2015: The Year The Black Church Became Enemy Number One (Yet Again)
Rev. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple AME Church speaks about what the black church symbolizes, and how black clergy can assist in this new age Civil Rights movement.
In continuing with America's bloody tradition, black and brown bodies were destroyed in 2015. If our sons weren't being shot 17 times, our daughters were flung across classroom floors, or being forcibly mounted by law enforcement for attending a pool party on the wrong—or white—side of town.
Per usual, video tape footage was released and bullets were fired from guns of white officers. Walter Scott was shot in the back in April, Samuel DuBose shot in the head in July. Just one year after Mike Brown and three years after Trayvon Martin, America proved old habits indeed die hard, if they die at all.
Yet in between the almost routine bloodshed of African-Americans and Latinos, the black church rose to once again become a target of hatred.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Storm Roof set in motion what he hoped would be a race war. At 8:06 p.m., the 21-year-old lone gunman walked into a Bible study at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, waited an hour, and then opened fire killing those in attendance.
The brazen act, some 50 years after the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Ala. that killed four little girls, then ignited a series of several church burnings across the south; eight in 10 days by July 1. The confusion, fear and outrage was felt by everyone from faithful church attendees to those who only make it to service on Easter Sunday. Twitter and the rest of the nation asked the obvious question, #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.
Even in an age where there's an app for a Bible and social media reigns supreme, the destruction of black churches became indicative of a time many hoped had passed, but as Rev. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple AME Church notes, the black church is still considered a threat.
"Pre-Integration, it was the epicenter of power," Bryant says. "There was the old understanding that the most educated people, or the more influential people of the black community used to be the preacher, teacher and the undertaker."
Rev. Bryant, a Morehouse man, community activist and a child of Baltimore, spoke with VIBE on the six-month anniversary of the Charleston Nine shooting, and just a day after the mistrial in the Freddie Gray case. Bryant went on in length about how black clergy can assist in a movement they're for the first time not leading, the importance of remaining biblically correct in such an emotional climate and the real reason he referred to fellow clergy as "prostitutes" after endorsing Donald Trump.
Bryant maybe able to speak in tongues, but holding his for this interview wasn't an option.
VIBE: Do you think the black church will always be a target?
Rev. Bryant: I think it doesn’t hold the same strength and dominance it did before. The black preacher used to be the central, vocal prevailing presence, that and the black press. But now, with so many other entities that have come about, you don’t find that same level of consistent strength, but I’m hoping that it will be restored.
Today (Dec. 17) marks the six-month anniversary of the Charleston Nine shooting, which then set off a wave of church burnings across the south. As a member of the clergy, how did that make you feel?
It really was unnerving and disturbing for me. I happen to be AME, third generation AME, my grandfather hails from right outside of Charleston and he is the presiding bishop of the AME church. It was not just a news story for me, it was really a feeling of loss of an extended family. It was very painful and felt like a lost episode of the Twilight Zone. I would have never imagined that in 2015 we would be facing such horrific atrocities.
Dr. King insisted the word “Christian” be added to the title “Southern Christian Leadership Conference” because he believed in the church's moral commitment to change. How can the church assist in the country’s moral commitment to change?
I think standing on the same conviction that Christianity is your moral compass. I think the prophetic mantel of Dr. King was to not be politically correct but to be biblically correct.
The New York Daily News quoted you as calling your fellow clergymen "prostitutes" after attending a meeting with Donald Trump and later endorsing him. Just so I’m clear, do you take issue with them endorsing a Republican, or do you take issue with them endorsing Donald Trump?
The “prostitution” reference was selling out the community and the body of the black church because we had not been able to get 100 pastors to stand in Ferguson. We couldn’t get 100 pastors in Chicago, and none of these 100 hundred pastors have been actively involved. My lead point of reference is the convener of the Donald Trump meeting was Bishop Darrell Scott who hails out of Cleveland, Ohio and has not said a word about Tamir Rice, and on the one year anniversary of Tamir Rice, while the other pastors were outside of City Hall in Cleveland, he was at a barn outside of Macon, GA giving an introduction to Donald Trump. There are just so many layers of conflict, I just couldn’t sleep at night and remain silent.
