black churches

New York Times digs into fried fish, all the fixings and, oh, then there's some kind of church thing

New York Times digs into fried fish, all the fixings and, oh, then there's some kind of church thing

Growing up Baptist in East Texas, I learned a whole lot about fried catfish. Mostly, I learned that this was an important, even symbolic, food in rural communities and in black churches.

Later, when I married into a Baptist family in Georgia, that meant spending time in a region in which I learned, once again, that catfish was a part of life — in some parts of the community. The same thing’s true here in East Tennessee (along with barbecue, of course).

Even in Baltimore, we lived near a catfish joint that was jammed on the weekends — with African-Americans picking up stacks of take-out boxes for home and for church get-togethers.

So my eyes lit up when I saw this evocative double-decker headline in The New York Times, of all places:

Celebrating the Fish Fry, a Late-Summer Black Tradition

Catfish, hot sauce, a few sides: For many African-American families, these are makings of a time-honored gathering that feeds a sense of community.

Oh yeah, fried catfish, but also tilapia, snapper and “whitefish” — with lots of hot sauce. Then you had hushpuppies, of of course, with potato salad, coleslaw, black-eyed peas, greens and, maybe, french fries. And underneath the fish, to soak up some of the hot oil, there’s usually a slice or two of white sandwich bread.

Now, lots of good info about the food and black-family traditions made it into the Times piece, with the help of “food historian” Adrian Miller. And there’s a hint at deeper ties that bind in this key passage about this legacy of frying fish on weekends:

… The tradition took on a different meaning in the South during the era of slavery. “The work schedule on the plantation would slow down by noon on Saturday, so enslaved people had the rest of that day to do what they wanted,” Mr. Miller said.

Those who finished work early could go fishing and bring back their catch to be fried that night; plantation owners didn’t mind, Mr. Miller said, because it was one less meal they had to provide. “So the fish fry started as a Saturday-night thing on plantations, and it was like an impromptu get-together,” he said.

In the decades after Emancipation, the tradition became a business for many African-Americans, who brought fish fries with them as they migrated from the South to other parts of the country. … The fish fry was also used as a popular tool to raise money for churches.

Food for raising money? That’s all there is to it?

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New York Times learns that, yes, leaders in liberal black churches are mad at Donald Trump

New York Times learns that, yes, leaders in liberal black churches are mad at Donald Trump

If you have studied religion in American life -- either as a reporter or in history classes -- then you have had to wrestle with the complex and fascinating role that the black church plays in African-American communities, large and small, rural and urban.

Obviously, black churches and their charismatic leaders have always been politically active at the local, regional and national levels. In the second half of the 20th Century, most of that activism has taken place inside the structures of the Democratic Party.

Thus, most reporters think of African-American Christians as loyal Democrats. Period.

However, if you have followed the debates about who is, and who isn't, an "evangelical" these days, you know that lots of African-American churchgoers fit quite comfortably -- on doctrinal issues -- in the true "evangelical" camp. This is one reason why it's so misleading to use the "evangelical" label as another way of saying "white, Republican conservatives."

What about issues in which doctrine and politics have been known to clash? Take abortion, for example. Or flash back to 2008, when black voters in California voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama's White House bid AND also voted to oppose same-sex marriage. As the Washington Post noted at that time:

The outcome that placed two pillars of the Democratic coalition -- minorities and gays -- at opposite ends of an emotional issue sparked street protests in Los Angeles and a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. To gay rights advocates, the issue was one of civil rights. ...
That appeal ran head-on into a well-funded and well-framed advertising campaign in favor of the ban -- and the deeply ingrained religious beliefs of an African American community that largely declined to see the issue through a prism of equality.

This brings me to a recent New York Times story that ran with this headline: "In Trump’s Remarks, Black Churches See a Nation Backsliding." The key question: Did this story seek to diversity, in terms of the kinds of churches that reporters visited?

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Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites

Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites

Just when you thought you’d seen enough analysis of those U.S. Protestant Evangelicals to last a lifetime or two, a major April release is commanding yet more ink: “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster).

Any book from FitzGerald, a boldface author who won the Pulitzer Prize for her Vietnam lament “Fire in the Lake” (1972), gets guaranteed media attention. Her latest, hailed as “masterful” by Time magazine, will surely be mandatory reading for religion writers. This blockbuster has already gained major reviews from highbrow analysts Randall Balmer, Alan Wolfe and Garry Wills (also a Pulitzer medalist).

The Religion Guy has yet to read this 740-pager but is wary after learning that FitzGerald pays so much attention to figures like Rousas Rushdoony. His idiosyncratic theocracy scheme frightens the journalism natives, but is hardly representative of mainstream evangelicalism, or even of its most politicized segments.

