A story I wrote for Feature Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014.
From the pulpit of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Carrboro, N.C., South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn is preaching from the book of James.
Clyburn is used to commanding an audience, though they’re not usually in the pews. Clyburn is the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and, according to Barack Obama, he is “one of the handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.”
“The church today has a significant challenge,” Clyburn says. “Anything that has happened before can happen again.”
There are shouts, amens from the congregation.
“If we are not careful,” he pauses, “if we stay dormant, we could very well find ourselves reliving the history we thought was behind us.”
Clyburn has been invited to speak at St. Paul AME as part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebration — to serve as a model of political leadership, and to compel congregants toward social and political action.
The Southern black church, long a cultural and civic center for black communities, is at a crux.
Traditional political activism in the church, evident in the protests of the Civil Rights era, is waning. But a new form of activism, focusing on economic justice, is gaining momentum.
The first thing you’ll find in your bulletin at St. Paul AME is a list of important voting dates.
The small church is scattered with congressmen and mayors and county commissioners.
Today, the church is recognizing four “2014 Men of Destiny Honorees.”
Thomas A. Farrington, CEO of Input Output Computer Services Inc.
Howard Lee, former mayor of Chapel Hill and the first black member of a governor’s cabinet in the South.
R.D. Smith, a former member of Chapel Hill Town Council and namesake of the R.D. and Euzelle Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill.
Fred Battle, the founder of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.
The political involvement of St. Paul AME’s congregants has continued, even as churches have moved away from traditional activism.
“We have three people running for office
in our community,” Fred Battle says as he accepts his award. “We have to support our own.”
The political activism of the church is starting to change, Clyburn says from the pulpit. While campaigning in 2004, he says church leaders in Columbus and Detroit refused to meet with him.
In 2006, he says he accepted Nancy Pelosi’s offer to lead the House Democrats’ Faith Working Group after reading James 2:26, which says, “Faith apart from works is dead.”
If the Apostle James were alive today, Clyburn says, he would ask Christians not just to clothe and feed people but provide them with affordable health care.
“All people having access to affordable healthcare is faith work,” he says.
The IRS prohibits groups that are exempt from federal income tax, such as churches, from endorsing political candidates under the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which states that such groups must not “(p)articipate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office.”
Stacks of campaign fliers sit on the table as you leave St. Paul AME. The prohibition doesn’t seem to faze anyone much.
Church and State
The connection between the black church and political activism is deep. Black Christians once had to engage in protest just to assert their right to pray in an equal position in the church.
In 1787, services at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia were harshly segregated: blacks in the balcony, whites in the front.
Richard Allen, a minister born into slavery, and a few other men decided to challenge the system, going to the altar to pray during the time designated for whites. Ministers and ushers tried to pull the men up from a kneeling position.
Allen reportedly responded: “Let me finish my prayer, and we will walk out of here and bother you no more.”
He was true to his word. Allen, along with a few others, (walked out the church doors) and started the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
Political involvement is vital in many black churches, said Mycal Brickhouse, a masters of divinity student at Duke Divinity School.
“For the black church, primarily the African Methodist Episcopal church, social action is a huge part of our history and our legacy,” said Brickhouse, who attends St. Joseph AME in Durham, N.C.
St. Paul AME is not the only church with a political legacy.
Big Bethel AME is the oldest black church in Atlanta—and that’s saying something. It lies on Sweet” Auburn Avenue, a National Historic Landmark and a hub for African-American-owned businesses in the 20th century.
Big Bethel AME is only a few blocks away from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored in the 1950s.
Big Bethel has a legacy of political and social action reaching back over 150 years. It was known as “Sweet Auburn’s City Hall” in the beginning of the 20th century. President William Howard Taft spoke from the pulpit in 1911. Almost 80 years later, Nelson Mandela paid the church a visit.
Rev. John Foster, senior pastor at Big Bethel AME, said the church’s urban location and legacy has formed their mission. As the issues facing the community have changed, so has the church’s response. Big Bethel recently held a demonstration protesting the Georgia state government’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Frederick Davis, head pastor at First Calvary Baptist in Durham, N.C., said the church’s responsibilities extend past the spiritual. Davis has also lectured on race and religion at Duke University.
“We totally believe in separation of church and state,” Davis said. “But we do believe all our congregants should be activists in their political and social commitments.”
In 1940, Martin Luther King Jr. gave an address to the Atlanta Missionary Baptist Association.
“Quite often we say the church has no place in politics,” King told the audience. “Forgetting the words of the Lord, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath (anointed) me to preach the Gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’”
Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist, but he was also a preacher. So were many other leaders of the civil right movement: Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt T. Walker, Joseph Lowery and Jesse Jackson.
Duke Divinity student Brickhouse said that things have changed significantly since the days of the Martin Luther King Jr.
“Collectively, as a whole, we’re not as active as we were in the 1960s and even before that in the 1800s,” Brickhouse said. “We’re not marching. We’re not on the steps of D.C. anymore. That’s something that I think, the black church, we’re going to have to begin doing more of.”
Foster at Big Bethel AME agreed that commitment to political action has lessened in black churches and in society as a whole.
“Attention went away from the church being the catalyst for social action,” he said.
Determining the black church’s political commitment is one of the major debates in the black church and with black scholars, said Lewis Brogdon, director of Black Church Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Progressive churches and scholars believe that political commitment is waning, he said.
“Too many churches don’t engage with political and social issues and it does hurt our ability to change things in our communities,” Brogdon said.
Some churches are not addressing political issues the right way, Bogdon said.
He said some pastors were “not politically savvy enough to understand the political clout of the church.”
Wanting publicity, some churches allow themselves to be used by politicians. Church leaders should instead come together and meet with political leaders to address larger issues and seek systematic political change, Brogdon said.
Toward Economic Justice
Political action, in the traditional sense, might be fading in some black churches. Yet a legacy of social justice has shifted into a concern for economic justice as the needs of church communities have changed.
“The black church has served as really like a community hub, historically, for the black community,” Duke Divinity student Brickhouse said. “Now the black community are facing issues like social inequality, facing issues of poverty.”
There has been a “renaissance” of social action of another kind—an increasing concern for economic justice, said Foster at Big Bethel AME.
“We’ve gone past the days of things being economically easy for us,” Foster said. “Jobs will continue to be outsourced. How do we keep helping people, especially people without an education?”
Big Bethel focuses on helping those on the edge of extreme poverty—“people who are not necessarily homeless but might be a week away from being homeless,” Foster said.
Increasing economic inequality and homelessness in the U.S. make Big Bethel’s ministries, such as providing meals for residents of Trinity House, a substance abuse recovery center, more important, Foster said.
Pastor Davis at First Baptist Calvary echoed Foster. He said the biggest problem facing the church was helping congregants reach economic stability.
First Calvary Baptist has programs reaching from entrepreneurship workshops to financial education.
“We realize and accept our responsibility of our church to educate people holistically,” he said.
Nixon at St. Paul AME agreed that economic concerns, from teaching money management to combating income inequality, should be part of the church’s mission.
“We will work to empower our people in the context of this flawed and fallen system,” he said.
There is also economic injustice within the black church, Brogdon said. He said some churches aggressively seek donations and money from a historically marginalized demographic.
“It’s kind of like oppressing and exploiting the oppressed,” Brogdon said.
Of course, Big Bethel, First Calvary Baptist and St. Paul AME are not representative of all black churches.
“The black church is full of different denominations, full of different contexts and cultures,” Duke Divinity student Brickhouse said. “So when we have these conversations about ‘the black church’ it’s so easy to see it as one but in all actuality it’s a multitude of entities.”