The Black Church: hereafter, and here and now?

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday September 04 2013 in Opinion
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In the 1990s, Charlie Roach and Dudley Laws, founders and leaders of the Black Action Defense Committee, faced a major problem, one for which they also had a successful, but radical solution.


Canadian immigration officers, then like fire-breathing dragons, were flame-focused on their patriotic mission to deport van-loads of Black mothers. These officers were on a roll; ‘standing on guard for O Canada.’


On the other hand, these mothers were standing firm on behalf of their children, many of whom, born in Canada, were citizens. The choices facing these mothers were heart-wrenching: to either take their children with them, or leave them in Canada, probably with strangers or the Children’s Aid Society.


The situation faced by Charlie and Dudley, never ones to give up on issues of injustice, was to try to delay the deportations. This was to give themselves and the mothers more time to explore every legal option possible. However, for their plans to work, the women had to be on Canadian soil.


The solution was to have the women ‘take sanctuary’ in churches. This act would be public. It would assist in building political and communal support for the women, and against their deportations. There was precedent for this ‘solution’. It had worked for other communities. The expectation was that it would also work for these Black mothers, many of whom were also faithful church-going souls.


Surely, the reasoning went, their pastors and fellow-church members would be willingly supportive; acting to assist in these plans. Surely, too, Canadian immigration officers would not want to be seen making ‘Gestapo-like raids’ on Black churches to seize Black mothers. The PR and politics were definitely against these immigration deportation plans.


What occurred? I will get back to this.


Also in the 1990s, after three decades, Nelson Mandela was finally released from an Apartheid prison. Among the first countries he would visit was Canada. In fact, here, he would be given an honour available only to Canadian citizens; he would address a full sitting of Parliament in Ottawa.


In addition, when Mr. Mandela arrived at Pearson Airport, many Canadians were there as part of an official welcoming delegation. Among these were Lincoln Alexander, my spouse Joan and our son, Nnuambua. But were any members of the Black clergy in the GTA there?


Also, before Mr. Mandela’s arrival, months earlier, another notable South African and an international icon opposed to Apartheid, had visited. He was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was feted at the St. Clair home of Charlie and Hetty Roach. He addressed a public rally at Queens’ Park. He spoke before many bodies, religious and scholastic, which had supported the anti-Apartheid struggle. With several scores of Black churches located in the GTA, did Archbishop Tutu grace any of them with his presence?


In the same 1990s, a period during which Toronto’s Black community – its teachers, lawyers, unionists and other activists – were in a state of war with every public-sector institution, where was the Black church? These were struggles, for example, against a Toronto education system’s ‘streaming of Black students into dead-end futures’. There were the struggles, too, against the incidental incarcerations of Black youth; incarcerations so many, that the then Mike Harris’ provincial government would build the first privatised prison in Canada.


Of course, there were also the struggles against deportations, against police shootings and profiling of Black youth and the unemployment crises … the list is endless. Black pastors were there to bury Black youth, and declaim against ‘senseless violence and guns in Black communities …’


However, while activists in the Black community were also church members, their assemblies and pastors were not officially and publicly involved. The interest of our churches appeared to be from afar.


It is necessary to recall some historic instances of church involvement and the heroic roles played for centuries by Black churches in this hemisphere. During slavery, our churches were the places where, for example, in Jamaica, a Baptist deacon, Paul Bogle, organized anti-slavery revolts.


The church was where, in 20th century America, the organizing for Civil Rights was planned by such preachers as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was from the church that seamstress Rosa Parks, who was arrested after taking a stand by sitting down in a bus, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott – lasting 381 days – was launched.


In Trinidad, it was a Shouter Baptist preacher, the then imprisoned Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, who was successfully leading the anti-colonial movement against Rule Britannia.


In short, in every era, on every continent where Black people needed leadership and resources against oppression, the Black church and its leaders were activating participants; leading from in front.


To be fair, in the GTA today, the Black churches do a tremendous work for good. With more PhDs per pew than any other Canadian institution, with most of our professionals and semi-professionals, Black churches uplift our communities, build strong families, communicate and encourage civic peace and social prosperity.


In current situations, however, in which unemployment and under-employment are wreaking havoc among Black youth, and most especially on Black women, where do our Black churches stand?


The tools, legal and institutional, are already available, but require deep resources. Among others, these include the tools of social entrepreneurship – not social assistance–and faith-based credit unions.


Speaking, too, of Black American pastors, it must be noted that Dr. King was not assassinated after he publicly opposed the Viet Nam war, nor after the Selma to Montgomery march successfully demanding voting rights for Black Americans. He was not assassinated, integrating White-only lunch counters and toilets. He was not assassinated because of the historic 1963 March on Washington.


Dr. King was assassinated while planning a national Poor Peoples’ Campaign. It was to occupy and shut down the Capital, Washington D.C., demanding ‘economic justice’ for African-Americans.


Referring to the aforementioned issue of the Black mothers facing deportation in the 1990s, Charlie and Dudley, in their attempt to foil the plans of Canada Immigration, had approached several Black pastors. They had requested the use of their church premises, declared as ‘sanctuaries for the Black mothers’. It was a hard slog for all, and with time fast running out for mothers and children.


Only one church responded. It would become a sanctuary. It would help prevent more than a dozen Black mothers from deportation. That church, now ‘celebrating 125 years of Faith, Justice and the Arts’, is located on the south side of Bloor Street, a block west of Spadina. It is Trinity St. Paul’s United – a White church. It provided sanctuary for these Black mothers.


To be continued: pathways to success.

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