Black History Year

Reclaiming The Prophecy: Religion In Black America

Episode Summary

“We must face the fact that in America,” said MLK, ”the church is still the most segregated major institution.” For Black people, the church has traditionally been a place of restoration, renewal, community, and collective action. But even during the vigor and heat of the Civil Rights Era, with church leaders like MLK up in front, the role of Christianity did not go unquestioned in Black America. And now, with the “prosperity gospel” as loud as ever, we’re interrogating this pillar of our culture. The Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews of Faith In Action helps understand how we got here, and what we should be asking of our faith communities if we’re truly interested in Black liberation.

Episode Notes

“We must face the fact that in America,” said MLK, ”the church is still the most segregated major institution.” For Black people, the church has traditionally been a place of  restoration, renewal, community, and collective action. But even during the vigor and heat of the Civil Rights Era, with church leaders like MLK up in front, the role of Christianity did not go unquestioned in Black America. And now, with the “prosperity gospel” as loud as ever, we’re interrogating this pillar of our culture. The Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews of Faith In Action helps understand how we got here, and what we should be asking of our faith communities if we’re truly interested in Black liberation.

 

Black History Year is produced by PushBlack, the nation’s largest non-profit Black media company. Obviously, the power that comes from knowing our history is important to you. PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take this into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at BlackHistoryYear.com. Most people do 5 of 10 bucks a month, but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work. Production support from Mikel Ellcessor and Jessica Rugh Frantz from Limina House and Sasha Kai Parker as editor/sound designer, with the PushBlack team: Tareq Alani, Brooke Brown, Eskedar Getahun, Abeni Jones, Patrick Sanders, and Cydney Smith.

 

Useful links:

"Echoes of the Struggle" by Janelle Gray

Faith in Action

Interactive Story Map “Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion: The Southampton Insurrection”

Episode Transcription

Host: Welcome to PushBlack’s Black History Year. I'm Jay from PushBlack. Thanks for checking us out.

Black people are a spiritual people. It’s how, for centuries, we've thrived across the regions of Africa. It's how for centuries we've survived some of the world's grossest atrocities. A lot of this survival happened in one of the holiest place is known to man, the Black church.

The Black church for decades was a space of sanctuary from racial and state violence and oppression. Like author Janelle Gray says in her book, “Echoes of the Struggle,” quote, “Back then, Black churches were a small piece of peace. Church was a world where, even with its imperfections, the offer of equality and common humanity was the sustenance needed to make it through the rest of the week and the society that deemed us less than human,” End quote. Restoration, renewal, community, collective action. Spiritual healing and social liberation are the foundations of the Black church. The pain of struggle throughout slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movement was lessened in the arms of the church. But even during the vigor and heat of the Civil Rights era, the role of Christianity has not gone unquestioned. Brother James Baldwin.

James Baldwin (TAPE): I don't know what most white people in this country feel. I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don't know if White Christians hate negros or not, but I know that we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is Black. I know as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can afford to trust most white Christians and certainly can’t trust the Christian church.

Jay: Those feelings have grown since Baldwin's 1968 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. The commingling of white nationalism and white Christianity have become more transparent and more lethal. It's not surprising that there has been a trend amongst some Black activists to distance themselves from the Black church and the ongoing fight for liberation. Church participation among Black Americans, like all Americans, has declined. About one in four Americans belong to the Nones, people who do not belong to a church. That number is almost one in five for Black Americans. So like all relationships, the role of the Black church is complicated. In this episode of PushBlack’s Black History Year, we're interrogating this relationship. Our goal is not to tell you what your relationship should be. That's 100% on you. Our goal is to make it known that it's okay for us to put a critical eye to our belief system, especially where we're supposed to revere an ahistoric white Jesus, a religion that the oppressors culture has used to divide and degrade us. Coming up, we have an interview with Reverend Michael-Ray Matthews, Deputy Director of Faith in Action, about how you can hold spiritual leaders accountable and how to tell whether your church is serious about making positive change in our community. How do we get here and where do we go next? Let's get into it on this episode of PushBlack’s Black History Year.

