Membership In the Black Church Holds Strong

4798 Having grown up in Lafayette, Kathleen Tandy has been a member of Bethel AME Church since the 1960s. The only times she didn't attend regularly were when she served in the military or lived in Indianapolis. But Bethel always felt like home, even when she was away.
"I still considered that as my church, the whole time I was in the military," said Tandy, 68, of Lafayette. "I'm used to a small church. You don't feel like a number. It's that closeness (and) genuine concern and love for one another. That's what I missed when I was away from home, my church."

Although religious affiliation has decreased among white evangelical and mainline churches from 2007 to 2012, it has stayed relatively steady for the black Protestant church, according to a report released last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The percentage of white evangelical Protestant Christians dropped from 21 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to 19 percent in 2012. Among white mainline Protestants, the percentage of affiliation dropped from 18 to 15 percent from 2007 to 2012. However, 8 percent or 9 percent of U.S. adults reported affiliation to the black Protestant church for the entire five years.

Religious and sociology experts say the report does not confirm that the black church is immune to affiliation decline but instead highlights the heightened religiosity of African Americans and the historical significance of the black church as the center of cultural community, political action and a space to articulate their humanity in the face of oppression.

"The short answer is that the church still serves the primary social, political and psychic needs of African Americans while white evangelicals have turned to other organizations to respond to these needs," said Joseph Tucker Edmonds, assistant professor of Africana Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Several local church leaders agreed.

"Based on what I've seen and the years I've been serving, for the large number of African Americans in this country, religion has always played an important role," said the Rev. Shonda Gladden, senior pastor of Bethel AME Church in Lafayette. "For a good majority of blacks, church is still an institution of importance."

She told the Journal & Courier ( ) the church is a way for African Americans to find community, especially in a transient society such as Greater Lafayette.

The Rev. Willie Thompson, senior pastor of Abundant Love Outreach Church in Lafayette, said the church still serves the familial, social and spiritual needs of the black community.

"For the average African American, spiritual (and family) connections lie within the church," he said. "The meaning is more of a family atmosphere as we come to be a part of one another as we worship and praise God together."

The Rev. Tamecia Jones, associate minister at Bethel AME, said faith has been a historically integral part of the African American community. It has promoted a sense of community as well as a center for civic action, often addressing the needs of the local black community with job training, fatherhood or re-entry programs to help former prisoners transition into society.

Tucker Edmonds said the church is a place for blacks to enact an activist agenda, "especially during the current moment, when the political and social standing of African Americans seems precarious with the rise of mass incarceration, continued questions concerning access to voting and the end of affirmative action."

Jason Shelton, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the theology of Christianity hinges on helping the marginalized, which resonates with many African Americans.

"You get this message of social justice in the African American churches that you don't get in white churches," he said. "Sometimes white churches preach this but sometimes they don't, but it is always preached in African American churches."

Shelton said blacks also have a heightened degree of religiosity, which he addresses in his book, "Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions," released last October.

Even among all Christian Protestants, African Americans go to church more often and are more likely to interpret the Bible literally than white protestants, he said.

"What we argue in the book is that in essence, African Americans lean on their faith to get through the trials and tribulations in their daily lives," he said.

This doesn't mean that white Protestants don't rely on their faith, because they do, but dating back to slavery, African Americans have looked to God to deliver them from slavery and segregation, so when it happens, it affirms that role of faith, he explained.

"The black church has been a critical part of our experience, it has been the cornerstone that held the community together and the church was the chief institution of fighting for racial equality," he said.

However, this sentiment might not resonate with younger generations of African Americans who have matured in a more racially tolerant society.

They may have a different perception of racial equality, he added.

If the sense is that we have already achieved the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, we have yet to see what will happen in the future, he said.

Source: The AP | TAYA FLORES
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