Church Chat
by Ken Jackson - Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
Keeping the faith isn’t easy when churches fail their flock

Editor’s note: Voices is a weekly column that provides a platform for Central New Yorkers to comment about the issues of the day. If you’d like to submit a column, email Larry Dietrich at ldietrich@syracusenewtimes.com.

“Truth is I’m tired

Options are few

I’m trying to pray

But where are you?

I’m all churched out

Hurt and abused

I can’t fake.

What’s left to do?”

-Take Me To The King by Tamela Mann

I open with this quote from a song that plays on regular rotation on my gospel Sirius XM. As of four years ago, I became a regular church-goer, each Sunday looking forward to fellowship at my place of worship. After a while, like many church folk, I was sitting in the same seat every Sunday and found a sense of peace in what I assumed to be the body of Christ, the church of a living God.

I don’t write about religion. I can’t quote the Bible verbatim, as some can. I attended Catholic high school, so maybe I didn’t get the memo on how to behave in an African-American church. After four years in my pew, however, I’m plumb tuckered out!

The derivation of that phrase is quite straightforward. “Tucker” is a colloquial New England word, coined in the early 19th century, meaning “become weary” and which ultimately derives from the Old English verb “tuck,” meaning “punish, torment.” No B-feature western from the 1930s and 1940s was complete without Gabby Hayes being “plumb tuckered out.” “Plumb” means “completely, absolutely, quite.”

As a church member, you question nothing. The pastor operates the facility from stem to stern. To paraphrase my pastor, “I run it from the pulpit to the parking lot.”

There’s nothing biblical about referring to your flock as “Negros and Niggerettes” or displaying images of d-Con rat poison as a desperate pastor illustrates his deep displeasure with his deacons. Another church wanted to elevate its deacons to a status above the pastor. People fled, due to church “politics.” Some congregations have been halved over the past five years.

The pastor of a large church recently told his flock, “You pass 10 churches on your way to complain about me. Why don’t you stop off at one of them and stay? I’ll write you a letter?”

After four years as an active churchgoer, I’m at a crossroads in my faith, my belief and participation in what we’ve come to affectionately refer to as “the Black Church.”

The largest assembly of African-American talent, both natural and nurtured, is embodied at a Black Church. And I don’t just mean the gospel choir. I mean social workers, bankers, computer analysts, accountants, education administrators, teachers, bus drivers, custodians, day-care workers, grant-writers, entrepreneurs and even governmental bureaucrats.

And yet, that vast pool of talent has been silenced by tradition. Any questioning of a leader can be cause for being admonished. Talent resplendent in the pews left like crumbs of bread, only to be swept up and tossed into the garbage.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If the civil rights movement were a train, the church would be the caboose.” It’s ironic how so many of our churches have filled their collection plates on King Day and yet remain deaf and dumb to the issues that are crushing the heart and soul of the African-American community. There are too many devoted to paying the pastor, his benefits package, mortgage and National Grid bill–“Hallelujah!” When it comes to the missions of the church, though, paltry amounts are committed because there’s nothing left. And out there beyond the church walls, our community is dying.

Syracuse has 100 churches that address the needs of about 50,000 people. Most pastors don’t live in the city, which makes some of them as familiar with urban life as a police officer from Central Square. They don’t want to live with us, either.

Until recently, the church was the most segregated place in America. Blacks went one way. Whites went another.

That’s changed, however, with the introduction of Abundant Life and other religious institutions that have made major inroads into the African-American community. As one recent refugee from the traditional Black Church said to me, “I want to hear the Word, period.”

When I was a child growing up at Bethany Baptist Church, in the winter you’d see footsteps in the snow made by the people who lived near church. They’d walk to worship. At the end of the service, the Rev. Leo Murphy would greet each person leaving church, the entry overlooking vast empty lots surrounding the old Harrison Street remnants of urban renewal.

Today, there are no footsteps in the snow leading to the “church house.” For almost 25 years, I’ve delivered Urban CNY to 18 churches on a regular basis. I’ve seen churches grow, literally fall down to their foundation, pastors tossed out by legal edict, police called to the sanctuary. . . need I say more? Pastors no longer stand at the door of the church house shaking hands, smiling at children and hugging the elderly.

In college, I had a friend who was not a church-goer. After graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C. We stayed in contact, but sometimes I’d call and not get an answer. “Where were you?” I’d ask. The response was shocking. “At church,” she said. “We have aerobics on Wednesday night.” Several months later, she told me of all the wonderful programs they had at her church: day care, a senior center, educational programs. “We go all week long,” she said. “This is a living church.”

I’m not alone in my thoughts; but it’s taboo to speak ill of a pastor. “Aren’t you afraid of having a heart attack or stroke?” I was abruptly asked after a particularly fiery church meeting.

My response: “No, I’m afraid for the people who toss their last dime into a collection plate and can’t get programming and economic transparency.”

Church fabric is ripped when verbally debilitating comments and physical violence is condoned, when people can’t participate–short of giving up their dollars–when the police have to be dispatched to the church house. For me, opening my big mouth and being attacked by a 300-pound deacon destroyed any concept of communion. When the “bread and wine” are delivered by a bully calling you a “punk,” it’s only grape juice and crackers. I’ve stopped attending church on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. I’m watching Oprah. At least she’s not asking for money.

Ken Jackson is an award-winning columnist based in Syracuse. Like Church Chat? You can read his blog at www.urbancny.com/hall_monitor.