'Breathe, Pray, Meditate': Born From Resistance, Black Churches Now Leading In Crises

Jun 7, 2020
Originally published on June 7, 2020 1:30 pm

The doors of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit have been closed for weeks.

The 95-year-old church's pews are empty. Ministry continues, with no in person presence. What Pastor Kenneth Flowers says he misses most are "holy hugs."

"When church is dismissed, I say, 'Give someone a holy hug and everyone turns and we always hug each other,' " Flowers said. "I thrive off of the physical contact of being able to hug my members, to hug my families, to hug my friends, to hug visitors. I miss that so very much."

Born out of resistance, the black church often plays a key role in times of crisis. But black America today is facing not just one crisis, but a convergence. African Americans have been hit harder by the virus and job losses. And then there's the other pandemic, as George Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump put it, systemic racism and discrimination.

Though their approaches differ from wanting to work within the system to upending it altogether, many black pastors say there's been little leadership coming from Washington.

That sentiment grew stronger last week after President Trump spoke in the Rose Garden, while hundreds of peaceful protesters were removed from a nearby park so Trump could walk across the street to St. John's Church.

Flowers saw the images of the president standing in front of the church's boarded up facade.

"He purposely raised up that Bible, he purposely went across the street. He didn't even pray at the church, didn't even kneel down," Flowers said. "He went there for a photo-op to appeal to his base, to appeal to the white Evangelicals. But I got news for him, the God I serve is higher than that."

In Baltimore, Pastor Donte Hickman of Southern Baptist Church saw that moment a different way.

"I can't begin to surmise what he thought, but I can say that in that Bible that he held in front of that church are road maps, solutions and plans that Jesus gives us," he said.

Hickman previously attended a White House event with Trump, and has invited the president to visit Baltimore, too. He hasn't spoken to Trump since that 2018 White House event on minority economic opportunity, but says he's had some productive conversations with the administration on policy issues relevant to distressed communities.

"Whatever his reasons for standing there with that Bible, I saw God still saying, 'I'm in control,' " Hickman said.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, left, comforts Dell Taylor during the opening meeting of Missouri's Ferguson Commission in 2014. "We've always had to figure out how to take care of our community, to take care of our neighborhoods and take care of our seniors," Blackmon says.
Sid Hastings / AP

As her church distributed masks and hand sanitizer as it does each Friday, the Rev. Traci Blackmon said that black churches "have always been on the bottom rung ladder of all of this."

"We've always had to figure out how to take care of our community, to take care of our neighborhoods and take care of our seniors, even when the economy is booming," said Blackmon, associate general minister of justice at the United Church of Christ, who leads a church in Florissant, Mo. "So in some ways, we're ahead of the game with this, because we know how to survive with less, because we've always had to survive."

She said that "the way we are accustomed to being governed in this country is being challenged in ways that it has not been challenged in recent history before."

"So I think it is all erupting and that makes this moment very different because we are in this moment partly created by a lack of leadership," she added. "And now we have to navigate this moment without leadership."

Los Angeles Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard did not attend any of the protests in her city. Her 24-year-old son was killed by another man in 2018, and the pain is still fresh.

She couldn't bring herself to watch George Floyd's memorial service on Thursday. When we spoke that day, she was preparing to attend the sentencing for her son's killer — virtually.

"It's very difficult, and part of why I didn't go out and physically protest and I normally do," she said. "I have two younger children and right now I'm in a space where I'm very protective of them. I wasn't going to take them out and protest cause I'm kind of in protective space right now."

But Smith-Pollard hasn't been silent. Like other pastors, she's been providing ministry through socially distanced drive-bys, virtual church and long, sometimes difficult, phone calls.

Smith-Pollard's advice to those struggling was simple.

"Breathe, pray, meditate — breathe," she said. "And it's ironic that this man died screaming, 'I can't breathe,' and we're back to what we heard Eric Garner say."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has been followed in the U.S. by major economic disruptions and now upheaval over racism and police killings. African Americans are facing a bigger impact than the rest of the country. NPR's Juana Summers talked to a number of black church leaders about how they are responding to these events.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: The doors of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit have been closed for weeks. No congregants in the pews, no choir singing, no holy hugs, Pastor Kenneth Flowers explains.

KENNETH FLOWERS: When churches dismiss, I say, give someone a holy hug. And everyone turns, and we always hug each other. I thrive off of the physical contact of being able to hug my members, to hug my family, to hug my friends, to hug visitors. I miss that so very much.

SUMMERS: In times of crisis, the black church is a calming space, a communal ground, a place to come together to act. And now black people in this country are facing a convergence of crises. They've been hit harder by the virus and job losses. And then there's the other pandemic, as George Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump put it, systemic racism and discrimination.

Cities across the country have been gripped by protests, and some black pastors say there is little leadership coming from Washington. In Detroit, Pastor Kenneth Flowers said he could not forget the speech that President Trump gave in the Rose Garden this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We cannot allow the righteous cries of peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob.

SUMMERS: At that moment, hundreds of peaceful protesters were cleared from a nearby park, so President Trump could walk across the street to St. John's Episcopal Church. Flowers saw the images of the president standing in front of the church's boarded-up facade.

FLOWERS: He purposely raised up that Bible. He purposely went across the street. He didn't even pray at the church, didn't even kneel down. He went there for a photo op to appeal to his base, to appeal to the white Evangelicals. But I got news for him. The God I serve is higher than that.

SUMMERS: In Baltimore, Pastor Donte Hickman of Southern Baptist Church saw that moment a different way.

DONTE HICKMAN: I can't begin to surmise what he thought, but I can say that in that Bible that he held in front of that church are roadmaps, solutions and plans that Jesus gives us.

SUMMERS: Hickman previously attended a White House event with Trump and has invited the president to visit Baltimore, as well. He hasn't spoken to Trump since that White House event on minority economic opportunity. But he says he's had some productive conversations with the administration on policy issues relevant to distressed communities.

HICKMAN: Whatever his reasons were for standing there with that Bible, I saw God still say, I'm in control.

SUMMERS: Los Angeles Reverend Najuma Smith-Pollard Pollard did not attend any of the protests in her city. Her 24-year-old son was killed by another man in 2018. And that pain is still fresh. She couldn't bring herself to watch George Floyd's memorial service on Thursday. When we spoke that day, she was preparing to attend the sentencing for her son's killer, virtually.

NAJUMA SMITH-POLLARD: Oh, it's very difficult. And it's part of why I did not basically go out and protest. And I normally do. I have two younger children. And right now, I'm in a space where I'm very protective of them. So I wasn't going to take them out to the protest because I'm kind of in protective space right now. But also, the constant hearing of the, you know, the challenge is triggering for me. So I have to watch my space.

SUMMERS: But Smith-Pollard hasn't been silent. Like other pastors, she's been providing ministry through socially distanced drive-bys, virtual church and long, sometimes difficult phone calls. I asked her what advice she's giving to those struggling right now.

SMITH-POLLARD: Breathe, pray, meditate. Breathe. And it's ironic that this man died screaming, I can't breathe. And we're back to what we heard Eric Garner say.

SUMMERS: Change is slow, Smith-Pollard says, but doing nothing at all means nothing will change.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.