We have come a long way from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Last week, President Donald Trump had a White House-branded “Meeting With Inner City Pastors”—“inner city” really being a euphemism for “Black.” Seated beside the president on a long rectangular table, eerily reminiscent of Jesus and his 12 disciples, these Black pastors addressed Trump in a manner fit for the optics.
“I’m so blessed and honored to be here and to be able to pray right here in the White House,” Dr. Alveda King told the president. “And the most recent thing I’ve noticed that you’ve done—you’ve done so many things that were great.”
“So we just thank you for the direction that the country is going in, and specifically as our partnerships with law enforcement are beginning to grow,” remarked Pastor Jon Ponder.
“But, to be honest, this is probably going to be the—and I’m going to say this at this table—the most pro-Black president that we’ve had in our lifetime,” Pastor Darrell Scott declared.
It is hard to believe that these kind words were bestowed upon a man who has essentially defended white supremacists, lashed out at NFL players’ protests against police brutality, referred to African-Americans as “the blacks,” incited a new wave of aggressive and outright white racism, and even recently evoked cliche racist stereotypes against Lebron James, referring to him as “having a low IQ,” in the same week that the star basketball player was being celebrated for opening a new school for underprivileged students. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a whole host of other racist transgressions by the president.
As a Black woman who has long been disillusioned with the institution, I am not surprised by these church leaders’ sycophant-like obsession with Trump in the face of his blatant racism and disregard for Black people. He is the epitome of everything some prominent Black church leaders strive to be: wealthy and powerful.
For quite some time, too many Black churches have been enamored by “prosperity gospel,” and for this reason, many millennials are losing faith in the institution which once produced revolutionary civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and served as the epicenters of the civil rights movement. Today, it seems more sensible for Black millennials to put their faith in humanitarian athletes like James than their own religious leaders.
I am among those millennials. Years ago, I vowed to never step foot into another Black religious institution again.
. . .
My mother, a single parent to three children, was a God-fearing woman from the Caribbean who made every major life decision according to the “wisdom of the Bible.”
“Forget your people and your father’s house,” a Psalms verse declared to her when she sought advice about leaving her homeland to escape the abuse of my father. Weeks later, she arrived in America with nothing but her faith in the Lord and a few contact numbers for friends who had also relocated. It would take her years to gather up the financial resources to bring her children over to the “land of the free,” but she did so fully believing that when we did arrive, it would be the start of a new life abundant in opportunity.
“Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars, stretching his wings toward the south?” the Bible lectured years after us kids were able to join her. We were living in the expensive Northeast, which proved to be quite difficult, and after making a visit or two to one of her cousins in Houston, Texas, she moved us, once more, on blind faith alone. That very same faith in God’s ability to guide, protect, and provide led her to a very prominent Black megachurch in Houston, seeking a “house of God” in which her children could grow and prosper.
However, what we found was something quite different.
“Welcome to the light! We’re so glad you came!” a choir of Black faces greeted us, as we joined the procession of families shuffling through the Houston heat to get to the bulky doors of the church.
Outside, a buzzing sound whirred overhead like a gigantic bee. When I peered into the sky, partially blinded by the sun, I saw a helicopter zipping by overhead. It landed on the other side of the road, where a man surrounded by an entourage, made his way to a parked luxury vehicle.
“WELCOME TO THE LIGHT!” the choir screamed louder with intense jubilee, as the vehicle approached those of us about to enter. The congregants inside clapped in excitement. The man in the car was the pastor.
The entire premise of this church’s preachings (like so many others) was the “prosperity gospel”—the idea that God will bless all of his most dedicated followers with wealth and health. More specifically, that if congregants donated their money to the church in the form of “tithes,” they would receive God’s blessings in the form of paid rent, disappearing bills, and the like.
Except, from the looks of it, the only man being blessed by the Lord was the pastor. And hardworking men and women like my mother, not “the Lord,” were the source of his blessings.
“Five percent!” the church choir roared during the tithing ceremony, where blank envelopes were distributed for congregants to add their donations.
“No, you could do better than that!” a man screamed back to the choir.
“10 percent!” the choir answered back.
“No, that’s not enough,” the man responded.
The number reached 20 percent and beyond before the man was content with the expected donation to the church—a nice chunk of congregants’ entire paychecks. He also did not spare the constant reminder: the bigger the tithe, the bigger the blessing. For a woman like my mother, whose entire income went to basic needs, it was obvious she would not be very blessed in the house of this Lord.
Sadly, experiences with Black churches obsessed with “prosperity gospel” became common for us, as my mother shuffled between Black institutions in search of a religious home. Eventually, I gave up hope and lost interest. My mother contented herself with reading her Bible at home.
So, it comes as no surprise to me that in the same week Black church leaders embarrassed themselves by meeting with Trump and exalting him as if he were Jesus himself, James stepped up and publicly supplanted their position in the Black community as a leader. In the quest for riches, many of these “leaders” have forgotten how to lead.
It is also then no surprise that only 34 percent of Black millennials attend church once a week, down from 50 percent in their parents’ generation. Millennials were raised on stories about how the church birthed and supported great civil rights leaders and movements. At the very least, we expect that the church will continue its legacy of standing for and with the Black community—especially since Black millennials have proven to be a driving force in the fight against both racial and gender inequality.
But that is not the case. We look to men like James, not Trump, for inspiration for the future of our community. Maybe the church should take note.