The Failure of the African American Church in Society

by Rev. Tamara E. Lewis

The following are comments on certain aspects of the African American community that cause me a great deal of concern. It is important to note that I do not believe the African American community is monolithic, and I am not generalizing about all persons.

Theoretically, I am of the sound mind and perspective that the severe trauma and emotional sufferings of African American people based on living in this society is deep and generational, having passed down since slavery and the severe discrimination and segregation that African Americans have historically faced in this country. These wounds are deep. However, African Americans as a community have not healed from these wounds. Instead, the emotional and psychological wounds fester in our communities and are passed on and on.

Further, I believe that our churches have not served to be places of healing for African Americans. I believe that our churches have served in many cases to put a balm over our suffering, but the alarming trends in our communities indicate that our churches have been very ineffective in addressing the psychological and emotional legacies of pain and sorrow of African Americans.

One reason for this, I believe, is that our churches do not overtly address or talk about the historical legacy of slavery and discrimination. If you go into a black church, typically the pastor is talking about Jesus, and salvation and the afterlife. You do not hear people directly talking about historical and societal issues that have particularly affected African Americans. This is because black churches have been very good about passing on the traditions and styles in worship and ministry that originated in slavery. Those traditions and styles were effective at the time, but they have become ineffective now. Unfortunately, churches have been unwilling to change with the times. During and after slavery, and during severe segregation, blacks, especially in the South, were not free to talk directly and/or openly about oppression from slavery, segregation, and the difficulty of living in America. Black ministers were not supposed to preach that slavery was wrong, or that oppression by whites was wrong. In fact, they could have been killed for what they preached, due to the atmosphere of terror and physical intimidation that blacks constantly faced. So slave preachers had to stick to salvation and glory in the next life, not oppression in the present life. Any talk about oppression was often done in code. Evidence for this is reflected in the wording of many of the African American spirituals. The style of black preachers continued into the post-antebellum period. Black people lived under severe oppression through Jim Crow and rigid social restrictions. Black people had to get along the best way they could—they feared lynching, murder, and destruction of what little they had. Overall, preachers and the church kept quiet about overt discussions about oppression. They stuck to Jesus, salvation, and deliverance. Admittedly, this recourse was necessary to survival.

During the Civil Rights Movement, a band of churches began to become vocal about segregation and stand up and fight. This was very effective. But in the years after the so-called Civil Rights and Black Power movement, churches in general retreated into the other worldly, preaching and worship styles of the past. Most did not openly attack the legacy of slavery and discrimination that continued in society as well as the affect of slavery and discrimination of the emotional and psychological states of people.

I honestly believe that African Americans as a whole did not take into account the emotional and psychological trauma that would have a lingering affect on our communities. We fought to be free of overt segregation and discrimination. Maybe as a people we thought that once discrimination was over, we would be fine and able to live out our lives. But we did not recognize that even when many (not all) barriers were removed, we would have another major task: healing the sickness within that was inherited from all of our oppression. If a woman is raped, does that woman not suffer emotionally later on as the result of her attack? Maybe she has post-traumatic shock or stress after the event. She may go into certain places or situations subsequently that remind her of what happened. This may affect her in certain ways. She may have problems with relationships or sex after that. It is clear she would need some kind of therapy and other healing methods, including worship and prayer, in order to heal her of the psychological and mental effects of that event. African Americans have been raped, lynched, beaten, discriminated against, bought, sold, mistreated (and the list goes on and on) for centuries. Would it not make sense that as a people we are severely traumatized for all of the terrible things that have happened to us? Would it not also make sense that we would need help in the form of different types of therapies, healing, communication, study, and worship and prayer to begin to address these traumas? I think so. Yet, the African American church as a whole has been extremely negligent in offering help to our people in this way.

One of the effects of the trauma of the African American people can be seen in the self-destructive habits in our communities. Drugs, crime, and the myriad aspects of abuse that proliferate in low-income settings are simply defense addictions resorted to in order to escape the lingering pain and trauma of our legacy. When we begin to directly address the lingering pain of our legacy we can begin to heal. For we live in a different day and time, compared to the days of slavery and Jim Crow. Blacks are still oppressed, and suffer from discrimination and racism everyday. However, we are at a place where it is possible to openly talk about the effects of slavery and discrimination on our emotional and psychological collective and individual identities. Basically, we as African Americans need to sit down in small groups, among friends, strangers, in therapy, and other avenues, to talk about slavery, oppression, discrimination, segregation, and how it has affected us as people and individuals. I believe that as a people, we have tried to push the memory of slavery and segregation away, but it has not gone away. It is still with us and we are still affected by it. African Americans have the highest rate of divorce than any other group in America. AIDS is rising fastest in the African American community. The incarceration rate of African American males is at ridiculously high levels, and growing everyday. Our desire to remain unenlightened, ignorant, secretive, and uneducated is destroying our selves and our community. We refuse to open our minds and learn, choosing to remain in the cloak of ignorance, all the while we are self-destructing. We do not talk about sex and AIDS in our churches. We blatantly dismiss homosexuality as sinful and evil, without openly addressing the reality of homosexuality in our midst. We refuse to discuss sexual issues, which run rampant in our community from teenage sexual involvement, clergy misconduct, extramarital affairs, rape, and promiscuity. We remain homophobic, insulated, and judgmental. We refuse to embrace homosexuals and others, forcing them into seclusion and isolation, perpetuating sexual habits that are destroying our communities. The African American church, I contend, often held as the mainstay of the African American community, has only served in most instances, to perpetuate these serious problems.

The Failure of the African American Church in Society by Rev. Tamara E. Lewis

© Copyright 2001. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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