During the month of February we celebrate Black History Month. Using this month to celebrate the contributions and gifts of the African-American community began in 1926 with the introduction of Negro History Month. It was eventually expanded to the entire month of February in 1976 as its name changed to Black History Month. It is celebrated in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
Christianity has played a major role in the experience of African-Americans ever since their arrival in the New World. Many of the first African-Americans who arrived in this country were brought here unwillingly as slaves. Most were not Christian. They and their descendants eventually embraced Christianity, finding in its biblical teachings messages of spiritual equality and deliverance.
I would like to share with you some interesting facts about the religious life of our African-American brothers and sisters that I culled from the Pew Research Center. Roughly eight-in-10, 79 percent of African-Americans, self-identify as Christian, as do seven-in-10 whites and 77 percent of Latinos, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. Most of these African-Americans ascribe to the historically black Protestant churches, 53 percent. Others, 14 percent, identify as Protestant evangelicals, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 4 percent mainline Protestant and 2 percent Muslim.
The first established African-American churches in the U.S. were generally founded in the late 18th century, mostly by free black people. The largest of these today are the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Incorporated. Some of the other larger churches include the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and two other Baptist churches — the National Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Association Incorporated.
African-Americans are generally more religious than whites and Latinos statistically. Three-quarters of African-Americans say religion is important to them as compared to less than half the white population and Latinos. African-American young people, like their counterpart white or Latino youth, are more likely to say that they are unaffiliated with any church compared to those 65 or older. While 63 percent of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) say they identify with historically black denominations, only 41 percent of black Millennials are so affiliated.
It was with great interest that I read the article in last week’s Catholic Star Herald about Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, and a man originally from the Diocese of Camden. He said, “In spite of all that has been said about racism in the last 20 years, little has been done. As it was yesterday, so it is today.”
He added, “Only 18 percent of the American bishops have issued a statement condemning racism and very few have addressed systematic racism.” Courageously, our own Bishop Sullivan issued a statement condemning racism in all its forms this past September.
As I reflected on the importance of bringing some attention to Black History Month in light of the pain I read in Bishop Murry’s and other African-American Christian leaders’ statements on racism and prejudice, I would like to share two interesting quotes from the Rev. David Mathis, editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis. He said, “As a white Christian in America, I have wrestled with what it means to orient on Black History Month. I remember well my unsympathetic heart as a teenager growing up in the South — not only uninformed, but unrighteous — leading me to roll my eyes and say, ‘So when’s White History Month?’ Such is not the spirit of Christ, nor is it walking by his Spirit to suspect the worst of non-blacks who rush to join the annual celebration. Nor is it Christian — not in this nation or any other place on the planet — to keep silent with our children about the realities of ethnicity in view of Christ. If we don’t cast a positive vision for our children about the glories of God-designed ethnic diversity, we leave their inherent ethnocentrism to swell and take root.”
He also shared for our reflection, “Black History Month isn’t simply about ethnic diversity in general, but remembering the horrors of our shared history and celebrating the progress that has been made, in God’s common kindness, and specifically the many successes of black Americans despite such a history. Christians honor this month, at least in part, because it helps us understand the awful plight of a people made in God’s image, many of them fellow believers, and acknowledges God’s goodness at work in remarkable achievements … in and through a people who often have been treated with utter wickedness.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.