The black church has always served as a focal point for the black community. When things were bleak, the black church was a bastion of hope. When black people were left hungry and homeless, the black church provided food and shelter. When our country created social divisions for people based on race, the black church formed a base of solidarity. The black church has doubled as school, community center, political hall, and community theater for both religious and secular programs.

To accomplish this, many black churches developed a variety of social services including libraries, job training programs, basic education programs, and health care programs. The church is sensitive to the changing cultural and social realities encountered by black Americans. The church is willing to break boundaries of “tradition” to accomplish both the salvation of the individual and the community. 

One of the best mid-twentieth century examples of this attitude is exhibited by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. As a high-profile minister and Harlem’s first black congressman (1944-69), Powell fought for black Americans and pointed to a form of social gospel that blended the best of the Christian tradition with the wisdom of the streets. This combination is evident in his often-quoted line, “Keep the faith, baby.” Using strategies of public protest that became the hallmark of the civil rights movement, Powell secured jobs in white-owned Harlem stores, worked for better health care options, and brought order to a tense and potentially explosive section of New York. 

From the period of slavery to the present, black Christians have devoted themselves to a God that is very present in the world. Our existential situation seems to require superhuman effort to correct, so we need a God who is very much with us. Within the invisible institution and within contemporary churches, black Christians talk about God as loving, kind, just, compassionate, and defined by a demand for justice and righteousness. These characteristics and attributes are placed in context by drawing on scriptural stories of God’s encounters with other oppressed communities.

In the Gospel of Luke 4:18-20, Jesus made clear that his mission is twofold; soul liberation and social liberation. The gospel is holistic in nature. The gospel is concerned with the eternal and earthly state of mankind. The black church exemplifies his twofold mission through its dedicated to social justice advocacy for the black community and to the salvation of our souls.

 

 Raphael G. Warnock, The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety and Public Witness (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2014), 123.

 Luke 4:18-19 ESV (English Standard Version)

 

This article was written by Eric R. Tarver. He is the Director of Church Relations at SCS and the pastor of Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Beeville, Texas.