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Asking the Clergy: What is the future of historically Black churches?

From left, Rev. Marjorie Nunes of Hicksville United

From left, Rev. Marjorie Nunes of Hicksville United Methodist Church, the Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr. of Church-in-the-Garden, and the Rev. Henrietta Scott Fullard of the Long Island District, African Methodist Episcopal Churches. Credit: Howard Schnapp; Church-in-the-Garden; African Methodist Episcopal Churches

A new Pew Research Center survey of faith among Black Americans finds that while 60% of African American adults who go to religious services worship in predominantly Black congregations, "young Black adults are less religious and less engaged in Black churches than older generations." This week’s clergy discuss how historically Black churches can continue to fulfill their role as important spaces for worship and civic activity in Black communities.

The Rev. Henrietta Scott Fullard

Presiding elder (retired), Long Island District, African Methodist Episcopal Churches

The younger generation of African Americans has begun to look beyond the segregated Sunday mornings spoken of by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

To keep youth in our pews, we need to re-imagine Scripture in a way that will give the younger generations an opportunity to say, "I got that." I call this Generational Theology. For example, we might focus on the story of Joshua, the successor to Moses, who led his own generation out of the wilderness, into the promised land. Joshua told them that although they had not gone that way before, if they followed God, God would lead them. (Joshua 3:4)

Black churches have played a central role in our shared history. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent Protestant denomination to be founded by Black people, was established in the late 1790s, after Black people were pulled in mid-prayer out of a white-majority church. In the ensuing centuries, the church became a powerful force against racism and for the cause of freedom and civil rights.

We need to remind the next generation of the important role young churchgoers can continue to play in ongoing racial justice movements.

The Rev. Marjorie Nunes

Hicksville United Methodist Church

Historically, Black churches were not only offering the teachings of Christianity, but they were faithfully relied upon to address specific issues, social or political, that affected their members.

Nineteenth-century Black churches ministered to the needs of the soul and community. Church buildings were often used as community meeting centers and schools until permanent structures could be built, and during Reconstruction they served as political halls.

The 21st century Black church is at a crossroads. Many in the younger generation argue that the Black church needs to engage in more social and political activism. But those who know the history must pass it on. Scripture tells us, "Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them." (Deuteronomy 4:9) That’s our responsibility.

The Black church will go through changes, but it will continue to be a source of hope and strength for the African American community.

The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr.

Pastor, Church-in-the-Garden, Garden City

I’m the pastor of a racially and ethnically diverse American Baptist congregation, but I grew up and was licensed and ordained in a Black Baptist church.

Begun as a counter to the sinful racist society and power structure that enslaved and oppressed (and still oppresses) people of color, the Black church provided the needed resources and programs for countless communities. It helped bolster crucial movements that changed this nation.

If the past is prologue, the Black church’s future must live up to the mandate of Christ. Remember, the ministry of Jesus addresses the critical issues of this present age and supplies the needs we lack. It will take re-imagining by church folk and our church leaders on what the Black church may look like moving forward. We have to be willing to partner with groups and movements that are struggling for the equitable inclusion of all people — and particularly those on the margins of society.

If Black churches fail to meet the people’s genuine needs, they will ultimately falter and fail. However, if historically Black churches continue to apply Jesus Christ’s progressive mission of inclusionary love for all God’s people and speak to this generation’s relevant needs, the future is bright.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com.

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