For our ancestors, spirituality was king. Before enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas they practiced a variety of centuries-old spiritual systems. Vodun, which is practiced by the Fon and Ewe people of West Africa, was one of these systems. Just the same, many of our ancestors practiced Christianity. 

TAPE: Thank you Jesus.

Jay: Christianity in Ethiopia dates back to the fourth century during the reign of the Axumite Emperor Ezana, who most likely adopted Christianity to solidify his trading relationships and unify his people. Ezana was the first world leader to put the Christian cross on coins. Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, thought very highly of the Church of Ethiopia. He believed they were the predecessors of European Protestantism because they practiced rituals that Protestants would later adopt, like having both bread and wine and communion, vernacular scriptures and married clergy. Africa is the birthplace of humanity so it's no surprise that Christianity has been practiced longer there than anywhere else. But this truth damages the false history that Christianity was solely the product of Western civilization. It flies in the face of white supremacy and is yet another example of our powerful place in the history of humanity. Upon arrival to the Americas, enslaved Africans protected their beliefs by cloaking them in the Catholicism imposed on them by their oppressors. Their strong belief in God helped many of our ancestors through the dehumanization of slavery. Vodun practitioners believe in a supreme creator of the universe and the spiritual forces present in nature. This force was so powerful the enslaved Haitians relied on it when defeating the French military during the Haitian Revolution. That kind of uprising, that possibility of us reclaiming our freedom, was why the slaveholding masters had long used Christianity as a tool of abuse. And one of the strongest ways to use this religion against our people was by weaponizing the Bible.

This isn't to say that Christianity only served as an enslaving snare for our people. For many it actually did lead to their freedom. Taking Nat Turner, slave owners largely prevented enslaved people from learning to read and write. But Nat Turner learned by reading the Bible and he used this skill to do something truly unique. He denied white interpretations of the Bible and interpreted it for himself. For Turner, the biblical stories he absorbed were messages conveying possibility and hope to Black people. His understanding of Christianity and God through the lens of his Black experience inspired him to follow his visions of enslaved Blacks being free. According to Turner, he was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty. And his conviction and strong faith led to one of the most notorious rebellions of the century, the Southampton Insurrection. While working in the field one blessed day Turner said he received a vision from the heavens that told him to fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching where the first should be last and the last should be first. From there was on. Nat Turner gathered 70 rebels, freeing enslaved Blacks and killing white slaveholder families. It took an army to finally stop Turner’s soldiers. We’ll have links to more on the rebellion in the show notes. But Turner was put to a violent, humiliating death. But he led and died with a prophetic spirit that inspires us today. His revolutionary spirit shows up far beyond the confines of slavery. Like in the creation of the Black church in America.

America's first Black church was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it had to fight all kinds of discrimination to gain independence and create a solution to the problem of white hatred in the Christian community. You see them in every Black community, A.M.E. churches. The Right Reverend Richard Allen was an enslaved man who bought his freedom and became a minister in 1786. Allen made anti-slavery a core value in his Methodist congregation and quickly attracted a large Black congregation to the white church.

