The power of the gospel: Can black churches survive turbulent times?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 12:42 a.m. MDT

Before receiving a Sunday morning breakfast, those waiting in line bow their heads in prayer in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The ladies in their fancy, wide-brimmed hats and the men in their shiny shoes have taken their seats in the red-carpeted chapel of Calvary Baptist Church. The ushers motion with white-gloved hands and a momentary hush falls over the largely African American congregation. In comes the choir, hands clapping, silky blue robes swishing, praising God. Men, women, children come alive, swaying back and forth to the music, interjecting "amens," throwing their hands up in the air.

"How great is our God," they sing together, no longer individual people but one mass moving together. "How great is our God."

At first glance, Calvary Baptist appears to be a church like any other a place where people of faith gather to read scriptures and worship their God. But in many ways the nondescript brick building on State Street in Salt Lake City, along with 30 or so other black churches scattered along the Wasatch front, is a social and cultural center for Utah's African American population.

African Americans, of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, according to The Pew Research Centers Forum on Religion and Public Life. They pray more frequently and attend church services more often than the general population. Even among those who do not claim affiliation with a particular church, three out of four say religion is important in their lives. Close to 60 percent of the nation's African American population chooses to worship in predominately black churches. And yet, the black church is facing turbulent times.

Like many of their peers, the rising generation of African Americans is less interested in religion and find the idea of a predominately black congregation less appealing than their parents did, studies say. The recession has also hit the black community disproportionately hard, shuttering hundreds of churches across the country due to foreclosure. But the greatest challenge may come from a shift in emphasis. As preaching focuses more on individual prosperity than community uplift, some scholars speculate the decades-old power the black church has exercised as the "soul" of the African American community is "dead" or on it's way there.

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before 200,000 civil rights supporters and declared, "I Have a Dream."

Now, with 16 percent of African Americans unemployed and 26 percent living in poverty, King's dreams of social equality are far from realized. The question is whether the black church will continue to play a role in the progression of the African American community, or if like so many other churches, it will lose grip on its congregations.

The answer to that question will say a lot not just about the role religion plays in the African American community, but the future of black community as a whole.

Lifting the people

Pastor France Davis dances up to the polished pulpit to the beat of drums and a clapping, electric congregation. He greets the crowd with twinkling eyes and a broad smile. Today's sermon: charity.

There are hungry children, he tells the crowd. His people respond with a smattering of, "Oh, yeahs" and "amens." "Break it down," says one man, eyes closed, rocking back and forth, feeling the spirit.

"People oughta be able to get a piece of bread, some water, some Kool-Aid," Davis says, eliciting a sprinkling of laughs from the congregation. "Next time you look in your closet and see your cashmere coat, take the other one and give the cashmere away. You have a mink stole? Give it away."

The recession hit Davis' congregation hard. The African American unemployment rate is flirting with 16 percent, recent figures show. Unemployment for Caucasians, in the meantime, is hovering around 8 percent. While white family wealth rose from $22,000 to $100,000 over the past 23 years, black family wealth rose by just $3,000 to $5,000, according to a recent Brandeis University study.

"Many of my people are the last to be hired the first to be fired," Davis said. "A number of them have given up on what society has to offer because it hasn't worked for them."

Across the country, church foreclosures have tripled since 2007, according to filings in the Thomson Reuters Westlaw legal database. Rev. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights activist and Baptist minister, told Reuters he estimated thousands of black churches nationwide battled foreclosure last year.

In light of the financial struggles of many black congregations, the fact that Calvary Baptist has not had to shut down any of its social service programs is "remarkable," said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Calvary Baptist saw an increase in numbers as the recession humbled many who had turned away and a slight dip in tithing contributions, Davis said. Money is tighter than usual, but the congregation was still able to scrape up enough to help those in need with housing, food, transportation and education assistance.

"We're encouraging people to be at their best no matter their circumstances," he said. "Above all, we share a message of hope. People need to continue to dream."

Scholars trace African Americans' strong faith back to the days of slavery, when church was the only place they could gather uninhibited.

When slavery was abolished, the black church was the only stable institution to emerge intact. Throughout history, church has been instrumental in lifting the black community, not only through traditional alms, but also by lobbying to knock down racial barriers that prohibited African Americans from succeeding, Butler said.

