It is instructive for Americans to look at the impact African-American people of faith have on society and on religious life. We can learn something about congregational life, and we can appreciate faith lived out by these fellow believers. Like many of our readers, I have discovered much that I appreciate in African-American congregations.
Many African-Americans and their clergy seem to more readily integrate their faith into other areas of life than some of us in other traditions. In urban areas, they express faith by giving attention to pressing life concerns like housing, poverty, health care, crime, violence and addictions, to name a few. I believe Jesus endorses such a holistic approach to Christian ministry.
While preaching styles among African-American Baptists certainly vary, most sermons I have heard tend to suggest that true faith and caring for others are by necessity interwoven. They communicate such truths uniquely and distinctly, and many of those clergy do so with poetic eloquence. People who share my background are too quick to characterize African-American preaching as merely entertaining. That’s usually because we get caught up in the style and don’t necessarily hear the prophetic application.
While it would not be fair to paint all African-American Baptists with a monolithic brush, my own observation and experience is that their congregations are very welcoming. These congregations welcome those who are recipients of their ministry in the community, believers from other traditions and non-African-Americans like me. And their welcome is warm and genuine. Guests tend not to go unnoticed in such worship settings.
Perhaps this is because many African-Americans — probably most — have found themselves at one time or another rejected, discriminated against or victimized by injustice. Among these people of faith, discrimination is no longer something to be tolerated, and it is certainly not something to be practiced when they have the opportunity to turn the tables.
A few years ago, I attended an afternoon worship service of a group of predominantly African-American Baptists in St. Louis. They met in a facility owned by a predominantly white congregation that had worshiped that morning. The African-American group was in the process of building on another site.
I attended that day because I had heard that two youngsters who had tried to set a fire at the construction site earlier in the week had been caught. The congregation decided that they would not press charges, but that the boys instead should come with their parents to the Sunday service and apologize for what they had done.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. One boy and his parents showed up; the other did not. They looked apprehensive — especially the youngster — but they were greeted cordially.
At the appointed time in the service, the pastor stood in front of the altar and asked the boy and his parents to join them. As I recall, the pastor briefly described the situation that had brought this family to church on that day. And then he asked the boy if he had anything to say to the congregation.
With head down, the boy simply said he was sorry. You could hardly hear him. No speech, just a brief apology.
Then the pastor spoke to the family, assuring them that the congregation had accepted the apology and that the whole family would always be welcome to come back and worship. He invited members of the congregation to come forward and greet the family.
The most wonderful thing happened. Virtually everyone left his or her seat and started down the aisle. Most of them threw their arms around the embarrassed boy, voiced their forgiveness and hugged and greeted his parents. The moment was powerful. For some reason, the Christ-like reaction surprised and moved me.
I don’t know how this experience affected the boy. He deserved for the pastor and congregation to have responded negatively, but they forgave him, granting him mercy instead. On top of that, they did what he did not deserve — they loved him and his family, giving them a taste of grace.
Too often as congregations our expressions of learning more about each other across racial and ethnic lines never goes beyond a pulpit exchange. We miss the nuances of actually interacting enough to get to know each other, learn from each other and develop relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We Anglo Baptists have a lot we can learn from other groups, and we have a lot we can share.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.