But his zeal and their numbers angered white members. White preachers, who were also Allen's supervisors, actually treated their Black members as second rate. They forced them to sit in different areas than white patrons. Now, as Allen witnessed this, in a church who claimed to be anti-racist, he realized something was not matching up. So he started making moves to leave St. George's. He wanted to start a church for Black people, by Black people. However, the white ministers weren't about to let him go so easily. So to push back against their control, Allen and his colleague, Absalom Jones, founded the Free African Society which was a non denominational, mutual aid group that helped new freed Blacks become self-sustaining leaders within the larger Black community. From F.A.S., Allen formed Bethel A.M.E., the first African Methodist Church, in 1794. And the A.M.E. emerged as the first church in America founded along ethnic lines. For over 200 years, the A.M.E. has been a beacon for our civil, social, and economic well being. Today the church has grown to over two and a half million worldwide members forming a united global community within the diaspora and beyond. Nat Turner and the emergence of the A.M.E. church are actually only two points on a very cramped timeline of resistance and uprising in the history of the Black church. As young activists take the torch, we wonder why so many are intentionally distancing themselves from the church when it was once the place where Black activism occurred. If you wanted to join the movement and fight the power going to church or college was one of the best places to start. So you can imagine why some of us look around today and ask what the hell happened?

At the same time, a new gospel seems to have spread throughout the churches of the Black community, a gospel of prosperity.

Tape/ montage: Is that the will of God for you to be successful and prosperous? The answer is yes. Here's the key. God is your doorkeeper. He has a covenant with you. Debt is under the curse. Well, I reverse the curse today. I call my debt paid.

Jay: As you'll hear in our upcoming conversation with Reverend Matthews, the prosperity gospel is a blending of a faithful Christianity with material financial success is problematic. To say the least. 

Tape/ montage: God is a giver, say that. God is a giver. Faith does not call things the way they are. And that is the problem with a lot of Christians is that we still think that we are the source of our prosperity

Jay: To their critics, these pulpit pimps are like any other self-anointed leaders in the Black community who show up for the TV lights, link arms at the front of the march and take and take and take, but never give. 

Tape/ montage: When you get to have you prove to yourself that you can trust God. The Scripture says, God opens doors that no man can shut. And you're going to be furnished in abundance for every good work and every charitable nation and he that had received the promises. Now you know what promise he’s talking about. The covenant, glory to God, that he had wit almighty God el Shaddai. 

Jay: Controversial Pastor John Gray of Relentless Church in Greenville, South Carolina recently called out in a sermon the one way street of giving that exists in so many Black churches.

Pastor John Gray (TAPE): For too long, people have stood in the pulpit and told you to give give, give. Very rarely have I seen churches that stop and say leave the baskets out let the people get what they need. We got too many pulpit pimps. 

Jay: Pastor Gray called out those people who want to get fat off people but don't want to meet the needs of poor people. It’s what he calls “pulpit pimps.” And it has devastated those of us who no longer trust preachers, and thus the church.

JG/ Tape: Jesus said that's what you’re supposed to be taking care of. We got widows and orphans, got single moms in here. We might not be able to do everything we could do something. I wish we could do more but this is the best we can do right now. Just know, as the Lord keep blessing us, we gon do it more and more.

Jay: Next, our conversation with Reverend Michael-Ray Mathews, Deputy Director of Faith in Action. Check out what Reverend Mathews has to say about how you can hold spiritual leaders accountable, and how to tell whether your church is serious about making positive change in our community.

Reverend Mathews, thanks for joining us today. I'm gonna start with a question we think about obsessively at PushBlack and I'm really interested to hear your take. Reverend Mathews, what does Black liberation look like?

