The African American church in the United States has always been more than a church: It is an act of resistance, a place of music and a vehicle for social change. This was the crux of a panel hosted by Pomona College emeritus professor of politics Dr. Lorn Foster on Feb. 24.
In collaboration with PBS SoCal, Foster hosted a screening of “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” a four-hour documentary series that “explore[s] the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, the changing nature of worship spaces and the men and women who shepherded them from the pulpit, the choir loft and church pews,” according to the PBS website.
With over 150 attendees, the screening opened with clips from the documentary, then featured a prerecorded panel filmed at Pomona, in which Foster spoke with panelists Jackie Broxton, executive director of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation, and pastor Eddie Anderson, senior pastor of the McCarthy Memorial Christian Church.
The panel focused on the history of the African American church in Los Angeles in accordance with Foster’s academic research and experiences as a native to the area. He launched the panel by explaining the importance of recognizing the early history of LA as a migrant community: Aside from the Indigenous population at the time, migrants to the California area were the ones who helped shape the church scene into what it is today.
To underscore the point, Foster told the story of an important California migrant: Biddy Mason, the namesake of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation. Born into slavery in 1818, Mason remained enslaved until her enslaver moved to California, where she eventually challenged her slave status on the basis of California’s being a free state. She won her petition in 1856, freeing herself and her family, and proceeded to accrue a considerable fortune and use that money and her midwifery skills to help those around the city, according to Broxton.
“She delivered babies for the wealthy [and] the poor; she visited jails [and] treated malaria patients,” Broxton said at the panel. “She would go to the grocer and tell the grocer [that for] anyone who needed food to put it on her bill.”
“I don’t know how we would have survived in the way that we have without the church…I really think, to a large degree, the church has been our hedge against racism.” —Jackie Broxton, executive director of the Biddy Mason charitable foundation
She also went on to help found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American church in LA. From there, Foster turned to discuss how modern churches display a philanthropic and social justice focus similar to that of early church founders such as Mason.
“They are saving not only the body but the soul and the dignity of Black folks who have come out here with hopes and dreams,” Anderson said.
Foster emphasized this by identifying the ways in which the Black church and social justice movements have been historically linked, calling attention to the 1940s Negro Victory Committee and how the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been intertwined with the church.
“I don’t know how we would have survived in the way that we have without the church,” Broxton said. “Because [when] you’re out in the world and everybody’s telling you that you can’t do this and constantly diminishing you — but when you come to church, you are a whole person and recognized as that. So I really think, to a large degree, the church has been our hedge against racism.”
The conversation moved to the inherent resistance often involved in the act of expressing African American faith and how that has been transferred to politics. Foster highlighted historical examples of the link between politics and the church such as F. Douglas Ferrell, a pastor on the California State Assembly who helped push for change in LA during the 1965 riots, he said. He also pointed to the important behind-the-scenes political actions carried out by churches.
“It’s [the] pastor and churches that are also fundraising vehicles — places where money is raised and things are transformed,” Foster said.
From there, Foster shifted to what he deemed another central feature of the African American church: music. Along with famous musicians such as Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland, radio and televangelism historically were crucial in popularizing religious messages. Foster and the panelists also touched on the different gospel music scenes around the country.
“Du Bois in ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ made the point that the African American church was not only just a sacred place, but it was [also] a place for entertainment,” Foster said. “Music has become essential to the African American church.”
Foster then transitioned into how African Americans have historically held a different relationship with faith than white people in the country, stemming back to the parts of Christianity focused on by enslavers and, as a result, the different parts of faith that African American churches accepted.
“[African American churches] accepted … both Exodus and Deuteronomy, they accepted the Psalms, they accepted Isaiah and they accepted St. Matthew’s Gospel,” Foster said. “They didn’t feel comfortable with the Pauline Letters, which were about retaining slavery, and so enslaved people and freed people created a religion that was foreign to them, that eventually became particular to their interest and to their needs.”
As the panel started wrapping up, Foster brought up the shifting demographics of African Americans in the LA area. With the diversity of denominations, types of worship and constituents, he stressed the importance of thinking of the African American church not as a monolith but as a plural entity.
Anderson echoed the importance of recognizing and appreciating the African American church for all that it is, especially with the recent rise of activist movements such as Black Lives Matter.
“I think now more than ever, we need the Black church to be the Black church at this time,” he said.
To end the panel, Foster posed the question of how to attract and retain constituents under 40 as the demographics of Black populations in LA shift and expand to different areas. In response, Anderson stressed the importance of carrying on the rich traditions and activism of the church.
“At our core, we were always best when we gave people tools for their liberation,” Anderson said. “Preach the Black future, and don’t shy away from the thing that made us the Black church in the first place.”