Born Again

It's Tuesday night at the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, and Jawanza Kunjufu is conducting his weekly "Black Liberation Workshop." Kunjufu, author of books such as Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, is an active member of Trinity and an uncompromising black nationalist.Not long ago, such a combination would have been considered an oxymoron. Nationalists regarded Christianity with suspicion at best, and many denounced it outright as a tool of white oppression designed to sap the spirit of black rebellion. But things have changed. This is not your father's black church.Participants in Kunjufu's workshops at Trinity do everything from discuss current books by black authors to develop strategies to improve their community. One such strategy is the church's outreach programs, in which groups of black men blanket high-crime areas, confronting local youth face to face and counseling them about the educational and employment opportunities that the church offers."You'd really be surprised at just how effective that technique has been," Kunjufu says. "By meeting them on their turf, on their terms, we show them respect and they appreciate that. But we also show them that we're not intimidated by their swagger -- that church men are strong and assertive. We've pulled in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of youth off the street and into programs using this process."The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is Trinity's pastor and the prime mover behind the church's innovative, aggressive approach to community empowerment. He is one of many Christian preachers who subscribe to a kind of "liberation theology." Kunjufu explains: "There are three types of churches: entertainment, which are all music, shouting and emotionalism; containment, which are open only on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m; and liberation, which is the only effective church. Liberation churches are driven by theology that requires Christians to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and free the captives."By actively addressing an array of social and political issues affecting African-Americans, Trinity has earned considerable notice. With a membership of more than 7,000, it is one of Chicago's fastest-growing congregations, drawing its parishioners primarily from the ranks of the educated middle class.Chicago is home to other black churches with a similar agenda. A few blocks southwest of Trinity, for example, is the Fernwood United Methodist Church, the headquarters of the Million Man March's Local Organization Committee, which has remained active in community issues since the October 1995 march.Chicago is far from unique. Black churches across the country are defying stereotypes and attracting baby boomers weaned on '60s activism. This marks a remarkable change from the radical ideas of that era that equated Christianity with submission. For many black activists, Christianity not only was "the opiate of the masses" that Marxists denounced, it was also -- with its overwhelmingly European icons -- an instrument of white supremacy.That judgment had been a strong undercurrent in black nationalism since at least 1887, when Edward W. Blyden, a Liberian author who inspired the Pan-African movement, published Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Blyden, himself a Christian minister who later converted to Islam, concluded that "Christianity had stymied and thwarted the development of the Negro."Although nationalists bemoaned Christianity's pacific influence, they often overlooked the black church's capacity to cultivate the seeds of dissent: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser were all Christian preachers who led slave insurrections. Other historical figures combined aspects of Christian doctrine with their notions of racial redemption. Bishop Henry Turner, for example, was a prominent African nationalist and a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal church. Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association was the largest black nationalist group in history, established the African Orthodox Church, which was a kind of Christianity with black faces.Although the church played a crucial role during the civil rights struggle, '60s activists made a decided turn away from the Christian tradition that had nurtured previous generations. That shift can be attributed in large part to the influence of Malcolm X, the eloquent black orator who represented Elijah Muhammad's rabidly anti-Christian Nation of Islam for most of his public years. Malcolm regularly ridiculed "jack-leg preachers" for doing the bidding of "blue-eyed devils."Ironically, the NOI's black-nationalist orientation has been a major influence in altering the contemporary face of black Christianity, a change which partially accounts for its current dynamism. Many of the so-called "liberation churches" borrow heavily from the NOI's structure. Their men's divisions, for example, are often deliberately patterned after the Nation's "Fruit of Islam" security force. Responding to criticism of blacks venerating European images of divinity, most of these churches now display religious icons of a darker hue while Afrocentric motifs increasingly dominate church decor.The NOI has also served more directly as a catalyst for a new wave of Christian activism. When Minister Louis Farrakhan called for the Million Man March two years ago, he immediately put traditional black leadership on the defensive. Eight months before the scheduled march, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called more than 200 high-powered black ministers together for a strategy meeting. "We must go on the moral offensive," Jackson told the assembled group. "It is up to preachers to take up the cross of leadership and education and bring America back to the moral center."Jackson, who had not yet jumped on the march bandwagon, was trying to revive a seemingly moribund Christian movement in order to fend off the challenge of Farrakhan's growing influence. Ultimately, however, the enormous popularity of the march revealed that black America was dissatisfied with the inability of traditional black leaders to respond effectively to the racism entrenched in American society.Farrakhan's ascension to the top ranks of leadership troubled many who considered him an enemy of Christianity. The recent transformation of the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and the former head of the NAACP, to Minister Benjamin Muhammad of the NOI will do little to ease the worries of church officials.As it turned out, the vast majority of the men at the Washington march were and remained Christians, and many returned home determined to increase their involvement in community-building. Because of its history and ubiquity, the black church provides the ideal venue for community work. Many churches have returned to the old tradition of building homes and schools and pooling economic resources."Put simply, the thousands of young blacks returning to the nation's 65,000 black churches truly constituted, as the Washington Post stated, 'a movement sweeping through black middle-class congregations,' " writes Beverly Hall Lawrence in her 1996 book, Reviving the Spirit: A Generation of African-Americans Goes Home to Church.While it's difficult to gather hard statistics on the issue, Lawrence is convinced by anecdotal accounts, her own reporting and the available data that black church membership is going up. "African-Americans are part of the larger return of baby boomers to religion," she notes.The influx of black congregates is also changing the nature of the black church. "The coming-to-church-for-personal-salvation-only days are over," Lawrence writes. "Now we are looking not only for personal salvation but social salvation." The challenges of the church have become more secular in response to the new concerns of its booming membership. "My generation sees little separation between the traditional spiritual function of the church and the need for black political and economic parity," Lawrence adds.Lawrence's argument reinforces the notion that the growth of the church is related to a turn toward black self-reliance and nationalism. "Unlike traditional civil right organizations, the church does not depend on white corporate money or government dollars to survive," she writes. "The black church is funded solely by the black community."Lawrence offers the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore as a prime example of her argument. In 1990, Newsweek ranked Bethel as one of the five fastest-growing congregations, black or white, in America. Bethel's membership climbed from 310 in 1975 to nearly 10,000 in 1996, and, Lawrence reveals, it is the nerve center of much of Baltimore's black politics. The church's pastor, the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, is one of the city's most influential voices.Bethel's success is extraordinary, but many other black churches have enjoyed similar, if more modest, bursts of growth in recent years. Their congregations, too, are demanding more social and political engagement. In an age when politicians of both parties demean the social role of government, the black church is becoming more important as an anchor of both social relief and economic development.In January, leaders of the eight major black denominations met at the Congress of National Black Churches in Charlotte, N.C., and resolved to expand their efforts at job training and placement, to encourage entrepreneurial development, and to ensure that black students are educated to work with computers and information technology. "It seems clear that the government is getting out of the job-training and safety- net business," said Bishop Roy Winbus, the Congress's chairman. "So it looks like we're going to have to pick up the slack."

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