Reverend Michael-Ray Mathews: Hmm, that's a really great question. For me, I first came to wrestle with this question when I was a seminarian about 25 years ago.. I was studying under Dr. George Cummings, who really was an expert in Black liberation theology, and was reading the works of James Cohn, and was learning about the tenants of Black liberation theology, and kept asking myself to what extent have I been really exposed to this, having grown up in a large historic African American congregation in Los Angeles, to what extent was this the theology that informed my identity as a Christian and the witness of my congregation. And I wrote a paper in which I started with the premise that Black liberation theology did not exist in the congregation that raised me. And as a part of the project, I chose to interview two of the former pastors, the one who have been my pastor through my childhood years and the one that was my pastor during my adolescence. And when I explained to them that the premise of the paper was to argue that Black liberation theology did not exist in this congregation, they were livid. They were, they were disappointed that I had lived my entire life in this congregation and did not understand the deep roots, the deep roots of Black liberation theology and a sort of liberal liberatory ethic inside of the ministry, and witness, public witness, of this congregation. It took it took them a few hours to sort of walk me through what it meant for this church to be a church of the Great Migration, a church that was founded right after the First World War when Black folks started leaving the south, and particularly in Louisiana and Texas heading towards California, and how this congregation served as a kind of refuge community for people who were a part of the Great Migration. They had come not only to pursue opportunities, but they'd also come to escape Jim Crow, and to perhaps have a better life above. And of course, we know the reality is that, you know, Jim Crow, just, you know, changed his name to James in California and our folks had to find ways to survive and thrive in what was still a racist environment. And so that congregation, in addition to being, you know, a place where people could come and worship and build community, also became a place that people learn how to survive and thrive in the context of racism. That became a place where the church began to recognize that, you know, it had a responsibility to the community around it. And so it had to find new ways of being a part of a community and being a part of the uplift of the community, the uplift of people in the community. My pastors reminded me that in the 70s, we had anti-apartheid activists from South Africa speaking in our congregations. They reminded me that we had a special action committee that was very active during the electoral season, that it was also championing other important social issues. I was just too young to completely take in all that that represented as I was growing up in the church, but they made the point very clear that this congregation was very much rooted. But what they also helped me understand is that, you know, people are doing ministry in a much broader context. If it were just the prophetic tradition of the Black church that we're informing how the Black church operates today, we would see a lot more of a very bold prophetic action in the world coming from African American faith communities. But you know, Black churches, you know, particularly in sort of a post civil rights context, are also living in a broader cultural milieu where, where there are theologies that are focused on sort of individual success. You might, you might put prosperity gospel in that category. You're also recognizing that the congregations become places of refuge and safety and sometimes being a place of refuge and safety is not the same as being a prophetic witness in the world. Sometimes being a place of refuge and safety means that perhaps we're providing a way to escape the dangers and the trauma of the world around us. I think what many of our congregations are trying to figure out is how do we address the aspects of the gospel that are about individual success and actualization and a sense of individual salvation and a robust life with with God but also mix that in with what it means for us to be a community of refuge and safety and care. But also mix that in with this notion that we stand in this long tradition of transformative change, of resisting the logic and impulse of Empire, that the church is meant to be all three of those things, a place where individuals and communities can find their sense of purpose and an agency in the world, a place where people can find safety and refuge, as well as a place where we get clear about how the world around us is operating, how that needs to be different, how that needs to change and to build the kind of power that allows us to resist injustice in our world. I think that's been, I think that's been the challenge of many African American congregations is to try to situate themselves in that mix and sometimes one of those aspects is stronger than the other, and sometimes if one aspect, you know, particularly around individual success is like super hyper emphasized, and you have a theology that's really rooted in hyper, you know, hyper individualism, that is all about “me getting mine.” And if you, you know, take these steps and stay positive, you know, and read the Bible a certain way, you'll also be able to achieve the American dream and be a rich person and have all this prosperity that God has promised to you, without any sense of the rich, historic importance of having family, having community, having refuge, and without the rich tradition of understanding what it means for the Black church to be a force for change and transformation in the world.

Jay: Sharing our history is really important to us at PushBlack. So I'd like to have you speak to the role of the Black church in the civil rights movement. So clearly with Dr. King and others, the church was out in front but isn't it correct that the majority of preachers did not openly support the movement? What was the role of the Black church in the civil rights movement?