Otherwise, the reviews provide  significant cultural indicators of how elitists view a movement that’s somehow so mystifying and unnerving to outsiders, and the way adherents are ogled with condescension, particularly after so many voted for Donald J. Trump. Irredeemable deplorables, anyone?    

Balmer, Dartmouth’s religion chair and the author of a somewhat competing 2016 title, “Evangelicalism in America” (Baylor University Press), says having such a “distinguished author” undertake this topic should be “cause for celebration.” But he finds the result “curiously pinched and narrow.”

One of his criticisms, echoed by others, is that FitzGerald’s narrative omits African-American Protestants. That’s an important choice that the Religion Guy finds justifiable because these believers, as well as Latino Protestants, have such  distinct subcultures. Explaining the larger population of “white” evangelicals is more than enough for one book.

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Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Church rolls may drop, but the buildings don’t always fall to the wrecking ball -- some of them are converted to condos. That trend is the focus of a story in the Washington Post that is at once factual, thoughtful and sensitive.

The smoothly written piece is a massive 1,480 words, yet it reads rather fast. It gives us an overview of the situation across the nation's capital. It offers a few insights on how professionals convert church buildings. And it shows a soothing feel for the concerns of the people who had to leave their sacred spaces.

Church conversions are a kind of gentrification, but with a difference, as the Post points out.

"As churches’ congregations move to the suburbs and D.C. property values soar, increasing numbers of religious institutions are selling their properties in the city, usually with plans to move closer to their congregants," the paper says.  "But … some experts say that a church’s former life as a sacred space requires a particular kind of respect."

The Post gets into the expected issues of restoring a big building with neglected windows, plumbing and HVAC.  It deals also with how to divide up a big room that's built around a pulpit. But it's much more, says writer Amanda Abrams. 

A freelance writer who is not a religion specialist, Abrams might have well gotten caught up in those mundane details. But no, she recalls the reason for the buildings -- and so do her sources:

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Did GOP candidates really avoid moral and religious talk when courting black voters?

Did GOP candidates really avoid moral and religious talk when courting black voters?

If you follow trends among African-American voters, you know that they tend to be more conservative on moral and social issues than other key players in the modern Democratic Party coalition. There have been some small shifts among younger African-Americans on issues such as abortion and gay rights, but the basic trends can still be seen.

So, African-American voters are more culturally conservative than most other Democrats, but they have remained very loyal when venturing into the voting booths -- especially in the Barack Obama era.

But one other factor should be mentioned. If Republicans are going to find any black voters that are willing to cross over and ACT on their more conservative values, it is highly likely that those voters will be found among those who frequent church pews. That isn't surprising, is it?

Thus, I would like GetReligion readers to dig into the following Washington Post story that focuses on attempts by GOP candidates -- including Dr. Ben Carson -- to recruit some additional black voters to their cause. The headline gives zero clue as to what this very long political story is about: "Clinton takes a swipe at Jeb Bush’s ‘Right to Rise.' "

What are readers looking for?

Well, personally, I find it interesting that the story contains, as best I can tell, zero references to religious, moral and cultural issues. Even in the material from Jeb Bush. Even in the references to the remarks of Carson, who is, of course, an African-American religious conservative who rarely gives a speech without talking about social issues.

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Los Angeles Times tries to listen to African-American Christians on life after Obergefell

Los Angeles Times tries to listen to African-American Christians on life after Obergefell

First things first: The editors of The Los Angeles Times are to be commended for going where relatively few journalists have been willing to go in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 Obergefell ruling approving same-sex marriage. They published a lengthy and, at times, quite solid news feature on how doctrinally conservative African-American church leaders are reacting to the ruling.

The dramatic headline proclaimed: " 'Satan is subtle,' same-sex marriage foes warn as they prepare to fight court ruling."

The problem with this story is that it contains evidence that Times journalists failed to listen carefully to what these religious believers said or, at the very least, failed to accurately report what they said. Perhaps reporters and editors needed to think twice and then, as an act of journalistic humility, ask some follow-up questions?

At the center of many debates in this topic is an effort on the cultural left to make an iron-clad link between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is a link that, when allowed to vote on this matter, African-Americans have consistently rejected. As you would expect, that issue came up in the Times piece, as well as discussions of how black church leaders feel about the actions of President Barack Obama.

Read the following passage carefully, since it yielded the key image in the headline. This chunk of the story was built on interviews during a Bible study at Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. One participant -- Daryl Fisher -- is said to have "clutched a Bible in one hand as he spoke." Now, was he "clutching" it, or merely "holding" it?

