Sam Collier just started his tenure as the new lead pastor of Hillsong Church’s Atlanta location and it has come with tremendous interest. Pastor Sam is pursuing many firsts; he is the first African American pastor at a Hillsong Church, he is the first black pastor in the Hillsong global network, and this is his first time as a lead pastor after spending years serving at 20,000+ member North Point Community Church with Pastor Andy Stanley. Hillsong Church is one of the most popular church movements in the world with locations on every continent except Antarctica, music that has influenced a generation, conferences attended by hundreds of thousands, and ministries that reach around the globe. Yet in the midst of racial unrest, a global pandemic, and economic uncertainty, Hillsong church has not had an African American in pastoral leadership…until now. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down to interview Pastor Sam Collier about his decision, the challenges, and his hopes in his role as the first black pastor in one of the largest most recognized church movements in the world. Full interview is above.
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Every Sunday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Joseph Jackson Jr. praises the Lord before his congregation. But since last fall he’s been praising something else his Black community needs: the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We want to continue to encourage our people to get out, get your shots. I got both of mine,” Jackson said to applause at the church in Milwaukee on a recent Sunday.
Members of Black communities across the U.S. have disproportionately fallen sick or died from the virus, so some church leaders are using their influence and trusted reputations to fight back by preaching from the pulpit, phoning people to encourage vaccinations, and hosting testing clinics and vaccination events in church buildings.
Some want to extend their efforts beyond the fight against COVID-19 and give their flocks a place to seek health care for other ailments at a place they trust — the church.
“We can’t go back to normal because we died in our normal,” Debra Fraser-Howze, the founder of Choose Healthy Life, told The Associated Press. “We have health disparities that were so serious that one pandemic virtually wiped us out more than anybody else. We can’t allow for that to happen again.”
Choose Healthy Life, a national initiative involving Black clergy, United Way of New York City and others, has been awarded a $9.9 million U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant to expand vaccinations and and make permanent the “health navigators” who are already doing coronavirus testing and vaccinations in churches.
The navigators will eventually bring in experts for vaccinations, such as the flu, and to screen for ailments that are common in Black communities, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, AIDS and asthma. The effort aims to reduce discomfort within Black communities about seeking health care, either due to concerns about racism or a historical distrust of science and government.
The initiative has so far been responsible for over 30,000 vaccinations in the first three months in 50 churches in New York; Newark, New Jersey; Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta.
The federal funding will expand the group’s effort to 100 churches, including in rural areas, in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and will help establish an infrastructure for the health navigators to start screenings. Quest Diagnostics and its foundation has already provided funding and testing help.
Choose Healthy Life expects to be involved for at least five years, after which organizers hope control and funding will be handled locally, possibly by health departments or in alignment with federally supported health centers, Fraser-Howze said.
The initiative is also planning to host seminars in churches on common health issues. Some churches already have health clinics and they hope that encourages other churches to follow suit, said Fraser-Howze, who led the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS for 21 years.
“The Black church is going to have to be that link between faith and science,” she said.
In Milwaukee, nearly 43% of all coronavirus-related deaths have been in the Black community, according to the Milwaukee Health Department. Census data indicates Blacks make up about 39% of the city’s population. An initiative involving Pastors United, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope and Souls to the Polls has provided vaccinations in at least 80 churches there already.
Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, according to the studies by the Brookings Institution. Ericka Sinclair, CEO of Health Connections, Inc., which administers vaccinations, says that’s why putting vaccination centers in churches and other trusted locations is so important.
“Access to services is not the same for everyone. It’s just not. And it is just another reason why when we talk about health equity, we have … to do a course correction,” she said.
She’s also working to get more community health workers funded through insurance companies, including Medicaid.
The church vaccination effort involved Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, which is faith organization working on social issues. Executive Director and Lead Organizer Lisa Jones says the effect of COVID-19 on the Black community has reinforced the need to address race-related disparities in health care. The group has hired another organizer to address disparities in hospital services in the inner city and housing, and lead contamination.
