In Troubled Times, Does 'The Black Church' Still Matter? As the nation endures a season of racial tension, NPR's Michel Martin talks about the mission of the black church and whether it remains relevant in the social justice movement.
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In Troubled Times, Does 'The Black Church' Still Matter?

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In Troubled Times, Does 'The Black Church' Still Matter?

In Troubled Times, Does 'The Black Church' Still Matter?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The grand jury decisions in both Ferguson, Missouri and just this past week in New York over the killing of two unarmed black men have provoked a lot of soul-searching around this country. That's happening in African-American churches as well.

Last week, a prominent group of African-American clergy and religious thinkers gathered at a church just outside Washington, D.C. They were there to talk about the future of the black church in America; a meeting that took on a new emotional weight with the events in Ferguson and New York.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with some of those leaders. She joins me now in the studio. Hi, Michel. Thanks for being with us.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

R. MARTIN: Michel, this was an event that had, as we said, it had been in the works for a long time. And it was coincidental that it happened right as the grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict an officer in the death of Eric Garner. How did that end up affecting your conversations with religious leaders at this particular moment?

M. MARTIN: Really hard to overstate just what an emotional punch in the gut this was for this gathering of thinkers and leaders and activists, many of whom were actually still traveling to the meeting site as this news was delivered. I just want to play a short clip from a conversation that I had with Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. He's a professor of religious studies and the chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University. He was not an attendee. But the reason I called him is that he's been a very kind of outspoken critic of the black church. And this is what he said to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.: I'm just rageful. I can't put it in any other way. You know, I feel like it's open season. And I'm trying to find resources, to think carefully and deliberately about this moment. But I'm just worried about my baby, and I'm worried about our babies.

M. MARTIN: Well, the importance of this, and just the back story here is that Professor Glaude's son, who is a student at Brown University, very prestigious Ivy League institution, was doing an assignment in the area of the university, had been stopped by the police and was told to leave and had called his father to tell him about that.

And I think that the importance of this is that that was the crux of the conversation for these clergy and activists. I mean, they live in a moment and they are in a time when segregation is no more. People have lots of different lifestyles. They have access to some of the elite institutions and neighborhoods in our country. And yet, they still find themselves experiencing these things. And so the mission of this conversation was to ask, you know, what's our job at a moment like this?

R. MARTIN: So what was the answer? I mean, this was a meeting about the role - the future of the black church in America. What does that mean?

M. MARTIN: That was, in fact, the purpose of their convening. And important to note that the black church, as we understand it - you know, the traditions, the - kind of the sense of the church - arose at a time of vicious segregation. There was no way to really buy your way out of the circumstances that affected most African-Americans. And so there was kind of a tradition of prophetic voice that has a very specific religious meaning as well as kind of a layperson's meaning of speaking truth to power. And part of the reason for this convening was a sense that the church is not playing a role in the society that it could be and should be right now.

R. MARTIN: So what does that mean? That there's no longer a unifying mission that unites black churches as it once did?

M. MARTIN: The people who participated in this convening would say that there is a unifying mission, but that the people who should be the missionaries have lost their way. I'll play a short clip from Reverend Rafael Warnock. He was a participant in this weekend's gathering. He is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Now that is a pulpit once filled by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. so you can imagine, you know, that's a very prominent pulpit. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REVEREND RAPHAEL WARNOCK: If you are a church that's never in good trouble with the powers, then you're probably in bed with the powers. And the American church - I don't see any signs that abusive power that those who would maintain the status quo and the broadening gap between the haves and have-nots, those who continue to build this massive, increasingly privatized prison industrial complex are worried about the church because we're doing precious little to actually dismantle the American prison industrial complex, which is the new Jim Crow.

R. MARTIN: He said that there's a new prison industrial complex that he sees as the new Jim Crow. I mean, this directly relates to this moment in the wake of these grand jury decisions.

M. MARTIN: These were some of the kinds of things that you hear other participants in society talk about. I mean, you hear, perhaps, you know, members of Congress talking about these things. You hear, perhaps, state lawmakers talking about these things. But what I think you saw with this convening is a group of clergy of a certain age, a certain kind of post-civil rights generation, not people who have to this point come to, perhaps, national prominence in the way that a Martin Luther King or Andy Young or John Lewis and people of that era.

But this is a new generation coming forward. And what I think I see here are a group of people saying that they are not living up to the tradition that these forbearers laid out for them. And part of what they're saying is these criminal justice issues are too important to be left just to the policymakers. These are things that effects their families and their children. And what they're saying is that they feel that these are issues that cry out for moral leadership. And they are planning to provide that moral leadership.

R. MARTIN: That's NPR's Michel Martin. To read more about the future of the black church in America and Michel's conversations, go to npr.org. You can also follow Michel on Twitter and Facebook @NPRMichel. That's M-I-C-H-E-L. Michel Martin, thanks so much for talking with us.

M. MARTIN: Rachel, thank you so much.

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