When Rev. William Barber II, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., was invited to be a speaker at the 2016 #FightFor15 National Convention, a movement to raise the federal minimum wage, the organizers told him to refrain from preaching because it would not resonate with younger activists.
Statistically, the organizers were correct: Though Black churches were a major hub of activism during the civil rights movement, among the millennials and Gen Zers who made up a plurality of the protesters demanding justice after George Floyd’s murder last summer, religious adherence is on the decline. In a survey of more than 8,600 Black adults across the U.S., the Pew Research Center found that, “Black millennials and members of Generation Z are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in Black churches and less likely to say religion is an important part of their lives.”
But Barber preached anyway.
“The entire place caught on fire,” Barber told Sojourners. “They actually started singing one of the great songs of the church, ‘Hold on Just a Little While Longer.’”
Afterwards, organizers were confused. They wondered why Barber’s sermon was so well received despite very low church participation amongst young activists.
“That’s the problem,” Barber said. “The way we have identified church as a structure rather than a movement.” Though young people are often less involved with organized religion, many are still involved with what Barber considers the heart of “orthodox” Christianity, including “challenging the lack of living wages, or challenging denial of health care, or challenging racism.”
Experts and young racial justice activists agree: While adherence to organized religion may not be as strong as it once was, faith and spirituality still play fundamental roles in the contemporary fight for racial justice.
Distrustful, still spiritual
Today, it’s common to see activists create candlelight vigils for Black lives lost to police brutality or light sage before a protest. According to Hebah Farrag, assistant director of research at University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, those actions function as “reclamations” of spiritual practices, a connection to religions lost through enslavement and oppression.
“I don’t see Black Lives Matter as a secularization of the civil rights movement,” Farrag explained. “I see it as a new form of faith-based action that’s more reflective of where people are today.”
Despite these spiritual practices, millennial and Gen Z activists’ distrust of religious institutions, including the Black church, is real. Farrag linked this distrust in part to the delayed acceptance or refusal to affirm different sexual orientations in many denominations, which has made many young people feel unwelcome in the church. A recent Gallup survey found that one in six adult Gen Zers identifies as LGBT.
According to Tiffany Reid-Collazo, a millennial activist in Washington, D.C., many young movement leaders distrust the church because “it has not boldly condemned its violent past and committed to doing the work of active repentance.” She added: “When I say ‘violent’ I don’t just mean the Crusades; I mean the use of a perverted faith to justify any form of white supremacy.”
Some churches’ refusal to support ideas such as defunding the police has added to tension with young activists, according to Reid-Collazo. She has also been disappointed in the church’s lack of sustained community engagement, including mutual aid, which many consider a crucial part of the Black liberation movement.
Mutual aid, the exchange of resources for communal benefit, was popularized by the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program in the late 1960s. But for many young activists today, it has become a non-negotiable part of the movement. Some organizations, like those in Washington, where Reid-Collazo lives, engage in multiple forms of mutual aid each week. They regularly distribute meals, clothing and personal hygiene products to those who may not have access to them. Volunteers have taken it a step further, organizing holiday-themed gift baskets for families in need and, during the colder months, winterizing tents for people without homes.
Churches, Reid-Collazo said, have not seen being present in or accountable to the community as part of their mandate. She said churches will not gain the trust of young activists without “understanding that [mutual aid] is what faith in action looks like, what biblical justice should look like, what Christianity should be.”
Despite this generational distrust, Reid-Collazo still sees value in faith. Much of the tension, she said, comes from a manipulation of Scripture and certain understandings of the gospel. The daughter of a pastor, Reid-Collazo was raised an evangelical Christian; though she still attends church she no longer feels comfortable identifying as Christian because it comes with “baggage” and incorrect assumptions about her beliefs.
“We are not called to hide behind the cross; we are to carry it for the hungry, the sick, the naked and the oppressed,” she said.
