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The Black Church in Detroit | American Black Journal

This week, American Black Journal launched a series focusing on “The Black Church in Detroit,” and produced in collaboration with the Ecumenical Theological Seminary and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Stephen leads a roundtable with three Detroit ministers on the Black Church’s involvement in the fight for racial and social justice, from the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement to today’s Black Lives Matter Movement. The group also talks about how the Black church meets the needs of the community, both historically and now, during the pandemic 

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Read the full transcript here:

Stephen Henderson Reverend Williams, I’m going to start with you. Activism is, I think, for you hand-in-hand with with the pastor of your church and so much of what you do. So many of the reasons that people know you, not just here in Detroit, but around the country, are about activism. So I’m gonna start with you talking about that marriage between the church, the black church in particular, and activism that’s focused on social and racial justice.

 

Rev. Charles Williams II Pastor, Historic King Solomon Baptist Church [00:00:36] Yeah, you know, the Black church birthed Black Lives Matter and birthed activism. It has been the mantra that we have held since we organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church further since we organized our resources at the First Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. Oldest institutions that blacks have ever owned, not only in the sense that we were protesting or picketing, but we at that time we were providing. At that time we were opening up our churches for Underground Railroad. This is what the fabric of what we’ve been for black people since the inception of the black church, the historic black church. And it’s what we plan to continue to be.

 

Stephen Henderson Pastor Barry, I know from your church that that activism takes on a very, very specific role in your community and takes on a very specific role with young people in your community.

 

Talk about what that looks like.

 

Pastor Barry Randolph, Church of the Messiah Well, one of the reasons why the church has been so successful is because we can buy your purpose and your activism with your spirituality. One of the things that have been quite successful was the fact that we let everybody know that on so many different levels, Jesus Christ and his disciples and a lot of people in the Bible were actually activists that were standing up for what was right there, was standing up against the status quo. They were standing up in the face of evil and they were letting people know that with God, all things are possible. And we as the people of God, we have a role to play in manifesting that in this world. So we have a particular role. So our young people in particular, they look for their purpose in life. And part of that is to stand up for the right thing.

 

We give them the opportunity to be able to do that.

 

Reverend Simon, what does this look like at Fellowship?

 

Rev. Dr. Constance Simon Associate Minister, Christian Education Fellowship Chapel

You know, when I thought about activism, I had to take it from an academic standpoint, of course. I am at Fellowship Chapel, which is a very active church. ETS is ecumenical, but social justice oriented. So when I looked at activism and when I teach it in my African-American religious black religious studies course, I talk about it from a historical perspective. We came from Africa, and I don’t mean (inaudible)…. We were enslaved. We come to America. And even within that transition, we have held on to what has been activism. I see activism holistically in that all of our things that we do in terms of the black churches, not just the religion, it’s not just understanding the Bible, it’s dealing with every phase of every black person’s need.

 

So even when the slaves would leave the master’s church and go to the hush harbor and remember, they did not take that black by this a Black Bible. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about it. The slave Bible, they’ve taken that. They didn’t take that. They sat down and they talked about how they were going to be active in terms of helping everybody that was part of that slave group through songs because they sang in the field to let people know they were going to be actively leaving, you know, for freedom. They preached they talked about the things that people need. And historically, that has been the activism in Black church. Black church still is the hub, the place where every even if you don’t go to church when something happens, you’ll go back to Black church to find out, well, how do we feel about this and what things have happened with that? And the other thing is it’s a personal level, where they’ll look at who needs what. That’s activism. Who’s hungry, who needs water, who is not being fed, what kids are not being educated? And until about when people began to move out of Black communities, activism in the Black church was a neighborhood thing.

 

Stephen Henderson

Reverend Williams, I feel like we’re in a moment that is unlike most other moments that those of us who are alive have ever really experienced. Obviously, the pandemic has something to do with that, but also the conversation about racism, the role it plays about the opportunity to move forward again, maybe another few steps toward toward equality. I would love for you to talk about for you the role that the church is playing in that moment right now and how it may look a little different from from what the church has been asked to do before.

