The Black Church and Community Development and Self-Help: The Next Phase of Social Equality

By Littlefield, Marci Bounds | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Black Church and Community Development and Self-Help: The Next Phase of Social Equality


Littlefield, Marci Bounds, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

"There exists what is called 'The Black Church' is crosses denominational boundaries and is without a formal structure. Yet it is a reality cherished by many Black Christians, who feel at ease joining in prayer and in Christian action with one another. This Black church is a result of our common experience and history had made it possible for many Blacks to understand and appreciate each other." (Cone, 1969)

This church is responsible for creating a community which offers social acceptance, moral, cultural and financial support all embodied in a common worship experience. The church for African Americans is a source of freedom, a place, which has significantly participated in historical liberation. This participation is universal in the United States and is imperative in any analysis of the church and African Americans. Thus the church cannot be understood apart from the social and historical context of its foundation. The reality of racism and discrimination birthed this most effective, and highly criticized institution in the lives of African Americans.

Religion in Black Churches has always included the politics of liberation as part of the worship experience. Historically the Black church developed in response to the racism in society and represented an opportunity for African Americans to worship, congregate and organize. Often this organization during slavery became a place to assemble insurrections, disseminate anti-slavery information, educate the slaves and hide fugitive slaves. Hence liberation was part of the original doctrine of the church and in many ways defined Black religion. Thus the development of the Black church and its constant role in initiating change in the lives of African Americans represents the radical nature of religion and how this type of radicalism translates into self-help and social change.

Self-help, defined as a value system which demands that the victims of oppression change their circumstances, was a part of the church's agenda. This agenda created an oppositional subculture and competing discourses within the hegemonic culture. This oppositional culture created by the Black church through self-help in three primary areas 1) civil rights, 2) education and 3) self-employment which gave African Americans the opportunity to reinterpret their social space and carve out a new existence which included freedom. In essence, the church is a representation of the African American community because it embodies the beliefs, values, struggles and culture of people of African descent. The Black church is a representation of this community and it crosses class and geographic lines and is part of this tradition of social reform, community activism and spiritual renewal.

The Early Black Church

In practice the black church was formed because the extreme system of racial oppression and segregation did not permit interracial worship. Consequently, slave owners made allowances for their slaves to attend, congregate and hold separate worship services to carry out Christian practices (Frazier, 1964). For the slaves the church was the only vehicle where they could exercise a measure of autonomy. In a system, which dehumanized the slaves in every arena, the church was a place to gain self-esteem, encouragement and skills. The church was a place for survival and it was here that the practice of self-help began. "The origins of the black self-help tradition were found in the attempts of slaves to help each other survive the traumas and terrors of the plantation system in any way they could." (Lincoln and Mamiya, 1990:242)

As an organization, the Black church was an independent institution funded by its membership. The black church promoted economic independence and self-sufficiency as a liberation strategy for the African American community. In the black church there was a common view which held that real freedom only comes with the attainment of a measure of economic independence and creation of an independent economic base. …

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