VOL 2, NO 8
The Mosaic of Black Religion in Indianapolis
by Elfriede Wedam
“Here comes everybody!” noted the Irish writer
James Joyce when describing the variety of religious styles among Catholics.
In a similar way, there is no single “black church,” though for many the term
evokes images of an emotionally-charged evangelical worship style, and of
poor congregations led by social-activist clergy. These images, which derive
in large part from the civil rights era, never reflected the diversity of
the black church, and to the degree that they were accurate, they have become
outdated. Today we find an array of worship styles and social-political stances
among African-Americans. From black Catholics and Black Muslims to the many
types of black Protestants, African-Americans have built a mosaic of religious
practices that for many form a core element of their identity.
Although the first black congregations were formed
long before the Civil War, the denominations as we know them today largely
took shape after Reconstruction. They became alternative, separate organizations
in response to the inferior status accorded blacks in the South, and to the
paternalism with which they were treated in Northern churches. The oldest
black congregation in Indianapolis, founded in 1846, is Bethel African Methodist
Episcopal Church, located continuously in the heart of the downtown area,
near the original black neighborhood where IUPUI stands today.
During the civil rights movement, a sector of
black churches nationally and locally mobilized against systemic social injustices
in American society and led the faith community in attacking its causes. Today
it is difficult to find any black churches in Indianapolis focusing primarily
on political activism. As in earlier times, many black churches focus on social
welfare issues, while a preponderance of them devote their energies to preaching
messages of personal salvation. This absence of political and social engagement
in the black churches is revealed in our preliminary review of 92 predominately
African-American congregations in 17 Indianapolis neighborhoods as part of
our Project on Religion and Urban Culture.
Many scholars of African American congregations
argue that there is a unifying yet socially alternative cultural core that
describes black styles of religion. For social ethicist Robert Franklin, this
cultural core includes: full engagement of the senses in worship, intimate
prayer, cathartic shouting, triumphant singing, politically relevant religious
education, and prophetic preaching. We found that these elements are present
to some degree in almost all the black churches we studied, but the variations
are also important. Not all the congregations practice cathartic shouting,
for example, nor do all religious education programs contain politically relevant
teaching. Some avoid any reference to the world outside the walls of the church.
More interesting than the elements that are common to black churches are the
ways they differ from one another geographically, theologically, and in the
political stances they hold toward the wider society.
Twelve of the 17 neighborhoods contain at least
one predominately African-American congregation (see map). The five neighborhoods
without any black churches are near the outside borders of Marion County,
including three of the four suburban areas studied. The great majority of
black congregations we studied were in four neighborhoods: Martindale-Brightwood
(33), the United Northwest Area (20), Mapleton-Fall Creek (11) and the Near
West Side (10).
Baptist churches represent almost half (45) of
all black churches in our sample, while 10 percent of the congregations are
members of predominately white denominations: Assemblies of God, Disciples
of Christ (Christian), Lutheran-Missouri Synod, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Roman
Catholic, and United Methodist.
*Median annual budget, $100,500
*Median church membership, 135
*Average participation by
gender, 71% female
*Average number of members
living in the neighborhood, 35%
Table 1: Denominational
Affiliations of Black Churches in RUC Study Areas
Historically Black Denominations
Methodist (AME and others)
Church of God in Christ
Nation of Islam
(Assemblies of God, Disciples
Christ, Lutheran Missouri Synod,
Nazarene, Presbyterian, Roman
Catholic, United Methodist)
Franklin describes five different political stances
by African-American congregations to social issues. (See Table 2) Grassroots
revivalists focus on personal salvation and individual responsibility.
In our preliminary analysis, almost half, 46 percent, of black Indianapolis
congregations fall into this category. Pragmatic accommodationists
work within the democratic and capitalist systems while seeking ways to expand
resources to those not currently benefiting from it. More than one-third,
37 percent, fit into this group. The next largest group, redemptive nationalists,
represents about 13 percent of black congregations. Nationalists participate
in the political system to some extent but work to form alternative social
institutions. Positive thought materialists are a small group of congregations
(4 percent) that focus on individual and personal success. Prophetic radicals
critique the basic economic and political structures of American society.
We were not able to identify any congregations in Indianapolis that can be
labeled prophetic radical.
