 1960. After graduation, he took a job at Scripture Press Publishers, where he struggled to sell euro-centric Sunday School content to African American churches. This experience led him to create contextual resources for African Americans with imagery and stories unique to their culture. After a few years, he left the company to start his own to expand the publishing content for Black churches.
Dr. Banks had served as board chair since 1994 after the passing of Tom Skinner, the founding board chair of UMI. On February 14, 2021, the UMI Board of Directors voted to appoint Dr. Stanley Long to the role of Chairman after serving as Vice Chairman for the past 45 years.
“Dr. Banks has been one of my closest friends for nearly 50 years,” said Dr. Stanley Long, Chairman of the UMI board. “I will miss him beyond what words can describe. He and I have shared the same vision and burden for as many years as we have been friends. As board chair, I will invest as much energy as he did to continue the work of UMI in the same direction it has journeyed from its inception, to impact the lives of as many men, women, and children as possible.”
Dr. Banks also planted the Westlawn Gospel Chapel church in Chicago and co-founded the Urban Outreach Foundation to reach pastors, lay leaders, and Christian educators through conferences and other resources. He also co-founded Circle Y Ranch, a Christian camp and conference center for urban youth. Dr. Banks received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Wheaton College in 1992 and served as a Board Trustee.
Dr. Banks died from a month-long illness and is survived by his wife Olive and his three children Melvin Jr., Patrice Lee, and Reginald. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Circle Y Ranch Bible Camp c/o UMI 1551 Regency Ct., Calumet City, IL 60409 or donate via the website: https://circleyranch.net referencing Dr. Banks. Resolutions and tributes can be sent to [email protected].
A new program pairing Black women in ministry with mentors has received a $1 million Lilly Endowment grant.
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. international religious freedom ambassador, and her home church, Union Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, have partnered on the R.E.A.L. THRIVE Initiative. The program includes women in the New York and Washington metropolitan areas as well as in Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas.
The R.E.A.L. acronym stands for relationship building, equipping and expanding, access and leadership and legacy development. It will feature two groups of 25 senior pastors and church planters who will serve as mentors for women representing about a dozen denominations.
The grant is part of Lilly Endowment’s Thriving in Ministry emphasis that supports U.S. religious organizations starting or enhancing programs that help experienced clergy mentor newer pastors as they lead congregations.
“This is truly a blessing and a stain(ed) glass ceiling game changer, not only for the 50 women who are now advancing, being blessed and being placed and elevated in parish ministries, through this grant, but we hope it will help many generations who follow,” said Cook, in a Monday (Feb. 1) announcement.
Cook is the former minister at Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church, where she was the first Black woman senior pastor in the history of the American Baptist Churches USA.
In a recent interview with Religion News Service, Cook said the initiative marks a new juncture in her efforts as a faith leader, entrepreneur and diplomat as she continues to support women in ministry.
“I’m about legacy right now, making sure our people are whole and wholesome,” she said.
Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion, said programs like the R.E.A.L. Thrive Initiative especially help clergy as they make key professional transitions.
“When pastors have opportunities to build meaningful relationships with experienced col-leagues,” he said in the announcement, “they are able to negotiate the challenges of ministry and their leadership thrives.”
At St. Brigid Catholic Church, the Rev. Kenneth Keke preaches that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only about eternity, but about “having a human face, loving one another.” Keke’s message stresses unity and that a “common humanity is what we need for us to live in peace.”
“That is liberation theology and that is what we preach here,” said Keke, the St. Brigid priest from Nigeria.
This is the South Central Los Angeles church where 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, grew up singing in the youth choir, taking her sacraments and reciting her poetry.
Gorman, who graduated from Harvard University last year, captivated Americans with the recent recitation of her poem on national unity at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Since that day, she has signed on with IMG modeling agency and has been invited to recite a poem at the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
“She would always get standing ovations,” said Floy Hawkins, a parishioner and former director of religious education at St. Brigid. “We were in just as much awe of her then, as we were when we all witnessed her at the inauguration.”
St. Brigid, which established in a small rented house in 1920, has a rich history in Los Angeles.
“St. Brigid was one of the first parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that encompassed the entirety of Black Catholicism,” said Anderson Shaw, director of the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization.
What used to be an Irish parish is now a predominantly Black and Latino congregation where, Keke told Religion News Service, parishioners take pride in their community and often “push me to do something … to fight more.”
“We need to liberate our people more,” Keke said they tell him. “It’s like everybody here is a freedom fighter.”
St. Brigid is an Afrocentric Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that’s overseen by the Josephites — a religious community of Catholic priests and brothers that centers its ministry in African American communities. The Josephites formed in 1871 to meet the needs of newly freed people after the Civil War.
