The imagery is as ubiquitous as it is unflattering and tired. In fact, right now, somewhere, someone is watching a commercial, or television show, or movie, or viral comedy bit about the Black church.
And the Black church in these vehicles always looks and feels the same—Black folk packed into a tiny, worn church with more hand fans than air conditioning. A worship service, led mostly by Black women with big hats, thick frames, and thick southern accents, that literally ambles on for hours.
A clergy, almost always a man, stands in front of a congregation of which he is alternately dating and stealing money. He launches into a series of long-winded and unfocused, if not passionate mini-sermons, about money, while a melodic Gospel choir and a pew raised on the call and response tradition back him up.
We’ve all seen this characterization of the Black church, or some variation of it. We rolled our eyes at the glib, trite attempts to pull punchlines out of the Black church or even Blackness itself. And we’ve all dismissed these characterizations.
Because, we know the Black church. We grew up in it and around it. To us, it looks like the intersection of struggle and Black excellence. To us, it looks a whole lot like the poetic love letter Henry Luis Gates, Jr. constructed in a documentary for PBS.
It’s where we learned how to sing, or that we could sing. It’s where we learned how to give speeches and lead business meetings. It’s where we learned how to be patient, and assertive, and quiet, and kind, and compassionate.
It’s where we learned that Jesus was Black like us.
As an institution, the Black church is the space in which we found a brief sanctuary from the ravages of slavery. It helped to secure living wages for us in urban centers at the turn of the 20th century. And it served as the headquarters for the Civil Rights Movement.
So, while these characterizations, in essence, have amounted to an attack on the Black church as an institution, we dismissed them. We dismissed them because they were mostly good-natured hyperbole and harmless.
However, in the last several decades, there have been attacks on the church that have been anything but harmless and good-natured. For years, the Black church has been the target of attacks in this country.
Factions of people—mostly white supremacists —who understood the power and potential of the Black church, have physically attacked it, stalked it and appeared to terrorize it. In fact, there have been over 100 physical attacks on Black churches since 1956.
But, above these physical attacks on the Black Church, there have also been some coordinated metaphysical and theological ones as well. There is an abiding notion among conservative Christians that the Black church inculcates a faulty Gospel and theology, and only Black people who subscribe to their theology are Christians.
I actually had a colleague in my secular profession tell me this directly. We were discussing that he was an elder in the church he was attending. He volunteered that there are only a few Blacks in his congregation, but that he liked and respected them because they chose not to “fall into the false teachings of the Black church.”
My colleague is not alone. Many conservative Christians feel the same way. We all remember when conservative Christians pulled out the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the “October surprise” attempt to derail President Obama‘s bid to become president.
And as Sen. Raphael Warnock ran for his Senate seat in Georgia, conservative Christians combed through his sermons, found that he was preaching liberation to his congregation in a tumultuous time of racial unrest, and attempted to brand him as a “radical liberal pastor.”
While these attacks I’ve been on the Black church as an institution, the attacks represent something deeper and more troubling. They represent an attack on the very backbone of the Black community itself –– the Black woman.
Let me explain. The institution of the Black church, as troubling as it is for some and liberatory as it is for others, is in fact, a product of Black women.
Black women have protected, sustained, and been responsible for the growth of the Black church. When Bishop Richard Allen and Absolom Jones walked out of a racially segregated St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church worship service, Black women walked out with them. When a Black congregation needed to procure a building for worship or needed a financial increase, Black women sold chicken dinners and sweet potato pies to help provide capital.
When voices our community needed to speak truth to white supremacy and oppression in this country, black women not only supported male preachers and men in the civil rights movement, but black women were there to speak and preach truth to power as well.
Black women have almost always comprised more than 70 percent of the active membership of Black churches. Studies show that Black women are the most among faithful, most fervent, most active, most dedicated prayers in Black congregations.
So when there is an attack on the Black church, it is an attack on Black women.