The history of Black Christianity in America will come to television screens this month in a documentary series based on a new book by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., a Harvard University historian who is simultaneously an admirer and a critic of its influential role in American society.
Gates’ book, “ The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” will be released Tuesday (Feb. 16), the same day the four-hour documentary will begin a two-day run on PBS stations, airing at 9 p.m. EST. Musicians John Legend and Yolanda Adams are featured in the series.
Gates, who describes himself as a “spiritual person,” said at a virtual news conference Friday (Feb. 5) that while he is a critic of the Black church’s history of male domination and homophobia, he has celebrated its culture and rejoiced in what it has overcome.
Gates said that during his summer visits to Martha’s Vineyard, he attends services at Union Chapel, which features prominent Black preachers. “We all come together to experience that circle of warmth,” he told Religion News Service at the news conference.
When Black people come together for worship, he said, it is “a celebration of our culture, our history, of who we are, of how we got over, how we survived the madness, the claustrophobic madness of hundreds of years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow and then anti-Black racism that we saw manifest itself at the Capitol.”
Stacey Holman, who produced and directed the series, spoke to Religion News Service recently about how she and Gates distilled centuries of history into the four-hour series, her thoughts on the Black church’s future and how Oprah Winfrey made the final call on the name of the documentary.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have worked on films about the Freedom Riders and historically Black colleges and universities. What struck you most about the Black church history you helped present with Henry Louis Gates Jr.?
What struck me was that we did not come here empty-handed. There were Africans who were practicing Muslims who were brought here in the transatlantic slave trade. That connection still exists today. A religion that is very actively practiced among Black people was here when this country was first being formed. Also, just how rich the history is and just how there’s so much connective tissue to Africa, to our worship and to our praise.
Mixed in with the interviews with scholars and clergy are the personal stories of Black celebrities about the Black church. Whose stories did you find to be particularly worth telling?
I think Kirk Franklin ’s story was quite moving. He talked about his friend that he lost, who was killed, and someone who was a good kid, and he was not, so — one of those situations where it’s like, wow, God, you spared my life. And I think even John Legend’s story, hearing how the church has really informed his career, but also how he was brought up and raised going to church and then becoming the choir director.
You’ve worked with Gates before. Was this series different because the subject matter related to him personally? At one point he breaks into song with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and tells some of his faith story from the pulpit of the West Virginia Methodist church he joined at age 12.
Yes, very much so. When he was giving, as we say, his testimony, my crew was crying. It was just beautiful, just seeing him coming back home. When I have traveled to my grandparents’ church in southern Ohio, it was like that welcome home. And to see that with Skip just brought fond memories to me.
John Legend, who was an executive producer, as well as Shirley Caesar and Yolanda Adams talk about the importance of music. How did you address its influence in the Black church?
I think having those voices that you just mentioned were important. These are individuals who have used the music — John is more contemporary and pop and R&B, but there’s definitely elements of the church in what he plays. Even Kirk Franklin, the crossover songs that they’ve had, it just speaks to the richness that music has played over the centuries of the Black church.
The series shows various forms of faithful fervor, from ring shout to speaking in tongues. Why was it important to delve into that aspect of Black American faith?
I think that people think that’s all that the Black church is: We go in and people are hooting and hollering and jumping around. I think even just talking about the Great Awakening says, yeah, there were white folks doing it, too. So this whole idea of this fervor in worship is nothing new, but I think (the documentary is) really breaking it down so that people can understand the history of it. And it’s not an act. It’s a feeling. It’s an emotion that people get.
The show makes a revelation about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiration for the phrase ‘I have a dream.’
(Minister and civil rights activist) Prathia Hall was listed (as an influential preacher) by the pastors we asked — at least a good third or half of them would say Prathia Hall. And I didn’t really know that story until we sat with Reverend Senator (Raphael) Warnock. I was amazed. It just spoke to the testimony of just how influential Black women are in the church and were influencing major iconic speeches. We’re running churches; we are really the staples behind the everyday activity. Our series will really give her the limelight that she’s due.
Franklin and Legend talk about their anger with the Black church for rejecting changes in music and society. Can the Black church survive the rejection of some millennials and some Black Lives Matter activists?
I think it’s a case-by-case situation. It’s a denominational question as well. Certain stories that we left on the cutting room floor were really looking at that question. There are some churches that we spoke to that are really trying to engage that. I know Reverend (Otis) Moss III, his (Chicago) church is engaged in Black Lives Matter. I do believe there are churches that will need to kind of say, hey, we need to kind of catch up with the times and embrace this. But I think the church has always been evolving and will continue to evolve.
How did you distill Henry Louis Gates’ research, and that of so many others, into just a four-show series?
It was a privilege and it was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m telling 400 years in four hours.” Just to work with him was great. He gives you that freedom as a creator (where) you’re able to collaborate and talk with him about your ideas. We did argue about the title of the film. I wanted it to be “How I Got Over,” and he was like, “Oh, ‘Blessed Assurance’ (whose chorus begins ‘This is my story, this is my song’).” And then, who broke the tie but Oprah Winfrey. Skip gave her a list of names and she left a voicemail, singing, “This is our story. This is our song.” And so he’s like, “See? That’s the title.”
