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Keeping the Black Church of Los Angeles Alive

Daniel Walker speaks at the recent Passing the Mantle  Institute gathering for African American clergy and lay leaders at USC. Photo by Malllory Carra.
Daniel Walker speaks at the recent Passing the Mantle Institute gathering for African American clergy and lay leaders at USC. Photo by Malllory Carra.

From the influence of President Barack Obama to the recession and housing crisis, the needs and realities of the African American community in Los Angeles have changed — and Daniel Walker believes that the Black Church needs to evolve with it.

Walker explores those issues and more in "The Black Church Next: Challenges and Opportunities Facing African American Congregations in 21st Century Los Angeles," a report released by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC), housed in USC Dornsife.

“It’s an assessment of the first 10 years into the 21st century — where are we?” said Walker, a research associate at CRCC. “It’s an opportunity to question some old assumptions and put forth some new opportunities for dialogue.”

Walker poses important questions for the future of the Black Church in an era with disparate factors such as a declining marriage rate, influential televangelists and a shift in worship priorities. African Americans are the most religiously devout racial or ethnic group in the United States, according a study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“People have to embrace change,” Walker said. “To reach 21st-century African Americans, faith leaders have to articulate a reality that mirrors this reality versus the reality of somebody in Alabama in 1966.”

Walker noted that the image of L.A. as predominantly African American, especially in South Central and Compton, is beginning to fade. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the black population in L.A. County dropped from 9.8 percent to 8.7 percent. The data also shows that African Americans are moving from big cities and urban areas to the suburbs of the Midwest and South, especially Atlanta, which now has the greatest number of Blacks in the country outside of New York City.

Locally, Walker has seen the Black communities in cities such as San Bernardino, Rialto, Moreno Valley, Palmdale and Lancaster grow as the L.A. population has decreased.

“There is a demographic shift occurring in Los Angeles with Latinos moving into areas formerly occupied by African Americans in South Los Angeles,” said Donald Miller, executive director of CRCC. “This has resulted in major changes in the role that Black churches are playing in these neighborhoods. The generation of Black clergy who developed their ministries through the civil rights era is past. The new generation of clergy is seeking a new an identity that reflects issues present in the 21st century.”

As Latinos have moved into once chiefly Black neighborhoods, Walker pointed out, both groups have lived, worked and created families together, despite the media and other culture’s perception that they have been at odds. In 2008, the Pew Research Center found that about two-thirds of blacks and six-in-10 Hispanics think the two groups get along well.

According to Walker, however, the Black Church has yet to embrace the new face of the American family, which is multicultural and multiracial.

 


Daniel Walker speaks to fellows of the Passing the Mantle Institute in July. Photo by Malllory Carra.

“People are coming together, working out their differences, learning to live with each other, learning to love one another,” Walker said. “I think churches need to begin to recognize that. It’s not essentially where you have to have a service in different languages, but that, organically, from a spiritual standpoint, you’re embracing everybody who lives in the neighborhood.”

But is it still the Black Church when the patronage isn’t just African American? Rev. Cecil Murray, former longtime pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) and the John R. Tansey Chair of Christian Ethics in the USC Dornsife’s School of Religion, says yes.

“The challenge is outreach,” said Murray, who is a senior fellow at CRCC. “Outreach is not colorblind, but it is color rich. The color of the pews is of no significance as the color of the outreach of care. It must be green, as in the green light. That will make green as in growth.”

In the report, Walker cautions that churches need to do more than just involve the whole community, though. The rise of mega churches and televangelists who broadcast their services every Sunday morning — on TV and online — give people myriad options for how, when and where to worship.

“I often hear people say, ‘I go where the word is being preached,’” Walker said. “What they mean to say is ‘for them.’ Because everybody’s definition of ‘the word’ being preached is relative. We live in an MTV, sound bite, video world and I think the churches have found a way to tie into the generation shift that has occurred.”

Because churches appeal to cultural aesthetics, Walker added that many churches have lost their ability to articulate a social justice and human rights agenda.

The economic downturn has also changed the needs of churches’ patrons. Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that African Americans and Hispanics were hit the hardest by the recession. California has the nation’s third highest foreclosure rate, according to RealtyTrac Inc., and the second highest unemployment rate at 11.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Overall, this has left many churches without places to worship and with a shortage of donations to support themselves.

“Take that unemployment number and you’ve got an institution based on people voluntarily giving out of their excess — that’s going to create some problems,” Walker said. “How do faith leaders begin to find ways to help with the cycle of social issues around that?”

Even during the recession and with a national debt that is skyrocketing, a 2011 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University poll found that African Americans are the most hopeful people in the country. Walker said it has to do with the election of President Obama in 2008, African American culture and the ethos of the Black Church itself.

“Obama showed people that you could speak like a preacher, you could be political and you could be interracial,” Walker said. “I think it’s just very hard for other ministers to measure up to it. Many Blacks are resigned to the fact that he may not be a second-term president, but they still feel this very heartfelt sense that God did deliver. That if that could happen, all things are possible. Faith has been at the center of the African-American experience, providing hope in the midst of despair.”

Walker wrote the report as a companion to CRCC’s “Passing the Mantle” program, which is funded by The James Irvine Foundation and provides vision and practical training for the next generation of African American clergy and lay leaders.  He is also researching the “pentecostalization” of Black Los Angeles for CRCC’s Pentecostal and Charismatic Initiative.

“There was a sense that maybe some of the things we’ve learned in this process were not just about older people teaching a younger generation some things, but that there were some old assumptions that simply don’t fit for the contemporary reality,” Walker said.

View the full report on the CRCC's Web site at crcc.usc.edu