Franklin’s approach offers a view of the public
life of the church and a way to understand more generally how religion has
influenced the civic realm. As with all typologies, his categories are helpful
in understanding the elements that make congregations different from one another.
Yet not all congregations fit clearly into a single category. Some congregations
combine two or more types while others seem to push in new directions.
2: Political/Theological Orientation of Black Churches
Positive thought materialist
Note: While some congregations fit into more than one category, we
focused on their major tendency to test Franklin’s typology.
Black churches express themselves
both with and against the wider society and use a variety of strategies to
do so; not unlike other congregations, they embrace the larger culture, they
accommodate it, and they criticize it. Nonetheless, we found many more congregations
in the two moderate categories, pragmatic accommodation and grassroots revivalism,
than among types at either end of the spectrum. The general orientation of
the black churches is consistent with the cultural milieu of the larger city.
Apparently, black churches that once stood outside the cultural mainstream
have now moved closer to working within it. In particular, those congregations
committed to responding to social needs have been forming pragmatic partnerships
with governmental and private organizations where once they might have lodged
protests against them.
The largest category, the grassroots revivalists,
can be found most frequently among the storefront and other small congregations.
In Indianapolis we found notable examples among larger congregations as well.
The message of individual responsibility and personal morality by these congregations
is familiar to many observers of American evangelical and Pentecostal religion.
Their theology of personal salvation exhorts members to be disengaged from
or even contemptuous of politics. While there is strict separation between
religion and political life, revivalists see no separation between religion
and culture, preaching a return to what they understand to be a moral, or
True Tried Missionary Baptist Church in the neighborhood
known as UNWA (United Northwest Area), is one of many examples of grassroots
revivalist churches in Indianapolis. During an observation visit, the pastor
spoke of “Christian love” as the antidote to social ills. “If you don’t have
love of Jesus Christ in your heart, it won’t mean a thing.”
While the focus of these churches is on individual
spiritual change, during the civil rights movement many of these congregations
were mobilized by the prophetic religious leadership of Martin Luther King,
Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Today they avoid political
action on the whole, but the impulse to employ politics as a means to a just
end simmers below the surface of many congregations.
Franklin’s second category, pragmatic accommodationist,
describes those congregations that have a reformist orientation to American
culture and the political and economic systems within it. This group represents
the orientation of most congregations, black or white. These congregations
believe in the American dream of prosperity and embrace middle-class values
and aspirations, but point out that many lack access to a peaceful and predictable
social order. Leaders in these churches are convinced it is the churches’
duty to act effectively on behalf of their constituents, both within and outside
their congregational walls, to make the basic democratic and capitalist systems
work for them. Generally avoiding protest and confrontation, they work within
the system, seeking ways to expand opportunities.
Barnes United Methodist Church, in UNWA, has
formed partnerships with a variety of neighborhood civic associations, working
to develop greater influence in local decision making. Its recent growth in
membership has paralleled the growth in the social outreach programs it has
created. Barnes hosts a variety of programs for neighborhood children, including
tutoring, nutrition, and sports. The pastor of Barnes spearheaded the recently
formed Ten Point Coalition that united a dozen UNWA churches. The Coalition
is an effort to collaborate with local police, juvenile justice systems, and
welfare agencies to address gang, drug, and crime issues that have beset the
neighborhood since the onset of middle-class flight in the 1960s.
We found notable examples of churches that embrace
the pragmatic accommodationist approach. These churches have developed connections
with both public and private institutions such as the Front Porch Alliance,
the Interdenominational Churches for Educational Excellence, the National
City Bank, Weed and Seed, several private foundations, the Indianapolis Parks,
and some of the local public schools to provide joint human services support,
training, and tutoring programs.
In some black congregations, the pragmatic, social
orientation will fit comfortably with a revivalist orientation. Often this
combination will evolve after a new church is founded on a mission of spiritual
renewal. When confronted with the array of social problems in the neighborhood
and the distressed personal circumstances of members, such congregations become
advocates for expanding economic opportunities. An example in Martindale-Brightwood
can be found in the two-year history of God’s Restoration and Deliverance
Ministries, a nondenominational storefront church with a vigorous Pentecostal
style of worship. What began as a salvationist street ministry evolved to
include a food and clothing drive for the poor in the neighborhood. At our
last visit, the church was poised to apply for non-profit corporation status
to obtain grant monies for a job and educational skills training program for
Redemptive nationalists, Franklin’s third
category, seek black control of core institutions, including economic institutions,
within the black geographic and cultural communities. Its most extreme version
embraces separation, as exemplified by the Nation of Islam. More commonly,
however, such congregations have an ambiguous relationship to the status quo.