Is it time for Easter again? It doesn’t feel like Easter season. Easter (or Resurrection Sunday for the purists) is around the corner, and yet many Millennials feel little reason to celebrate. When I think of Easter, I think of special sermons, church presentations, fancy outfits, and big dinners. I also think of bunnies, eggs, and baskets thanks to corporate marketing. Ironically, what I don’t think about immediately is the Resurrection. But isn’t that the reason for the season?
For the past few years, social media campaigns have tried to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It has become so commercialized that people come out of the woodwork you didn’t even know were Christian. They remind everyone following them that Jesus is the reason for the season, that Jesus is the best gift we could get in the season, that Jesus wants us to give in this season, and that we should be content whether we get other gifts or not.
But Easter doesn’t have gift-giving traditions. Were it not for multi-colored chocolate eggs, most of us would not even think about what we receive on that holiday. But Easter is supposed to be the center of the Christian faith. Jesus goes to the Cross, dies for our sins, and resurrects with power, giving hope of salvation to all the earth.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Easter doesn’t immediately remind us of resurrection is because resurrection hope seems so far removed from our current situation. Current events in our world—from politics to protests, global warming to global injustice, doubt in our lives and doubt in our faith—have caused many to lose hope.
The Sweet By-and-By
It is hard to think about the hope of resurrection when we are surrounded by so much death. But that is exactly why we as Christians need to remember the Resurrection. What greater hope is there in the midst of a death culture than the revelation that death is not the end of the story? That our God loved us enough to take death on Himself and then overcame death itself?
Resurrection is not just about “the sweet-by and-by” either. We have to hold on to the promise of life after this life, but resurrection also comes when we hear the testimonies of those who are still living, still striving, still fighting, still hopeful despite facing ridiculous obstacles and even threats to their very lives.
Jesus gives new hope to a woman with an issue of blood who was treated as dead by society, and He not only wasn’t afraid of a man with a legion of demons, He set the man free and made him a missionary. Jesus is hope for resurrection in a world that needs new life.
Time to Remember
It could be because of Saint Patrick’s Day that takes place around the same time, so people are focused on Irish beer and clovers. It could be because we feel like we’ve heard the Easter sermon before, so we’ll catch it on livestream. It could be that you didn’t know Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Lent had anything to do with Easter, so it just isn’t in your mind.
It could be because no one you know buys Easter clothes, or because there will be no big dinner, or because you’ve got so many other things going on that you just forgot. But whatever the reason we weren’t thinking about the Resurrection yet for Easter, we should take time to remember it now.
It is the story of our salvation. It is the “right now” power of God. It is what we need to face today together.
It’s no secret that the Democratic Party cannot win national elections without the black vote. Less well understood by major Democratic candidates and donors is that black voters are not a monolith. Particularly in the black church, we fall along a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal social values. Our intersections related to race and gender are complex and nuanced.
When black people say that they are tired of our votes being taken for granted, we are referring in part to this lack of understanding. Gaining our vote requires gaining more than a cursory understanding of who we are as a people. Candidates will need to be able to speak to a full range of issues and concerns and, just as importantly, feel comfortable engaging directly with a range of African American people.
Three years ago, the Black Church PAC was formed to give our historically critical voting demographic a greater voice before we go to the polls. On Friday and Saturday (Aug. 16 and 17), the PAC held its first candidate forum, with an audience of 5,000 African American Christian millennials from 42 different states at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta.
Seven of the top-tier candidates were invited, and five attended: Secretary Julian Castro, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Black Church PAC forum during the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab
The forum not only gave candidates an opportunity to make their case for why black voters should entrust them with their vote; it tested the candidates’ ability to connect with young black churchgoers who lean in a socially conservative direction — a voting bloc that is not necessarily well acquainted with long-established Democratic politicians and that has not necessarily bought in to the traditional progressive talking points.
Candidates got a chance to address the full conference but also met with small groups of voters and engaged in spirited dialogue about critical issues ranging from gun violence and the criminal justice system to student loan debt, immigration, education, health care and reparations. These sessions tested candidates’ expertise on critical issues but also revealed how comfortable they were listening to and being challenged by those with experiences very different from their own.
During the meeting, we ran a survey of close to 800 conference attendees to gauge their opinions about the candidates and issues, in addition to gathering qualitative responses. We plan to have a briefing with candidates to share these results before we make them public, but some quick takeaways include:
Candidates who attended experienced a significant bump in their support; candidates who didn’t experienced a significant drop in their support.
Close to 10% of respondents are unfamiliar with the candidates who were listed.
The most important issues among those to take the survey: jobs/economy, gun violence, white nationalism.
A critical finding here is that most candidates have simply not broken through to young African American voters. This is alarming because, if this vital demographic is not actively engaged in selecting the eventual nominee, Democrats may end up with a nominee who fails to engage a significant voting bloc in the general election.
Sen. Cory Booker addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab
Compounding this problem is the fact that Democrats have a miserable record of investing in black grassroots organizers, black community-based organizations and black political consultants, who are often best equipped to mobilize black voters.
