Living Faith: The Black Church Outreach Tradition
History of Outreach
Where secular mentoring and conventional social services programs for poor urban youth typically end, churches and religious outreach ministries often begin, especially in predominantly black communities.
The black church has a unique and uniquely powerful youth and community outreach tradition. Indeed, the black church’s historic role in providing blacks with education, social services, and a safe gathering place prefigured its historic role in the civil rights movement.
There are eight major historically black Christian churches: African Methodist Episcopal; African Methodist Episcopal Zion; Christian Methodist Episcopal; Church of God in Christ; National Baptist Convention of America; National Baptist Convention, USA; National Missionary Baptist Convention; and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. There are also scores of independent or quasiindependent black churches or church networks, and at least nine certified religious training programs operated by accredited seminaries that are directed toward ministry in black churches and black faith communities. Together, the eight major black denominations alone encompass some 65,000 churches and about 20 million members.
To illustrate how the black church outreach tradition has been transmitted and lives on today, let me briefly offer just three sets of examples, the first set emanating from major denomination churches, the second set from an independent church, and the third from interdenominational faithbased nonprofits that serve predominantly black churches, congregations, and communities.
In 1794, Richard Allen and a delegation of exslaves started Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, breaking off from the parent Methodist church the better to meet the particular ministerial needs of black congregations and communities. While Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia is often cited as America’s oldest black church, First African Baptist Church of Savannah is, in fact, the “oldest continuing black church in North America.”1Â
First African Baptist Church of Savannah’s first four pastors responded to events from the British occupation of Savannah (1779 to 1782) to the coming of General Sherman in 1864. With each response, the church was “moved out beyond its preaching, praying and singing.”2Â For example, the church’s fourth pastor, Reverend William J. Campbell, led a delegation of ministers who met with General Sherman and advised the government on how to implement the Emancipation Proclamation. Four days after his dialogue with Pastor Campbell, General Sherman issued Field Order #15 which set aside forty acres of land for each black family (“forty acres and a mule”), and provided federal troops to protect them.3Â
Between 1982 and 1995, the seventeenth pastor of First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Reverend Thurmond Neill Tillman, consciously continued to combine the church’s “spiritual or privatistic mission with its social or communal mission.”4Â Tillman, a former probation officer and apprentice aircraft pilot, emphasized the development of churchanchored programs for neighborhood youth, including juveniles who had gotten into trouble with the law. With 200 years of outreach tradition to guide him, Tillman explained the church’s mission: “Whatever the needs of the people, that they cannot meet themselves, it is the mission of the church to help themÂ .Â .Â .Â We can tackle any problem our people face because the church comes to the problem not bound by its own resources and capacities. The church is God’s representative on earth. We have access to all the resources that implies.”5Â
Black Church Outreach Today
The denominational descendants of Richard Allen may not have the nation’s oldest continuing black church, but they, too, have an extraordinary outreach tradition. That tradition is alive and well in the work of New York’s Reverend Floyd H. Flake, the former U.S. congressman who leads the historic Allen A.M.E. Church. Over the last decade, Flake’s 8,000member congregation has raised millions of dollars and devoted countless volunteer hours to the slow, but steady redevelopment of the church’s surrounding workingclass Queens community. Equally impressive, in 1992 Flake launched the Shekinah Youth Chapel in Jamaica Queens, one of the city’s poorest, most drugandcrimetorn minority neighborhoods.
As Flake initially outlined it, Shekinah’s mission would be to mentor and minister to neighborhood children ages 3 to 19 (not just the children of Allen A.M.E. members, referred to as “remnant youth”); encourage older Shekinah youth to reach out to their unchurched peers in schools and on the streets; and use the chapel building as a community “safe haven” for any child who simply wanted to get off the surrounding mean streets or find something constructive to do.
