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Brion stands on a street and leans against a brick wall

Black Activism, Unchurched

Emma Green

The Atlantic

A new generation of young leaders in Baltimore are largely organizing outside of congregations. What does this mean for their movement—and for the Church?

Where is the Church in the Black Lives Matter movement?

The spirit of the black Church has long animated the movements for civil rights and social justice in America. The call and response, the vocabulary of oppression and solidarity: These are the languages of sanctuaries and pews, of Sunday morning worship and Bible-study vigils.

But in the black- and youth-led political activism of the last several years, the Church hasn’t been nearly as visible as it was in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. After many decades in which the most prominent black activists were ministers, religious leaders seem to be playing supporting roles in the most recent wave of activism.

In Baltimore, this is particularly stark. Nearly a year ago, the city saw widespread riots and political outcry after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died of spinal injuries while in the custody of police. The long vibrant local activist community caught national attention, including a widely shared moment in the conflict when community leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder with gang members in a northwest-Baltimore church. In an earlier generation, Baltimore’s churches might have been the primary staging grounds for organizing protests and political action. Increasingly, though, the church is more of a backdrop.

In a 1976 interview, Enolia McMillan, the Baltimore NAACP president who would later become the first female head of the organization, observed that its “most dependable support … comes from the churches in Baltimore.”

“The main resources were bodies,” said Derek Musgrove, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The church was the organizational center of the community. You were guaranteed to see a certain number of people every Sunday, and a lot of those people were going to be participating in church activities throughout the week. You could get access to them.”

These days, there are fewer young black bodies in church pews. Although black 18-to-29-year-olds tend to identify as religious more than their white, Hispanic, and Asian peers, slightly less than a third don’t see themselves as part of any particular faith, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. They’re much less affiliated than their older black peers who are under 50, roughly a fifth of whom identify with no particular religion, and significantly less than those over 50, only a tenth of whom don’t have a religion.

Just as young black activists aren’t necessarily in the church, church leaders aren’t necessarily in the streets. During the protests following Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of city police nearly year ago, pastors led drives to distribute food and water and efforts to open churches as safe spaces. Clergymen spoke at Freddie Gray’s funeral; a local mega-church pastor, Jamal Bryant, declared that police had seen Gray as a threat “simply because he was man enough to look someone in authority in the eye.”

“I don’t think that people give enough credit to the Church or the Church’s involvement,” said Brion Gill, a 25-year-old who describes herself as a poet, organizer, and cultural curator, who is pictured above. But, she said, “the idea that it’s not abundantly clear how many churches are involved in this work speaks to the lack thereof.” There are probably as many views of the Church’s role in activism, and of activism’s relationship to religion, as there are activists in Baltimore. But, as Gill observed, the fact that it’s even a question suggests that something once powerful has changed.

Even Bryant—a fairly prominent figure in national protest movements, who was arrested in Ferguson and briefly mounted a campaign for Congress in September—sees a limit to his leadership in this movement. “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church. The Black Lives Matter movement, largely speaking, is not,” he said. “The Church is having to readjust: How do you become a part of something you don’t lead?”

Reverend Jamal Bryant speaks to attendees during a rally protesting the shooting death of the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. (Brian Blanco / Reuters)

For a while, Bryant’s church, Empowerment Temple AME, was a hip place for young singles in Baltimore. “It was like a club,” Gill said. “The music, the performances, the flashiness of it all—it was a spectacle. But that’s part of the draw. … It’s an inviting space for young people.”

On a Sunday morning in March, though, there didn’t seem to be many 20-somethings in the church’s chairs. The congregation’s building used to be a skating rink, and the sanctuary, which is roughly the length of a football field, was about three-quarters full by the time the 9:30 a.m. service got underway. The crowd was predominantly women who looked to be in their 40s and 50s. The 11:30 skews younger, parishioners said, but there didn’t seem to be many young folks in the sanctuary as that service got started, either.

“I started the church at 29,” Bryant said. Now he’s in his mid-forties. “As I’ve aged, the church has aged.” The church’s relationship with a younger demographic group had become “strained” over time, he said—until Freddie Gray’s death. After giving the eulogy at Gray’s funeral, Bryant organized several demonstrations in the city. In the months following last April’s protests, Empowerment Temple raised money for and coordinated the opening of the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center, which provides free meals, mentorship, and programs for local kids. “The uprising, in a real way, made the church more palatable for those who were, quite frankly, disgusted with church,” the pastor said.

But Bryant—and the Empowerment Temple—have also gone through some rough times over the past several years. He and his wife filed for divorce in 2008, in part because Bryant had an affair—“nothing in my mind ever said … that my church would tank out,” he said later. As The Baltimore Sun wrote at the time, “Bryant and his wife, a former model, are known for their flashy lifestyle, which includes a Bentley and a multimillion-dollar Canton waterfront property. … Her original divorce complaint stated that he earned more than $350,000 a year.” Gizelle Bryant is now one of the stars of The Real Housewives of Potomac.

In an interview, Bryant criticized black churches that have “moved in focus to personal attainment”—he doesn’t see himself as a prosperity-gospel preacher. He recently endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, praising the senator’s focus on the poor. During services, though, money—and its associated status—played a prominent role. Early on, he gave a shout-out to Beyoncé and Jay Z for donating $27,000 to the church for economic development. Later, after saying, “This week, I want you not to stress about finances,” he asked all attendees to give $65 dollars. (“If you only have $70, we don’t have change.”) Churchgoers tucked checks into envelopes labeled “Economic Empowerment,” holding them above their heads in unison before marching to the front of the sanctuary, communion-style, to deposit their contributions. “I don’t have to worry,” they sang, “‘cause he’s working for me.”

“The uprising made the church more palatable for those who were, quite frankly, disgusted with church.”

To an extent, this is how a lot of congregations work: Donations, often framed as tithing, keep the church going. But the overall sheen of the Empowerment Temple—the gilded chairs set on the pulpit up front, the shout-out to Bey and Jay, the many headshots of Bryant sporting his Ray-Ban glasses and fly suit—seems somewhat at odds with the politics of the national Black Lives Matter movement and the left-wing organizing community in Baltimore. There are other, more complex reasons why young black folks might not feel welcome at this and other churches, too. For one: “There are a lot of queer bodies who are a part of this movement, and they feel ostracized in the church space,” Gill said. Many black pastors, including Bryant, have been vocal opponents of homosexuality; in 2012, Bryant harshly criticized Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Like activists anywhere, some of the people I spoke with in Baltimore had harsh words for their community’s established institutions, and were skeptical about how and where Bryant has chosen to use his powerful voice. In conversations about the Church, young people, and activism, his name seemed to keep coming up. “It’s interesting, the times when you see him: when cameras are present, when there’s a huge media presence,” said Gill. “I thought it was interesting that he found himself in Ferguson, praying for Mike Brown’s family and giving them guidance in Ferguson, as if there’s not a whole city in Baltimore that needed the same kind of work.”

Gill and her peers have already taken leadership roles in Baltimore’s political-organizing efforts; they’re concerned with long-standing issues such as economic inequality and police brutality. Intentionally or not, they’re also experimenting with what new forms of religiosity and spirituality—often framed in political language—might look like. As 21-year-old Kwame Rose, another local activist, put it, “Young black people are pushing the older generation out of the way and saying, ‘This is our movement. This is our time to lead.’”

The street artist Justin Nethercut painted this mural of Freddie Gray at the corner of North Mount and Presbury streets, where Gray was arrested last year.

Makayla Gilliam-Price is not yet 18. She has led mass walk-outs from her high school, organized protests against police violence, and been arrested in front of City Hall. She has never voted, but she said she’s “extremely excited” to do so soon in her hometown of Baltimore in this election, despite the fact that the local and presidential races are “a hot mess.”

Gilliam-Price, in some ways, exemplifies the new profile of a civil-rights activist: She is insanely young, hyper-eloquent, black, queer, and female. But like many activists, she resists labels and clean descriptions. She also less interested in rejecting the work of earlier generations than in building on their legacy.

At least in this city, the “intergenerational beef,” as another organizer called it, between young activists and their elders might be trumped up. “The people who were organizing in the ’60s—we call them our OGs,” Gilliam-Price said. These were the men and women who stood at the front of protests against discrimination in schools, organized rallies after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and sat at the tables of voter-registration drives. “Organizing through the churches made sense,” said Musgrove, the UMBC professor. Groups like the NAACP tapped into the money and large communities of congregations, and “they were able to run a lot of the campaigns for desegregation for public facilities in downtown Baltimore—from right after World War II all the way until the sit-ins at Morgan.”

The OGs of political activism were church people, but Gilliam-Price and many of her peers are not. Religion is “just not me,” she said. She had harsh words for a class of pastors, including Jamal Bryant, whom she referred to as “poverty pimps”—“nominal church leaders who are definitely just out there for their names and for their brands,” she said. “I went to a protest in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood in Gilmor Homes, and there was a pastor marching with his Instagram handle on his shirt. Church leaders have been exploiting this movement for everything that it has.”