 

Rev. Charles Williams II Pastor, Historic King Solomon Baptist Church

 

You know, post the American Revolution, there were Blacks who were actually engaged in that in the Northeast. Those Blacks organized what’s called African benevolent societies. At the time, they did not have the ability to lean on the social safety net of the government or were either the veterans organizations. And so, Blacks organized these African benevolent societies, moving from the African benevolent societies to organizing actual Black churches. Two gentlemen organized the African Methodist Church as we know it today through African benevolent societies, these societies were social service agencies, which is why you probably see today that in the midst of a pandemic, you know, churches like Messiah and Pastor’s Barry’s church and Reverend Anthony’s church are serving is as COVID-19 testing sites, promoting the vaccine, are dealing with food insecurity, serving over 750,000 meals to a city that’s ridden in poverty. I mean, social service and social engagement, being in tune with the community and being prepared to serve is what we have done from the very beginning of the Black church’s inception. And so this is something that we continue to do and it’s something that we have done in this pandemic. You know, I know that there are many white denominations that shut down their churches and say, hey, you can’t come in our buildings. We will not be doing anything. But the Black church has remained the doors have remained open. Although we may not be meeting, we’ve remained open to continue to serve our community in this time. And so that is what’s most important. I think when you describe and when you define what a Black church looks like right now, in the midst of a pandemic, the doors are open and services are being offered to a community that certainly ridden with so many social ills.

 

Stephen Henderson

What about the intertwining of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Black church?

 

Rev. Charles Williams II Pastor, Historic King Solomon Baptist Church [00:07:51] Absolutely. I mean, I can’t tell you the amount of individuals who I’ve had in our congregations or that’s in our congregation that continue to get involved in the protests and the demonstrations. I think we you know, when we look at the strength and the power of the Black church, it’s not always in Black Lives Matters’ protests. I think it’s in our ability to make sure that we are engaged in getting folks out to vote. You know, look, there were folks who are in our our congregation who may not have protest, but certainly identify with Black Lives Matter. But instead of protesting, they were at home calling folks and reminding them to make sure that they get out the vote. Why? Because Black Lives Matter. These key democratic issues, and I don’t mean Democratic Party. I’m talking about democracy in our engagement in this institution called the United States are part of continuing on that thread of Black Lives Matter.

 

Stephen Henderson Yeah. Pastor Barry, so much of the work that you guys do in your community is about sustaining the people who live there. Talk about what that work is look like during COVID and how ravaged your community really, really has been.

 

Pastor Barry Randolph, Church of the Messiah

The community–COVID kind of brought a lot of things to light that were kind of undercover, there were there were things that we found out as a community, as a city that we honestly and truly, really were able to do. One of the things that kind of surprised me was the fact that we could get everybody’s water turned back on, that we could run the busses for free. We found out that children were getting one of their major meals in school. So it brought a lot of things to light. Senior citizens honestly and truly could be offered to go into stores earlier than everybody else so that they didn’t have to worry about everybody else in the store getting in the way. So we found out there was so many things that we really could do and COVID brought those things to light. And hopefully, we won’t turn our back on those things because as things begin to change, we still need to be looking at those things. So COVID brought a lot of things to light. One of the other things, too, that it actually showed, too, that the church is more than the building, that it really is the community, and it is making sure that the people eat, rather not be doing it on the inside of the building or on the street or in the parking lot. We found out that we were making sure that people were able to stay in their homes and be able to get their rent paid. We made sure that so many churches in Detroit was actually making sure that people had all of their necessities and were able to make ends meet. So it was all of these things that was taken place that we found out that we could do as a church and as a community. And we did find out that the church really is about people and not just the building. So that was one of the biggest things that came out of COVID.

 

Stephen Henderson Pastor Barry, so much of your work is also focused on opportunity, making sure that people in your community have opportunities to advance economically, to be more secure in housing, more secure in terms of food and things like that. I wonder what effect COVID has had on the effort to push people forward to give them more than what they have now.

 

Pastor Barry Randolph, Church of the Messiah

Well, one of the things that we found out was. The needs of people a lot of times won’t stop. And again, COVID kind of magnified that, but we found ways to solidify the work that we’re doing. And one of the things that came out of that was a bigger partnership with Pastor Williams and with King Solomon. One of our people was able to solidify bringing in over a thousand meals every day to people in community and neighborhood because of the work and the outreach he had already had. So we wound up partnering with that outreach. That outreach literally led to us going to the city of Flint being able to feed thousands of people in Flint. We found out that we were able to work with other community organizations that were not church. But because of the need that was in the community and neighborhood, we literally start working together and solidifying how we were able to be able to help the people. A great need that we expanded on was providing free Internet to the community in Islandview. We have the equitable Internet Initiative where we give the Internet for free and we’re kind of a competition to Comcast and AT&T, but it’s provided by the church.

 

We found out that we were able to expand that work to people in the community and neighborhood who before the pandemic did not necessarily need the Internet. But because of the economic problem that was taking place with people losing their jobs, we found out that we can actually provide the Internet to more people. So it kind of expanded the reach of the work that we were doing.

