Lisa Ramsey was at bible study one Tuesday night and, afterward, saw emergency lights as she went to her car.
She said to herself that she hoped no one died, but someone did, two blocks from St. Sabina Church on the South Side.
“That young man died while we were in bible study. And I said, ‘You know what? That is unacceptable. What can I do to make a difference?'” Ramsey asked herself.
She’s now a member of St. Sabina’s Steering Committee Against Gun Violence. The South Side Catholic parish is not the only predominantly black church in the city that’s preaching more than the gospel. While committed to their faith and community involvement, more are expanding into social and political activism.
According to a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 61 percent of blacks say houses of worship should express their views on social and political matters, while 36 percent say churches should avoid these topics. In Austin, the LEADER’s Network, composed of several Austin and West Side churches, have been involved in such issues as police brutality, education, and health care reform.
St. Sabina and its pastor, Fr. Michael Pfleger, have long been involved in social and political issues in Chicago. Since becoming the church’s pastor in 1981, Pfleger has led a relentless campaign against racism, drugs, alcohol and gun violence; not only in its neighborhood, but throughout the city. And he believes a person can’t truly be a follower of Christ unless he or she is an activist.
“People say, ‘Well, why do you do what you do?’ My question is: ‘Why aren’t you doing it?'” asked Pfleger.
Chicago resident Cleora Murff, who lost her daughter, Vanity, to gun violence last year, supports the church’s activism.
“It is pertinent that the churches, and next-door neighbors, get involved,” she said. “It’s going to take us all collectively to get something done.”
While most blacks say they support the black church in expressing its views on social and political issues, support among the general population is not as strong, according to the Pew study.
More than half of the general public, 52 percent, believe the church should stay out of politics, while only 45 percent say churches should get involved in those issues.
“Some people say the church is only limited to preaching. I don’t think so,” said Pastor Steve Jones, president of the Baptist Pastors Conference in Chicago, noting that the bible doesn’t discourage social activism.
Although some may identify the black church and social activism historically with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, the beginnings actually date back as far as slavery, according to Dwight Hopkins, theology professor at the University of Chicago.
Hopkins recalled the black church in that period was referred to as the “invisible institution,” when slaves met secretly in worship services.
“They were focused primarily on slavery and overthrowing the slave system in the South,” he said.
Politics had a large part in founding a major black denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal church, in 1787. Hopkins explained that the white churches in Philadelphia would only let blacks pray in their congregation if they were segregated. Today, that black church has grown influential, evidenced by politicians who make trips to black churches to garner support, and votes.
“Who talks to more folks in a sitting than a pastor?” said Jones, pastor of Praise Tabernacle Deliverance Baptist Fellowship Church, 9511 S. Commercial on the South Side. “The politicians understand they need us for the votes. But after the election, you don’t hear from them anymore. To me, that’s a travesty.”
Along with having politicians come and talk to their members, some ministers use services or other special events to speak out on issues that affect both blacks and the general public. Pfleger, for instance, has been involved in protests dealing with the War in Iraq.
But one topic that some ministers don’t touch is telling their parishioners or members how to vote. And according to the Pew study, 58 percent of blacks say churches and other houses of worship should not come out in favor of political candidates. For the general population, 66 percent agree. Pfleger said he has never told anyone who to vote for from the pulpit.
One of the most well-known events involving Pfleger occurred in May 2008, when he delivered the now-infamous sermon at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ that involved comments critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Pfleger said he was invited by Trinity to speak on the topic of race.
“First of all, I did not know that it was to a public audience,” he insists, referring to the video that later surfaced of his sermon. “I was speaking to that church. No one ever told me this was going to be going out public.”
Pfleger apologized for his mannerisms, but does not apologize for his message.
“I do believe entitlement is a reality in American society today,” he said.
And while some approve of the black church tackling certain secular issues, some wonder why they are more silent on issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Praise Tabernacle’s Jones said that every activist, as well as churches and neighborhoods, should tackle issues that are more prevalent in their community. But in the black community, he added that his priority is people dealing with medical care issues and poverty.
“I’m dealing with life and death and immediacy needs and so are my pastors,” said Jones.