MM: I think that I think that narrative is fairly accurate. And I think that that narrative, you know, reflects even even this moment. So I think that there always has been sort of a remnant, just a few faithful folks who are willing to take risks, who really have been able to do the big things that have made a big difference in the world. And then, you know, other clergy or other congregations, sort of, you know, acknowledge that and catch on to that and then try to see themselves as a part of, you know, of that tradition. They may have never marched with Dr. King, they may have never marched in the streets of Ferguson, but they somehow see themselves as connected to that tradition and to that history, and the reality is that, you know, that is true to a certain extent, but not in not in the deepest, not in the deepest extent. So, you know, I think that I think it's important that we pay attention, you know, to the few who were willing to step out and take those risks but also recognize the impact that those few had on a much broader array of clergy and congregations that have stood in this tradition or have tried to sort of, live into this tradition of being a prophetic, prophetic congregation.

Jay: Can you talk a little bit about the history of the prophetic tradition? How did that begin as far as you understand it, and how is that transformed over time?

MM: Well, I think Black folks have been resisting, in particularly the United States, from the very beginning I think, I think from the very beginning, we understood some things that came out of the faith traditions that informed us before we we were even a part of the transatlantic slave apparatus. I think we were, we were already aware of what it meant to live with dignity, what it meant to honor the dignity of every human being. And so there were already ways in which traditional African religions, already ways in which Islam, already ways in which Christianity even, were informing sort of the religious and theological imaginations of people who have been brought here in the context of slavery. 

Jay: And for our listeners, could you briefly describe what we mean by the prophetic tradition.

MM: So in our work in faith in action, when we talk about what it means to engage in prophetic action together, we're really talking about how we draw from the historic tradition in the, in particular in the Hebrew scriptures, of prophets who were willing to speak truth to power, as well as speak truth and life to the people. The prophets in the ancient Hebrew scriptures were the ones who brought a sort of social and political analysis to what was happening in the world, and brought a warning, brought a critique and would deliver that critique to the king, to the power structure. But they would also deliver that critique to the religious apparatus as well, to the religious leaders and to the people and would call them to a vision of what it meant to live in true community. And so there are prophets in the Hebrew Bible but there are also prophets across history who stood in many different kinds of religious traditions who gather different kinds of spiritual wisdom across time and who have announced to their communities, announced to their nations, announced to the world an alternative way that we can see ourselves. So when people talk about Dr. King as a prophet, in some ways, they're talking about you know, the prophets in the context of the Hebrew Bible, but why also talking about somebody who had a prophetic presence even beyond the religious community because he was pointing to something that was different than the reality that people were living in, in this moment. And so when we talk to our leaders about what it means to stand in that tradition, we're asking, you know, are you a chaplain to empire? Or are you a prophet of the resistance? Are you the one who's whose leadership and whose vision actually helps empire thrive? Or are you the one who was trying to help people understand that empire exists, that empire is wrong, and that empire must be dismantled. And so that's the prophetic tradition for us.

Jay: So we have the prophetic tradition, which has a clear social consciousness enrolled in Black liberation. And then we have the prosperity gospel, which also has a big footprint in our community. Now, what's the role that prosperity gospel plays in the Black community and doesn't this fundamentally live in tension with the prophetic tradition?

MM: I think all these things are nuanced. I think that Black churches live in a field. I wouldn’t even call it a continuum, I don’t think it's as simple as a line continuum. I think that Black churches live in this field, competing imaginations about what it means to be church and both those three, at least three in my sort of laypersons schema, you know, is a field where searchers are being called to be places where people find self actualization. Churches are being called to be places where you find refuge and safety. And churches are being called to be places where we are toppling empire and making real change, transformative change, in our communities. And I think churches are constantly negotiating with those kinds of identities. And where you see there to be there to be an imbalance in that you will find a much more a much stronger emphasis on prosperity and prosperity that is very individualized, prosperity that doesn't necessarily have any kind of a social or cultural or racial analysis to it. Prosperity that very much sounds like the prosperity of the dominant culture, as opposed to a kind of prosperity that perhaps critiques the dominant culture and provides an alternative for what it means for us to live in prosperity collectively as a community rather than individually. The idea- You know, there's so much about that gospel that the prosperity gospel that appeals to a person's sense of personal agency, and many who embrace it, embrace it because they find a sense of purpose that allows them to live in this context with a sense of being a successful person. So I think there's prosperity gospel run amok in many congregations. But I also think there are elements of what could sort of like, you know, lead folks towards a prosperity gospel that are just super, you know, innocent notions of what it means to preach a gospel of self actualization. The problem is, in an the American context, that is, indeed just self actualization, and not this notion that we have some kind of a collective destiny together. And that's the kind of actualization and agency that we need to achieve is one that is collective and communal rather than individual. And so I do think that kind of gospel prosperity gospel is indeed sort of an enemy to the prophetic tradition. 