They participate in the political system in carefully calculated ways, seeking
to advance their particular interests while minimizing any future obligations
or loyalties to secular civil authorities. These congregations focus inward
on their own culture, in ways similar to immigrant ethnic congregations.
Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in UNWA has
created internal supportive institutions that serve its members as alternatives
to mainstream institutions. These include the Mt. Zion Federal Credit Union,
and a college scholarship program for the congregation’s youth. The Mt. Zion
Performing Arts Troupe presents interpretations of the African-American struggle
through music, pantomime, and dance. In one performance we observed, the message
was clearly that black people have been tempted away from their African heritage
and made subservient to the dominant culture through dependence on drugs.
The solution offered was for blacks to separate from “foreign” cultures and
unite against an unfriendly world.
Since the 1960s, some African-American middle-class
congregations have developed the cultural characteristics of redemptive nationalists,
but without the commitment to black capitalism. These middle-class congregations
celebrate black identity and have made it central to their worship and lives.
They intertwine a diversity of cultural styles, reflecting both their European
and African heritages, and seek new ways to connect Sunday worship to community
service. In Coppin Chapel AME Church in UNWA, the congregation combines liturgical
music with contemporary black gospel. Symbols of its biblical heritage are
displayed in the church, a black Madonna and child, and African characters
from the Bible, including the mother of Rufu, Lucius of Cyrene, and the Canaanite
woman. The church draws on elements of African-American culture as models
for addressing social needs in the Sons of Allen male mentorship program.
“The next generation of African-American men must be articulate, economically
self-reliant, culturally sensitive, and most importantly, rooted in their
relationship with the Lord,” reads their mentorship guide. Rather than see
the new forms of welfare partnerships offered by government as a pragmatic
opportunity, the pastor expressed her misgivings: “These government initiatives
always want something from the churches, but do not ask what the churches
The fourth and relatively new category of black
religious expression Franklin calls positive-thought materialism. This
group focuses on individual rather than group empowerment—on personal health,
wealth, and success justified by a God who provides. According to Franklin,
materialists position themselves opportunistically in seeking ways to use
the system to advance their individual rather than community interests. While
there are relatively few examples of this approach among the black churches
of Indianapolis, the Covenant Community Church in the multiracial area of
Crooked Creek shows tendencies in this direction. Much of this congregation
is based in the ethos of the most affluent and upwardly mobile portion of
the city’s African-American population. The congregation makes good use of
class-based social networks to provide information and services for members.
It has a custom of inviting prominent local persons to act as “liturgists”
once a month; Gov. Frank O’Bannon and his wife have participated several times.
A stress management program for members has been initiated by the church,
a service attractive to those holding professional and managerial jobs. The
church provides only minor opportunities for community outreach activities.
Franklin’s last category of congregations, prophetic
radicals, are devoted to social justice; they call for sacrificial action
on behalf of the common good. Beginning with the civil rights movement, black
churches have taken leadership roles on issues of social justice, arguing
for the application of universal Christian principles of equality, charity,
and fairness to those disenfranchised and marginalized on the basis of race
and class. Prophetic radicals critique American society by claiming that the
basic structures of capitalism are the root causes of economic inequality
and that unequal access to the political system undermines democracy. Globally,
prophetic radicalism has been embodied in a variety of theologies of liberation
for the poor, women, and Third World peoples. In this view, a radical transformation
of both social institutions and individual hearts is necessary to correct
current social ills.
We were not able to identify an Indianapolis
congregation that represents this orientation today, though individual clergy
and lay members continue the tradition. Fr. Boniface Hardin is founder and
president of Martin University, an alternative form of higher education for
disadvantaged adults located in Martindale-Brightwood. He was formerly the
activist pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church in UNWA. Today, he still preaches
a liberationist theology, but no longer heads a local parish.