“Church leaders have been exploiting this movement for everything that it has.”

Or take Rose, the activist who gained media attention after a clip of his confrontation with Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera during the Freddie Gray riots was shared widely on social media. He described himself as a “representative of the unengaged” who is not really affiliated with any particular grassroots group; he says he’s “always been anti-organizational.” In his view, the structure of the Church is inherently at odds with the kind of community work he’s doing. “The Church makes you fight toward the system and engage the system,” he said. “We’re not trying to change the system. We’re trying to build our own systems.”

This is not a new idea. “Baltimore is a local representation of a national concern,” said Musgrove. “Black politics have oscillated between separatism and integration as strategies for achieving black equality since the end of slavery.” The language of black nationalism now used by some young activists almost feels stolen from an earlier time. But Musgrove sees the reasons for it as very much of this era: one of declining economic fortunes for black Americans, police brutality, and overt racism in U.S. politics. “The Black Lives Matter movement is, to a certain degree, a reaction to the bitter disappointment of the Obama years,” he said. “These folks have come to political maturity at a time when … there was this real hope that Obama would create a new era. And they have seen that the aftermath of that claim that things have, in many cases, gotten worse.” Unlike their predecessors in the ’60s and ’70s—who included black liberation theologians such as James Cone—the current generation of young black activists is calling for a network of black institutions built outside the context of the strongest black institution there is: the Church.

That’s not to say that all activists have fully rejected Christianity. Many, like Gill, attend services regularly. As an adult, she chose her own house of worship: Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, a small congregation formally established in 1933 near Towson University. The pastor there, 35-year-old Heber Brown III, sees a direct connection between political organizing and Christianity. The young activists of Baltimore, he said, “are hungry for an expression of God.”

The young activists of Baltimore “are hungry for an expression of God.”

But a lot of young, politically active folks aren’t looking for that expression at church. Shaivaughn Crawley, a 21-year-old student at the Community College of Baltimore County, is a Christian and an aspiring pastor, but he said most of his friends in the activist community aren’t religious. “A lot of people tell me they don’t identify as a Christian, but they feel something when they protest,” he told me at West Wednesday, a weekly vigil for a Baltimore man named Tyrone West who died after being beaten by police more than two years ago. Gill said she often hears something similar from her friends, especially those who identify as “spiritual but not religious”: “You’ll hear them say, ‘I want a relationship with the Creator,’ but they don’t feel the need to manifest that relationship within the church space.” These encounters have made her rethink her understanding of what church and spirituality are, she said. “When I think about what the Bible calls for us to do, it is very much in my mind tied to the work we do as activists and organizers,” she said. “The church space is not always in the four walls of Pleasant Hope.”

Fewer young people may be interested in the Church, but the Church is definitely still interested in them. That’s how young, unchurched activists may inadvertently end up leading not only political change, but also change within the Church itself.

On Wednesday, March 2, supporters joined Tyrone West's sister, Tawanda Jones, on the corner of Greenmount and East 33rd St. for West Wednesday, a weekly demonstration and vigil led by the family since the death of West more than two years ago during an encounter with the police.

“I don’t think Pastor Brown takes the stance of being hip. But he’s woke.”

Jackie Thomas, 27, officially became a member of Pleasant Hope in February. She’d been attending for a while, part of a relatively new, fairly small crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who have joined the church since Brown was hired eight years ago to bring in more young people. Worship services at Pleasant Hope still attract a lot of older folks, but a decent handful of younger-looking people—almost all women—showed up on a Sunday in February. The sermon that morning was ostensibly about healthy sexual relationships, but scathing critiques of capitalism and corporations also got significant airtime. (“I have leftist proclivities,” Brown explained.) In a service filled with joyful singing, Brown even did a little butt-wiggle-and-hand-twirl dance as he came up to the pulpit. Not hip, but woke.

During the uprising last spring, Brown said, he and other members of Pleasant Hope were out in the streets with the protesters, trying to maintain order and handing out water bottles. A lot of pastors and other religious leaders were out, including those who represented various mosques and the Nation of Islam. But Brown’s activism hasn’t been limited to protests that made national news. He has also been involved in a large number of initiatives to “build black institutions,” as he puts it, “so that we’re not constantly … dependent on making moral arguments to an immoral system in hoping that one day it sees the light.” This includes the Black Church Food Security Network, an effort to grow and bring fresh produce from farms and backyard gardens into black churches and neighborhoods. Every few months, Pleasant Hope hosts Orita’s Cross Freedom School, where a couple dozen black kids gather to learn about African history, civic engagement, and the arts. The church is involved in voter-registration efforts, and in February, it held a forum for mayoral candidates. Brown also works with political organizations such as Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a group of former high-school debaters headed up by Gill, who went to Howard, and three other 20-somethings who started it while at Towson.

