Where the Black Church Is in the Black Lives Matter Movement

In recent weeks, American cities, suburbs, and small towns have seen an explosion of protests reacting to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Even as many have commented on the racial diversity of the demonstrators, many of those organizing the marches are young African Americans activists.

But while black pastors have organized several marches in major cities like Chicago and Washington DC, they have not been at the forefront of a movement that arguably began back in Ferguson in 2014.

“While you may have had many black pastors and clergy who may have shown up at events, and you may have had a lot of people from black churches who were at these marches and protests, from 2014 to the present, by and large, this has not been a theological movement,” said Watson Jones III, the senior pastor of Compassion Baptist Church in Chicago. “It hasn’t been a movement that has started in the basements of churches, in prayer meetings, and altars that flooded out into the streets.”

Despite this, Watson believes that some of what is fueling many of the young black activist leaders ties back to this institution.

“Much of how they do what they do are examples of things that early clergy and faithful Christians did in the ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s, but there is an absence of clergy leading this movement,” he said.

Watson joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss why the black church’s approach to activism has never been a monolith, how the community’s preaching is speaking to current events, and the extent to which the black church is struggling to keep young people engaged.

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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola



Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #216

As you’ve been observing the protests that have been taking place in the past couple of weeks—and let’s also go back to 2014 after Ferguson—where would you say that the black church has been in the midst of this?

Watson Jones III: One of the things that has been sort of interesting to me, that is different from every major movement for black justice in America, is that the black church is not at the forefront of this.

While you may have had many black pastors and clergy who may have shown up at events, and you may have had a lot of people from black churches who were at these marches and protests, from 2014 to the present, by and large, this has not been a theological movement. It hasn’t been a movement that has started in the basements of churches, in prayer meetings, and altars that flooded out into the streets.

I may be a minority in this belief, but I believe that some of the impulse that we see in young black activist leaders directly tie back to the black church. Much of how they do what they do are examples of things that early clergy and faithful Christians did in the ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s, but there is an absence of clergy leading this movement.

From history, we know that even in Martin Luther King’s church in Birmingham, there was some was pushback against him from his own congregation, who said they hired him to be their pastor and not a civil rights leader. Is that similar to what you see now? Or is there something different going on?

Watson Jones III: There have always been three streams and voices in the black church that dates back to the 1700s.

And in Dr. King’s day, during the civil rights movement, there were many black churches who were vehemently against Dr. King, Gardner Taylor, and others, and didn’t want to have any parts to do with the movement. This is why the National Baptist Convention split, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention was created because the National Baptists did not want to partake in the civil rights movement.

I think the difference now might be due to a few different things. The generation that fought in the civil rights movement is older now. The younger players of the civil rights movement, who were in their twenties then, are in their eighties. This new crop of pastors know the struggle from history, but we haven’t had to fight the struggle.

I think we’ve also been tackled by local realities more than we have been by national realities. So, police brutality as an example of something that is old, and it is very much a national problem, but we’ve also been locally dealing with school issues. We’ve been locally dealing with crime issues. We’ve been locally dealing with local corruption. Others have taken the voice of many evangelicals to say, “Let’s just preach the gospel.” And then maybe there are some who might’ve just simply said, “We’ve made great progress. The fight is still real, but it doesn’t require the protesting now.”

But again, I think the difference is that whereas it began with preachers, and not just preachers, but people of faith, and that stuff was very much rooted in the church, I think it’s not so much anymore. I think another shift that has happened is that the church still has a place in the black community, but it may not be central anymore. Whereas at one time the church was really the only institution we had in our community, that’s not necessarily the case now. We have a lot more third-place gathering spots that don’t include the church now.

In the evangelical church at large, it’s been a source of consternation about the ways that Millennials and Gen Z may be losing the faith that their parents had. To what extent would you say that Millennial and Gen Z African-Americans have remained a part of the church? And to what extent would you say that that’s not true?

Watson Jones III: I still think that black Millennials still generally go to church. It may look a little different in terms of consistency, but I think there still is a relationship to it.

I think the struggle may come when they don’t hear churches talking about justice. I remember when I was in Philadelphia, I’m preaching sermons that I thought were good sermons, but the question that came from one of my members was, “What does God have to say about this? We have been in this same boat since 1619, so what does God have to say about this?” So I think the frustration that many younger people will feel in the black church is when their churches have nothing to say about this.

Can you tell us more about that? For people who’ve not attended a lot of black churches, there’s a view that black churches tend to be heavy on social implications and social justice in their sermons. So are pastors wrestling with how much to preach on social issues or the message isn’t what the younger generation is seeking?

Watson Jones III: So I still believe in my core that the black church, that theologically, we don’t generally draw the line between gospel-preaching and gospel-action. I think it’s probably been more of a question of what to do.

I don’t know if we get the silence that I’ve heard from some of my black friends who were part of white churches. I don’t think we get that kind of silence, but I think it’s a question of the action. Like where is the action?

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Source: Christianity Today