Concerned Clergy, a local coalition of black
clergy and lay activists (with some white participation) criticizes the political
status quo and demands accountability from government and civic leaders. Concerned
Clergy has been the most vocal about claims of police bias and as a result
has attracted the attention of public officials. The group also actively supports
political candidates and takes positions on issues ranging from the choice
of school superintendent to ordinances controlling street vending. Individual
clergy and lay members come together in this group to express their political
views but do not necessarily represent the views of their congregations. One
way political activism on the national and local scene has been channeled
in recent years is through special interest groups such as Concerned Clergy.
There are many questions we could ask using Franklin’s
typology. Could these five categories be applied to predominately white congregations,
and would the proportions in each be about the same as for black congregations?
Do the congregations in the central city differ in their views from those
in outlying communities? In the African-American community, is racial identity
losing ground to class as a more powerful force in shaping congregants’ religious,
political, and social views?
It appears the social justice orientation, the
moral drive of prophetic radicalism, has lost ground among African-American
churches in Indianapolis in favor of a social service orientation. How and
why have these congregations moved away from a structural critique and returned
to a personal and individual focus? Is this a form of retrenchment? Or should
we be looking for new developments emerging in response to today’s economic
and political conditions? These are some of the questions the Project on Religion
and Urban Culture will be examining in the future.
 C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black
Church in the African-American Experience
. Durham: Duke University Press,
1990, pp. 25-27.
 Bodenhamer, David J. and Robert G. Barrows (eds.) Encyclopedia
. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, s. v.
“African-American Churches” by Michelle D. Hale.
 The Polis Center has been studying congregations in 17
Indianapolis neighborhoods since 1995, collecting demographic, historical,
interview, and observation data from worship services and other activities
sponsored by the churches.
 Robert M. Franklin, “The Safest Place on Earth: The
Culture of Black Congregations” in James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (eds.), American
Congregations Volume 2: New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 257, 259-260.
 Robert M. Franklin, Another Day’s Journey: Black
churches confronting the American crisis
. Minneapolis: Fortress Press,
1997, pp. 41-52.
 David D. Daniels, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me
round:” The Politics of Race and the New Black Middle Class Religion,” in Public
Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City
. Lowell W. Livezey
(ed.) New York: New York University Press, 2000, pp. 163-167.
Research Notes Roundtable
On July 19, Research Notes hosted a
roundtable discussion at The Polis Center. Participants had been provided
beforehand with the text of this issue of RN, and were invited to respond
to the issues raised in the paper. Raymond “Ron” Sommerville is assistant
professor of church history at Christian Theological Seminary. Joseph Tamney
is professor of sociology at Ball State University. Elfriede Wedam, senior
research associate at The Polis Center, wrote the paper under discussion.
Kevin Armstrong is senior public teacher at The Polis Center. The following
is an edited version of their discussion, which was moderated by Armstrong.
ARMSTRONG: Recently, President Clinton accepted an
award from the NAACP. Someone who was interviewed afterward recalled Clinton’s
popularity with the religious community, saying: “The black church has seldom
had as good a friend as Bill Clinton.” Now, I suspect there are probably
contradictory opinions to that, but politics aside, how is it possible that the
black church—that is, the notion of a unified and similar body—still carries
such weight in contemporary America?
SOMMERVILLE: Well, the rubric “black church” is hotly
debated now, but the fact is that there exists an institution of
African-American churches that have played an important role in the survival,
empowerment, and liberation of black people in this country. We simply can’t
quibble about that. How we define it is problematic. But while there have been
challenges to its legitimacy and authority in recent times, the black church
remains a dominant, powerful institution in the lives of African-American
communities and people.
did a survey of pastors in Muncie back in the ‘80s, where we looked at white
conservative, white mainline, black, and Roman Catholic churches. The black
churches supported justice issues, and they were similar to white mainline
pastors and Catholics in this regard. On the other hand, they supported
traditional positions on sexual and family issues—they looked just like the
white conservative churches. I once suggested that the black churches could act
as a bridge between the white mainline and the white conservative churches,
having a foot in both places. And a black minister told me that wasn’t his
experience, that he felt alienated from both groups.
ARMSTRONG: You raise the question about black clergy
who are part of the church but don’t feel at home in white constituencies. What
are the factors involved there?
