It was birthed from the experiences of slaves, and handed to their sons and daughters. When thousands of blacks migrated north at the turn of the 20th century, they brought their church with them, and it developed a deeply rooted tradition of activism.
Over the decades, black churches have helped change history in Chicago and in the country. Chicago’s oldest African-American church, Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal, played an integral role in the abolition movement. In subsequent years, black churches were at the forefront of civil rights, education, housing and health reform.
Today, the black church is addressing youth violence.
“African-American churches are still relevant,” said David Byrd, the youth director at Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn.
While at the black church’s center has always been a message of spiritual restoration, it has also had a multifunctional role in the community. Many churches conduct clothing drives, provide food to the hungry and offer financial counseling to their members. Today, churches are working to channel young people’s energies in productive activities, providing supervision and adult role models.
Byrd said his church offers more than 40 activities, including after-school sports, music and tutoring programs to 3,500 youths. “The doors of the church never close,” he said.
Quinn Chapel A.M.E., founded in 1847, tries to help at-risk youth in a variety of ways, said the Rev. Merilyn Brown, youth pastor at Quinn. For example, the South Loop church provides shelter, legal assistance and counseling for runaways.
“Every child can go bad,” she said. “We don’t wait until they get in trouble.”
Some churches have reacted in immediate and visible ways. Members of Trinity United Church of Christ at 95th and South Eggleston Ave. marched, singing and carrying signs along 95th Street after last month’s beating death of Derrion Albert.
“I think that the march was to signify to all the people who are watching and to those who want to continue making war on the community that this is intolerable and justice will be served,” said Linda Thomas, a member of Trinity and professor of theology at the Lutheran School of Chicago.
“Knowing that city hall has not called any type of blue ribbon committee, it is the role of the church to step up,” said Thomas.
Despite all the black church is doing, many say they can’t – and shouldn’t have to – do it alone.
Omar McRoberts, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, sees the necessity of employing a more holistic approach to curbing violence. He said the break down of institutions has contributed to the spike in murdered youths.
“As a society, we’ve failed these young people,” he said.
McRoberts said greater collaboration between churches and secular institutions is necessary.
“It is shameful that we have reached such a low morality that every time someone has a disagreement, they have to reach for a gun,” said Byrd.