You just brought up Tamir Rice, and you’re in Baltimore and your city is having a hard time with the mistrial. How can you and other faith leaders assist in the healing of communities ravaged by police brutality?
I love the word you just used, which is assist. What I have been championing is the fact that in the last 100 years this is the first Civil Rights movement not led by the church or black clergy. So the Black Lives Matter has caused a cultural conflict for the church because it has put pastors in a place of having to readjust their position of being a part of something you don’t lead, which is absolutely different from historically where we’ve been. In assisting, that would mean opening our churches up for young people Black Lives Matter to be able to meet. Extending all of these church buses for them and to lend an economic hand and finding out what fiscal ways we can be of support. It’s an adjustment for us to be a part of something that doesn’t have officers, where you don’t have a title but you can embrace and assist.
How are you feeling after hearing there was a mistrial?
I think one of the things that’s very clear is that, two things. One: We cannot confuse a mistrial for a not guilty verdict, and the second thing is that one out of five inner city blacks is in some way familiar with the penal system. Those of us who live on the cusp needed an interpretation. Those who lived in the heartbeat already knew what it meant. You didn’t see any great uprising because people knew what that meant. Marilyn Mosby is refilling today to take officer William Porter [back to the courtroom] as is her prerogative and I really think this was a message for us that this is not going to be a walk in the park. This is really going to be an enduring, grueling process and unlike other cities, we’ve got six trials to sit through, which is going to be significant and it’s going to be timely. As I said to some young people, you can’t be angry that long, I mean it’s just abnormal and unhealthy. So we’re really going to have process pain and frustration, and know you’re not going to get victory in a day.
I spoke with Rev. Al Sharpton a while back and while he admires the Black Lives Matter movement and he admires the passion that’s taking place, he said he also thinks that sometimes we get angry and then we cool off. He then went on to explain that Montgomery Bus Boycott was a year long and that’s how they were bale to make sincere change. Do you think that may be an issue that is plaguing this Snapchat generation? That we get angry, rightfully so, and we just kind of cool off?
I think you have a couple of examples that say that isn’t so. It took a year for us to get the [Laquan McDonald] video released in Chicago, but they stayed with it. I think we happen to have sustainability, and when you trace it back that the birth of this movement started with Trayvon Martin, and has maintained itself in all different ways across the country. I don’t think it's microwave. Consider that the average protester is 19, when Trayvon Martin was killed they were 15, so in that lifetime of consciousness, this generation has not seen a judicial victory and yet they have maintained their momentum in sustaining the movement, so I think they aught to really be applauded. In the 60s, you saw incremental advances in changes. It was first we integrate the bus, then we integrate the water fountain, then we integrate housing, then integrate the lunch counter. This generation hasn’t witnessed one victory in criminal justice, yet the movement has sustained itself. While it’s slow cooking, it may not be a crock pot, but we’re pushing the button, waiting for the stuff to warm up. But I’m appreciative of the relentless of the movement.
Do you think forgiveness, or can forgiveness be used as a tool by white supremacist? Trayvon Martin’s mother has been nothing but strength and class in the wake of her son’s death and the acquittal of her son’s killer. Mike Brown’s mother was visibly shaken, when Darren Wilson didn’t even get indicted and her behavior was taken into question. Do you think forgiveness is sometimes used as a way to “keep us inline?”
I think it’s amazing that whenever there’s tragedy within our community they only use the word “forgiveness” and spout non-violence. It’s amazing. No where in the GOP debate on FOX news has anybody issued the utterance “Should we just forgive what they did in San Bernardino, California?" You don’t hear that word forgiveness until it comes to black people. Yesterday, I'm inundated with questions. Are we going to forgive? We as protesters, members of the community be non-violent but you hear absolutely nothing about raising the question from any reporter, liberal or conservative, will police officers be non violent? So I think that it is in fact a tool of control and not a reflection of compassion.