MAXWELL:  The black church remains a beacon

9/24/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


We should not let the seemingly unending revelations about the Rev. Henry J. Lyons and others delude us into believing that the black church as an institution is fundamentally flawed.

Despite the sins of its preachers and despite the poor business practices of some congregations, the black church remains the most viable entity in black life. For some Tampa Bay area church-goers, of course, the church experience, especially Sunday morning, has changed forever because of pastors such as Lyons.

But for the overwhelming majority of blacks with whom I have spoken, the church remains and always will remain their shining beacon on the hill. Even more, the church has the singular power to organize black life, to give it meaning when reality may suggest otherwise, to give it purpose when hopelessness is an enticing option.

The reasons for these sentiments _ which most whites remain ignorant of or ignore _ are grounded in the social, cultural and intellectual fabric of black history.

“The black church has no challenger as the cultural womb of the black community,” write C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya in their seminal book, The Church in the African American Experience. “Not only did it give birth to new institutions such as schools, banks, insurance companies and low income housing, it also provided an academy and arena for political activities, and it nurtured young talent for musical, dramatic and artistic development.”

For these reasons and others, noted sociologist E. Franklin Frazier refers to the black church as a “nation within a nation.”

That it is.

Even though the reputation of another area cleric, the Rev. Wilkins Garrett Jr., has been sullied because of the Lyons controversy and a car accident involving alcohol, the long-time pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church in St. Petersburg is an example of what Frazier means. He transformed the church, in middle of the area that was hit by violence last fall, into an economic and social action agency that accomplishes more than its federal counterparts.

Most residents in the immediate vicinity of Mount Zion have benefited either directly or indirectly from the church’s efforts. In many ways, it has replaced government and has become the sole anchor for the truly disenfranchised, a nation within a nation.

I know of several former crack addicts and dealers, for example, who found their way through Garrett, who have become successful leaders and business owners in their own right.

In a less tangible way, the church is an oasis that offers liberty and relief from a hostile environment. “A major aspect of black Christian belief is found in the symbolic importance given to the word “freedom,’ ” Lincoln and Mamiya write.

“Throughout black history the term “freedom’ has found deep religious resonance in the lives of African-Americans. . . . During slavery it meant release from bondage; after emancipation it meant the right to be educated, to be employed, and to move about freely from place to place. In the twentieth century freedom means social, political, and economic justice.”

Whites are rightly confused that large numbers of blacks have come to the defense of Lyons. Again, history is a guide as it relates to how whites and blacks view the concept of freedom and the church. “For whites freedom has bolstered the value of American individualism,” Lincoln and Mamiya said. “But for African-Americans freedom has always been communal . . . black people have seldom been perceived or treated as individuals; they have usually been dealt with as “representatives’ of their “race,’ an external projection.”

In other words, many religious blacks _ as was shown at the National Baptist Convention’s recent meeting in Denver _ see an attack on Lyons as an attack on them, too. And the constant barrage of press coverage has only hardened the sense of “us” versus “them” for many conventioneers, even though they believe that Lyons committed the deeds he has been accused of.

The sense of communalism and family is stronger in the black church than it is in any other black institution. If this point is lost, then understanding the church is next to impossible.

“Our church is the one thing that we invented by ourselves, for ourselves,” said Gerald Hart, a long-time member of a storefront church in north Tampa. “It’s the one place where people who look like me are in charge, where we can just be us. I don’t like Rev. Lyons, but I want his church to survive for the people’s sake.”