African American

History Facing History: When Pope and President Meet

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When President Obama meets with Pope Francis tomorrow, the world will catch a glimpse of what history looks like. The first pope from the global South in 1200 years will be welcomed in the White House by the first African-American president of the United States. This picture will be worth far, far more than a thousand words.

Pundits will analyze each public word spoken, and search for hints about the private words exchanged between these two. The politics of Pope Francis’ interaction with the President, and later with Congress, will fuel incessant speculation from Washington’s insiders. But around the world, and particularly in the global South, it’s the symbol of this meeting which will matter.

Pope Francis represents the changing face of world Christianity. Today, one billion Christians are found in Latin America and Africa. In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than in the North for the first time in a thousand years. Every day, that movement accelerates. Francis’ words about the world’s injustices, and his actions of humble human solidarity, project the voice and longings of world Christianity’s new majority and resonant far beyond the boundaries of this faith.

President Obama symbolizes the changing demographics of America. Hope and demographics elected him in 2008, and by 2012 the changing face of the electorate in the U.S. proved determinative of America’s political future. Today, a majority of babies born in the U.S. are non-white, and some major urban areas already reflect the coming reality of a society without a racial majority.

From the Archives: July 1987

[W]hen I was in junior high, I decided I wanted to become the first black woman ordained in the Lutheran Church. ... At Wesley I enjoyed being a student again, until one of the black seminarians asked, “How can you be black and be Lutheran?” I didn’t know. I had never thought about it. The Lutheran Church is predominantly white, ethnically German and Scandinavian. It is highly structured and without the display of lively emotions most blacks are used to in their religious experiences. The Lutheran Church was the only church I had ever really known, and yet suddenly I was thrust into an identity crisis that really rocked me. ...

I am still learning who this black woman pastor is. I am still learning how to use who I am as a black person and as a woman to provide a strong witness for the church. I have no doubts that being black and a woman are important and integral to who I am, and yet for me those factors are not the issue in ministry.

The issue is sharing together the sacramental moments of our lives, the times when heaven and earth touch—holy communion, baptism, worship, touching people, and being touched by them when we celebrate joys and huddle together in pain. The issue is that we share a relationship with God and with each other, and it takes many talents and a variety of people to populate our church. 

Laura Griffin was the second black woman to be ordained in the American Lutheran Church.

Image: Mosaic of resurrected Christ,  / Shutterstock ">

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July 2015
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Bonhoeffer's Harlem Renaissance

During his 1930-31 fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined his African American classmate Albert Fisher as a regular attendee at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

WHEN BONHOEFFER entered Harlem with Fisher, he met a counternarrative to the white racist fiction of black subhumanity. The New Negro movement radically redefined the public and private characterization of black people. A seminal moment in African American history had arrived, and all of Bonhoeffer’s descriptions of his involvement in African American life during his Sloane Fellowship year occurred during this critical movement. He turned 25 that February. Bonhoeffer was experiencing that critical moment in African American history while he was still young and impressionable.

The New Negro, a book containing a collection of essays, was edited by one of the leading intellectual architects of the movement, Alain Locke. The New Negro, as Locke and his authors appropriated the term, described the embrace of a contradictory, assertive black self-image in Harlem to deflect the negative, dehumanizing historical depictions of black people. The New Negro made demands, not concessions: “demands for a new social order, demands that blacks fight back against terror and violence, demands that blacks reconsider new notions of beauty, demands that Africa be freed from the bonds of imperialism.” Bonhoeffer knew the movement by the descriptor New Negro, but James Weldon Johnson preferred to describe the movement as the Harlem Renaissance ... as a rebirth of black people rather than something completely new. ...

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New & Noteworthy

In 2011, Raul Guerrero provided 100 Kodak disposable cameras and taught basic photography skills to nine young students in the Newlands area of Moshi, Tanzania. The Disposable Project book brings together their images of their community, with text by Guerrero.

“Migration has been, for centuries, not only a source of controversy but a source of blessing,” Deirdre Cornell writes in Jesus Was a Migrant. Inspired by ministering among immigrants in different settings, this is a beautifully written set of deeply humanizing reflections on the immigrant experience and Christian spirituality. Orbis Books

The New Black is a documentary film on how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights. Focusing on the campaign for marriage equality in Maryland, it shows activists, families, and clergy on both sides of the campaign, with special attention to the role played by the black church.

Some Christians happily become “non-goers” to official churches. In How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community, Kelly Bean explores the reasons and the channels some have found (or founded) for service, pastoral care, and discipleship. Baker Books

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A National Shame

AFRICAN AMERICANS around the country are finding it is dangerous to call 911. Jack Lamar Roberson’s family in Waycross, Ga., discovered this the hard way when they placed an urgent call to 911 in October 2013 because his fiancée thought that he had taken an overdose of diabetes medicine.

Instead of sending EMTs, the dispatcher sent the police. Within 20 seconds of being in the house, police shot Roberson nine times, with bullets striking his back, arms, chest, and head as he held his arms up in the air. Although he was a veteran, he did not die from bullet wounds at the hands of strangers in a foreign land. Instead, white police gunned him down in his home.

Killings like this—which could be called anti-black hate crimes by police—are far too common. “Operation Ghetto Storm,” a 2012 report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Project, revealed that white police officers, security guards, or vigilantes kill an unarmed black man, woman, or child every 28 hours in the U.S. In 2012, police officers shot 57 people in Chicago—50 were black, two were white. Miami police officers killed seven black men within eight months in 2011. The Houston-based African-American News & Issues headlined an article this spring: “Open Season on Blacks in Texas: Cops Are Shooting First & Not Asking Questions.”

These police killings of black people emerge out of a culture and system of white supremacy. In such a context, police killing of black people is not a black problem. It is an American problem that shreds the curtains of democracy.

Far too many people deny the place of race in these incidents. Instead, they accuse advocates for racial justice of playing the race card. Rather than coming face to face with the soil that breeds these crimes, these detractors blame or slander the victims—or they simply shift their gaze away from these deaths.

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The Criminality of Blackness

Dabarti CGI/

A core spiritual lie keeps us from seeing what is because we only see what we expect. Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.coA

There is a moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, when readers witness the transformation of a stereotype into a human being.

Set in Salinas Valley, Calif., around the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Hamilton picks up Lee, his friend's Chinese servant. Lee wears a queue and speaks Pidgin English. Moments after meeting him, Hamilton learns that Lee was born in the U.S. and asks why he still can’t speak English.

Lee’s face and eyes soften and he speaks perfect English, explaining that he speaks Pidgin for the whites in town to understand him. Lee says, “You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

Did you catch that? Lee plays the role of the foreigner in order to be seen and understood.

Enduring Family Values

NEARLY 50 YEARS ago, the U.S. Department of Labor issued one of the most controversial and influential reports of our time, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” aka “The Moynihan Report,” named after its author Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The March 1965 report offered our nation’s first comprehensive look at the roots of poverty in the African-American community 100 years after the Civil War. The picture wasn’t pretty.

Pointing to black poverty’s roots, Moynihan started with the hell that was the U.S. slave system: “American slavery was profoundly different from, and in its lasting effects on individuals and their children, indescribably worse than, any recorded servitude, ancient or modern.” Going on to quote Nathan Glazer, Moynihan illuminated the absolute powerlessness and dehumanization of enslaved black people under antebellum law and within the social structures of slavery.

Moynihan went on to examine the impact of the Reconstruction period, urbanization, unemployment, and inequitable wages on African Americans’ economic station in U.S. society. He concluded that the single greatest result of these forces was black families’ demise. And the single greatest result of this demise was entrenched poverty, according to Moynihan.

A 2013 Urban Institute report, “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” reflected that in the early 1960s Moynihan was alarmed that 20 percent of black children lived in single parent households with their mothers (not their fathers), but by 2010, 20 percent of white families lived in such households while 53 percent of black children were being raised by their mothers. According to the Urban Institute, fatherlessness in the U.S. has gotten worse, and it is no respecter of race.

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A History of Discrimination Earns President Obama a Right to Speak

RNS photo by Pete Souza/The White House.

President Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, RNS photo by Pete Souza/The White House.

 I first learned about President Obama’s comments about racism and the Trayvon Martin case last week when a Facebook friend posted a link with this comment:

“Full text of the American President’s divisive and racist remarks today. He moves smoothly into his new role as race-baiter in chief.”

My friend’s anger was matched by many others from PowerLine to Breitbart. But what I read seems to me as controversial as tomorrow’s sunrise and incendiary as wet newspaper.

Let me try an analogy.

Imagine that Joe Lieberman had been elected our first Jewish president. And that in a moment of crisis, he felt compelled to explain that some reaction to even the hint of anti-Semitism is partly explained by the Jewish cultural memory of the Holocaust. And he included personal anecdotes about growing up Jewish in America.

Would he be accused of being divisive and guilty of whatever the Jewish equivalent of “race-baiting” might be?

Southern Baptists Push for More Black Missionaries

Photo courtesy International Mission Board

Fred Luter, left, visits with villagers in Uganda on May 28. Photo courtesy International Mission Board

Fred Luter had a lot of firsts in the last year: first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention; first time chairing the denomination’s annual meeting, this week, in Houston; and recently, first-time missionary.

“It was inspirational, but also very humbling in a lot of instances, just to see how some people are living,” Luter said, days after returning from Ethiopia and Uganda.

Struck by the poor living without running water and by missionaries willing to “leave the comforts that we have here in America,” Luter wants more members ofhis New Orleans congregation — as well as more of the nation’s 16 million Southern Baptists — to take overseas missions seriously.

In particular, he wants more of his denomination’s relatively small black population to serve as missionaries.