"This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not from the action of a conforming majority but from the creative maladjustment of a dedicated minority."--Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love

Thirty-two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., African-American clergy are revisiting the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movement and discussing trends that have emerged in black churches and their communities.

In May, hundreds of seminarians, pastors, theologians, civil rights leaders, and grassroots people from across the United States and Great Britain gathered at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta for a conference on "The Spiritual State of Black America." (ITC is the largest predominantly African-American graduate theological consortium of Protestant seminaries in the United States.)

Black preachers and theologians are especially curious, some even anxious, about a wide variety of issues: the growing appeal of Islam in the African-American community; the emergence of independent megachurches; the federal government's expectation that local congregations expand their role in providing social services; the exodus of men and youth from traditional congregations; the feminist and womanist demands for equal opportunities in ministry; and--perhaps the most unexpected and inexplicable phenomenon--a new generation of Baptist clergy, Dr. King's proteges, who go by the title "bishop."

Most of these Baptist bishops are dynamic, entrepreneurial, neo-Pentecostal ministers who have developed megachurches and understand themselves to be reappropriating the clerical titles and styles of the New Testament. Although this practice has raised the ire of traditional Baptists, who eschew such trappings, it has clearly differentiated the new Baptist pastors as spiritual and institutional innovators.

Setting the tone for the series of plenary addresses and panel discussions was John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Adams declared that since the post-civil rights movement period, African-Americans have been "damaged by excessive assimilation" into corrupting core values--individualism, materialism, and ethical relativism--of late capitalist culture.

Consequently, black churches risk losing their distinctive historical mission as the conscience of America and the hope for oppressed people worldwide. Bishop Adams reminded participants that America has grown to tolerate (often begrudgingly) and occasionally celebrate the ethnic and cultural distinctiveness of its many sub-populations, especially when these "nonconformists" contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the entire nation. He noted that black gospel singers, blues artists, jazz musicians, virtuoso preachers, novelists, poets, and politicians have all helped to elevate and transform the quality of American public life.

Jacquelyn Grant, a theology professor at ITC, offered another presentation by posing a provocative question: "In light of the history of organized religion's view and treatment of women, is it in the best interest of women to invest in these traditions?" She responded by distinguishing between the original vision and teachings of Jesus and the patriarchal distortions of Christianity as practiced.

The love ethic of Jesus is actually a radical and liberating vision of gender equality; the problem is that not many Christians have embraced that ethic.

Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, discussed the Urban League's new initiative with Colin Powell and the Congress of National Black Churches to celebrate youth academic excellence. Price bemoaned the rapid erosion among the masses of a long tradition of African-American striving for education.

One session addressed the continuing growth of Islam in black communities. Two prominent voices engaged in a debate: Imam Wallace D. Muhammad, a Chicago-based cleric and son of the late Elijah Muhammad, founder of the separatist Nation of Islam during the 1930s; and Minister Ava Muhammad, a Georgetown Law School graduate who serves as the regional representative of Louis Farrakhan and the first woman to be appointed head of a local mosque. Both Muslim leaders affirmed the recent moves in Chicago by Wallace Muhammad and Farrakhan to reconcile a decades-old spat between the competing heirs to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Responding to their presentations was Lawrence Mamiya, professor of Africana Studies at Vassar College and co-author, with C. Eric Lincoln, of "The Black Church in the African American Experience" (Duke University Press, 1990). Mamiya asked whether Farrakhan's bold move in appointing the first and only female imam in the Islamic world would be rebuffed by more orthodox Muslims as he seeks to be embraced by the global Muslim community. Sparks flew as Imam W.D. Muhammad indicated that he could not contravene the core teachings and practices of Sunni Islam by acknowledging Minister Ava as a full-fledged imam.

Tension in the chapel, packed with members of both groups, was palpable during the discussion.

The tension was soon diffused as Minister Ava observed that Islam has grown in the black community worldwide precisely because of its ability to adapt to changing societal circumstances, and women in religious leadership would ultimately have to be reckoned with. Both affirmed that Islam appeals to young blacks, in part because of its emphasis on family cohesion and the need to restore a culture of marriage, family, and father importance.

A listener at the conference could conclude that the spiritual state of black America is, like the rest of the nation, a mixed bag. There is enduring vitality in the traditional black churches, and, as the Baptist bishops illustrate, there is plenty of innovation. A growing number of people are exploring alternatives to Christianity, and others are voting against organized religion in favor of sampling personalized spirituality and self-help rituals.

But the bad news is that a growing percentage of people, especially youth, have disengaged from the bedrock practices and institutions of the family, church, school, and workplace. Here, the demons of despair reign--suicide, domestic and street violence, risky sexual behavior, and political apathy. Black Britons in attendance affirmed that this diagnosis is hauntingly familiar and describes where blacks in England and Europe seem to be headed.

For many, the emotional highlight of the conference came from an unlikely commentator on the spiritual pulse of African-Americans. Brian Butler, a young white Methodist seminarian at ITC, responded to Bishop Adams' opening address with a plea for black churches to reclaim their moral authority and spiritual vitality.

They should do so for their own good first, as other presenters had argued, but also because the white churches of America need a moral compass and the type of muscular Christian witness that Dr. King and the black churches have always incarnated.

Perhaps this hour in history needs to find all of us deeply engaged in moral diagnosis, discernment, and deliberation about our individual and collective futures.

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