Church produced black leaders such as King and Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped countless others to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The first national black organization, a publisher called the A.M.E. Church, was backed by the black churches. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League were founded with the help and support of black church leaders.

"The Black Church is the single most important institution in the black community," said Larry Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College. In his book, "The Black Church in the African American Experience," which compiles 10 years of research at churches such as Calvary Baptist, Mamiya concludes the black church is the "cultural womb" of the black community. "Not only did it give birth to new institutions, such as schools, banks, insurance companies and low income housing, it also provided an academy and an arena for political activities, and it nurtured young talent for musical, dramatic, and artistic development."

The America Davis grew up in didn't allow black kids and white kids to share the same classroom. He rode used school buses, learned from used textbooks and got his training from teachers who didn't graduate from accredited colleges. In 1946, he joined King's famous march on the Washington, D.C. Eventually, he got kicked out of his all-black college for marching too much.

"I brought all that life experience with me," Davis said. There are framed black-and-white photos of King posted on the walls of Calvary Baptist alongside photos of the latest youth activity.

When Davis came to Utah in 1972, he said Utah was "about 10 years behind" the rest of the country in terms of civil rights. As the head of Calvary Baptist, he went to battle against discrimination. He rallied his congregation to fight for the Fair Housing Act and convinced the state to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.

"When we talk in terms of equality, there's still work to be done," he said. "The big thing that's left to be done is changing attitudes and applications of those laws. In the education system, minorities are still underserved. There is disparate treatment in our health care system. We don't have enough minorities involved in business and government."

Inspiring youth

Walking into Calvary Baptist is like walking into Grandma's kitchen. Warm. Familiar. Loving. At one point in every sermon, Davis instructs the crowd to choose a neighbor, look into their eyes, and declare, "I love you, and there's nothing you can do about it."

The whole congregation opens up to embrace newcomers, old, weathered hands clasping pudgy baby hands, warm smiles and hugs all around.

When Patricia Otiede moved to Salt Lake City in 1991, a single mother with dreams of going to college, Calvary Baptist welcomed her and as one of their own. Over the next 20 years, she built her life around the church. A willow of a woman with smooth, dark skin and a commanding air, Otiede serves as an usher, teaches Sunday school and sings in the choir. Sundays she sometimes spends more than eight hours at the church.

"If you want to find me, come to Calvary Baptist Church," said Otiede, who now commutes to the downtown chapel from Taylorsville. "Monday through Saturday and Sunday, too."

Her devotion to the institution is not an exception to the rule.

"Most black church members don't just go to church on Sunday," Mamiya said. "They're involved in other activities during the week. Many of them take part in midweek Bible study, choir rehearsal and other kinds of community outreach programs. It's not just about spirituality, it's a social place where members look after one another."

But change may be knocking.

When he was little, Otiede's little boy was by her side, attending youth activities throughout the week, donning a miniature blue and gold choir robe to sing in he children's choir at community functions. But now 18 and a man, he's a once-a-week member.

"I used to drag him along," Otiede said. "He makes his own choices now."

Across all ethnic groups, the Millennial generation is less interested in religion, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Only 53 percent report being "certain" a god exists, compared to 71 percent of those born before 1928. The trend extends to African American youth, too — though they remain significantly more religious than the general population.

Among those who attend historically black churches, adults ages 18 to 29 read Scriptures and pray less frequently than their elders. Nineteen percent of African Americans under the age of 30 are unaffiliated with any religion, compared to just 7 percent who are over 65.

"The black church, like a lot of churches, is struggling with an aging population," Butler said. "They may not have a younger generation of people to fill the pews."

Furthermore, studies show African Americans born after the civil rights movement are less likely to attend historically black churches.

Interest also wanes as members gain more education, according to The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. Fifty-three percent of African Americans with a college degree attend predominantly black churches, compared to 63 percent of those with less than a high school education.

"They just don't see church as being this thing that can really help them," Butler said.

Davis is fighting the trend with youth clubs ranging from drama to pre-medical.

On a recent Sunday, teens with white gloves and painted powder-white faces transformed the chapel into a theater and performed a mime routine for a rowdy crowd of family and friends. The church also sponsors a mentoring program that matches youth with professionals in a field they've expressed interest in.