 

Rev. Charles Williams II Pastor, Historic King Solomon Baptist Church

And Stephen, if I could just if I could just comment behind him, Pastor Barry, look, I mean, the Black church has always provided an underground network of resources and messages, right? We don’t get millions of dollars of foundation funding. But somehow we always make sure DTE bills get paid. Somehow we always make sure water gets on. Somehow, we always make sure rent gets taken care of. And somehow, some who may have lost their jobs may get their jobs back at the call of a pastor. I mean, this is what the Black pastor has done. This is what the Black church is done. We have become the touch point for many folks who have come from the south to the north, from their early 20s all the way up into prison. And so we still serve that place. And maybe our megaphone isn’t the loudest. But I’m I’m willing to bet that you can go inside of the community and you can ask with any Black church is doing relevant work, where do you go to get help if you need it? And they’ll point to the Black church.

 

Stephen Henderson

Reverend Simon, the Black church has always, especially here in Detroit, played a big role in boosting Black Detroiters’ participation in our democracy and engaging them in political activism. Talk about how that has looked different in the last year because of the things that have gone on.

 

Rev. Dr. Constance Simon Associate Minister, Christian Education Fellowship Chapel I think the activism is kind of like a reawakening because one thing about the Black church is everybody is welcome. The doors are open. You might not have come to church since your grandmother was brought you, but when things are happening actively, people come back to engage because they know that’s the hub. It’s like the brain power and they come in not to just be told that’s another thing. They’re coming to be fed. They’re coming to share. They’re coming to engage. So, the activism and the activism in the Black church in Detroit has been very prevalent. You know, I’ve talked about how the shrine when Jaramogi unveiled the shrine, the Madonna and Child in Black, and how that changed the trajectory. And I talked to other denominations, and someone Catholic said that gave us the agency to do to to to sing gospel music, to stop listening to Latin.

 

So just like this season, and I call it the post Obama season, because up until the things that are happening now, people actually were believing that because we had a Black president, everything was all good. Oh, we’re liberated, we’re on top. And then they start to see that it is not it wasn’t enough. They didn’t truly understand. And so the Black church stepped up to help people with their understanding if they are willing to learn. Black church is not exclusive where you can’t come in, we’re not going to tolerate you. No, we welcome everybody. And that’s been something that’s part of the Black church, too, even since civil rights.

 

Now, if you come in and you’re not correct, we’ll help you get there. But the Black church has just been that hub always.

 

Stephen Henderson

We’ve got about two minutes left. But, Reverend, I want to hear you talk just a little about Black Lives Matter and the way that it interacts with the Black church.

 

Rev. Dr. Constance Simon Associate Minister, Christian Education Fellowship Chapel

If a church is not paying attention to Black Lives Matter or embracing it, something has become a disconnect because it’s not just like the three young ladies I’m talking about. It is a whole movement. It’s a whole movement of awareness. It’s a whole movement of justice. And when you say justice, I’m not talking about just social justice. It’s economic justice; it’s water justice, it’s food justice. It’s saying ‘Let’s step forward and pay attention to the things that are still trying to marginalize and disenfranchise and exclude people from wherever–not just the privileged, but not just the poor, but the privileged are suffering’.

 

When we can’t be a whole community, the community that God described, that talks about Jesus being one. When we have to still be fragmented, that’s probably why Black Lives Matter will certainly continue. There are tons of good things to read out there about it, there are tons of things that as churches–and the other thing with Black Lives Matter and Black church that I’m going to use them as the same thing–is that no matter who’s doing the work, if the work is good, we are all in. We are all in.

 

If you need help, we will undergird you. If you’re getting shaky, we come over and say it’s OK to protest. But what about policy? Let me show you how to write this policy. Let me help you listen to what someone just said and then let’s unpack it. Oh, no, there’s an infiltrator. Let’s talk about this and love them back to where they need to be in support of not just–humanity as a whole, but Black church in particular.

 

Rev. Charles Williams II Pastor, Historic King Solomon Baptist Church And I would just say, Dr. Simon, you are spot on. The Black church is Black Lives Matter. Richard Allen left the Methodist Church and started the Black church in the AME tradition because Black Lives Matter. Dr. King and Malcolm X. And the list just goes on of folks who have continued to say, hey, our lives matter, whether it’s in a faith tradition or whether it’s in the culture of this community. Thank you.

 

Stephen Henderson

Really great to have all three of you here to kick off our celebration of the Black church in Detroit in 2021. Thanks very much.

 

 

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