Flake entrusted Shekinah’s development to Reverend Anthony Nathaniel Lucas, then a 26yearold graduate of Columbia’s Union Theological Seminary. Lucas pastored Shekinah from 1992 to mid1998. Before coming to Shekinah, he had worked as a youth minister in the Bronx. He began Shekinah with only two dozen youngsters, virtually all of them remnant youth of Allen. By 1998, however, Shekinah had over 500 youth members, some 80 percent of them children from its surrounding neighborhood.
Shekinah’s outreach success is captured by the tale of two of its members from different worlds. Michelle Lawrence, age 16, is one of Shekinah’s remnant youth, a comfortably middleclass black daughter of two black lawyers who are members of Allen A.M.E. She has many notsofond memories of Abraham Abdul, age 23. “As a younger child,” she recounted to me, “I remember seeing him out on the streets hustling drugsÂ .Â .Â .Â He was very threateningÂ .Â .Â .Â a neighborhood roughneck, plain and simple.” Abraham confirmed her recollection: “I did what she saw and worseÂ .Â .Â .Â At age 17, I left homeÂ .Â .Â .Â At home, I was physically abusedÂ .Â .Â .Â sometimes I starved for foodÂ .Â .Â .Â On the streets, whatever I did, I didn’t go hungry, and I didn’t care about anybody else.”
Jailed at age 19, Abraham escaped a possible fiveyear prison term, but he finally could not escape the relentless outreach of Lucas and the tug of Shekinah. “Pastor Lucas,” he recalled, “meets with me oneonone and says, ‘Right now, let it go. Put it all on Christ and let it goÂ .Â .Â .Â Our church in Queens, not the streets, is our homeÂ .Â .Â .Â All of a sudden, I’m struggling to see how I can help him reach other kids on the streets.” Michelle confirmed his transformation: “He’s definitely a positive influence in the neighborhood now, like a big brother in Christ Jesus to everyone, especially to the boys from group homes, street gangs, or on the streets.”
Having cut his outreach teeth at Shekinah, Lucas, now age 33, is completing his doctoral studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and planning a new youth outreach ministry, one focused in part on the needs of poor black innercity children who have one or both parents in prison or jail.
While Lucas came up through a major black denomination, the outreach ministry of Boston’s Reverend Eugene Rivers evolved out of Philadelphia’s Deliverance Evangelistic Church. Begun in 1960, Deliverance developed as an independent church out of the North Philadelphia home of Pastor Benjamin Smith, a Pentecostal preacher. Smith’s “concern was to have a church that worshiped God and served the total needs of the community.”6Â Over four decades, the ministry remained rooted in North Philadelphia’s poorest black neighborhoods. In time, it transcended its storefront beginnings to become a 10,000person congregation occupying a 5,000seat sanctuary and ministry complex built where a Major League Baseball stadium (Connie Mack) once stood. The Deliverance ministry began providing food, clothing, and shelter for neighborhood residents as far back as 1962. Today it is home to several dozen different outreach programs, including community patrols, special education, and a Bible school. “Ain’t God,” I have often heard Pastor Smith ask rhetorically, “so very good?”
Pastor Smith, now age 85, has always had what church folks call a “special heart” for troubled innercity youth. Thirty years ago his street outreach ministry saved one such youth, a then 16yearold guntoting gangbanger named Eugene Rivers. Smith, whom Rivers and other Deliverance “graduates” call “Pops,” was the inspiration for just about everything that Rivers and affiliated clergy have done in Boston. “Pops,” Rivers told me, “was the one who put it on the line when nobody knew and nobody cared. He stayed faithful to the kids and the black community when others fled the violence and the noise to the suburbs. More than anyone else, for me personally, he firmly embodies the black church outreach tradition, especially regarding ‘the least of these,’ the poor, and made me feel called to live up to it and to call others to do the same.”7
Organizationally, that tradition is not confined to major black denomination or independent churches. Interdenominational faithbased organizations (sometimes referred to as “prochurch” or “parachurch” organizations) that train black pastors to do outreach work, provide them with technical or financial assistance, or focus on particular communityserving projects are also very much a part of the tradition. In Boston, for example, Rev. Rivers and his church volunteers have often worked via the Ten Point Coalition, an interdenominational group of black clergy that focuses on a wide range of youth and community problems.