The Josephites arrived at the South Central LA parish in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after African Americans had migrated to the city from Louisiana and Southeast Texas in search of jobs at aircraft construction companies, said the Rev. Thomas Frank, vicar general of the Josephites, who served as pastor at St. Brigid from 2007 to 2011.
Frank said the Josephites took over the parish at the written request of African American Catholics in the area. The church, which could accommodate about 800 people, was struggling with dwindling attendance and was down to about 150 core parishioners, who were mostly Black but also included a significant number of Latinos.
With the Josephites’ arrival, the parish received its first African American priest, the Rev. William Norvell, as well as an Afro-Latino Jesuit priest, the Rev. Fernando Arizti, to connect with the Latino community, Frank said.
Hawkins came to St. Brigid around 1980 after her sister encouraged her to visit. She heard St. Brigid incorporated a gospel choir during Mass, and she thought, “A gospel choir at a Catholic church?” She decided to give St. Brigid a visit and has remained there ever since.
“The relevancy, the comfort of connecting in the community and the nuances of the actual Mass, it’s very culturally relatable,” Hawkins said.
During a typical pre-pandemic Mass, an ensemble wearing dashikis and headdresses would sound African drums to call parishioners to gather for worship. A gospel choir would follow, sending congregants to their feet as they danced and waved their arms, giving God praise, glory and honor.
Inside the church, a Black crucifix is suspended above the altar. Oil paintings of a Black Joseph holding his son, a Black Jesus, and of Martin Luther King Jr. hang on the walls of the parish.
St. Brigid has become known as a pillar in the community.
It’s a member of OneLA, an organization made up of Jewish temples, schools and other nonprofit groups that work to improve housing insecurity, public transportation and criminal justice reform. The church also turns into a voting center during elections and during the coronavirus pandemic has served as a COVID-19 testing site. St. Brigid also has a food distribution ministry.
To Hawkins, the church community was an ideal and welcoming worship space for her four children.
She recalled how Arizti opened up the church space to a Muslim mosque whose building had been damaged after an earthquake.
“That was amazing,” Hawkins said. “The church was a light to the surrounding community.”
Seeing Gorman in the national spotlight now, Hawkins remembers how the poet’s mother went to the church with her twin daughters, Amanda and Gabrielle, with the hope of exposing her children to a Catholic faith “that was relevant to their identity as African American.”
The Gorman sisters were in middle school, became part of the religious education program and stayed throughout their preparation for baptism, first Communion and confirmation, Hawkins said. Amanda Gorman would participate in the church’s Black history programs through her poetry.
“Her mother was very intentional about her girls,” Hawkins said. “That was very clear, and as a result, her girls were very responsive to the African American worship experience.”
“This is a very humble family,” Hawkins added. “They’re a family that loves to share, but they are not imposing people.”
Gabrielle Gorman has made her own strides, in the filmmaking industry. Last year, she edited and directed a voting public service announcement, #Vote4theFuture, in collaboration with her sister, featuring self-taped clips from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Cara Delevingne and Mahershala Ali. Her work, focusing on social change, has been featured in Essence, Bustle and NPR.
In a video created by Gabrielle Gorman, a graduate of UCLA’s School of Film and Television, the sisters deliver a message of solidarity with images of diverse people and protesters across the city of LA. The video shows Amanda Gorman reciting a poem in the bus and in the middle of protesters:
“This is my country-Catholic grandmother on bus-defending hijab-wearing girl-immigrant learning a new language-Native remembers an old one rarely spoken in this world. This is who we are …”
In the days leading up to Jan. 20, Keke said parishioners were calling him to let him know “their very own Amanda Gorman” would be the one reciting a poem at the momentous ceremony. Enthusiasm was high.
“Everybody was excited for the opportunity Amanda received,” Keke said. “There was no doubt that she would do well. She grew to become very articulate and bold.”
Reflecting back on Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” Keke said it was about “democracy and unity,” and the importance of “living in the country as one people, recognizing one another and respecting one another.”
The Biden administration has revived a plan to put Harriet Tubman on the US$20 bill after Donald Trump’s Treasury secretary delayed the move.
That’s encouraging news to the millions of people who have expressed support for
putting her face on the bill. But many still aren’t familiar with the story of Tubman’s life, which was chronicled in a 2019 film, “Harriet.”
Harriet Tubman worked as a slave, spy and eventually an abolitionist. What I find most fascinating, as a historian of American slavery, is how her belief in God helped Tubman remain fearless, even when she came face to face with many challenges.
Tubman’s early life
Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1822 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When interviewed later in life, Tubman said she started working as a housemaid when she was 5. She recalled that she endured whippings, starvation and hard work even before she got to her teenage years.
She labored in Maryland’s tobacco fields, but things started to change when farmers switched their main crop to wheat.
Grain required less labor, so slave owners began to sell their enslaved people to plantation owners in the Deep South.
