This post was originally published on Defender Network

By Aswad Walker

There are countless conversations we can have about various aspects of the Black Church. But right here, right now, we’re going to focus on what I believe are the Top 7 Most Sanctified Black Church Moments.” “Sanctified” means “set apart, holy, consecrated.” So, we’re talking about some pretty dynamic and game-changing moments in the history of the Black Church in the U.S.

Let us know what you think of this list. What did we get right? What did we get wrong? What moments did we leave off? We love feedback, so please send it to me at aswad@defendernetwork.com. And let the church say, “Amen!”

#7: Hush Harbors

During the enslavement of our people, originally, there was a big debate about whether or not to let Blackfolk in the church. Those who voted to keep us out did so for several reasons. One, some of them believed we had no souls because we were “barely human,” if at all. Others figured that baptizing Blackfolk would, by the teachings of the faith, make all involved one with Christ and equal in the eyes of the Lord. And that couldn’t stand, because equality would destroy their cashflow built on the back of human trafficking and stolen labor/lives/wealth. Others reasoned that the enslaved would then have to learn how to read, and their entire system required keep the enslaved as “ignorant” as possible. Still, others feared enslaved Blacks would find inspiration in the scriptures to fight for their freedom. It wasn’t until the Haitian Revolution that started in the late 1790s and ended around 1804 that whitefolk in mass were ready to open wide the church doors. Why?

Those who “owned” our ancestors feared that the success of our cousins in Haiti in taking their freedom by violent force would inspire Blackfolk in the U.S. to do the same, and these “owners” could best control their enslaved by bringing them into the church and teaching them a brand of Christianity that would equate obedience to “massa” with obedience to God, that God had ordained Blackfolk to be enslaved and that only the obedient enslaved person would get their heavenly reward after death. So, Blackfolk were let in the doors of the church, sat in segregated sections, and heard a gazillion sermons that all basically said the same thing: “slave, be obedient to your master.” But, unknown to the truly ignorant folk on the plantation (the so-called “owners”), African people were the first to recognize there was a power greater than ourselves, the first to devise the spiritual technology we call prayer and the first to create spiritual systems we call religions.

Nat Turner. Artist’s rendering.

African people had been relating to, calling on, and relying upon this invisible creator of all things for thousands of years before Europe was even a thing. So, as our enslaved ancestors sat in this plantation (enslaved labor camp) churches, being preached down to, something inside them so strong demanded that they worship in the way of their ancestors. So, risking their lives and well-being, these enslaved sisters and brothers began sneaking away on Sunday afternoons and evening to go out to the forests and swamps and hold worship services of their own. Some historians call them the Hush Harbors. Others label them the Invisible Institution. Whatever name you choose, these ongoing acts of spiritual defiance were bold acts of agency by our foremothers and forefathers. These acts reflected the fact that even though we heard constant messages meant to blind us to our inherent worth and connection to God during those “massa-led” services, we fought to reject that nonsense and to nurture our own relationship with the Great I AM.

#6: Founding of Black Churches and Denominations

Even while our ancestors were enslaved, they pushed to control their own religious institutions. The most well-known of these is the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church founded by Bishop Richard Allen. Allen had, for a long time, advocated for Blacks to start their own denomination. He and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society that was not only a mutual aid society (more on that in a minute), but a breeding ground for Black confidence and aspirations. However, many of Allen’s contemporaries in Philadelphia feared such a move would—and stop me if you’ve heard this concern before—make white people mad. So, Blackfolk continued attending the status quo, segregated Methodist worship services.

Bishop Richard Allen (left), African Methodist Episcopal Church founder, and Absalom Jones (right), who became the first African American Episcopal priest in 1804 (The Mitchell Collection of African-American History)

But one fine Sunday, Allen and Jones decided to pray in the “white only” section of the church, and they were literally thrown out of the service by the good, white Christian folk of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. It was then, that Jones and others came around to Allen’s position. Allen founded Bethel Church. Jones founded his own. Suddenly, there were Black churches popping up all around the region. These congregations then decided to join under one banner—African Methodist Episcopal.

The CME church, originally named Colored Methodist Episcopal, was founded not too long afterward. But, just like participating in the Invisible Institution (Hush Harbors), stepping out from under white religious control to form their/our own denominations took courage. That sounds pretty sanctified to me.

#5: Birth of Black Businesses and Education Centers

Every Black business operating today owes a debt of gratitude to the Black Church. For it was there that our first businesses were founded. Mortuaries, insurance companies, and more were literally birthed in the church. And the funding to start other businesses came from the pockets of church-going Blackfolk. And when it was against the law for Blackfolk to read, many Black churches and church leaders risked life and limb to teach their congregant this critical skill anyway. And after we were “allowed” to read, the Black Church was still central to our education. Black churches served as the first classrooms and school houses for our people. And that makes sense, because there was a time when we looked upon getting an education as a religious obligation.

#4: Mutual Aid Societies

Have you ever wondered where the Benevolence Offering came from? It came from the communal “I am because we are” nature of the Black Church (a communal nature that we brought with us from Africa). Congregations full of enslaved and later sharecropping Blackfolk, would literally put their pennies together so that funeral services could be covered for anyone (especially widows and orphans) unable to send their loved ones off to glory properly. These efforts became institutionalized under the term “Mutual Aid Societies.” These societies expanded their services to providing financial help for other issues besides burials. The idea was “We’ll all give, and whoever finds themselves in need due to some unforeseen tragedy or circumstance, would receive the funds” for that week or month. Today’s Benevolence Offering works on the same premise, a premise that was foundational to the birth of the first church as founded by the disciples of Jesus: “Give as you are able, and receive as you have need.”