Likewise, in Philadelphia, Reverend Willie Richardson, pastor of Christian Stronghold Church, is also the chairman of the Center for Urban Resources (CUR). After decades as an urban outreach minister, Richardson recognized that, because of their religious origins and lack of familiarity with secular grant making organizations, many communityserving urban ministries, most especially those associated with black urban churches, were constantly struggling to obtain needed training and financial support. Working out of his own church, in 1987 he established what became CUR as an interdenominational faithbased nonprofit organization. CUR has since assisted over 550 local church leaders in obtaining training and money to perform a wide variety of communityserving tasks: preschools; day care centers; job training programs; drug counseling; shelters; programs for elderly shutins; food distribution programs; and more.8Â
Similarly, in 1994 Elder Eugene Williams helped to establish the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches (LAM), which by 1997 had grown to encompass thirtyfour black churches working in partnership to “train and develop the capacity of clergy, lay and community leaders to revitalize their communities.”9Â Among recent LAM initiatives are a literacy program for parolees who return to the community and a “one church, one school” program, described to me by Williams as sort of a “latchkey learning ministry” that tends to the educational and afterschool supervision needs of the city’s most severely atrisk black youth.
The foregoing illustrations, of course, only lightly scratch the surface of the living black church outreach tradition. Unfortunately, until quite recently, that tradition and what it portends for social action against innercity ills has been largely ignored by a strange bedfellows assortment of academics and intellectual elites.
Until the 1990s, for example, the richly religious lives of black Americans and the black church outreach tradition were given short shrift by both historians and social scientists, and not just by white historians and social scientists. Writing in 1994 in a special double edition of National Journal of Sociology, Andrew Billingsley, a dean of black family studies, noted that the subject was largely ignored even by leading black scholars who were keenly aware of “the social significance of the black church,” including many who “were actually members of a black church.”10Â
For example, James Blackwell’s 1975 book The Black Community, considered by Billingsley and several other experts to be “the best study” of its kind since Dubois’ 1899 classic The Philadelphia Negro, devoted not a single chapter to the black church; and Billingsley’s own 1968 book Black Families In White America, written as a rebuttal to the 1965 Moynihan Report, “devoted less than two pages to discussing the relevance of the black church as a support system for AfricanAmerican families.”11Â Billingsley speculates that black intellectuals ignored black churches in part out of a false fidelity to the canons of objective scholarship.
A refined and empirically wellgrounded perspective on variations in the extent of black church outreach is provided by sociologist Harold Dean Trulear, an ordained black minister who did outreach work in New Jersey, taught for eight years at the New York Theological Seminary, has conducted extensive research on black clergy training, and is presently Vice President for research on religion and atrisk youth at Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia.
“When it comes to youth and community outreach in the inner city,” Trulear cautions, “not all black urban churches are created equalÂ .Â .Â .Â Naturally, it’s in part a function of high resident membership. Innercity churches with high resident membership cater more to highrisk neighborhood youth thanÂ .Â .Â .Â black churches with innercity addresses, but increasingly or predominantly suburbanized or commuting congregationsÂ .Â .Â .Â [The high resident membership black churches] tend to cluster by size and evangelical orientationÂ .Â .Â .Â It’s the small and mediumsized churchesÂ .Â .Â .Â [especially] the socalledÂ .Â .Â .Â blessing stations and specialized youth chapels with their charismatic leader and their small, dedicated staff of adult volunteers [that]Â .Â .Â .Â do a disproportionate amount of the up close and personal outreach work with the worstoff innercity youth.”12Â
When it comes to social action against urban problems and the plight of the black innercity poor, the reality is that black churches cannot do it all (or do it alone) and that not all black churches do it. But that reality should obscure neither the black church outreach tradition nor its many and powerful contemporary manifestations from Boston to Austin, from New York to Los Angeles.