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Why do Mississippians oppose same-sex marriage? Los Angeles Times editors know, for sure

Why do Mississippians oppose same-sex marriage? Los Angeles Times editors know, for sure

On one level, the new Lost Angeles Times news story about the status of same-sex marriage in Mississippi is quite interesting, in light of the current Kellerism state of affairs in American journalism in the wake of the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The story does offer quite a bit of space for leaders of the American Family Association, which is based in the state, to voice their viewpoints on the case. Then again, the Times team seems to assume that the AFA is the perfect, if not the only, example of an organization in that state to oppose the decision.

What are preachers in black churches in the state saying? What about the local Catholic hierarchy? How about the Assemblies of God? Does any other religious group -- black, white, Latino, etc. -- back the decision by Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, to reject the high court's ruling?

However, it appears that the AFA was the perfect conservative voice to balance the following remarkable passage -- which was offered as unchallenged, unattributed, factual content in a hard-news report, as opposed to being in an editorial column or an analysis essay.

So, what is this?

To understand Mississippi's resistance to gay marriage, it helps to look at its legacy as a deeply religious and conservative state. This is where three civil rights workers were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s; where James Meredith became the first black student to enroll in Ole Miss, but only after a violent confrontation; and where the Confederate symbol is still part of the official state flag.
It is where 59% of residents described themselves as “very religious” in a 2014 Gallup Poll, higher than any other state, and where 86% of voters in 2004 approved a ban on same-sex marriage.

That was really subtle.

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New York Times probes the Rev. Pinckney's 'higher calling,' with no sign of Jesus

New York Times probes the Rev. Pinckney's 'higher calling,' with no sign of Jesus

What was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney's ultimate goal in life? What drove him to do what he did?

One thing is clear, early on, in the recent New York Times news feature on the slain pastor of the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in the heart of Charleston, S.C. From the beginning, Pinckney was ambitious -- but saw his future through the lens of the church.

This figures into the simple, but touching, anecdote that opens the story. However, the story quickly takes this image and hides it behind a bigger vision -- Pinckney's work in politics showed that he was headed to "higher things."

Really now? Did the man himself see his calling in that way? Did he automatically assume that politics was a higher calling than the ordained ministry? Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

RIDGELAND, S.C. -- The morning worship had ended at St. John A.M.E. Church, and as Clementa Pinckney walked through the simple country sanctuary with its 10 rows of pews, he was startled to hear a disembodied voice. It was soft, almost whispery, and yet clearly audible. “Preach,” it said. “I have called you to preach the Gospel.”
He was only 13. But, in a story he often repeated, he discerned it to be the voice of God, and within months he stood before an audience of hundreds of African Methodist Episcopal pastors to present himself as a candidate for ministerial training. The bishop, the most powerful official in the state, asked what he hoped to become. The boy did not hesitate. “A humble bishop of the A.M.E. church,” he answered, with no hint of a smile.

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Sunday at 'Mother Emanuel': What happened to the 'J-word' in many news reports?

Sunday at 'Mother Emanuel': What happened to the 'J-word' in many news reports?

Talk to African-American pastors for any time at all -- as a journalist -- and you will almost certainly hear a common theme emerge.

Many of these preachers and civic leaders are tired of having their work and ministry reduced to political language. In particular, they are fascinated that reporters seem so afraid of specific words that are repeated over and over in worship in their churches, words such as "Jesus," "Lord," "Redeemer" and "Savior."

So if you want to understand where these preachers are coming from, watch the sermon at the top of this post -- start about 9 minutes in -- and then dig into some of the national news coverage. In particular, look for the phrase "in the name of Jesus." Cue up the key passages at 15 minutes and, again, near the end at the 25-minute mark.

So I was worried when I opened up the New York Times report this morning on the first service at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church and read this passage:

In the front pews of Emanuel, Nikki R. Haley, the Indian-American Republican governor of this state, sat among Democrats -- Representative Maxine Waters of California, who is black, and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, who is white -- and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is black and a fellow Republican. In the back of the church, an unlikely pairing sat next to each other -- Rick Santorum, the conservative Catholic and Republican presidential hopeful, and DeRay McKesson, a liberal activist who is black and gay.
The service beneath Emanuel’s vaulted barrel roof opened with an emotional hymn as nearly the entire congregation stood and sang, “You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life,” rounded out with a big “Amen” that was followed by a standing ovation.

You see, the name of that Gospel song in the second paragraph -- after the inevitable (and necessary) litany of political names -- is "Total Praise" and the key lyrics, as commonly used in worship, go like this:

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