Jay: How did the modern prosperity gospel take root?

MM: I would recommend the work of Dr. Deborah Mumford who has written about the history of prosperity gospel. It’s rooted in, you know, for sort of proto-evangelical churches, it’s rooted in, you know, positive thinking tradition, and what it means for the gospel or for the church to be a place where people come and find their own sense of individual purpose and success in the world. And I think that, you know, a lot of our congregations, you know, wrestled with this, you know, the pastors that I mentioned interviewing for this paper I was writing 25 years ago in seminary, they were basically saying, look, you know, we know we stand in the tradition, liberation, Black liberation tradition, but we're pastoring a group of people who listen to tele-evangelists, we’re pastoring a group of people who just came out of the civil rights movement and now want to reap the benefits of their hard work in the civil rights movement, which means you're supposed to have individual success in large corporations, and buy nice homes and nice cars, and to be on this sort of middle class progressive trajectory. And so the elements or the soil in which the seeds of prosperity gospel can grow, exist in all of our congregations because we live in this broader culture and will use this, this is what success looks like and this is what we're supposed to do in the world. And so people are looking for that and pastors are having to figure out how do I, you know, preach to this person's individual desire to be successful in the world by also reminding them of their responsibility to the community, reminding them of the deep history of the prophetic tradition, and reminding them that when things don't go well, that that the church is also a place of refuge and healing from trauma as well.

Jay: It seems clear that finding a way to be clearly, tangibly relevant in the lives of the congregation is one of the biggest challenges facing the Black church. 

MM: During the Ferguson uprising many of our leaders from congregations across the country were either a part of delegations that went to Ferguson to work with clergy and young people on the ground there, or they were trying to find ways to address the Ferguson realities of their own cities and towns and communities. And the Prophetic Resistance Podcast was born out of that. Clergy were asking questions like, how do I preach about this? How do I talk about this in my community? There's something about the gospel that I've been preaching that doesn't really speak to this reality of what happened to Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. How was it, how was it that we find ways to tell these stories and to preach about this? And one of my organizing colleagues was telling me that for a long time, during that season, there was a pastor that he had taken under his wing and we had, were participating in marches and protests and vigils who was teaching the whole series on justice inside the congregation, a whole sermon series. And at one point a few months into that work, he turned to the organizer and he said, you know, I've enjoyed doing this has been really, like, renewing for me to find myself in the streets, to find myself holding these vigils to teach my congregation about about our justice, history, and even preach about it. But at some point, I have to get back to preaching about Jesus. And there's the disconnect. There's the disconnect. What about the story of Jesus, the narrative of Jesus, your understanding of Jesus lives somehow in some different world or space, in this space where you've been preaching justice and standing in the streets and marching with young people and affirming their dignity. That is the Jesus tradition. But there's a way in which the theological and imagination of our congregations has so been compartmentalize and reshaped, that people can’t reconcile this notion of Jesus that tells me as an individual that I have salvation and agency and can be successful in the world, with the Jesus who also calls me to tear down empire, or the Jesus that calls me to wrap my arms around people who are traumatized and provide care and community and support and refuge for them. The Black church has to be all of those things. And I think sometimes it wrestles with, with those things and sometimes some things get more emphasized than others based on the context in which people are doing this work. There are much larger conferences than the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference that are helping clergy learn how to be “successful,” quote, unquote, to learn how to teach and preach a gospel of prosperity. There are much larger and many more conferences that are teaching folks how to be successful at the business of church then those conferences that are teaching congregations how to be that community of refuge and that community of prophetic witness. And so I think there's there are ways in which pastors have had to reckon with how do I now understand the sources that have informed my, my leadership, my theology, with this experience, this disruptive experience and encounter that I've had in the streets of Ferguson or in the streets of Oakland, or in the streets of Birmingham, in this moment where everyone is paying attention to the reality of life supremacy, a term that we thought belonged in the Black and white pictures from the 50s and 60s, now we're talking about whiteness and white fragility and white supremacy. Folk are in this moment trying to make sense of that, especially when their congregations are used to a particular diet and the pastor's are offering a different diet then congregations were accustomed to consuming. There's a lot that a pastor has to do to try to figure out how to sort that out into and to walk alongside their congregations in this growing awareness of what it means to be alive in this moment, to be relevant in this moment, and to be prophetic in this moment.

