Is the Black church in the Black community?

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday July 31 2013 in Opinion
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Does Toronto’s Black community have any organizational base from which to respond to our social needs?


I recently had the opportunity to attend a Sabbath-keeping church in the Miami-Dade County in Florida. It is located near the Baptist church where Trayvon Martin’s mother is a member. He was the Black youth killed while walking home.


I was moved by what I saw in Miami: activities mutually engaged in by these two churches, different denominationally, but united socially in serving marginalized communities.


One of these churches, based on members’ donations, feeds more than 400 indigents weekly. Not hotdogs and fries, but balanced, sufficient and tasty meals. These churches are based on memberships that are Jamaican, Haitian, Trinidadian, African-American toute monde, and who on any day of the week provide various services for individuals in distress.


The women do the cooking. The men do the serving, the packing, the delivery. Attendees also get take-away bags to the brim. In the church there are professionals who freely provide advice that is legal, financial, social. The membership base is not so much wealthy as generous. Well led and mobilized, there is enthusiasm and grace. Selflessly serving others, does make one healthier and more energetic.


Among these needy are people who have lost jobs, homes and hope. There are children and infants. Do they have no idea why they hunger? They might not know the etymology of the word, ‘marginalized’, but they instinctively know its meaning. These churches are meeting the needs of so many.


In addition to professional advice, on specific days of the week, there is choir practice for their several singers and musicians. There are meetings for its clubs for women, men and young people. This is a church at war against poverty, spiritual and material. This is no country club church!


Attending services are those who first come inside as outsiders. Some with skirts so high and necklines so low…‘all fall down’. But they are welcomed graciously. Not shunned. Not preached to. Altar calls bring respondees urgently forward, weeping and embracing. The sight, the singing, the appeals could teary-up a hardened old man. It could make one feel that there is still a world in which, ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’.


The mobilization of Black communities to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin has also relied on the resources of Black churches like these, for buses, announcements, participants, press conferences, etc. In addition, on one worship weekend, pastors, elders, deacons and others, in memory of Trayvon, attended churches wearing hoodies. They raise monies for his parents to meet legal and other costs.


Was I impressed by what I saw? By what I heard? Was I thinking of my old hometown? Toronto? Born in Trinidad, I’ve lived more of my life here than elsewhere. Yet, am I at home? Are we?


And what makes for home?


Robert Frost, the American poet-laureate in one of his seminal works, “The Death of the Hired Man”, gives two definitions of ‘home’. In this drama, one of the characters, Warren, cynically says, “It’s a place you somehow don’t have to deserve.” To Mary, more compassionate, “It’s a place where when you go they have to take you in.”


We have made Toronto a place more at home for others. This week, the police again killed a young man in a bus. Immediately, the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) kicked in. Gone are the days when police, investigating police, resulted in a 100 per cent acquittal rate. We made Toronto safer for the children of other Canadians; a place more assured of justice and closure, and where the police are made accountable.


The irony of this SIU is that it was the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), led by Charlie Roach and Dudley Laws, that seeded it with the blood of those killed. We grew this public institution from our demands of ‘no justice, no peace’. Today, there is no mention of the BADC regarding the origins of the SIU. The province and politicians birthed it. Today, it is not members of the Black community who head it, nor work as investigators in it. But it is we who ensured its arrival, if not its survival.


And there is the rub. A key need among our people and particularly among our youth, is for employment that is steady, deserved, and rewarding.


Which, in particular brings me back to the initial question, is there any institution in our community with the resources and the legitimacy to step up and step forward?


An institution assisting in developing leadership that consults. Leadership that embraces. Leadership that is forthright with the politicians and those who carry status?


Leadership that speaks with the institutional knowledge of what is past and who is present. Leadership that speaks to solutions and not to posturings. Because, if Toronto knows anything, it knows how to make a fig-leaf look like a fig-tree. It knows how to tire you out, calling meetings to call other meetings…


We live in a city and in a time that is at a watershed regarding racism and its impact on our youth. Employment and self-employment require training and resources, yes. These require even more: access and opportunity. In other words, these require a level playing field. Because access and opportunity is not about what you know, but about who you know; with whom you socialize in your church, club, family, golf-course, neighbourhood. Unfortunately, too, credentials now swamp abilities.


Most specifically, with anti-Black racism rampant, while Toronto officially embraces multi-culturalism, it unofficially nurses ‘multi-colourism’. In Toronto, despite claims otherwise, racialism matters in employment, housing, lower community median incomes, higher incarceration rates, etc.


It is in Toronto that multi-colourism has come into its own. It is the catchment basin in which, with any skin tone not Black, one can benefit from, and practise anti-Black racism…without being racist. Call it performance.


The only effective response to this must come from institutions that are communal, that are resourced, legitimate, and have the wisdom and honour to unite, not divide the community from religious turf wars for paying memberships. Our community and our youth in particular, need back-up from the front.


What we urgently need is for individuals in leadership to be energized. What we need and before the next elections – municipal, provincial, federal – is greater and more substantive interaction with the most marginalized among us; with communities who might never attend church; who will not be in the choir; who might not give donations. Then, call together as many of the organizations and individuals who will volunteer to work and to work wisely under honourable leadership.


For, isn’t this pure religion and undefiled? To feed the hungry? To care for the fatherless?


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