SOMMERVILLE: Howard Thurman said, and I will
paraphrase, “Before I can feel at home in the world, I must find a particular
place where I feel at home.” Historically, the African-American church has been
a kind of cultural womb, a spiritual haven for African-Americans in a hostile
society. But this is a tricky issue when it comes to these typologies. On the
one hand, you have typologies that emphasize the black church as being
other-worldly in orientation, and at the other extreme you have a very
politically active black church. What these typologies miss is the dynamic,
fluid nature of African-American religion. What you see on a Sunday morning at
worship may look apolitical or other-worldly, but under the surface it
can be very political. The black church has been a home for
self-affirmation, but also a base of operation. Historically, it’s been the
single most important institution in the lives of black people, there even
before the family became a stable institution in African-American communities.
WEDAM: Ron, you point out that black
congregations are more fluid than was expressed through this set of typologies.
How can we see that better? One thing that was very strong in this set of
churches was the combination of types—the pragmatic combined with revivalist
was very common. There were several combinations that we could have made, and
in truth, we went with Franklin’s typology just for clarity’s sake. Where I saw
real change taking place was among middle-class congregations that were
becoming more Afro-centric; that was not a typical pattern in the past and was
not reflected in Franklin’s typology. Also, I saw new institutions being built
to respond to the realities of today: AIDS outreach, for example.
SOMMERVILLE: Let me respond by looking at my own
congregation, Philips Temple CME Church, in terms of the typology. In that
congregation of maybe 1,200 persons, I see every one of those types
reflected. By far the most representative typology would be that of the pragmatic
accommodationist, in terms of its engagement with the political structure.
At the same time, this congregation is what some would call neo-Pentecostal, so
they also reflect the typology of grassroots revivalist. There is a
strong message for personal salvation, and members are encouraged to witness.
Also there is a strong emphasis on self-help, middle-class values,
entrepreneurial skills, so you could call us positive thought materialists.
And then, when you look at the prophetic radical tradition of
confronting racist structures and views, that’s there. And the Afro-centric,
the embrace of African culture and celebration of black history, that’s all
entwined in the services as well.
ARMSTRONG: For those of us who are reading this as
non-sociologists, summarize for me: what do we miss when we use this particular
typology, and what do we gain?
SOMMERVILLE: Let’s face it, there is still a lot of
religious segregation between the races. One of the things we miss is a full
encounter with each other. So we have to rely upon impressions, anecdotes. The
critique has been that black religion is overly emotional; it’s somehow
non-theological; it’s all action. This is an underhanded way of saying it’s not
authentically Christian because it doesn’t measure up to certain Western
norms—that it’s a cathartic experience for black people, compensating them for
not having social privileges and economic clout. So we don’t get to see the
full expression of African-American Christianity, in terms of its ritual, its
worship, and its social practice.
ARMSTRONG: Joe, what are we missing in this kind of
TAMNEY: The continuum seems to go from bad to
good, or good to bad, but the reality is that most churches are doing more or
less the same things. The typology is based on a perspective that I like very
much, but it’s a liberal perspective. The prophetic category is loaded towards
a 20th Century view of prophecy in terms of social justice. In a
working-class society, justice is an issue that really attracts people; they
may not be radical, but are talking in terms of fairness. When you move to a
middle-class society, justice isn’t where it’s at any more, no matter what
preachers say from the pulpit. People’s day-to-day lives center on other
issues, because they are fairly secure. So the environment is something they
would talk about, or African culture.
WEDAM: I agree that the prophetic orientation
reflects a working-class and poor background. My initial hunch about the
pragmatic accommodationist style is that it reflects the move to the middle
class. If I were to plot those churches on a map, I think I would find them to
be clustered in middle class areas—or that the churches themselves would have a
middle class population. Martindale-Brightwood is one of the poorest
neighborhoods in Indianapolis, and I wouldn’t expect to find a lot of pragmatic
accommodationists there—as opposed to UNWA, which has more of a middle-class
population. I think that class shift helps to explain a lot. Of course, it is
challenging to the churches to say that their middle class members are no
longer willing to ask questions about justice because it may not be relevant to
ARMSTRONG: You suggest that these categories can be
beneficial to congregations internally to explore what their identity is, or
their missions. What other benefits are there to using Franklin’s typologies?
TAMNEY: It’s always beneficial in
sociology to use some kind of typology, so that everybody doesn’t end up in the
same category. As I see them, the categories say what is really important,
which is the relationship between the congregation and society. The categories
emphasize that aspect, and only that aspect, of what is going on in the church.
For anyone interested in that aspect of congregational life, these categories
ARMSTRONG: Ron, a historian’s perspective?