Today, a number of intellectual and policy leaders are reclaiming the black church tradition. Let me cite just two examples. First, in a 1997 essay, Boston University economists Glenn Loury and LindaDatcher Loury argue persuasively that a “spirit of selfhelp, rooted in a deepseated sense of self respect, was widely embraced among blacks of all ideological persuasions well into this century.”13Â They rebut the view that “economic factors ultimately drive” behavioral problems “involving sexuality, marriage, childbearing, and parenting,” and, in turn, challenge the notion that merely fiddling with economic incentives via policy changes can change behavior for the good. Rather, they argue, voluntary associations, “as exemplified by religious institutions,” can be valuable allies in the battle against social pathology.14Â
Although they themselves write not only as economists but as blacks attached to black churches, and despite Glenn Loury’s own quite eloquent personal testimony and researchbased meditations on the social power and potential of black spirituality and churches, the Lourys are duly cautious about just how much the churches can achieve, but without being unduly pessimistic about what, supported by other sectors of society, the churches may yet achieve.15Â
From a less academic, more practicedriven perspective, Robert L. Woodson, Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., reclaims the black church outreach tradition in his 1998 book on how “today’s community healers are reviving our streets and neighborhoods.”16Â The children depicted with Woodson in the photo on the book’s inside dust jacket are innercity District youth who have been ministered to by Tom Lewis, a retired black city police officer who has spent the last decade building a tiny neighborhood outreach ministry called The Fishing School.
Lewis is one of innumerable faithmotivated innercity leaders of all races whom Woodson has helped fund, battle inane government regulations, or otherwise supported over the last thirty years. Some of these men and women, like Freddie Garcia, an exdrug user whose Texasbased Victory Fellowship has rehabilitated (or, as people of faith generally prefer, “saved”) over 13,000 persons, are fairly well known outside church circles and faith communities. Countless others, like Lewis, who feeds, tutors, shelters, and otherwise helps scores of poor black children every week, remain faceless even to many fellow churchmen. “We’re always,” Lewis told me, “in need of extra hands and money to repair a broken pipe or what have you. But the children come, we have God, God helps always, and we always do our best.”17
Surveys of Church-Based Outreach
Still, tradition is not always prologue, and the plural of inspiring anecdote is not hard data. Black church history and presentday examples aside, just how common are blackled outreach ministries like those of Lewis, how much of what Rivers terms “highoctane faith”18Â is in the black church tank, and what, if any, more systematic evidence is there to suggest that the extent of youth and community outreach by black churches is nontrivial? As Trulear has observed, “Simply stated, there has yet to be a survey of the blessing stations and youth chapels that do most of the actual work with the worstoff kids in black innercity neighborhoods.”19Â But the path breaking research of scholars such as Eric C. Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, combined with recent systematic research by Trulear and others, should persuade even a dedicated skeptic to take churchbased outreach seriously.
The Urban Institute published the results of a survey of “faith-based service providers in the nation’s capital” in 1998.20Â The survey found that 95 percent of the congregations performed outreach services. The 226 religious congregations (out of 1,100 surveyed) that responded (67 of them in the District, the rest in Maryland or Virginia) provided a total of over 1,000 community services to over 250,000 individuals in 1996. The services included food, clothing, and financial assistance. The survey was limited to religious congregations. Local faithbased nonprofits like The Fishing School were not surveyed.
In the mid1990s a sixcity survey of how over 100 randomly selected urban churches (and four synagogues) constructed in 1940 or earlier serve their communities was undertaken by Ram A. Cnnan of the University of Pennsylvania. The study was commissioned and published by Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphiabased national nonprofit organization dedicated to the care and good use of older religious properties.21 Congregations were surveyed in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Mobile, and the Bay Area (Oakland and San Francisco). Each church surveyed participated in a series of indepth interviews.
