Old-time Religion: Today’s Black struggle requires updated encouragement

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Why traditional church themes no longer apply to the everyday Black struggle.

The Black experience is not monolithic. Therefore, the challenges of being Black in America cannot be soothed by victim-blaming disguised as generic, faith-based messages with no depth. It may be time to let go of some of the old platitudes that used to comfort. In times of sorrow, tragedy, and despair, we need empathy that doesn’t ignore our everyday realities but instead reflects them.

“God called him home…”

A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a former student who died tragically just one month before his 18th birthday. I knew him from my past job as a youth counselor. Without the addition of family members and former coworkers,  the majority of the funeral attendees ranged from 12 to 21 years old. After an emotional viewing of the body, the pastor stepped to the pulpit, cleared his throat, and said, “God called this young man home.” Before he could utter another sentence, most of the youth slowly began exiting the church. They went outside to gather in the parking lot. Simultaneously, a former coworker and l looked at each other from across the room and silently agreed to join them hoping that our presence would provide some comfort in their time of loss. The moment also was a reminder that old church themes do little more than lip service for the everyday struggles of Black life.

“No test, no testimony…”

The Black struggle is real, but what’s harsher is its acceptance as a rite of passage. For decades the traditional Black church used disastrous biblical stories to forcefully mirror the challenges of contemporary Black American life, as if each trial was/is a necessary prerequisite for worthiness of God’s love. The biblical story of Job is often shared within the Black Christian community. It’s the story of a wealthy man whose fortune was stripped, crops destroyed, and children all died as a “test” to prove that his faith in God would not break. Once Job showed his faith was unshaken, God rewarded him twice the amount of riches and more children. This theme convinces Black people to ignore the systematic racist obstacles placed before them and to accept these blockades as necessary on the spiritual path to growth.

“Just pray on it…”

It is not uncommon to find that Black communities are surrounded by more churches than clinics and mental facilities. The “pray on it” idea is an overused remedy for the traumatic effects of poverty, drug overdose, and homicide in poor Black neighborhoods. The concept of prayer delivered by the Black church presents God as a genie who grants wishes to the worthy. To teach this message by itself without the mention of white supremacy leaves room for a Black adolescent—who has placed their effort into prayer with little to no results—to feel unqualified for God’s love.  The love for a Black church can transform into resentment when a Black youth watches their white counterparts live a prosperous life on social media and TV despite their (white) historical, genocidal sins committed against Black people. Prayer without works is dead especially when there is a shortage of job opportunities that pay a livable wage for a Black family to survive on.

“God helps those who help themselves…”

The Black legacy is a moral inheritance used as a substitute for a lack of generational wealth. Our introduction to faith is usually through family or loved ones who guide us as teachers giving their life lessons as coping mechanisms for survival. Hence, the commitment to these themes carries such an emotional stronghold. But work ethic alone—no matter how strong and Puritan—cannot overcome in a society that was built on free labor and a system designed to profit the few at the expense of many.

J Hall is a Detroit-bred Howard Bison multimedia culture critic. An abstract thinker who believes “You ain’t wrong when you’re right,” and that his mother’s cupcakes are legendary. Check out his slight worldwide view here: https://linktr.ee/jhall.

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