What is the leadership role of Toronto’s Black churches?

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday January 21 2015 in Opinion
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Which institution in Black communities during slavery most ran the risks teaching slaves to read and write? The Black church. Which institution during slavery produced such women leaders as Jamaica’s Nanny, and America’s Harriet Tubman, whose anti-slavery campaigns inspired others? The Black church.


Which institution in 1797, that is even before the ending of slavery, was not only the first Black church founded in this hemisphere, but also used as its corporate tag, the word, “African”, linking our humanity to the continent? The A.M.E. – African Methodist Episcopal Church.


Which institution, long before public officials did, established schools from primary levels to advanced, built hospitals, formed philanthropic missions, bought land, and petitioned the authorities about ongoing injustices? The Black church.


Which institution in Canada, America, the Caribbean and elsewhere does more today, by precept and example, to uplift Black communities; stabilize families and marriage; create professionals, improve our economic circumstances and political clout? The Black church.


Which institution also provides what according to one scholar are, “psychological resources that contribute to the political actions of Black church congregants, such as self-esteem and internal efficacy”? The Black church. Which institution after World War I, influenced laymen as a Marcus Garvey in Jamaica, and a Uriah “Buzz” Butler in Trinidad, who led struggles for our rights to vote, form unions, and attain Independence? The Black church.


Which institution in America after World War II, leading the movements for civil rights and voting rights was bombed, its leaders beaten, jailed, and assassinated? The Black church. Which institution in this 21st century, with Black American youth killed by White police officers routinely acquitted by grand juries, activates leadership, and consoles families? The Black church.


Again, in the U.S. and elsewhere, which institution is most courted by White political parties for electoral support and credibility? The Black church.


It is clear, whether or not one is church-affiliated, that this institution has stood steadfast on behalf of Black communities in the Caribbean and in North America longer than has any other, including those political. However, today, with regards to issues like racial profiling, carding of Black youth, and galling Black impoverishment, what is the leadership role of Toronto’s Black churches?


In short, on these specific and vexing issues, is any Black church actively providing the leadership, uniquely and historically theirs? Or are Toronto’s Black churches Absent Without Official Leave – AWOL? To be sure, many individuals who toil in secular organizations on these issues are church-affiliated. This speaks to our religious bases and spiritual influences regarding sentiments we value, e.g., compassion. However, no secular presence can compensate for absent Black churches. And does its presence require the participation of every church? No! Just enough committed clergy who can call for a unifying – not ecumenical – concordat among themselves, and thereby welcome other Black organizations that are issue-related, island-related, culture-related, solutions-related etc., to participate. But to achieve what?


Among the top two, of several necessary planks on which such a focus of clerics, community and congregants could stand are the following: establishing or enhancing rites of passage opportunities for our youth, to mature them from adolescence into prudent young women and men; and simultaneously creating an African-Canadian Credit Union. This is legal in Canada. Other communities already have theirs: Polish, Finnish, Estonian, Italian…in addition to some also church-affiliated credit unions: Mennonite and Korean Catholic.


To ensure wide support and financial success, such a crucial institution was best named after someone or something symbolic, e.g., a Harriet Tubman Credit Union; an Underground Railroad Credit Union, etc.


Institutional support and advice for the latter are already available. Among these is the Credit Union Central of Canada. Another, the office of Diane Finley, P.C., M.P. Minister of Employment and Skills Development. Is funding also possible via provincial and federal institutions skilled in advising on the building of social entrepreneurship opportunities? Ask.


Until we seize opportunities like the above with which to bless our communities and our youth, we as African Canadians will continue to see them disproportionately imprisoned and destroyed; that is, until our leaderships, lay and clergy, are jointly galvanized to step up and stand in the gap for them. Together, ours will then be a more effective leadership. Current capabilities would be made even more vast. These would include social, spiritual, professional and physical resources; community contact, support and regard; public legitimacy and institutional respectability. Who then speaks for the Black community!


And why focus on the youth? In many instances in our history when Black communities have made great advances, these occurred after we were mightily stirred by issues primarily affecting our young people. For example, this stirring occurred in America after the 1955 murder by White southerners of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy visiting Mississippi from Chicago. It also occurred with the 1963 bombing of the three-story 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. There, in addition to 22 other congregants injured, four Black girls were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. Reactions, similarly vigorous, occurred with 1976 Soweto, after White Apartheid police shot Black students protesting being taught in Afrikaans, not English.


Such instances of the killing of our youth we met with robust responses; responses with subsequent game-changing results. In America, in 1964 and in 1965 were passed the civil rights and the voting rights legislations, respectively. Likewise, after Soweto, the United Nations imposed its most comprehensive sanctions on Apartheid South Africa. On both continents, too, several leaders were murdered including Steve Biko in South Africa and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in America.


To be clear, in addition to denominational participants, there are secular activists; in fact, in numbers proportionally greater than those church-affiliated. Thus, even without the physical and social resources of the Black church, secular organs like the Black Action Defence Committee – many BADC members also church-affiliated – were able to force the hands of provincial politicians into creating “independent” police oversight. When Mandela first visited Toronto, Black clergy thereby participated in supportive and celebratory events.


However, why is it that for every victory we achieve, anti-Black racism morphs into future iniquities more sophisticated? Is it because as communities, we primarily react to, but not control, events? Is it that until, and unless we are positioned to grow our communities, others can set, or deter our agenda for progress; crippling today’s victories into tomorrow’s defeats?


In conclusion, the Biblical New Testament Gospel of Matthew: Chapter 25, verses 31-46, carries two pertinent descriptions. One is about those who, faced with instances of injustice choose to act. The other is about those who choose not to. The Judge of all Mankind calls the first, “welcomed and saved”. The latter, not called, are “those who are denied and lost”.


What is intriguing is that both the saved and the damned ask the Judge the same question. What’s the question? Well, the answer, according to the Judge is that you are blessed, if in your life you are active ensuring justice “unto the least of these (oppressed)”; or cursed if you are otherwise inactive “unto the least of these (oppressed)”.


To be continued: If your neighbour’s home is on fire, what could inaction cost you?

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