SOMMERVILLE: From a historian’s perspective, these
categories are not very useful—for the reason that Joe just elaborated, and
because African-American religious communities have manifested a protean
character, based upon the social and economic realities of their color. Nat Turner
was a prophetic radical, a mystic in many senses, whose profound encounter with
God led him to attempt the overthrow of slavery. After slavery, the black
church became much more accommodationist, especially in the South, where it was
not expedient to be prophetic, or radical. Churches basically supported Booker
T. Washington’s view of accommodation. Later on, the Black Church became
politically mobilized as a result of the migration to the North and the plight
of African-Americans in urban areas. The nature of the black religious
experience changes over time in response to social-economic crises.
TAMNEY: You can see that in the reaction to the
1960s. The civil rights movement is the last time I remember, really, pastors
white and black getting involved—I mean, seriously, deeply, for a long period
of time. That crisis ended, and that degree of involvement has ended.
SOMMERVILLE: At the same time, there were a lot of
black churches who didn’t support Martin Luther King—who had to be prodded and
cajoled to support the movement. It would be wrong to assume that, even during
the civil rights movement, all black ministers and black churches were suddenly
prophetic radicals. Many were still accommodationists, or grassroots
revivalists. Having said that, we can’t underestimate the impact that the
movement had on raising the consciousness of black ministers, and white
ministers as well.
WEDAM: What I’m hearing is that the radical
tradition is a very small one in the church, and that the civil rights movement
was a blip on the screen—a major blip, but nonetheless it was not part of a
trend of the church acting on society. That is, it was a departure from what
the church position has been historically.
SOMMERVILLE: I don’t agree. That is, I don’t see the
civil rights movement as an anomaly or blip. I think there were precedents for
it, in the prophetic radicalism that we see in slave revolts, and in the black
independence movement within the church to move away from white denominations.
Gayraud Wilmore argues in his book, Black Religion and Black Radicalism,
that radicalism is at the very core of the African-American religious
experience. And although it ebbs and flows throughout the course of history,
what he calls black radicalism is an insatiable quest for freedom and justice
and equality. It gets expressed in different ways—sometimes in a tradition of
just surviving against the indignities of a racist system.
ARMSTRONG: Does that mean prophetic radicalism is
ebbing, or simply that Franklin’s typologies are not adequate to measure
TAMNEY: It’s situational—it’s latent. It is
unrealistic to expect congregations, really, to be taking the political or
civic leadership role here. Most of their time is taken up with maintenance
work. But if an occasion arises where religious people and pastors can
participate in a prophetic movement, they’ll be there. Where the typology is
off, I think, is in looking for churches that are continuously prophetic. That
is not the role of churches in our society; the church’s basic role is
SOMMERVILLE: I think what Franklin is on to is that
there has been some erosion of the authority and clout and legitimacy of
African-American churches as the dominant social and political voices in the
community. W.E.B. DuBois and others predicted that this would happen, as
African-Americans became more acculturated and assimilated into the dominant
culture—that other professions would arise and take a more visible role.
ARMSTRONG: We are still arguing here about religious
identities being shaped more by social and economic factors than by racial
identity. Is that true?
SOMMERVILLE: Well, can we really separate them?
ARMSTRONG: That’s my question.
SOMMERVILLE: I don’t want to make a sharp distinction
between race and class, because I think they both matter. Yes, there has been
an expansion of the black middle class and you see that reflected in
Indianapolis, for example, when churches move out of the inner city into
suburban areas and the townships. But if you ask black pastors what they are
concerned about, the answers have to do with issues impinged upon by race:
jobs, crime, and education, where there is the perception that
African-Americans and other minorities are not getting a fair share.
WEDAM: Some people feel that the distinction
between a social justice orientation and a social service orientation is
probably overdrawn. And of course I make that distinction in this article,
following Franklin. But in terms of outcomes, an individual working in a food
pantry or a tutoring program might nonetheless have an effect that is
transformative in the lives of the people being served, and that does address
questions of justice.
SOMMERVILLE: Franklin and others who have been
strongly influenced by the civil rights movement really want to push black
churches toward transforming their notions of service from mere charity, to a
more systemic emphasis on development and empowerment of community. Churches
involved in providing services may see these forms of ministry as social
justice activity. But it is, from a broader perspective, a limited way of
dealing with these issues. I don’t think there could be many churches that are
not doing anything in the community.