When the time comes for college, every active member of the congregation is eligible for a church scholarship. Davis doles out as much money as he can muster, starting at $1,000 each and moving up from there. Calvary has given Otiede's son, now starting his second year of college, $10,000 so far. For Otiede herself, the church footed the bill for a second bachelor's degree and a master's of health care administration.

"The pastor always pushes on education," Otiede said. "It's not just for yourself, he always says, it's for the benefit of our community."

Building community

Despite growing religious disillusionment among the youth, so far, Mamiya believes the black church's community spirit remains intact.

"There are some changes at the edges of black involvement, but the core remains very strong," he said. "More educated blacks with more income tend to have more choices, so they don't always go with a black church, but, on the whole, the core of the black community still tends to stick with its churches."

Scholars aren't all on the same page, though. Harold Dean Trulear, associate professor of applied theology at Howard University, argues that the social stratification of the African American community is taking a toll on the black church as a social hub.

As African Americans have clawed their way to the upper and middle classes, the population has also spread out, he said. More people are commuting. Church members don't want to drive extended distances multiple times per week, so they choose after-school and after-work activities closer to home.

"For so long, so many things were closed to the black community: political clubs, organized sports, going to the library, after school activities," he said. "These things the church provided. You couldn't get them anywhere else. But now the community has choices. Now proximity matters. When everyone is commuting, it makes it difficult to get people together who have competing interests."

While once, the black church was the place people looked for social help, Trulear said, many are now turning to outside sources.

"The black church still holds a powerful role in personal faith and helping people to deal with individual trials, but it's lost some of its ability to speak to the communal and to bring people together in a real sense of being neighbors," Trulear said.

African Americans are still more comfortable with churches taking on a political role than the rest of society, Pew reports, but faith in whether churches are best able to help the needy is declining. Just 35 percent of black Protestants said religious groups can do the best job of lifting the community in 2008, compared to 41 percent in 2001.

The drop in confidence is accompanied by — or perhaps, Trulear suspects, caused by — changes in the messages being given over the pulpit.

Historically, black churches have pushed for improving life as a community. Churches now are beginning to espouse a more "pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" attitude, he said. Rather than addressing the problems from a community standpoint, the focus is on the individual. For example, rather than working with school districts to address the gap in performance between African Americans and their Caucasian classmates, black churches offer individual tutoring programs.

"There used to be a sense of 'Yes, we want to advance, but we want to advance together,'" Trulear said.

"The civil rights movement wasn't about Rosa Parks getting a fair shake on the bus, it was about changing the laws so the whole community benefits."

As a leader, Davis considers the health of all of Utah's minorities — not just African Americans — his business. While he is constantly pounding his followers to do their personal best, Calvary Baptist is also involved in addressing community concerns on a broader scale.

Though the church does invest in tutoring programs for struggling children, the congregation also pitches in to help send the children to private school.

Davis, in the meantime, has joined the Utah State Board of Regents, where he hopes to address disparities in the public education system.

When the Legislature tried to do away with affirmative action last year, Davis invited the politicians to Calvary Baptist to have a discussion with his congregation. The passion and determination in the room was palpable.

"We will continue to try to giving the poor and the voiceless power," Davis said. "That's what we believe the Bible teaches us is right."

Calvary sponsors many programs designed to uplift not only the African American community, but also to help build bridges with the rest of society. The church sponsors subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled. Only a handful of the residents in Calvary Tower, the church's low-income housing complex, are congregation members.

"I trust two people in this world," said 78-year-old Patsy Moore, who is able to maintain her independence because Calvary rents her an apartment for a mere $275 a month. "That's my eldest son and Pastor Davis."

Every Sunday morning, members team up with believers from a local predominately-Hispanic church to feed the homeless at Pioneer Park.

As volunteers dish up chili and hot dogs, biscuits and traditional Mexican soup, a recording of Calvary's distinctive choir plays in the background. A line snakes through the trees and around the playground, where some have stowed their clothing and bedding underneath the slide for safekeeping.

"They're my family," says one volunteer, Mary Daniels, 63, of her fellow believers at Calvary Baptist Church.

Says another man, a non-believer with black leather skin and gnarled yellow nails, tapping his cane against the sidewalk, "I don't have much use for church. I don't need the food. I come here every Sunday because of my people. The black people. My people are here."

Member, nonmember, black, white, brown — Calvary Baptist doesn't care.

Davis prays for them all.

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com, TWITTER: elizMstuart

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS