Philanthropy and the Black Church
By LaTasha Chaffin
Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University
Philanthropy is “goodwill to fellow men; especially active effort to promote human welfare (Merriam-Webster 2003).”
Traditional definitions of philanthropy have focused on money but newer definitions have broadened this definition to “include the giving of time, shelter or other material resources as philanthropic activities (Duran 2001, 2).”
Historically, the Black church has been a core institution for African-American philanthropy. The Black church does not only serve as a faith-based house of worship, but it facilitates organized philanthropic efforts including meeting spiritual, psychological, financial, educational and basic humanitarian such as food, housing, and shelter needs. Black churches are also involved in organizing and providing volunteers to the community and in civil and human rights activism.
Most Black churches are community focused, committed to helping the inner city and are owned and operated by African-Americans (Duran 2001).
According to James A. Joseph, author of Black Philanthropy , The Potential and Limits of Private Generosity in a Civil Society , “African-Americans connection to the Black church is directly linked to “the overriding belief among African-Americans that service to God is linked to service to humanity (Ball, 1).”
The evolution of the Black church began in the colonial area with the development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) began with at a “clearing in the Delaware woods in the year 1787 (African Methodist Episcopal Church).” The first AME church, Mother Bethel was started by slave born Richard Allen. After being separated from his mother and siblings, who were sold in the slave trade, Richard “took solace in God’s love” (ibid.). Eventually Richard Allen bought his freedom. As a result of his “religious awakening” and in response to the inhumanities of slavery, Allen established the first AME church (ibid.).
During slavery, White slave masters used religion as a vice to keep slaves subservient by suggesting that God created African-American slaves to be servants and if slaves fulfilled this duty, they would be rewarded in heaven (Francis 2003).
Slaves embraced their slave masters’ religion, yet they made the religion their own. Religion was their way to mentally and spiritually escape the oppression of slavery and a way to gain strength to endure the transgressions of their oppressors.
“If we look at American history, church was the only place African-Americans felt free,” said Albert Gallmon, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis (Francis 2003, 1).
In the early days of the Black church, services were held out doors and as they grew to be held in wood and brick structures, the members often labored to build these structures (Francis 2003).
Although various religious denominations emerged by the early 1800s, this did not appear to have an impact on the philanthropic role of Black churches in community giving (ibid.).
“Sure there was a difference in worship style, but when it came to the Black church’s role in the Black community, it didn’t matter whether you were Baptist, AME (African Methodist Episcopal), CME (Colored Methodist Episcopal), Pentecostal, Episcopalian or Catholic (Francis 2003, 2).”
The Black church evolved as not only a communal place where African-Americans could come together to worship, but served as an arena for social, political, civic and philanthropic action.
Black churches “were the hub of the Black community, where people were affirmed as human beings,” stated Rev. Rosetta Ross, an associate professor of ethics at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Quoting author Peter Paris, Ross expressed, “The church served as a surrogate world, providing social participation and a buffer against cruelties of racism (Francis 2003, 2).”
The Black church was instrumental in the success of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the South. The Black church had solidified its standing for over a century as the core institution for organization, dissemination of information and vehicle for action in African-American communities. The Black church provided support for political and civil action against racism and the social ills of the Jim Crow system. The essential functions of the Black church during this time were to serve as a meeting location for organizing volunteers and planning action, to collect African-American charitable dollars and funnel these resources into African-American communities and for support of the movement.
The Black church also provided moral, spiritual and political leadership. In African-American communities, Black church leadership is respected, revered, and looked upon for spiritual guidance. Many individuals were afraid to support the Civil Rights Movement for fear of retaliation. Black church ministers were insolated in a sense because they were supported solely by the African-American community.
Nathaniel Edmond, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Elgin, Illinois explained, “Giving to the church is a first natural step. For people of color, the first thing we actually owned was our church. We knew there was a need to sustain it (Chicago Daily Herald 2003)