Steve Phillips, the civil rights lawyer and founder of the website Democracy in Color, has described at great length the billion-dollar blunders Democratic and Allied Progressive groups continue to make in their political spending. The lessons to take from these unforced errors, he has said, are clear: Political spending in the Democratic ecosystem must be early, often and targeted to groups who register; and we must educate and mobilize black and brown voters, especially for turnout on Election Day.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, takes questions from moderators the Rev. Leah Daughtry and the Rev. Michael McBride during the Black Church PAC forum at the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab
The same kind of results could be achieved in swing states throughout the country if, rather than centering their campaigns around convincing white “Reagan Democrats” to stay blue, candidates doubled down on turning out reliably blue African American voters in places like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia.
We suspect that when candidates and their teams forgo this approach, it is because they do not have either the cultural proficiency or the willingness to make the black grassroots investments required to pull off this type of strategy. No one expects large numbers of blacks to vote for President Trump; however, operating as if African American and other voters will come out in droves simply to vote against Trump — without giving them someone who is compelling to vote for — is a risky and reckless approach.
Even within the more conservative bloc of the black church, Trump’s message is repulsive to millennials and their black elders. Unlike white evangelicals, whose support for Trump still hovers above 80%, socially conservative-leaning black church members detected very clearly the racialized rhetoric and dangerous policies of Trump and overwhelmingly do not support him. With meaningful engagement, these voters can be activated to vote for a candidate who promotes a compelling vision of belonging, justice and opportunity for all.
Through this election cycle and beyond, we will continue to give candidates opportunities to make their case and truly listen to black voters.
Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab
(The Rev. Michael McBride is pastor of The Way Church in Berkeley, California, and national director of Faith in Action’s urban strategies and LIVE FREE Project. The Rev. Leah Daughtry, former CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, is presiding prelate-elect of The House of the Lord Churches and a founding board member of the Black Church PAC. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
One of the things that puzzled me growing up, and still puzzles me today, is how devastated and broken many African American communities are although there are a huge number of local churches across America.
I often wondered why there were churches where so many people who claim to be changed and transformed had no effect on the community around them. Before we dive in, I’d like to emphasize that this is not a sweeping indictment of all black churches.
In fact, there are many places of worship where members are doing their part in a variety of ways to glorify God’s kingdom.
However, we can’t deny the fact that there are many street corners in the African American community where crime, violence, and poverty run rampant while the church does nothing, so, here are seven revealing reasons why the black church isn’t more influential in the community.
Reason #1: Failure to Make Faith and Life Intersect
We hear a lot about how Jesus died and rose again but we don’t often hear how this affects us in our everyday lives.
How do the scriptures inform our marriages? How do the scriptures inform our economics? These are just examples of what is left out in most black churches on Sunday morning.
There needs to be more of an understanding of how faith and life intersect.
Reason #2: Systemic Injustice
The primary culprit behind the Church’s lack of influence in the community is plain, old systemic injustice.
Black communities in the inner city are the way they are because of decisions that were made years ago. Whether it was poor and inadequate housing or the choice to build freeways over thriving neighborhoods, most of the problems boil down to systemic injustice.
Reason #3: Church Hypocrisy
Another reason why the Church is not effectively helping the black community is because of widespread hypocrisy. Many people are in church on Sunday but the Church is not in them throughout the rest of the week.
Sadly, there are some closed-minded “regulars” in the Church that are wreaking havoc on the black community.
And as a result of this, many people in the community opt not to attend church for anything other than pacifying their relatives on Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Easter.
Reason #4: No Leadership Pipeline
There is also a case to be made for a lack of leadership.
Many older preachers and other leaders have held on to their positions and are not training the next generation to replace them.
It never occurs to them that not only will they have someone to succeed them when they’re gone, but they will be able to multiply their efforts in the present through the recruiting and training of younger leaders.
Reason #5: Lack of Connection with Youth
Another reason why the church is not more influential in the black community is because it is not willing to tip over its sacred cows.
Traditions are not to be tampered with in the eyes of leadership and older members of these churches. What they are failing to understand is that many of these traditions are irrelevant to young people, which can get in the way of effective ministry.
Reason #6: Pie in the Sky Mentality
One of the things that you will sometimes notice in the black church is a pie in the sky mentality. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “Everything’s going to be alright when we get to Heaven. Why do anything now?”
Now, there is nothing wrong with aiming for Heaven. In fact, author C.S. Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
But seeking heaven is to aggressively act as instruments of God’s kingdom here and now. Seeking Heaven is not an excuse to be passive.
When heaven just becomes the reason we don’t do anything that’s being too heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.
Reason #7: Lack of Vision
The final thing that stops black churches from affecting the community is that there is no vision for anything beyond Sunday morning.
As long as the tithes are paid and the people are running around shouting, then we can all go home and say “We’ve had church.” This is a far cry from Jesus’ exhortation to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-15).
So, there you have it. And just to be clear, this is not to bash the black church. This is an autopsy of what needs to happen if we are going to see true and lasting change.