The Young Leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement are Largely Organizing Outside of Congregations – What Does This Mean for the Black Church?

Reverend Jamal Bryant speaks to attendees during a rally protesting the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in Miami, Florida April 1, 2012. Thousands of protesters gathered in a downtown bayfront park on Sunday demanding the arrest of the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in central Florida a month ago.   REUTERS/Brian Blanco
Reverend Jamal Bryant speaks to attendees during a rally protesting the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in Miami, Florida April 1, 2012. Thousands of protesters gathered in a downtown bayfront park on Sunday demanding the arrest of the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in central Florida a month ago. REUTERS/Brian Blanco

Where is the church in the Black Lives Matter movement?

The spirit of the black church has long animated the movements for civil rights and social justice in America. The call and response, the vocabulary of oppression and solidarity: These are the languages of sanctuaries and pews, of Sunday morning worship and Bible-study vigils.

But in the black- and youth-led political activism of the last several years, the church hasn’t been nearly as visible as it was in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. After many decades in which the most prominent black activists were ministers, religious leaders seem to be playing supporting roles in the most recent wave of activism.

In Baltimore, this is particularly stark. Nearly a year ago, the city saw widespread riots and political outcry after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died of spinal injuries while in the custody of police. The long vibrant local activist community caught national attention, including a widely shared moment in the conflict when community leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder with gang members in a northwest Baltimore church. In an earlier generation, Baltimore’s churches might have been the primary staging grounds for organizing protests and political action. Increasingly, though, the church is more of a backdrop.

In a 1976 interview, Enolia McMillan, the Baltimore NAACP president who would later become the first female head of the organization, observed that its “most dependable support … comes from the churches in Baltimore.”

“The main resources were bodies,” said Derek Musgrove, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The church was the organizational center of the community. You were guaranteed to see a certain number of people every Sunday, and a lot of those people were going to be participating in church activities throughout the week. You could get access to them.”

These days, there are fewer young black bodies in church pews. Although black 18-to-29-year-olds tend to identify as religious more than their white, Hispanic, and Asian peers, slightly less than a third don’t see themselves as part of any particular faith, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. They’re much less affiliated than their older black peers who are under 50, roughly a fifth of whom identify with no particular religion, and significantly less than those over 50, only a tenth of whom don’t have a religion.

Just as young black activists aren’t necessarily in the church, church leaders aren’t necessarily in the streets. During the protests following Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of city police nearly year ago, pastors led drives to distribute food and water and efforts to open churches as safe spaces. Clergymen spoke at Freddie Gray’s funeral; a local megachurch pastor, Jamal Bryant, declared that police had seen Gray as a threat “simply because he was man enough to look someone in authority in the eye.”

“I don’t think that people give enough credit to the church or the church’s involvement,” said Brion Gill, a 25-year-old who describes herself as a poet, organizer, and cultural curator, who is pictured above. But, she said, “the idea that it’s not abundantly clear how many churches are involved in this work speaks to the lack thereof.” There are probably as many views of the church’s role in activism, and of activism’s relationship to religion, as there are activists in Baltimore. But, as Gill observed, the fact that it’s even a question suggests that something once powerful has changed.

Even Bryant—a fairly prominent figure in national protest movements, who was arrested in Ferguson and briefly mounted a campaign for Congress in September—sees a limit to his leadership in this movement. “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the church. The Black Lives Matter movement, largely speaking, is not,” he said. “The church is having to readjust: How do you become a part of something you don’t lead?”

For a while, Bryant’s church, Empowerment Temple AME, was a hip place for young singles in Baltimore. “It was like a club,” Gill said. “The music, the performances, the flashiness of it all—it was a spectacle. But that’s part of the draw. … It’s an inviting space for young people.”

On a Sunday morning in March, though, there didn’t seem to be many 20-somethings in the church’s chairs. The congregation’s building used to be a skating rink, and the sanctuary, which is roughly the length of a football field, was about three-quarters full by the time the 9:30 a.m. service got underway. The crowd was predominantly women who looked to be in their 40s and 50s. The 11:30 skews younger, parishioners said, but there didn’t seem to be many young folks in the sanctuary as that service got started, either.

“I started the church at 29,” Bryant said. Now he’s in his mid-forties. “As I’ve aged, the church has aged.” The church’s relationship with a younger demographic group had become “strained” over time, he said—until Freddie Gray’s death. After giving the eulogy at Gray’s funeral, Bryant organized several demonstrations in the city. In the months following last April’s protests, Empowerment Temple raised money for and coordinated the opening of the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center, which provides free meals, mentorship, and programs for local kids. “The uprising, in a real way, made the church more palatable for those who were, quite frankly, disgusted with church,” the pastor said.

But Bryant—and the Empowerment Temple—have also gone through some rough times over the past several years. He and his wife filed for divorce in 2008, in part because Bryant had an affair—“nothing in my mind ever said … that my church would tank out,” he said later. As The Baltimore Sun wrote at the time, “Bryant and his wife, a former model, are known for their flashy lifestyle, which includes a Bentley and a multimillion-dollar Canton waterfront property. … Her original divorce complaint stated that he earned more than $350,000 a year.” Gizelle Bryant is now one of the stars of The Real Housewives of Potomac.

In an interview, Bryant criticized black churches that have “moved in focus to personal attainment”—he doesn’t see himself as a prosperity-gospel preacher. He recently endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, praising the senator’s focus on the poor. During services, though, money—and its associated status—played a prominent role. Early on, he gave a shout-out to Beyoncé and Jay Z for donating $27,000 to the church for economic development. Later, after saying, “This week, I want you not to stress about finances,” he asked all attendees to give $65 dollars. (“If you only have $70, we don’t have change.”) Church-goers tucked checks into envelopes labeled “Economic Empowerment,” holding them above their heads in unison before marching to the front of the sanctuary, communion-style, to deposit their contributions. “I don’t have to worry,” they sang, “‘cause he’s working for me.”

To an extent, this is how a lot of congregations work: Donations, often framed as tithing, keep the church going. But the overall sheen of the Empowerment Temple—the gilded chairs set on the pulpit up front, the shout-out to Bey and Jay, the many headshots of Bryant sporting his Ray-Ban glasses and fly suit—seems somewhat at odds with the politics of the national Black Lives Matter movement and the left-wing organizing community in Baltimore. There are other, more complex reasons why young black folks might not feel welcome at this and other churches, too. For one: “There are a lot of queer bodies who are a part of this movement, and they feel ostracized in the church space,” Gill said. Many black pastors, including Bryant, have been vocal opponents of homosexuality; in 2012, Bryant harshly criticized Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Like activists anywhere, some of the people I spoke with in Baltimore had harsh words for their community’s established institutions, and were skeptical about how and where Bryant has chosen to use his powerful voice. In conversations about the church, young people, and activism, his name seemed to keep coming up. “It’s interesting, the times when you see him: when cameras are present, when there’s a huge media presence,” said Gill. “I thought it was interesting that he found himself in Ferguson, praying for Mike Brown’s family and giving them guidance in Ferguson, as if there’s not a whole city in Baltimore that needed the same kind of work.”

Gill and her peers have already taken leadership roles in Baltimore’s political-organizing efforts; they’re concerned with long-standing issues such as economic inequality and police brutality. Intentionally or not, they’re also experimenting with what new forms of religiosity and spirituality—often framed in political language—might look like. As 21-year-old Kwame Rose, another local activist, put it, “Young black people are pushing the older generation out of the way and saying, ‘This is our movement. This is our time to lead.’”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Emma Green

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