#3: Safe Harbor

Merriam-Webster literally defines “safe harbor” as “something or some place that provides protection.” On May 21, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama’s First Baptist Church was exactly that—a safe harbor. For a mob of white domestic terrorists surrounded the church, which was playing host to a meeting organized by Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and attended by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to show support for Freedom Riders who arrived in Montgomery the day before and were met by a white mob of hundreds armed with bats, pipes, and hammers.

As the service began, the number of white domestic terrorists surrounding the church grew. These thugs vandalized parked cars and threw bricks and other objects at the church, while screaming death threats to those who gathered in peace inside the church.

As shared on the website of the Equal Justice Initiative, “As the surrounding mob grew larger and more violent, Dr. King called U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from the church’s basement and requested help. Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals to dispel the riot; the growing mob pelted (the U.S. Marshals) with bricks and bottles and the marshals responded with tear gas. When police arrived to assist the marshals, the mob broke into smaller groups and overturned cars, attacked Black homes with bullets and firebombs, and assaulted Black people in the streets.”

The idea that the “Black Church,” as in all Black churches, were part of the Civil Rights Movement, is erroneous. Certainly, some lent their buildings, members, and resources to the struggle for equality. However, for every one that supported the movement by being a “safe harbor” in multiple ways, there were several that chose to do nothing. Montgomery’s First Baptist Church earned them the title of safe harbor.

 

A minister standing in front of the Black Madonna and Child mural painted by the late Glanton Dowdell.

#2: Unveiling of the Black Madonna & Child Mural

On March 26, 1967, Easter Sunday, the Detroit church known then as Central Congregational Church (now the Shrine), unveiled an 18-foot mural of Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms. This event, that on the surface doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking, actually made national news because Mary and Jesus were Black. Painted by the late Glanton Dowdell, the mural was the brainchild of the church’s pastor, Rev. Albert B. Cleage, who would later come to be known as the “Father of Black Liberation Theology.” Cleage and his Black Madonna mural were featured in national magazines and written about in newspapers all over Michigan and far beyond. People, both Black and white, wondered what on earth would possess a pastor and a church to unveil a Black Madonna and child?

Cleage caught unimaginable flack and ridicule for the bold statement. Still, Cleage stuck to his defense that the artist merely painted Jesus and Mary in the way they were historically—as Black. Fast-forward to 2022, and some of the same Black preachers who chastised Cleage for the move now have Black Madonnas and other Black religious iconography adorning their churches, websites, and materials. What’s more sanctified than stepping out on faith, taking bold actions, and letting truth speak for itself?

#1: When the Church was Founded at Pentecost

The season on the Christian calendar known as Pentecost traces its roots back to the ancient Hebrews’ Festival of First Fruits. By tradition, Hebrews from the diaspora would return to the holy city of Jerusalem for the festivities. It was within this context that the disciples of Jesus, who had scattered, many of whom returned to their respective home towns, now came back to Jerusalem. While there, according to scripture, they began meeting regularly in the “Upper Room.” There, they broke bread, recounted the miracles of their master teacher, Jesus, and, as theorized by several biblical scholars, cried, admitted where they fell short of honoring the teachings of Jesus, forgave each other, and recommitted themselves to their divine calling. And as they confront each other and themselves, and as they reformulated their bonds, the Bible says they were visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of “the rush of a mighty wind” that entered the room and “tongues of fire that rested above each of their heads.” And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. From there, they went out into the streets, and filled with the spirit, preached so boldly that 5,000 joined, followed by 3,000 more the next day. It was this experience that scholars point to as the founding of the Christian Church.

But what does this have to do with the Black Church? Well, geographically, the vast majority of the Bible story takes place in what the ancient world knew as “Ethiopia,” a land that included not only the continent of Africa but what folk today call the “Middle East” and extending east all the way to India. Chronologically, over 1,500 years of biblical history had already taken place before the first Europeans even entered the region via Egypt, with the arrival of Alexander the “Greek” (he wasn’t great for this ancient Africans). In other words, from “Adam,” “Eve,” Moses, Isaiah, Ruth, Jael, etc., the region known now as the Holy Land, was dominated by people we would today consider Third Ward, Fifth Ward and Acres Homes Black. Biblically, Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is said to have come from Ur of Chaldea. Quick— Google the ancient Chaldeans, or the modern-day Chaldeans, and tell me what you see. I’ll wait.

See what I mean. And long story long, Abraham’s descendants eventually found their way to Egypt where the Bible says they lived for over 400 years. And even the most anti-CRT scholars know that the ancient Egyptians were Black-Black. Hell, the ancient Egyptians say their “people” (i.e. great, great, great grandparents) came from Nubia, which is the modern-day Sudan, home to the tallest and darkest people on planet Earth.

Now, if Abraham’s people weren’t Black before their 400-year layover in Egypt, they were sho-nuff Black when Moses led them out of Egypt, marching towards the Promised Land. And hundreds of years later, when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to save their baby’s life, they went to a place where they would blend in, not stand out like a sore thumb. That’s probably why scripture describes someone we know and love as having “skin the color of burnt brass” and “hair like lamb’s wool.”

And ancestor veneration is all throughout the Bible. Maybe the only thing blacker in scripture is Cain’s reaction to God’s punishment of him after Cain killed his brother Abel. God essentially told Cain, “You don’t have to go home, but you’ve got to get the hell outta here.” Cain replied, “I would rather you had killed me, for this punishment is more than I can bear.” For African people, community and connection was everything. So, disconnection from their group/family/nation was viewed as a fate worse than death.

Thus, however you look at it—geographically, chronologically/historically or biblically—when we’re talking about Christianity and its founders, we’re looking in the mirror. Hence, when the disciples of Jesus founded that first church, they were participating in the most sanctified Black Church moment of them all. Can I get an Amen?