Two of Tubman’s sisters were sold to a slave trader. One had to leave her child behind. Tubman, too, lived in fear of being sold.
When she was 22, Tubman married a free black man named John Tubman. For reasons that are unclear, she changed her name, taking her mother’s first name and her husband’s last name. Her marriage did not change her status as an enslaved person.
Five years later, rumors circulated in the slave community that slave traders were once again prowling through the Eastern Shore. Tubman decided to seize her freedom rather than face the terror of being chained with other slaves to be carried away, often referred to as the “chain gang.”
Tubman stole into the woods and, with the help of some members of the Underground Railroad, walked the 90 miles to Philadelphia, where slavery was illegal. The Underground Railroad was a loose network of African Americans and whites who helped fugitive slaves escape to a free state or to Canada. Tubman began working with William Still, an African American clerk from Philadelphia, who helped slaves find freedom.
Tubman led about a dozen rescue missions that freed about 60 to 80 people. She normally rescued people in the winter, when the long dark nights provided cover, and she often adopted some type of disguise. Even though she was the only “conductor” on rescue missions, she depended on a few houses connected with the Underground Railroad for shelter. She never lost a person escaping with her and won the nickname of Moses for leading so many people to “the promised land,” or freedom.
After the Civil War began, Tubman volunteered to serve as a spy and scout for the Union Army. She ended up in South Carolina, where she helped lead a military mission up the Combahee River. Located about halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, the river was lined with a number of valuable plantations that the Union Army wanted to destroy.
Tubman helped guide three Union steamboats around Confederate mines and then helped about 750 enslaved people escape with the federal troops.
She was the only woman to lead men into combat during the Civil War. After the war, she moved to New York and was active in campaigning for equal rights for women. She died in 1913 at the age of 90.
Tubman’s Christian faith tied all of these remarkable achievements together.
She grew up during the Second Great Awakening, which was a Protestant religious revival in the United States. Preachers took the gospel of evangelical Christianity from place to place, and church membership flourished. Christians at this time believed that they needed to reform America to usher in Christ’s second coming.
A number of Black female preachers preached the message of revival and sanctification on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It is not clear whether Tubman attended any of Lee’s camp meetings, but she was inspired by the evangelist. She came to understand that women could hold religious authority.
Historian Kate Clifford Larson believes that Tubman drew from a variety of Christian denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist and Catholic beliefs. Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs.
Her belief that there was no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds was a direct result of African religious practices. Tubman literally believed that she moved between a physical existence and a spiritual experience where she sometimes flew over the land.
An enslaved person who trusted Tubman to help him escape simply noted that Tubman had “de charm,” or God’s protection. Charms or amulets were strongly associated with African religious beliefs.
An injury becomes a spiritual gift
A horrific accident is believed to have brought Tubman closer to God and reinforced her Christian worldview. Sarah Bradford, a 19th-century writer who conducted interviews with Tubman and several of her associates, found the deep role faith played in her life.
When she was a teenager, Tubman happened to be at a dry goods store when an overseer was trying to capture an enslaved person who had left his slave labor camp without permission. The angry man threw a 2-pound weight at the runaway but hit Tubman instead, crushing part of her skull. For two days she lingered between life and death.
The injury almost certainly gave her temporal lobe epilepsy. As a result, she would have splitting headaches, fall asleep without notice, even during conversations, and have dreamlike trances.
As Bradford documents, Tubman believed that her trances and visions were God’s revelation and evidence of his direct involvement in her life. One abolitionist told Bradford that Tubman “talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life.”
According to Larson, this confidence in providential guidance and protection helped make Tubman fearless. Standing only 5 feet tall, she had an air of authority that demanded respect.
Once Tubman told Bradford that when she was leading two “stout” men to freedom, she believed that “God told her to stop” and leave the road. She led the scared and reluctant men through an icy stream – and to freedom.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ swearing-in Wednesday will highlight two other trailblazers, as well as a woman who had an impact on her as a young girl.
The ceremony will reflect her lived experience as she makes history as the first woman, African American and South Asian to become the second most powerful person in the country. Harris is set to be sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the court, who was nominated by the first Black president, Barack Obama, in 2009, according to the transition team. The plan was first reported by ABC News.
Harris will take the oath of office on a pair of Bibles. One was owned by Regina Shelton, who lived two doors down from Harris’ family in Oakland and who was considered a second mother by Harris and her sister, Maya. Harris used the same Bible when she was sworn in as the first Black person and woman to serve as attorney general of California and the only Black woman currently serving as a U.S. senator.
The second Bible belonged to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the court and a personal hero of Harris’. Marshall and Harris also share an alma mater — he the valedictorian of the 1933 class at Howard University School of Law, and she a 1986 graduate of the historically Black college.
Harris and President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration had already been altered dramatically by the novel coronavirus pandemic, and now security measures have gotten even tighter after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump.