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State of the black church in Oakland is at crossroads, local leaders say

on February 3, 2016

In Oakland, the state of the black church is at a crossroads, local leaders said.

Religious and civic leaders gathered in downtown Oakland last Wednesday for a prayer breakfast to discuss the state of the black church and political participation in the African American community. The event, sponsored by Black Elected Officials & Faith Based Leaders of the East Bay (BEO-FBL), was attended by over 50 people and ranged over issues from policing to gun violence to education. “I felt that it was a good starting point,” said Reverend Doctor Martha Taylor of Allen Temple Baptist Church. “A lot of different points were covered today in reference to the visibility of the black church in the community.”

African American churches were seen as critical players in the success of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In addition to being a place to convene for large gatherings, the church educated voters on civil disobedience and voting rights. Today, church enrollment has dropped, and with it, many feel, so has participation in the political process. This trend is also reflected overall in church-going populations. According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, from 1965 to 1988, mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million worshippers, then fell to 21 million in 2005.

Still, because of its size and geographic dispersion, many people underestimate the diversity and scope of African American churches. “When we talk about the black church, it’s not monolithic. It’s driven by the personality of the pastor,” Taylor said. “We need to start from that perspective. It’s a learning process. It’s a teaching process.”

One of the major discussion points during the panel was about how the church community is less unified today than it was in the 1960s. Taylor believes this “splintering” effect has prevented church and community leaders from coming together on issues that pertain to citizens. Many churchgoers feel that politicians only show up around election time, and don’t regularly work with the citizens to make improvements. “It’s not a ‘them and us’ kind of thing,” she said. “It’s not elected officials just coming to the black church when it’s time for elections and not representing the needs of its members.”

Marlon McWilson, the BEO Vice Chair/Chaplain and an Alameda County Board of Education trustee, who moderated the panel, believes that church enrollment has dropped because of a fracturing in church leadership. “You used to have a pastor in the community and he used to have 10 pastors underneath that served in different areas, and now everyone wants to have their own church,” he said.

Many participants in the audience questioned the efficacy of these panels in solving the problem. McWilson went on to address this issue. “Panels are important, but they are only important if there are actions that follow them,” he said.

He believes these panels are important in trying to stimulate discussion and action in Oakland. “If this panel stops here, it would be worth nothing,” he said. “But because there will be action that happens thereafter, it holds some significance, and relationships and conversations from today will move the needle.”

The major topic of discussion at the event was increased awareness of political challenges for young African Americans. According to the Alameda County Probation Department, in 2010, African American youth made up a disproportionate number of the people in the county’s juvenile justice system (55 percent, although they make up only 35 percent of the county population).

“Our youth comes with so much PTSD and other issues. How and what they are communicating is sometimes lost in their anger,” McWilson said. He and other panelists believe that communication is the key to tapping into the leadership potential of disaffected young people. “Martin was young, Malcolm was young, Stokely Carmichael was young,” he said referring to great civil rights leaders. “We have to get out of our own way and strip the pride away and deal with our youth.”

McWilson says that the church must get back to fully harnessing its resources as it did in the 1960s. “The reality is we have to get out of the mindset that the church is only the four walls,” he said. “Church is where you are.” He and other audience members said the church can be used to hold community meetings and host more engagement opportunities on days other than Sunday. “How do we get to using the church the other five days of the week so we are serving the community?” he asked. “We have to get back to that model.”

Pastor Anthony Jenkins of the Taylor Methodist Church said he believes that faith leaders themselves must be part of this change by connecting with their constituents on a personal level. “I see that appetite of wanting to have employment. I see that appetite of wanting to have self-worth,” he said. “We as faith leaders must come with a genuineness—we must have genuine stories to say that change can happen.”

Jenkins said that this conversation must start with faith leaders using this dialogue to ameliorate the challenges affecting the community, and that education is the central component of this change. “Pain is genuine and healing is genuine, so we have to come and recognize both of those processes,” he said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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