At a recent vaccination clinic in Milwaukee at St. Matthew, a Christian Methodist Episcopal church, Melanie Paige overcame her fears to get vaccinated. Paige, who has lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, said the church clinic helped motivate her, along with encouragement from her son.
“I was more comfortable because I belong to the church and I know I’ve been here all my life. So that made it easier.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
The faith community should guide the way on reparations for America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and help the nation’s process of reconciliation and healing, religious leaders said during a panel held to discuss the issue.
U.S. religious groups have seen widespread interest in reparations, especially among Protestant churches that were active in the era of slavery. Many are starting or now considering how to make amends through financial investments and long-term programs benefiting Black Americans.
“The faith community not only can lead but should lead, and is in a unique position to lead,” the Rev. Iva E. Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said during the Wednesday panel organized by The Associated Press, The Religion News Service and The Conversation.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted last year to create a $1 million reparations fund, likely to finance programs supporting Black students, nursing home residents, small-business owners and others. The vote followed years of research into how the diocese had benefited from racial inequality and slavery.
“If not the faith community, who? And if not now, when?” said the Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, the first Black cleric to hold the post of bishop of the diocese.
“Perhaps one of the reasons why so many in our society are saying, ‘Well, I can be spiritual, but I don’t have to belong to any religious organization,’ is because religious faith communities have failed to live up to their scriptures and to our words,” Sutton said. “We need to put our money where our mouth is. And reparations is one way to do that.”
Panelists were asked what they tell those who oppose reparations on the grounds that they’re not guilty of slaveholding or racism and shouldn’t be asked to pay for those crimes. Sutton said it’s not about guilt but a responsibility to repair the damage caused.
“Reparations is not a transfer of money from white people to Black people,” Sutton said. “It’s rather what this generation will do to correct the wrongs that previous generations have started.”
University of South Carolina history professor Nicole Maskiell, who has worked with congregations involved in reparations initiatives, praised faith communities for being first and leading by example.
“That takes courage,” she said. “It takes commitment, and it also takes a willingness to tell the truth.”
The Minnesota Council of Churches has cited a host of injustices — from mid-19th century atrocities against Native Americans to police killings of Black people — in launching a first-of-its kind “truth and reparations” initiative.
The initiative engages a diverse collection of 25 Christian member denominations, including some that are predominantly Black, and will model some of its efforts on South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is based in Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd last May sparked global protests over racial injustice.
“When I was growing up, white supremacy was a problem of the South. … Within the last five years, just here in Minneapolis, we’ve had the killing of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Daunte Wright,” said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, the council’s director of racial justice. “All of this within 7 miles of each other, each one of those young men all at the hands of police, all unwarranted killings.”
“How did we, as a city of Minneapolis, how did we get to this point? And the only answer one can arrive at is white supremacy.”
Jacobs, who belongs to a Wisconsin-based Mohican tribe but was born in Minnesota, said the initiative seeks to address social justice concerns of African Americans and Native Americans in a unified way: “We are so much stronger together than we are doing our justice work in silos.”
Panelists said they’re hopeful that the latest attempts to address reparations will turn into meaningful action because the country is in the midst of a historic reckoning on racism, because young people are engaged and seeking justice and because faith communities have come together to demonstrate.
“Every night over the roar of the cries for justice, you could hear the indigenous drumbeat. … We’re there,” Jacobs said. “I have linked arm-in-arm with rabbis and imams and bishops and pastors.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who has sponsored a bill that would create a commission to study slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present, said she hopes it will be passed by the House in late June.
The commission would also recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.
Support from the faith community, she said, is crucial: “It can help people, Americans, grapple with, understand and feel comfortable with doing the right thing.”
“We’ve come this far by faith, our beliefs, whether or not we’re reading from the Quran or the Torah, we’re reading from the Bible or any other faith book somewhere in there about love and charity and somewhere in there about restoration. I know there’s something in there about redemption,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s what America has to do.”
Associated Press writers David Crary and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
Video Courtesy of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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.”
The series captures the broad sweep of this history in interviews with scholars and well-known Black clergy such as African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. William J. Barber II.
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.