The prophet Ezekiel tells of a vision in which he is sent into a valley of bones by the Lord. The dry bones symbolize the people’s despondency in their time of exile, and God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”
The late Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor believed that we are again living in a valley of dry bones. It can certainly be said that this is a dry-bones time for African Americans. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that every 44 minutes a black baby dies; every seven minutes a black baby is born to a mother with late or no prenatal care; every 85 seconds a black child is born in poverty; and every 40 seconds of the school day a black child drops out.1 Dr. Proctor wondered, as do I at times, “Can these bones live?”
Dr. Proctor believed that the answer lies in five separate efforts that need to be blended: individual involvement, family rejuvenation, specialized teacher training for public schools, a national program to recapture falling and lost youth, and more committed church leadership.2
Even at a time when many mainline churches are seeing declines in membership, church attendance, and giving, studies show that churches are still the central institutional sector in most African American communities.3 How effective is the church in addressing the real needs of African American communities? What kind of leadership is required in such a time as this?
I recently had the pleasure of talking with two great thinkers and religious leaders—Rev. Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders and Rev. Dr. Robert M. Franklin—who are renowned for their commitment to the African American church and the church at large. We spoke about signs of strength and markers of hope; about challenges for leadership and unfinished agendas in terms of the well-being of God’s people; about the church as a national and global citizen. Here are their insightful and prophetic comments.
Dr. Sanders, as you observe the work of the African American church, what do you see?
Well, I see a mixed picture. I see signs of people being empowered—led by gifted and empowering leaders. But I also see people who are weary. There is a struggle to stay motivated, and there are so many challenges black leaders face. There are such high expectations of black church leaders—activism, community work, et cetera. They have full plates. But I see breakthroughs.
Where do you see those—are there any in your church?
I see breakthroughs everywhere I look. For example, in our church we minister to the poor. We do it with a humane, affirming mutuality rather than the soup kitchen approach. One thing we have been able to do is hire a full-time social worker. People can make an appointment with the social worker to talk about drug treatment, job searches, things like that. Ministry partners help pay the social worker’s salary, but we are the point of contact. I see signs that people’s lives are changing. But you have to be in it for the long haul. This means being committed to be who we are called to be, in season and out. When season is in, you look for a breakthrough. When it’s not, you hang in there.
You talked about people being empowered for ministry. What do you see in terms of lay leadership?
In some clergy I see a desire to up the ante and to up their titles. For example, in my denomination we have a strict congregational policy. But many individuals are becoming consecrated bishops. Is the increase in power a way to diminish the power of laypeople? I’m not saying this necessarily means that laypeople are not empowered. But it looks like further empowering the people who have had power all along. We need to ask ourselves: What kinds of governance will serve the needs of the church? What best serves the community at large? Why are we here, to encourage individuals to have power—or to facilitate our organizations and bring the power of god to bear in the lives of people?
What can the African American church do to lead the church at large?
I am doing a Bible study on Genesis and Exodus. One thing we are discovering is how difficult it is to convince people to what to be free. Empowerment of people, liberation of people—these are the issues that should matter to African American people who are still discriminated against. We are not free; we are an oppressed people. The empowerment of African American people is critical for them to see that, morally, when we fight for justice we must implement justice. We need to see this in church leadership and secular leadership also. This means moving toward equity and reconciliation. Let’s not pretend that it didn’t happen but repent. Let’s take responsibility for the stuff we have done wrong, for the benefit of the next generation. In slavery times, people prayed for a better future for the next generation. We are blasé about education, blasé about health care. The black church has not distinguished itself as a place that gives priority to the children. We need to take responsibility for the future.
Where are signs of hope?
Dr. Delores Carpenter has a new book, A Time for Honor.4 She has a lot to say about what African American women are doing in ministry. The empowerment of these women for leadership is one of the most meaningful signs of hope for the African American church. Women bring more of a focus on the family in ministry. In true partnership, then, we can move forward as a family of God rather than as one group pitted against the other.
Dr. Franklin, as a public theologian, what do you think are the challenges facing the African American church today?
Part of the challenge for the black church is reconciling the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movement. This means eradicating economic injustice, which includes helping people who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Dr. King would invest his energy here in terms of ethical commitment. It means the alleviation of poverty. We must help people move from dependency and welfare to self-sufficiency. But the mission of public theology isn’t simply the social gospel agenda. It includes the larger responsibility of vision, imagination, and discourse that will move us toward an inclusive, just, and beloved community. At a time of dramatic demographic change, we must reckon with the fact that we are one nation on a tiny globe. How are we global citizens, and what is our responsibility in that global community? Bringing the values of the Christian faith to engage that vision means sharing prosperity, reconciliation, forgiveness, and responsible race relations. Ultimately, the question is what kind of world will we bequeath to the children, given the wretched condition of public education, the large numbers of our youth who are incarcerated, the public health crisis of HIV/AIDS, and the disturbing manner in which we’ve reconciled ourselves to violence in public and private life? These symptoms of a deeper spiritual crisis ought to keep mature Christians awake at night. Vision and imagination are works of the Spirit; what is locked inside them can be released and give us a plan from which to work.
What gives you hope?
I am encouraged by the tentative but determined actions taken by denominations, local congregations, and individuals to reckon with America’s most difficult challenges, for example, the determination to speak the unspeakable. When denominations apologize for their role in slavery, I see that as a sign of hope. I see hope also at the local level, where congregations work on racism and on intragroup relations. To see black leaders in our community who have been shy about speaking about sexuality and disease speaking tentatively but determinedly on doing something about HIV/AIDS and committing resources to do so—this is a sign of hope. As one
who resides in a seminary setting, what I see in students who will be leaders in three to 10 years is very encouraging. I see black, white, and Latino seminarians coming on the scene. They have fewer hang-ups and are willing to experiment. They are willing to be taught by different people. I am very encouraged.
What resources do we need for the future?
Howard Thurman used to teach that personal spiritual renewal was a precursor for effective social ministries. He would say that we need to retreat from the “traffic of daily life” to find moments to “center down”—to reflect, pray, discover, and read. There will always be a critical need for all clergy to practice the rituals of spiritual renewal and spiritual empowerment.
Toward New Life
In order for dry bones to live, church leaders must work in coalition with others to raise valleys and make crooked places straight. They must daily share power with the laity and renew their own spiritual power. Signs of hope, such as speaking of what was previously unspoken and the development of new and encouraging mutual ministries that serve the whole person, point to true liberation for God’s people.
1. See www.childrendefense.org.
2. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith (New York: G.P. Puttnam’s Sons, 1995), p. 202.
3. See C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990).
4. A Time for Honor: A Portrait of African American Clergywomen (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).