Byron Johnson is a native of Milwaukee and is a candidate for licensed ministry at Tabernacle Community Baptist Church. He graduated from American Baptist College in Nashville, where he studied Bible and theology. In this piece, he discusses the prominence of the black church in his life.
White dresses, white hats, black suits, black ties, big colorful robes, big chairs, long pews, choirs swaying, mothers and deacons with reserved seats up front, pastors and preachers jumping up and down with charismatic speeches, and people everywhere you turned!
For me, this was life! It was church on Sherman Boulevard Sunday mornings at 10:45 a.m. that formed my foundation and identity in faith. While gazing at the big stained glass windows as mom and I sat on the fourth pew down on the right side, it always felt like that was where I was supposed to be! While getting dressed, you knew what to expect. There was a sense of pride and respect for Sunday mornings. Your steps were a little lighter. You walked a little straighter. Your speech was correct. You were on your best behavior — because you were going to church. But for many, particularly in the black community, this holy routine may sound like a distant memory, nearly forgotten in recent years.
“Christians and church go together. We cannot have one without the other,” said a local Milwaukee pastor during a recent “Brotherhood Sunday” worship service.
For most black folk, it has long been a source of identity to say you were a churchgoer. It is the place where you gather for a central reason: God. Where you can let go of thinking about the burdens and worries of the week, and be a part of a community where you can pray and gain hope, be encouraged, be enlightened, and be somebody.
Our ancestors needed this especially. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries, through bondage of slavery, abuse and oppression of power, and being feared into believing a dominant white “slave to master” theology, where the Negro church was born! Our black people needed a place of rescue and resolve. A refuge for worship and communication to the divine for hope, to feed and nourish their souls by a divine spiritual power that proved it was on their side. This is known as the Invisible Institution.
The church has always been there. Even within the heartbeat of the civil rights movement, the unity of people and the organization of the black sacred space was the backbone of power and transformation. The black church stood and fought for the morals and values that were necessary for the quality and equality of every life. It was unapologetically who it was. Providing life within itself, it served its people with what the outside world would not give them. It was a space for opportunity, education, arts, business and family. Pride and relationship to the black church was built upon these foundations.
In Milwaukee, in this 21st century, this affection remains for many individuals. In many ways, the chaos we face today is not terribly different than other trying times in our history. And older generations understand this. However, there seems to be a major gap in commitment and dedication to the church. And I don’t think it’s because folks merely want to sleep in on Sunday morning. As a new society arises, new language surfaces about “church” with the unveiling of a few issues. Actually, a lot of issues. And I believe these issues have far too long been important. The church, NOW, needs to have the “mirror-talk.”
“Why is the church so quiet about racism?” “Why does prosperity seem more important these days?” “Is the black church dead?” “Much of my abuse came from the church because I was gay.” “What does the church have to say about all the killings in our city?” “Is the church effective anymore?” “Has the church lost its identity?” “I’m no longer religious, but I am spiritual.” These statements and questions stem from popular conversations in the new-age society as of late that critique the role of the church in our community. The volume of these particular conversations continues to elevate, as real-life issues become the magnifying glass through which individuals critically examine the church and relationship to the divine.
In my opinion, the church can no longer be scared to have the conversation about how to embrace the problems in our city and our world in a more relevant and effective way. #BlackLivesMatter, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQA rights, depression and mental illness are just the tip of the iceberg of what needs the church’s attention. But have we been too quiet?
If the church is to remain relevant we must examine its call to power. We must examine the church’s intergenerational relationships and seek ways to mend the gap. Then we have to envision the church’s future in changing societies. It’s time to get uncomfortable in many of our self-serving traditions and look outward to develop transformative strategies for the neighborhoods and streets we live in. Church, let’s have the conversation!
Sheila Johnson says
Great analogy Byron. I think this is remarkable how you question the church’s role in dealing with the problems of today’s society versus the seemingly greater exodus of the populous from the comfort the church offered. Having this conversation might just bring the two back together as more the norm than special occasion
Rick Deines says
Good job, Byron. I agree with Sheila about the need for the conversation you have initiated. I am ‘white’, but have been deeply effected by men and women with roots in the black church. The creative cauldron of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s on the Southside of Chicago was my introduction to the historical significance and political relevance of the black church. Some of what you say applies to all church traditions, especially mainline protestant and some catholics. A friend once observed that the two most important religious tools forged in America are the 12-step recovery program and the music of the black church. Both of those were forged in human suffering and need. The re-birth of all of us including the black church may need to happen as the suffering that is widespread across the world and known in our cities and neighborhoods. What form will that take? I’m sure you have some clues!
Denise Wooten says
Nephew what a poignant and perceptive array of questions you raise. Many of those who sit in those “reserved” seats also are at a loss for words when it comes to the much needed vocalization and immediate action required today for letting it be known that the social and equality issues fought so hard for during the civil rights movement still remain a priority within our communities. I am sure the leaders of the past are cringing in their crypts at the lack of collective outcries and mobilization they initiated on even the slightest hint of indignation shown towards people of any race, creed or faith. We have gotten too soft in our new age of technology, where we now do battle using social media to register our wrath and many times it is not directed at those who throw barbs of discontent and willful mayhem, but at those who are reflections of our own dismay. Despite all the creature comforts that technology has convinced us we can no longer do without, I personally wish we had never encountered those devices that have robbed us of doing face time with the real problems. I say let the conversation begin but first leave your cell phone at home .
Roland Hill says
Excellent and great communication from a young black
Mature Man. Who has great. Vision of our community and Church. The polictical community need to hear this
Jerry Johnson says
Wow! What a great article and conversational piece. I’m a young 50 year old African American man that was raised in the same type of church mention in this article. As much as I can relate to what’s being said, “The Church” has and is leaving a bad taste in my mouth and praying for much better things to come. As a gay man raised in the church it’s very frustrating to see how you’re expected to remain quiet or not seen. I’ve been involved for years in the church and have much to offer and can as long as I’m in the closet or not open about my sexually. Being a member of the largest black church in Omaha, Nebraska the Pastor was ask if we could have a discussion or open dialog about homosexuality, gay marriage, etc and the !answer was NO! He stated he has no intention on bringing the subject up unless absolutely necessary! I felt isolated and misunderstood. I pray for a change.
Thank you for your great response and relationship to this article. Your story and voice is what we need to hear. The church much face the questions and face our emotions and reasons why we put people in “categories” only to let folks be “just enough” for “our pleasing”. That’s not God. We can’t be silent. Your story is necessary!