Jay: So you're describing a pastoral approach that is much more dynamic and responsive to the world? Is this something that's self-directed by each pastor? Or are there ways where they're supporting this growth among each other?

MM: Sure, like this has been the formation agenda of many of our organizers and leaders inside of Faith in Action over the past five years. My colleague, Ben McBride, who's the co-director of our organization in California, one of the things that he did right after the Ferguson uprising was he created a year long cohort experiences for a number of pastors, mostly Black, white, Latino pastors who would see themselves standing in traditional mainline church tradition or evangelical and Pentecostal church tradition and walk them through a year long process of engaging, you know, church history, engaging, you know, liberation theology frame, engaging communities and people in communities through protests, through vigils, through research, found engaging scholars who came in to help them understand the ways in which unconscious bias impacts not just the way that police interact with young people in Black and brown communities, but even how congregations interact with Black and brown youth in communities. And so that journey of walking and learning together was a very transformative experience for those clergy and created a new way for them to begin to wrestle with what it means to preach a more full gospel, if you will. And in the second round of that cohort, those pastors decided that they would start a cohort of critical leaders in their congregation that walk them through a similar journey together around what it meant to be committed to justice, around what it meant to see that as still being a part of what it means to be a faithful Christian. And so I think that there are a number-- Now that's just one example of the work that our folks in California have done, typically in the Bay Area. But there are many other stories like that where we're organizing has created the kind of crucible or been able to hold a certain kind of space that allows for faith leaders and lay people in communities to wrestle with, to wrestle with and to try to reconcile these competing notions of what it means to be a person of faith and moral courage in this moment.

Jay. Interesting how clergy are really adapting to the needs of the community. Seems that many folks are asking questions about their faith life. What can you say to them?