She chose to attend Anacostia River Church in Southeast Washington because of its focus on social justice. At Anacostia River Church, small groups not only discuss issues such as housing, food insecurity, and community safety, but also “come up with a plan on how the church can make concrete moves as [to get] involved in solving these issues,” Reid-Collazo said.
While young activists are skeptical of churches, some churches have expressed skepticism toward young activists. According to Farrag, churches initially criticized activists for not following the precedent set by previous Black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., which created a rift between the movement and faith institutions.
When Michael Brown was fatally shot in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, outrage rippled through the nation — much like it did in May 2020 after George Floyd was killed. The unrest that followed in Ferguson saw clergy and young activists protesting side-by-side, but it also highlighted generational differences.
“Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered Black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement,” Barbara Reynolds, an ordained minister and award-winning journalist, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
Barber, however, said popular memory often forgoes historical fact — especially when it comes to King and how his activism was perceived by the church of his day.
“King was put out of his denomination; he was a pastor and he was literally put out because the old line leadership didn’t agree with the way that he saw living out faith,” said Barber in reference to the hostility King faced from the leader of the National Baptist Convention, J.H. Jackson, for using nonviolent direct action tactics.
For pastors like Barber, who are part of organized religion, but also believe faith transcends the walls of the church, religious leaders need to meet today’s generation where they are: on the streets.
Last August, Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., spoke alongside family members of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and other victims of police violence at the 2020 “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march, held on the 57th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The march was organized by the National Action Network, of which Richardson is board chair.
“[The march] was grounded in a historical, significant moment in our history,” he told Sojourners. “But it was also grounded in an expectation of our future that had been foretold by those who marched in 1963.” That vision foretold in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a future many Black Americans are still fighting for — young activists and Black pastors alike.
Space to heal
Many of today’s young activists are focused on policy change, political engagement, and budget reallocation, such as “defunding the police,” to help realize that future. But Farrag said equal emphasis is placed on creating spaces in which Black people can heal from the decades of harm perpetrated by systems of oppression.
This concept, known as “healing justice,” pulls from various spiritual and religious practices, promoting the idea that by healing yourself, you can help to heal the community. Healing justice pushes back against the self-sacrificing mindset and burnout that often become common in activism spaces, where there is seemingly always more work to be done.
Dignity and Power Now in Los Angeles, which was founded in 2012 by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, hosts wellness clinics for different communities, especially those who have been incarcerated or had family members incarcerated. Dignity and Power Now provides Reiki services, acupuncture, plant medicine, and other spiritual practices to encourage healing.
“In terms of spirituality, people, particularly African Americans, have always used multiple traditions to understand their plight in the United States,” Terrence Johnson, associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University, said.
He said that Toni Cade Bambara wrote about this idea in her 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters, which examined the different kinds of healing practices that were needed after the dissolution of the Black Power movement in the 1970s.
And in some ways, these healing spaces function similarly to a church: As hubs of community and spirituality, committed not only to bettering yourself, but everyone around you.
“I don’t think the presence of the church in ‘church form’ is necessary for activism,” Rev. Traci Blackmon, an associate general minister for the United Church of Christ, said. “But the activists within a movement must have foundational and driving principles. They must have some source that nurtures them and drives the principles that cause them to act.”
Pastors like Richardson, Barber, and Blackmon hope to show young activists they’re willing to walk alongside them.
“The biblical narrative points to the fact that maintenance of buildings and support of rituals can never be more important than the people that need to be served,” Blackmon said. “And if the people of your community are out in the streets crying for justice, then the role of the church is to be there with them.”
These cries for justice, condemning institutions and demanding action, have challenged pastors to rethink how to best serve their communities. While it is not uncommon for sermons in Black congregations to address racism or provide community resources, they think this era is calling for more.
“My prayer is that the church, and all of us, would recognize that when these young people are standing against racist cops murdering people on camera or when they see corporations not willing to pay their workers anything but a compliment, to challenge that is favent of the church,” Barber said.