George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin on a Saturday night in 2013.
The next morning, I went to church wearing a hoodie. This was mid-July and other brothers showed up similarly attired, including our pastor. This gesture was no surprise. I’d wager it was repeated in many black churches — and almost no white ones. And that speaks to a central thesis of “The Black Church,” a documentary that premieres Tuesday on PBS. When Black people and white ones talk about faith, they tend to mean different things.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who produced and hosts the documentary, tells me this is why Karl Marx was mistaken when he “criticized religion as keeping people from rebelling because they could suffer anything on Earth and go to heaven forever.” That may be true for some, but it never was for Black people. For African Americans, says Gates, church is where “we learned to worship a liberating God. We learned to develop faith in the future — and not a future after death, which was part of the religion, of course, but a future here on Earth where our children and their grandchildren would one day be free.”
It is a perspective that often confounds our white brethren. Note the more directly a black preacher confronts racial and social inequality, the more likely he is to be treated by them as counterfeit. It’s happened to Sen. Raphael Warnock, to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright.
It happened to Martin Luther King who said, “It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ but ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here.” That message is at odds with how some conceive faith. But as Rev. William Barber of the new Poor People’s Campaign puts it, “There’s something wrong with a religion that has nothing to say about the oppressive realities that exist in life. God is the God of the oppressed.”
Nor is that oppression an artifact of the past. “Barack Obama’s election woke up the sleeping giant of white supremacy,” says Gates. “I tell my students at Harvard, there are two streams flowing under the floorboards of Western culture. One is anti-Semitism, one is anti-Black racism. Barack Obama in the White House, man, that stream came erupting like Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park.”
African Americans deal with that stream as they always have: marshaling faith as “a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their own ancestors’ enslavement.” This faith, says Gates, enabled them “to make a way out of no way, not to kill themselves or kill everybody around them, to hold on, to have families, to suffer the indignities of slavery from beatings and rape, through uncompensated labor making other people rich, because one day, you would be a journalist at The [Miami] Herald and I would be sitting at Harvard University. ... They knew that a better day was coming, here on Earth.”
It is a faith that abides, as “The Black Church” documents attests. For 400 years, the church has been where we took our hurt. And found our hope.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via email at email@example.com.