WEDAM: Actually, there were a few, but not a
ARMSTRONG: Elfriede suggests in her paper that the
generally conservative or moderate orientation of black churches in
Indianapolis is consistent with the local culture. What’s your take on that?
TAMNEY: In a recent survey in Muncie, which isn’t
that far away, we asked ministers in 98 white Protestant churches, “What is the
political orientation of your congregation?” We didn’t find any that said
“liberal.” Zero. The distribution was between moderate and conservative. The
Unitarian Universalist minister did say liberal—
ARMSTRONG: So conservatism transcends racial
identity. Is that the culture of this area?
TAMNEY: You will find more within the black
community willing to say “moderate.” I doubt if you would find many who would
say their congregation is liberal.
SOMMERVILLE: I have been intrigued, since coming to
Indianapolis, by how conservative/moderate the African-American religious
population is here, as well as the leadership. I have nothing empirical to base
this on, but I think that it has to do with the dominant political culture.
Again, this suggests to me that African-Americans adapt to the larger political
and social climate. I have probably met more black Republicans here, even among
clergy, than anywhere else I have been, in the South, and in the North. Now
there has been a shift now back to the Democratic Party, at least in the
mayoral election. Bart Peterson strongly courted the black vote. Is this
going to lead to a resurgence of black participation in the political process?
ARMSTRONG: If it is true that black congregations
have been accommodating to the prevalent culture, why is the Sunday morning
hour still the most segregated hour? If so much is shared in common,
congregations ought to be more integrated—but they’re not.
SOMMERVILLE: That is why I say class is more than one
issue, and that race remains a divisive phenomenon. But the other part of that
is—and Franklin I think does a good job on this in his discussion of Afro-centrism—African-Americans
still feel at home in these churches. Until the dominant culture comes to grips
with the fact that these are places that black people strongly identify with,
then we are not going to understand the gravitational pull of and commitment to
WEDAM: What that that really gets at is the
difference in worship styles of black and white congregations. A sociologist
used the term “ritual inclusion” to express this notion. It’s more than a
style—it’s a ritual culture. Until people can talk to one another across those
differences, it will be hard to have more multi-racial congregations. But there
are significant movements to create opportunities for dialogue across race in
this city. Crossroads Bible College holds a multi-racial ministry conference
every other year, and they’ve had some very effective classes and presentations
that give black and white participants a chance to speak honestly about their
sense of difference, their sense of alienation, and their needs.
ARMSTRONG: Whose agenda, then, drives this notion
that multi-racial congregations are the desirable form of worship?
WEDAM: Well, I do think there is that sense that
“multi-raciality” is the way to overcome the sins of the past. That’s not my
word; I copied it from someone else. But it does not speak to, in fact, the
emotional and cognitive needs of people in worship.
SOMMERVILLE: This gets at what Lincoln called “the
continuum between the universal and the particular.” In African-American
churches, the emphasis is on the universal gospel, that the gospel is for all
people and the church is to include all people. The grassroots revivalists
preach this; they believe this. At the same time you see, because of the
history and social location of black people, this emphasis on the particularity
of race—which is not only an ideology of protest but an embrace of one’s
heritage and culture. So now, we have statements that you can be unashamedly
black and Christian at the same time. You don’t have to give up your culture.
You don’t have to assimilate. You can stay grounded in the church of your
upbringing, because now it means much more than just low social and economic
ARMSTRONG: Last thoughts, comments?
TAMNEY: The term “multi-racialism” came into
existence because changes were already taking place. If you go to charismatic
white churches, most will affirm their multi-racial attitude. And they act out
the things they say from the pulpit. I talked to a white family that had
adopted a black child. They visited several churches, but felt at home at this
charismatic church because there was a public attitude of acceptance. So it has
on the margins, as it were, some long-term, actually significant consequences.
WEDAM: Overall, this approach to the
study of the black church is clearly a limited one. This is a way of capturing
the political orientation of the black church, but it doesn’t capture the
fullness of the styles and the content. I am certainly interested in knowing
what additional questions we should be asking that would help us understand the
variety of the black church community.
ARMSTRONG: Well, we’ll listen a bit more closely
every time we hear someone in the media assume there is one “black church.”
Thank you all very much.