This story is part of a series that spotlights the influence of religion in the Black community and the faith-based organizations working to inspire hope and wellness.
From book bans to eliminating critical race theory in schools — much of modern life in the United States centers on silencing Black voices and erasing our history and experiences. It is rooted in anti-Blackness.
But Houston-based journalist Aswad Walker says he’s found a faith community that brings joy and empowerment to Black folks through the Pan-African Orthodox Church, more commonly known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
Led nationally by Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr., the Shrine of the Black Madonna has long been known for its Pan-Africanism and civil rights work.
“The theology of our church is heavily influenced by Marcus Garvey, who a lot of people don’t realize was a powerful theologian,” Walker says. “Our denominational name — Pan African Orthodox Christian — is really a shout-out to the church that is most associated with Garvey — the African Orthodox Church.”
Walker has been a part of the Shrine of the Black Madonna since 1990 and serves as an associate pastor, sharing the church’s teachings in Houston, Atlanta, and throughout South Carolina.
It’s “more of a movement than a church,” he says.
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that roughly three-quarters of Black adult participants believe Black churches have played a role in helping Black people move toward equality — and the Shrine of the Black Madonna is no different.
The church regularly organizes and hosts social justice-oriented events to inspire and mobilize the Black community. Walker says the Houston-based church organizes a weekly food giveaway that helps feed an average of 400 families. The church’s Buy Black Marketplace, which has operated in Houston for nearly 10 years, is also rooted in Black organizing and civil rights.
Walker explains, “When Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, and brother and sister left and right were being killed, at our bookstore people would come and say ‘I feel so helpless I feel like there’s nothing we can do.’ The Buy Black Marketplace was a way for our people to use our dollars to protest injustice by supporting Black businesses.”
According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, folks who believe they are “cared for by a loving divinity” are more likely to have higher self-esteem and fewer instances of depression and anxiety. The Shrine of the Black Madonna espouses that faith, devotion to God, and self-love are all interconnected.
The church teaches folks to turn away from “slave-master” teachings of faith which promote continued oppression and self-subjugation in the Black community. Instead, the Shrine of the Black Madonna believes Black folk must believe they are deserving of respect, justice, and equality.
Walker says some people believe that “God has a soft spot in her heart for people who are downtrodden, so the more you are abused, the more God is for you.”
However, both Marcus Garvey and Shrine of the Black Madonna leader “Cleage said that is insane,” explains Walker
“If we believe that we are equal to all people, then God is not going to reward us for getting our butts kicked all the time. God expects us to show our beauty, our creativity, our intelligence. God expects that of us. We’ve got the ability to make the kind of world that our ancestors would be proud of and that our children and our elders deserve.”
As part of his devotion to his faith, Walker, who is also a lecturer in the University of Houston’s Department of African American Studies, is required to study Black history and culture so that he can teach it to others and inspire them to believe in their own power.
“My faith demands that I study my history, that I learn it, and that I teach it. What I’ve found is that people who do that feel much better about themselves and, hence, they have more love and respect for people who don’t look like them,” Walker says.
No matter which religion you follow, Walker says all faiths are rooted in Black culture, and in order to respect religion, we must respect Black history as well.
“One of my mentors said, as a Black person, you can practice Christianity, Buddhism, whatever, and be confident that your ancestors were practicing that same faith,” Walker says. Instead of dwelling on or creating divisions, we have to work together. We must “figure out how we can make this world one where folk are living in harmony, righteousness, where we all have access to justice and equality,” Walker says.