The Future Shape of Black Religion

“New Wineskin or Old Sackcloth: Challenges and Promises for Black Religion, Life and Culture in a New Century” was the theme of the conference. Sponsored by the Department of Religion and the College of Liberal Arts at Wright State University, this year the conference also received support from the Ohio Humanities Council. National speakers included Dr. Henry Foster, Dean of the School of Medicine and Vice President of Health Services at Meharry Medical College, Dr. Peter Paris, the Elmer Homrighausen Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary and President of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of Arkansas and former U.S. Surgeon General.

At Wright State, Dr. Foster set the stage for the conference by relating a story about the founding of Meharry Medical College. In 1836 a gentleman named Sam Meharry was traveling with a wagon full of salt when the wagon broke down. A blacksmith family assisted him in repairing the wagon and getting him back on the road, and although he had no money to pay for their assistance, he made a pledge to someday return the kindness. Many years later, in 1876, Sam Meharry provided $30,000 to the University of Tennessee for the purpose of establishing a medical school for freed blacks. Individual contributions can and do make a difference. Dr. Foster called on African Americans in this country to take individual responsibility for their health, for their financial success and for the vote, emphasizing that over 50% of health problems are related to individual choices about behavior, and that presidential elections, citing JFK’s election in 1960, are often won by a small margin — only 51,000 votes in 1960.

Speaking to conference participants from the pulpit at Mt. Enon Baptist Church, Dr. Peter Paris explained that the political role of the African American Church was established from the beginning, that the African American Church has been the only institution consistently serving Blacks in this country, and that the African American church has historically laid the foundation of and continues to reflect the changes in social structure in African American communities. Tracing the central role of the church from the “concealed church” under slavery in this country to the active role of the African American Church during the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, Dr. Paris suggested that today many African American churches have mostly only symbolic power. Identifying multiple concerns, Dr. Paris pointed out that African American churches in the central city have become commuter churches with uncertain futures, that although representative of at least two thirds of African American Church membership, women remain separate and unequal, and that issues such as AIDS and homosexuality remain unaddressed. On mega-churches Dr. Paris acknowledged the remarkable growth, and strength of traditional charismatic authority often found in mega-churches, but critiqued the long term impact of these organizations which mirror the structure of corporate America, operate independently and often do not make strong distinctions between loyalty to God and loyalty to the pastor.

Citing poverty as the most pressing issue of the 21st century for African Americans in this country, Dr. Paris warned against following the mainline white churches down a path of worshiping materialism and retreating to individual forms of worship. “Religious practice everywhere has always been a performance art. Without public purpose for liturgy, private religion is futile,” Dr. Paris explained, citing the need for the African American Church to take on the significant social and economic issues of the times. “Separation of church and state has to do with one not controlling the other. This does not preclude the church taking an active role in critiquing the state,” particularly in issues of public life, Dr. Paris concluded.

As the final keynote speaker, Dr. Jocelyn Elders addressed conference participants in the Wright State University School of Medicine auditorium on the subject of the crisis in health care facing this nation. She suggested that the United States has the best sick care system in the world, however, the health care system remains fragmented and limited, particularly for African Americans who carry a disproportionate burden of disease, hunger, homelessness, and poverty. In response to these disparities Dr. Elders explained, “we need to educate not legislate. There are 50 million children in school every day. We need comprehensive health education in schools from K-12. We need to teach responsibility not legislate morality, because the vows of abstinence break far more easily than latex condoms.” On the role of the African American Church, there should be “no more moralizing from the pulpit and preaching to the choir. The church has been negligent on the subject of HIV/AIDS. We have a health crisis in our community and we need crisis intervention. We can no longer stand by as our young people have shoes that light up when they talk and brains that go dead when they talk,” Dr. Elders continued.

Dr. Elders recommended several strategies to respond to the crisis in health care we are now facing: 1) As a society we need to decide that all people have a right to health care; 2) We need to take personal and collective responsibility for health which means addressing the behavioral components of good health and the root causes of illness such as poverty; 3) We need to prevent chronic disease by placing appropriate emphasis on education, health promotion and disease prevention; and 4) We need to prepare for the aging population. Dr. Elders concluded by suggesting that “affirmative action was never designed for women and blacks. It was designed for sick institutions. Today’s patients are the societal institutions, which continue to support disparate treatment and limit access. When we heal the institutions, affirmative action will die a natural death.” Finally, when working to improve health in this country Dr. Elders suggested, “It’s kind of like dancing with a bear. When you’re dancing with a bear, you can’t get tired and sit down to rest. You have to wait for the bear to get tired and sit down.”

In addition to hearing presentations from national speakers, workshop participants attended small group workshops focused on specific issues and developed action plans for local implementation in the Dayton community. The planning committee for the conference, representing the partnership of Wright State University and African American Churches in the Dayton community, has already begun planning for the 2001 Conference on the Future Shape of Black Religion.

Note from James R. Adams, TCPC President
Through the good offices of Kate Cauley, I was invited to lead a workshop [at the conference]. The theme the planning committee handed me was “Racial Integration and Mainline White Churches.” This topic did not prove to be of compelling interest to those attending, but I learned a great deal in preparing for the event.Although no one knows for certain the extent of racial integration in U.S. churches, here are some reasonable guesses:

86% of the Black Christians in the U.S. belong to Black denominations. — according to C. Eric Lincoln & Lawrence H. Mamiya: The Black Church, 1990

8% of them belong to Black congregations in mainline majority white denominations.

6% of Black Christians in America worship regularly with whites.

5.6% of the Black Churches cooperate with White Churches on social issues, 7.2% in urban settings but only 1.2% in rural areas.

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