Among the CnnanPartners survey’s key findings were the following: 93 percent of the churches opened their doors to the larger community; on average, each church provided over 5,300 hours of volunteer support to its community programs (the equivalent of two-and-a-half fulltime volunteers stationed yearround at the church); on average, each church provided about $140,000 a year in community programs, or about 16 times what it received from program beneficiaries; on average, each church supported four major programs, and provided informal and impromptu services as well; and poor children who were not the sons or daughters of church members or otherwise affiliated with the church benefited from churchsupported programs more than any other single group.
Typical of the churches behind these heartening statistics is Hyde Park Union Church, located in a Chicago neighborhood where half of recent murder victims have been juveniles. Pastored by Reverend Susan Johnson, the church sponsors Vigil Against Violence, an antiviolence grassroots initiative, and houses the State Attorney General’s Support Group for Victims of Violence program. The church also houses a Parent Support Network and operates an 89yearold daycare center that serves fifty neighborhood children, none of them congregation members. “It’s our mission,” explains Pastor Johnson, “to offer programs that stabilize family welfare.”22 “We don’t have much money,” she adds, but her church and others like it are the “most durable institutions in the communitymore so than many businesses or (even) public schools.”23Â
The best-known and still the most comprehensive survey focusing exclusively on black churches was published in 1990 by Lincoln and Mamiya.24Â In their book The Black Church in the AfricanAmerican Experience, they reported on the results of surveys encompassing nearly 1,900 ministers and over 2,100 churches. Some 71 percent of black clergy reported that their churches engaged in community outreach programs including day care, job search, substance abuse prevention, food and clothing distribution, and many others.25Â Black urban churches, they found, were generally more engaged in outreach than rural ones. While many urban churches also engaged in quasipolitical activities and organizing, few received government money, most clergy expressed concerns about receiving government money, and only about 8 percent of all the churches surveyed received any federal government funds.26Â
A number of sitespecific and regional surveys of black churches followed the publication of Lincoln and Mamiya’s book. So far, all of them have been broadly consistent with the LincolnMamiya survey results on black church outreach. To cite just two examples, in a survey of 150 black churches in Atlanta, Naomi Ward and her colleagues found that 131 of the churches were “actively engaged in extending themselves into the community.”27Â Likewise, a survey of 635 Northern black churches found that twothirds of the churches engaged in a wide range of “familyoriented community outreach programs,” including mentoring, drug abuse prevention, teenage pregnancy prevention, and other outreach efforts “directed at children and youth.”28Â
The raw data from the LincolnMamiya surveys were reanalyzed in the course of a 1997 study of black theological education certificate programs (Bible institutes, denominational training programs, and seminary nondegree programs). The study was directed by Trulear in collaboration with Tony Carnes and commissioned by the Ford Foundation.29Â Trulear and Carnes reported no problems with the LincolnMamiya data. Rather, they compared certain of the LincolnMamiya survey results to data gathered in their own survey 724 students representing 28 theological certificate programs that focused on serving black students. Again, the findings were quite consistent with those of the LincolnMamiya study. For example, threequarters of those surveyed by Trulear and Carnes reported that their church encouraged them “to be involved in my local community,” more than half said relevance to “my community’s needs” was of major importance to them in choosing a theological certificate program, and about half were already involved in certain types of charitable community work.30Â
New outreach surveys are underway. As Trulear’s colleague, P/PV’s Dine Watson, told Newsweek. “there is a lot of interest in this area now, because secular institutions have failed.”31Â
But, then again, if black church outreach is so potent, then how come innercity poverty, crime, and other problems remain so severe? That is a fair question, but it can easily be turned around: How much worse would things be in Boston and Jamaica Queens, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and other cities were it not for the until recently largely unsung efforts of faithbased youth and community outreach efforts? How much more would government or other charitable organizations need to expend, and how many volunteers would suddenly need to be mobilized, in the absence of churchanchored outreach? The only defensible answers are “much worse” and “lots,” respectively.
