The Black Church

Kelsey Durham, IUP

Do our environments have an effect on us? Does inclusion matter? Do they affect what we say, and how much information we disclose?

Before attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I went to a predominantly white Christian high school. My black skin separated me from my peers and left a question mark over my head as to where I belonged socially.

 Once I finally came to college at, I did as most students do and I searched for a group in which I could feel at home. Because I’m a Christian, I looked for acceptance in the Christian organizations on campus. After giving each of them a chance, although they each had great qualities and good messages presented, there was an overwhelmingly evident lack of diversity. Sure, there would be a few ‘token’ black students present, but the overall white population controlled the culture and vibe within the organization. I discovered that most black Christians at IUP attended Victory Christian Assembly, a non-denominational church where the population is mostly African-American. Yet I wondered why their presence was not as dominant in the Christian organizations on campus, and what did it means for these students to be black Christians on this campus.

“Black to me is culture,” said IUP student Andre Howard in an interview. “We come from a long line of individuals that get swept to the side, [and] I think of what we have overcome. [Black is] knowing your culture, knowing your roots and knowing what it is your people have been through.”

The culture of an environment can play a heavy role in the overall attendance of its members. Historically, churches have been identified with or have been reflective of the culture of the people attending. People have a way of socially gravitating towards people like themselves. However, as a result, this gravitational pull segregates white people away from black people, denouncing the entire Christian idea of acceptance and ‘love no matter what.’

“With a lot of Christian organizations, the [members] are very cliquey,” said IUP student Anastasia Clayton. “Especially when there are few black people, the white people just link up with themselves.”

The African-American church has traditional African tendencies. The clapping, the music, the style of the church is what we as a black culture would expect in any of our environments. So if you go to a barbeque hosted by black people, you would expect it to have the same vibe as if you went to an all black organization or social event. All of these environments have a certain blackness to them that is reflective of the black culture. But it’s difficult to talk about that regarding church because you would think the church’s spirituality and godly characteristics would supersede these differences. But the reality is the church takes on the culture of its members. When the majority of the members in a church are white, everything from their style of music to the preaching length and content all reflect the white culture and its beliefs. When African Americans enter into this dynamic, they are walking into a different world, where they must submit to the more dominant white culture. When black people refuse to conform, there is a feeling of marginalization and unwelcomeness.

“You want a club where you can be invited by other people and loved by other people, and have friends,” said IUP student Lauren Lamar in an interview. “And if you don’t feel welcomed, it’s like, ‘Here we go again! Not welcomed, again,’ and it’s supposed to be a Christian organization. You’re supposed to be the most welcoming on campus.”

Although there is an undeniable love that Christians are supposed to mirror for other people, the racial differences and segregation can create a barrier for black Christians that is simply undeniable.

“Race is something that is created on earth because of the way we look and act,” said Dr. Melvin Jenkins, pastor of Victory Christian Assembly. “And that is a function of our earthly being not our heavenly being. Our heavenly being is inside of us, but it lives inside an earthly being that wants to go somewhere where it feels comfortable.”

As I interviewed various black students at IUP there was a divide in their responses as to the kind of Christian organization they would find ideal. The majority of the students agreed that they would prefer an organization that was diverse instead of an only black or only white population. Yet by saying this they were indirectly arguing that being a part of something all black is flawed or illegitimate. Similarly, a music artist will think he is good when he appeals to the black audience, but thinks he is great if he appeals to the masses. They lose their style and a piece of themselves as they cross over to become more accepted by making the statement that if their music is not accepted by white people, who are the majority, then it is not fully acceptable.

“[They say] all black people can’t give me what white people can give me,” said Dr. Jenkins. “I think there is a certain amount of self-hate in that, or certainly self-doubt or certain insecurity. And I would argue that that’s an indication that you may not be fully woke.”

The ‘melting pot’ idea that people of all races can co-exist without trying to dominate the other is practically impossible. Any diverse environment creates a dynamic where people begin to think they are the better one. When confrontations arise, they will argue that “this was the way I was raised,” or say “that’s just what I believe.” There is always a comparison and competition.

“I tried to go to a few different churches that were predominantly white in Tyrone, PA, and I feel like there are unwritten rules that restrict your freedom,” said IUP student Charles Wilson-Adams. “So when I go to a black church, I feel as though I can be free. At a white church, I feel like I have to behave a certain way, act a certain way. And the system they have there is you have to follow a certain norm. And if you go against the norm, it’s not right.”

When black people infiltrate into white environments, they’re immediately on display, and they’re always on guard because there is an expectation that they have to be as good or as ‘white’ as the majority. This pressure can be limiting to black Christians when they are in Christian organizations. They’re amount of growth and development spiritually declines due to their internal worries, anxiety over acceptance, and the feeling of not being included by the majority.

“I would feel more comfortable if they had experiences like mine, and typically you would find more familiar [life] stories within your own race.” said IUP student Tyreque Calloway in an interview. “I go in Christian organizations with an open mind and feel it out. If it feels authentic and I have a good reading from it and I like the people and what they’re about, then yeah I’ll stay. But if I don’t get that, I’m not going to stay.”

So why should black people feel the need to conform to the white church culture in groups that don’t fully accept them? They shouldn’t! Our response is to provide an opportunity for black people to grow and develop spiritually that they will not get anywhere else. It is obvious that white churches and white Christian organizations do not feel responsible for providing or conforming to the needs of their black population. But as a response, more black Christian students need to boldly come together and create a unique environment that embraces their culture.

“I do not feel any responsibility to broaden our base, be more inclusive and open [our] doors to other people.” said Dr. Jenkins.  “If anything I want to blow the trumpet louder such that our people can hear it and never be able to say ‘I was at IUP for three or four years and never knew there was such a thing as Victory.’ I’m not taking away from any of the other organizations where people might want to go. From my perspective, it comes down to Victory’s job is to allow people of color, particularly African Americans, to know there is an opportunity to grow here.   

If you are black and you go to a predominantly white church or Christian organization, this means that you want to go there and you are able to overlook the cultural differences. However, how can Blacks retake control of their spiritual destiny if we are constantly playing a game of racial and multicultural politics in our supposed church homes. I believe that the best way for black Christians to truly feel comfortable and accepted is to be among their own.  Not only will we further the kingdom of God we will further our earthly kingdom as well.