MM: Well, first of all, I would just say there is no perfect church. There just is no perfect church. And you know, I sit in congregations that I love and that I've had a lot of respect for and sometimes I hear the same things, they're like, Oh, that's not exactly how I put that about how I would frame that or I might see an emphasis go in a certain direction that is like, I don't want to spend less time emphasizing all of that, I don’t know if that squares with my sense of what of gender equality or squares with my sense of what it means to be, you know, to be welcoming and inclusive to the LGBTQIA community. There's no perfect church and be clear about that. But I do think that it's it that is important to reckon with, reckon individually, with what it is that you need. Like what? What is the food and sustenance, spiritual sustenance that you need in this moment. And if it's super clear that you're not getting where you are, then I think it is important, it's important to begin to explore, you know, opportunities and options out there. And there are lots of new communities. You know, growing out of this moment, you know, one of the clergy, when I was in Ferguson, one of the clergy observed that the young people they saw protesting in the streets were the children and grandchildren of single mothers and grandmothers that the church had rejected over a generation. And it made me remember how even in the church that I grew up in, there was a time when a single unmarried mother could not have their baby blessed in the church. What's the cumulative effect of something like that? And so this pastor is looking at these young people and saying, these are the young people and these are the grandchildren and children of women that we rejected. So when another clergy said, well, what is it that we can do that they get them back into our congregation. And another pastor, Pastor Traci Blackmon said, you know, those young people are making church for themselves in these streets. They don't need our walls. Which is a profound observation, right, that these young people don't need the walls of the church because what they found inside of those walls has not been healthy for them, to not allow for them to thrive and to have a sense of their own purpose in the world. And so there, they were making church for themselves in the streets. And I think there are a lot of small communities that are emerging out of this moment that we're in where people are trying to figure out like, what does it mean to make church together where a sense of community, a sense of purpose and agency and a sense of justice are alive at the same time. So there are new experiments and communities that that that are burgeoning. And congregations that have lived through that moment are rethinking for themselves, as well. Like what does it mean for us to take this history? This is our history, this is our legacy, this is our inheritance. How is it that we reckon the prophetic tradition and allow for it to be a much richer and flourishing part of our identity as a church community? So I think that i think that you know, young people who are trying to find those kinds of communities need to pay attention to where folks are actually wrestling with that but also pay attention to the ways in which perhaps, or maybe maybe even being called to create some of those communities themselves as well, because we need more communities like this. I know we, I know we believe that we are, you know, many of our cities have way too many congregations, way too many storefronts, but I actually think that small church communities are one of the most important places for this kind of work to be done. And I don't think we can have too many small communities where people are being supported in their efforts to find nurture, supported in their efforts to find purpose and supported in their efforts to resist injustice in the world.

Jay: So, Black folks are the most religious group of people in this country. But with that the percentage of Black youth who are going to church is declining. What do you make of that?

MM: I think that's a reality, that’s a reality that I experienced when I engage people who are involved in organizing work. There are young people that are increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the historic church. They're not getting necessarily what they believe they need, in some cases. I mentioned before, that is a conversation that they can cultivate inside of those congregations with those pastors, especially those pastors that have a sense of a prophetic purpose and call in the world. But I also think that, you know, we need more folks creating new kinds of communities, new ways of being in community, there might even be a new way of understanding church. This way that we've understood church, you know, in the context of Christian history is just a blip. Perhaps there's a new way of being church thatneeds to be explored. I think there are a number of really creative young people that are doing that, and that perhaps in this moment need to be paying attention to perhaps a call in their own hearts, to create and hold those kinds of spaces. And that's not to take away from the importance of the intergenerational benefits of the historic Black church communities that are wrestling with the forces, you know, that are calling them into a super individualized salvation model or a refuge escape from the world model along with a prophetic tradition model. I think that many of the congregations that are involved in our work, Faith in Action, are coming to us to say help us. Help us figure out how to wrestle with this.

Jay: So Reverend Mathews, it seems you see that spirituality and the institution of the Black church can be used as a tool of Black liberation. Would you agree with that?

MM: I think that our history is an important resource for informing the prophetic tradition because our history is our story. Our history is our collection of stories and organizing stories are everything. Stories inspire us, stories help us understand our identity in the world, stories encourage us to take action. And so the more that we read the stories of the Jarena Lees, read the stories of the Nat Turners, read the stories of those congregations that chose to stand in the gap, the more we will be equipped and tooled to live into the prophetic tradition today.

Jay: Just like that we're at the end of this episode of Black History Year. Black History Year is produced by PushBlack, the nation's largest nonprofit Black media company. Production support from Mikel Ellcessor and Limina House. Obviously, the power that comes from knowing our history is important to you. PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take this into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at BlackHistoryYear.com. Most folks do five or 10 bucks a month, but everything truly makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work. I'm Jay from PushBlack. Thanks for checking us out. Peace.