A 1936 article in the Baltimore Afro-American spoke glowingly of the important strides than then-71-year-old Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. had made through the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. It mentioned that the congregation, founded in 1808, had buildings worth in excess of a half-million dollars. The story also presaged his up and coming son, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., soon to become a city councilman and then a U.S. representative.
Also in the paper was an article which noted that, despite the Great Depression, the number of black retail businesses in New York City had grown five fold from 1930 to 1935, according to the U.S. Census.
The connection speaks to the fact that black churches have an extremely important economic role for African-Americans, a role they’ve been playing since the 1700s. National Black Business Month is an opportunity to embrace the fact that black churches are a significant business. On Sunday, Aug. 9, we encourage supporting those churches by attending, and also engaging the many other activities that they undertake.
Like Abyssinian in the 1930s, or Mother A.M.E. Zion in Harlem or First African Baptist in Savannah, GA, the sanctuaries are generally the dominant structure defining black neighborhoods and the primary gathering place. Behind that apparent presence, African-American denominations are by far the largest organizations in our communities.
The 8 million member National Baptist Convention U.S.A. under Dr. William Shaw is the second largest Baptist organization anywhere. It’s reach extended beyond the U.S. even in the 19th century through the Lott Carey missionary organization.
The century-old Church of God in Christ is led by Bishop Charles Blake, who is continuing those same thrusts with his Save Africa’s Children charity to support orphanages in more than 30 African countries. West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where Blake is also pastor, is one of hundreds of black churches nationally which takes on the holistic role of explicitly promoting economic development through a community development corporation active in housing and entrepreneurship development.
That focus is part of the origins of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, whose founder Bishop Richard Allen first organized a mutual benefit society among blacks in Philadelphia. A.M.E. churches nationally aggressively seek to provide housing and other services for their communities.
As a former board chair of a church, I can say that even a small congregation generates a host of full-time and part-time jobs directly, and creates a pathway to opportunity through the networking of its members. In a talk to the Faith-Based Financial Management Conference in Ohio several years ago, I pointed out the ability of churches to instill sound financial practices among their members as part of their stewardship. In churches like First A.M.E. in Oakland, we’ve provided stewardship seminars that discuss how the church enhances the members while they work toward its mission. The seminar God’s Credit Card was drawn from my book Blackmoney: Advanced Strategies for Maximizing the $1 Trilion Blacks Receive Worldwide Yearly.
More than anything else, churches demonstrate the independence that comes from self-reliance. Although many congregations have non-profit arms that compete for and win government and philanthropic support, the primary belief is that it can respond to the needs of its members and communities through the initiative of its members.
Faithful Central in Los Angeles bought the Forum in Inglewood after the basketball team moved out. Next week, they’ll use the building to provide free health care to anyone who comes.
That’s the capacity that black churches give their communities. Their physical plant and activities help to define black communities. As we saw in the 1930s in Harlem, when black churches do well, they tend to support the growth of other black enterprises.