In the introduction to his book on writing, Ben Yagoda tells an anecdote about acclaimed New Yorker editor Harold Ross’s “one man crusade against the word the.” As Yagoda contends, Ross “maintained [the] should be used only to introduce a noun or noun phrase designating a unique entity.” I was reminded of this story when I read Princeton University Professor’s Eddie Glaude’s HuffPo entry announcing the Black Church’s death. If one were to really engage Glaude in this rhetorical exercise, the end result would not be to proclaim that the black church is dead, but rather that it never existed to begin with.
That said, if one should never play poker with a card shark, it might be prudent to avoid philosophizing with a philosopher. So instead, I will try another approach. A few years ago, I sat in a room with about 40 other black men for a bi-weekly meeting of Emmanuel Baptist Church’s men’s ministry, The Frontliners. On this particular evening I had brought two friends along and afterward I inquired about their responses to participating in this gathering. I couldn’t let them finish before interjecting about why I am usually so moved by attending these meetings. One of the things that I mentioned is that it was a rare space in my life where terms like “men of color” “people of color” and for the most part “black men” was rarely bandied about. With black men making up a majority of participants at these meetings, it was often unnecessary to reassert our blackness as it were. The obstacles and promises that lay before us were to be approached as men. These conversations were a breath of fresh air from ones taking place in other circles that tended to focus, and at times maybe even over-emphasize purported short-comings of black men. As time wore on I was inspired watching these men do community service work in area soup-kitchens, participate in habitat for humanity projects, mentor young men in our area and more recently become more deliberate in developing a health agenda and coordinating Saturday walk-jogs & rides in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to get Frontliners to partake in physical activities.
Being the good scholar that I am, I eventually thought about writing an article or something about these black men at this black church. You could imagine my surprise then when reading through Clarence Taylor’s history of The Black Churches in Brooklyn, I didn’t find Emmanuel Baptist’s name. For sure, Taylor had make a mistake, because the coteries of newly minted Spelman, Morehouse and Florida A&M alumni who migrated to EBC every year upon arriving in New York could not be wrong, and judging from testimonials by older members of their salad days spent in EBC’s pews, I presumed that Emmanuel Baptist Church, is, and always has been a black church.
Of course Taylor was correct; thus, while Emmanuel Baptist Church boasts a black majority, it was never a black church.
Churches, as I have learned are not defined solely by the racial or ethnic makeup of those sitting in pews on weekends, but rather by the commitment, ingenuity and service of their members. Given migration patterns in this country, it makes sense that at varying points some churches will boast black, latino or white majorities. We are also learning that many churches will also have to contend with declining memberships, leaving their immaculate edifices underutilized, and their communities under-served. Therefore, if Glaude’s purpose in his entry is to claim that black churches are changing and their roles within black communities are changing, then this is a fact that goes without saying.
However, if his intent is to truly proclaim the death of “the black church,” then I would like him to identify this specific church so that I may know to whom to address my condolences.