These efforts are all about creating independent economic, political, cultural, and educational structures for black life in Baltimore—as the Food Security Network website asks, “What if we had our own food system?” But the initiatives are also a way of attracting young people to Pleasant Hope—sort of.

In the “traditional Baptist mold, the ultimate goal was to get you to show up on Sunday mornings. Not so much anymore.”

“The social-justice work that we do, for some people, that’s the way they joined our church,” Brown said. For example: LaShay Harvey Jones, 33, and Bakari Jones, 30, a married pair of women I met at Pleasant Hope in February, found their way there via political events the church hosted around the time of the Freddie Gray protests.

They stayed because “Pastor Brown had not only a social-justice politics, but an African-centered way of looking at spirituality,” Harvey Jones said. Brown described himself as having leanings toward pan-Africanism and black nationalism, but he agreed that most churches aren’t interested in the revolutionary change championed by activists. Most pastors are content with a “priestly model,” as he put it, “catering to the needs of their congregation, caring for the beautiful elder mothers and grandfathers of their churches … just trying to create a safe oasis in the midst of an unjust society.” This tendency, he argued, is partly a long-reaching reaction against the kind of activism that got Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated. It’s safer than what he called prophetic ministry, which “speaks truth to power” and “challenges systems and structures.” A small handful of Baltimore’s churches are built on this model, taking up the burden of civil-rights leadership. Their leaders are not quite at the level of the legendary activists of the civil-rights-era Baltimore “Goon Squad,”Brown said, but they have ‘Goon tendencies.’ Most, though, are largely inwardly facing, he said.

Other young activists Brown has met at marches in Baltimore or rallies in Annapolis are squeamish about church, he said. (“The whole Sunday thing—uh uh, I don’t do that.”) He said he used to try and nudge these kids toward church, “but after a while, I gave up.” In the “traditional Baptist mold, the ultimate goal was to get you to show up on Sunday mornings,” he said. “Not so much anymore.”

The community garden at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

He said this not with the mournful lament of a church leader who has lost his flock, but rather as an admirer—to him, the Church should look to young activists as a model, rather than a lost demographic. “I’m thankful that people aren’t waiting around for churches to come into the foreground” of political activism, he said. Young organizers “are far outpacing the sensitivity and growth of churches embracing a more prophetic mission in their ministries.”

“I’m thankful that people aren’t waiting around for churches to come into the foreground.”

On its face, the fact that many young people in Baltimore are organizing outside the Church seems to fit with the dominant sociological narrative about how young Americans relate to religion and institutions: They’re apathetic about tradition, and they’re not interested in being part of organized faith groups. To the extent that this is true, it may be part of why young black people have become more at odds with the Church, which has historically been run on a model of institutional authority: a pastor out front and parishioners’ donations keeping the place running. Church leaders were influential in the civil-rights movement partly because they had “positional authority,” as Brown put it—“just because you have the title, you’re worthy of respect.” Neither the national Black Lives Matter movement nor the activists in Baltimore seem particularly concerned with deference to authority, though. While this has created a challenge for the Church, it also leaves activists with their own challenge: How do you build an enduring, black-led movement that’s not led from within the historical heart of the American black community?

There are downsides to building a political movement that’s not centered in the Church. For one thing, “this work is really draining,” Gill said. “Spiritual development is just as important as anything else.” And as Bakari Jones said at Pleasant Hope, “The church is one of the only places where black bodies are consistently welcomed.”

But perhaps more importantly, choosing to organize without the institutional influence and resources of the Church may actually hobble some of the activist work that Gill and others do, whether it’s economic development in places like the North Avenue neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up or legislative reform of the way police brutality is handled in Maryland. “If we wanted to seriously build power in the community and in Baltimore, the Church would be the way to go,” Gill said.

For some activists, like Brion Gill, emulating Jesus is central to their work. “Jesus was a freedom fighter,” Brown said. “The cops came to arrest Jesus, and dragged him off and executed him. I don’t know how much more in tune with today’s time we can get.”

But for many others, the Church, and religion generally, is no longer a common home. Christianity is not the foundation of youth-led activism. It’s a framework that some people choose, while others shrug their shoulders, pick up a megaphone, and march on.

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