On a recent Sunday, a small group of black activists and religious leaders stood in front of a local Los Angeles church.
They issued a challenge to black ministers in Los Angeles. The challenge was to break their silence on the crisis problems that sledgehammer thousands of their congregants.
Legions of those who sit in the pews and benches of the countless black churches in the city either themselves or have family members or close acquaintances who are homeless, unemployed, face eviction, have no or inadequate health care, have been stopped, harassed and profiled by police on the streets, have been incarcerated, or are on parole or probation. Worse, many have had a family member or friend slain by police.
The police killings of blacks was underscored by a report the very week the groups made their call. Despite the mass protests after the police slaying of Michael Brown five years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, the report found that the police killing of blacks has continued unabated.
Those gunned down have been mostly, poor, young unarmed black males. The stone silence of many local black ministers on this crisis issue was painfully glaring following the slaying of Ryan Twyman, who was unarmed, by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies in July.
Afterwards, the Sheriff’s Department issued a statement of condolence on the killing. Yet, not one local black minister did as much.
Such an expression of regret by a local black minister would have sent a powerful message that at least one church leader cared about the loss of this black life. This could have served to spur other black ministers to do the same.
The brutal reality is that the blacks who sit in these churches and suffer many of the towering racial and economic ills that plague black communities weekly fill up church baskets with their hard-earned dollars. In some cases, those dollars provide comfortable, even opulent lifestyles, for some of these ministers, many who live far removed from the daily struggles of many of their congregants.
Their congregants are still big in number. While much has been written about the supposed turn off of religion and from the church by many blacks, the black church is still far and away the institution of record in black communities.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life a decade ago, found that blacks “are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole.” By a big margin blacks said that religion is “very important in their life.”
The Pew Survey also found that blacks spent far more time in church than any other group.
The black minister is seen as a combination leader, advisor and confidant. His word is both gospel and law for many blacks.
That imposes a special leadership duty and obligation on ministers. Many have badly shirked that duty.
Some play it safe with the belief that their role is solely to save souls and provide personal spiritual comfort. Some fear that taking any kind of stand on a social issue will jeopardize their collection plate. Still others fear offending those within and without their congregation by being perceived as “too political.”
The irony is that there is no such reluctance to engage in political and social issues on the part of many white evangelical ministers. They have been unabashed in backing the Republican Party and that includes President Donald Trump.
They have not retreated behind biblical teachings and have mobilized their congregations to make calls, write letters, send emails and march and rally on issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage as well as a litany of other local issues.
There was a time when many black ministers opened their churches wide for organizing civil rights, voting rights, anti-police abuse and anti-poverty campaigns. They prodded their congregants to become engaged and involved in social justice movements.
Black churches were the target of threats and physical attacks that included fire bombings. The attacks were perverse recognition of the power of black churches to stir large numbers of African Americans to combat racial and economic injustice.
But even then, there were many ministers through fear, intimidation or a narrow take on what the minister’s role should be, that took no part in those actions. This inaction and terrible, self-serving read of the mandate of religion, deeply pained the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In his famed letter from a Birmingham Jail, in April 1963, he took those churchmen, white and black, head on when he railed against what he called” the laxity of the church.”
He leveled this indictment of the silent ministers. “I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
King’s admonition to ministers to speak out against social injustice and be a true comforter to God’s flock is as compelling in the Trump era as it was then. It’s time for L.A.’s black ministers to break their silence.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Who Can Beat Trump? America’s Choice 2020.” He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.