Citizens who for whatever reasons are nervous about religion or enhanced churchstate partnerships should focus on the consistent finding that faithbased outreach efforts benefit poor unchurched neighborhood children most of all. If these churches are so willing to support and reach out to “the least of these,” surely they deserve the human and financial support of the rest of uscorporations, foundations, and, where appropriate, government agencies.
I agree with Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine when he characterizes one of my earlier writings on black poverty as advancing the view that “religion is the key to anything good happening among the black poor” (well, at least the key to most good things that are happening among them). And I confess to being doubly in agreement with Father Neuhaus when he writes that, rather than turn our heads and harden our hearts to the plight of the black innercity poor, rather than merely exposing “liberal fatuities about remedying the ‘root causes’ of poverty and crimeÂ .Â .Â .Â there must be another way. Just believing that is a prelude to doing something. The something in question is centered in religion that is both motive and means, and extends to public policy tasks that should claim the attention of all Americans.32
1Â Judith Crocker Burris and Andrew Billingsley, "The Black Church and the Community: Antebellum Times to the Present, Case Studies in Social Reform," National Journal of Sociology, 8, numbers 1 and 2, Summer/Winter 1994, p. 26. Â Â Â Â Â
2 Â Ibid., p. 33.
3 Â Ibid.
4 Ibid., p. 44.
5 Ibid., p. 38.
6 Harold Dean Trulear, “Deliverance Evangelistic Church: Transforming Lives and Communities,” Impact, 10, no. 3, Fall 1997, p. 10.
7 Interview with author, June 1998.
8 For an overview, see Center for Urban Resources: Directory of Community Service Programs, 19951996 (Philadelphia, PA: Center for Urban Resources, 1996).
9 Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, 1997 Annual Report, p. 1.
10 Andrew Billingsley, “The Social Relevance of the Contemporary Black Church,” National Journal of Sociology, 8, numbers 1 and 2, Summer/Winter 1994, p. 3.
12 Interview with the author, June 1998.
13 Glenn Loury and Linda DatcherLoury, “Not By Bread Alone,” The Brookings Review, no. 1, Winter 1997, p. 13.
14 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
15 Ibid., and Glenn Loury, One on One From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (New York: The Free Press, May 1995).
16 Robert L. Woodson, Sr., The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods (New York: The Free Press, 1998).
17 Lewis Conversation with Princeton freshman seminar, Spring 1998.
18 Eugene F. Rivers, III, “HighOctane Faith and Civil Society,” in E. J. Dionne, Community Works, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1998), Â pp. 5963.
19 Interview with the author, June 1998.
20 Tobi Jennifer Printz, FaithBased Service Providers in the Nation’s Capital: Can They Do More? (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute,
21 Diane Cohen and A. Robert Jaeger, Sacred Places At Risk (Philadelphia, PA: Partners for Sacred Places, 1998).
22 Ibid., p. 40.
23 Ibid., p. 40.
24 Eric C. Lincoln and Lawrence W. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990)
25 Ibid., p. 151.
26 Ibid., p. 15.
27 Naomi Ward et al., “Black Churches in Atlanta Reach Out to the Community,” National Journal of Sociology, 8, numbers 1 and 2, Summer/Winter 1994, p. 59.
28 Roger H. Rubin et al., “The Black Church and Adolescent Sexuality,” National Journal of Sociology, 8, numbers 1 and 2, Summer/Winter 1994, pp. 131, 138.
29 Harold Dean Trulear and Tony Carnes, A Study of the Social Service Dimension of Theological Education Certificate Programs: The 1997 Theological Certificate Program Survey, submitted to the Ford Foundation, November 1, 1997.
30 Ibid., pp. 34, 4041.
31 Dine Watson as quoted in Leland, “Savior of the Streets,” Newsweek, June 1, 1998, p. 23.
32 Richard John Neuhaus, "The Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life," First Things, no. 81, March 1998, pp. 63-65.