Will Millennials Forge a Future for the Progressive Black Church?

Image from the Facebook page of Hampton Ministers' Conference

At this summer’s Hampton University Ministers’ Conference, the century-old meeting for black clergy nationwide—the first since the election of Donald Trump—conference preachers did not shy away from political rhetoric in their sermons. But it was from the millennial preaching voices at the conference that political awareness was most passionate. Specifically, Rev. Dr. Brianna Parker, the pastor of Assimilation at Dallas’ Friendship-West Baptist Church, offered a scathing critique of the Trump administration as well of as the leadership of black institutions.

For starters, it must be said that the institutional black church has always has included a tradition that has historically placed politics central to the preaching moment.Part of that tradition was forged in the crucible of Jim Crow de jure segregation: to be black in the American South meant that one’s body was political and there were no two ways around it. It also stretched the idea of what qualified as the “preaching” moment as well. A cursory glance at the published sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. would show that, on Sunday mornings, the focus was on a moral and ethical reimaging of the social and political systems of the day. But his speeches at rallies and essays written for publication were much more inclined to draw a bead on the actors in the stage-play of American racism.

Because King was a black preacher from the South, the “preaching” moment as it is understood had an elasticity that covered more than just the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Many black preachers followed suit,“calling out” the powers that be both in the pulpit and outside. Most famously, ordained clergy and activists such as Revs. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Al Sharpton were classic embodiments of what it meant to merge politics and theology in the black church tradition. At Jackson’s Operation PUSH weekly meetings he was quick to call out names not just of national politicians, but also of local Chicago leaders who stood opposed to those whom he saw as “the least of these.” The same holds for Sharpton in New York. In the fallout behind the Tawana Bradley incident in 1987, Sharpton equated the then-New York state attorney general to Hitler.

However, as blacks have ascended the political ladder in post-civil rights years, or when black clergy have been granted a seat at the municipal table, sometimes that scathing rhetoric has been tempered for fear of biting the hand that feeds you.

What has gotten lost and has been conveniently forgotten in the maelstrom of culture wars is that black religious culture’s propensity to incorporate politics in the pulpit is the American way. Many of the watershed moments in the United States’ religious history were informed directly by politics. The Puritans thought it wise to form a colony because their religious freedom had turned political. The very ideology of “the separation of church and state,” is still political. The reason the Southern Baptists and the Southern Methodists, respectively, were created was because of slavery—something that was a major political football of the antebellum South. Many of those moments almost pale in comparison to the clustering of voters around Christo-centric conservative values better known as the Moral Majority.

The Moral Majority merged politics and religion so well that the coalition was given much of the credit for the wins of Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and 1984. Even though the formal coalition dissolved in 1989, many believe that the cementing of Christo-centric conservative values on the political right mobilized voters at the polls. Through the “compassionate conservative” era of George W. Bush and the “evangelical” era of Barack Obama, it remains the American way for clergy and denominational leadership to expand the pulpit so that religious-talk translates politics to the listener so well that it influences the vote.

The Hampton University Ministers’ Conference has long “sought to address the growing concerns of the African-American church and its relationship to the community.” During the civil rights era, the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. were in attendance and in later years, stalwarts of the institutional Black Church such as Revs. Wyatt Tee Walker, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have attended and spoken as well.

The Hampton Ministers’ Conference, as it is colloquially referred to, has been the place that has housed progressive civil rights politics, but hasn’t gone much further. This was evidenced specifically in 2003 when the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference was established for black clergy and laypersons with the specific intent of focusing on social justice. In other words, the Proctor Conference was designed for the purpose of merging politics and religious awareness. Meanwhile, the Hampton Ministers’ Conference, while clearly having a stake in the national politics of the day—the invitation of then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007 shows this—has not focused on political conversation through the lens of black religious culture.

Based on this year’s conference, though, I believe that might change in upcoming years.

Late Night with Rev. Bri

One of the more obscure but popular functions of historically black denominational and religious conferences is what is known as “late night.” This is when, after a full day of a morning worship, workshops, break-out sessions and evening worship, a typically smaller (and often decidedly younger) group, holds their own worship service.

The name derives from the fact that the start time of the service is rather late. Central to late nights is the preaching moment. Standard practice has been that the younger preachers, or at least not well-known preachers, would be selected to preach. It is an opportunity for attendees to hear the new, up and coming preachers and for the elder clergy to stand in the back and observe.

It was during the late night at this year’s Hampton Ministers’ Conference that one stand-out sermon by Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker was delivered. The late night was in a large room that had a platform raised with seats on three sides and the music pit on the fourth. Her sermon title was “The Delusion of Darkness” drawing from the exodus narrative of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.

Midway her sermon, she found a way to weave political criticism, social awareness and theology together wonderfully. This also included a fiery critique of not just the Trump administration, but also disdain for those who meet with Trump on behalf of minority communities. When asked how she arrived at her theological claims, Parker said “I first noticed the promises were not all about Moses, but the community.” Opting not to call out individual names, she did have memorable one-liners: “You don’t go to the White House and leave your meeting talking about your golf game and a nice man who’s a racist, sexist xenophobic pervert.” And, “You don’t go to the NAACP as the president but you never come out to mention police brutality….”

It must be said that as she was preaching, the room was erupting in the ecstatic call-and-response that is the black church setting. The moment became electric. People were standing left and right. Attendees had their phones out recording it for all its wealth. People began moving from their seats and crowding the edges of what felt more like a boxing ring during a title fight rather than a makeshift pulpit in a large conference room. And what was most apparent was that the loudest call-and-responses were coming from the millennials.

The dynamic of this call-and-response shows that the political acuity resonates with black millennials in a way that hints at the possibility of a natal insurgence within the institutional black church. The Hampton Ministers’ Conference could be the birthplace for mainline black denominations to see the shift in traditions take place: the changing of the guard in earnest. But there is a lot of institutional inertia countering such movement. Even Parker herself took a skeptical approach to the potential of black millennials to change the political trajectory of the institutional Black Church. She said, “I’m not sure if black millennials will. I’m hopeful, but I’m not certain.”

I remember joining a predominantly black church, with a baby boomer pastor, and he remarked that he didn’t understand why young adults—the millennials—were leaving the mainline denominational churches for the contemporary non-denominational worship centers. He argued that when he was a young adult, the late 1960s and early 1970s, that his peers stayed at their churches and forced the change. Obviously, times are different and sentiments have changed.

Parker went on to remark that “Black millennials are extremely innovative and easily find alternative ways to meet the same need. We may not wait 20 years for our turn.” The potential for a change is there, it’s just a matter whether black millennials have the will to make that change.