Part 1 of PBS’ “The Black Church,” premiering Tuesday, is difficult to watch, beginning as it must with America’s original sin of slavery.
Noted Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates spares us no details on the brutality and horror necessitating a reliance on God — a God carried in slave ships across the Middle Passage, or one indoctrinated by white slave owners, sprouting denominations as America evolved.
Part 2, to air Feb. 23, is easier to consume. It’s a fascinating trek through the second half of the century, from the Civil Rights Movement led by a young Baptist preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the Black empowerment movement represented by another young preacher, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson would build on King’s legacy of religion melding with politics, in two historic runs for president of a nation that enslaved his ancestors.
The series moves through the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, whose path to the White House was marked by an infamous break from the church that molded him, after controversial sermons by Trinity United Church of Christ pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced.
At times jarring, at times poignant, the documentary is riveting, with prominent Chicagoans such as Larry G. Murphy, professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Barbara Ransby, professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, accompanying viewers on this voyage through the spiritual history of Black Americans, and the strength of a people.
From slavery on, the Black church was their bedrock of survival and grace, organizing and resilience, the struggle for autonomy and freedom. And other prominent Chicagoans, including Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Hudson, raised in the church, share how their faith impacted their journeys.
Singer John Legend, also part of the documentary, admits he no longer finds what he needs in the church, and no longer attends.
For Oprah, on the other hand, reaching the pinnacles of American success never quenched her connection to it.
“The master, in my opinion, is T.D. Jakes,” the media mogul says of the pastor of The Potter’s House, a 14,000-capacity megachurch on 400 acres outside Dallas. “Sometimes I would just get in my plane and fly to Dallas and to The Potter’s House and sit in the service, just to hear those ‘Amens!’”
Spanning the growth of the church from slave “praise houses” to the early Black churches sprouting within the Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Pentecostal and Church of God In Christ denominations, the series unveils the root of storefront churches that proliferated in inner cities, and the ascent of megachurches like Potter’s House and Chicago’s Trinity.
“In 1972, fresh from divinity school and full of ideas, Jeremiah Wright arrived at Trinity United Church of Christ on the impoverished South Side of Chicago. The congregation had dwindled to 87 members and the local community felt the church wasn’t meeting its needs,” says narrator Gates, in a portion that explores ’70s Black Liberation Theology.
In a transfixing interview, a now aged Wright recalls his start, and the pivotal moment that nearly derailed Obama’s presidential campaign.
“The core group said, ‘All we need to do is find a young fool to conduct a funeral for a dying congregation. I told them Jesus never conducted any funerals. He conducted resurrections,” Wright said of how he came to build Trinity into an 8,000-member church that included Obama and his family as members.
Wright officiated the Obamas’ wedding and baptized their children. But the controversy over a sermon he gave during the Iraq War, heavily critical of America led to Obama’s historic “A More Perfect Union,” aka, “The Race Speech.”
“Like other predominantly Black churches, Trinity contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love, and yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the Black experience in America,” Obama said in the speech severing ties with Trinity.
Gates recounts the disappointment among a large sector of Black Americans, who saw it as betraying a church that “had done so much to launch him on the path to the White House.”
Another engrossing portion follows the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Jackson, who rose to prominence in the ’80s, as the conservative public policies of President Ronald Reagan eroded the social safety net, communities of color suffering in an economic downturn.
A King protege, Jackson “had the swagger. He didn’t wear a suit and tie. He had the big ’fro. I said, ‘That’s the kind of preacher I wanna be,’ because he never pastored a church. He said, ‘The whole country is my podium,’” recounts the Rev. Al Sharpton, among those interviewed.
Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, “found ways to leverage the latent power of Black congregations to bring Dr. King’s activist spirit into the political realm,” and though his campaigns fell short, inspired a generation of activists like Sharpton, notes Gates.
The series covers the historic struggle of the Black church with the LGBTQ movement during the AIDS epidemic; the struggle of women to serve in its pulpits; and conflicts with movements led by the younger hip-hop and then Black Lives Matter generations.
“These new school activists rejected old models of political leadership, including the role of the church,” Gates notes of young activists today combatting police brutality.
“Young women have been very important leaders in the movement for ‘Black Lives,’ but it’s not steeped in a religious institution,” UIC’s Ransby notes of the disconnect between today’s Black Lives Matter Movement and the Black church.
“And it’s certainly not steeped in the kind of patriarchal traditions often represented in the formal institutions of the Black church,” Ransby added.
The series culminates with the Black church again front and center in the battle against a rise in white supremacy and hate crimes during the four years under President Donald Trump. One of the most poignant portions covers the 2015 massacre of nine people during Bible study at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, by a self-proclaimed white supremacist.
The footage of the 21-year-old murderer entering the church, and the 911 calls, are chilling. But just as impactful is the footage of Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial.
“In the face of unthinkable racial violence, the man who during his first presidential campaign had navigated the complex web of race, religion and politics, became the pastor for the nation,” opines Gates of that unforgettable, unifying moment.
“The foundation of the African-American spiritual journey was formed out of fragments of faith that our ancestors brought with them to this country starting 500 years ago. And out of those fragments grew the powerful institution that we fondly call the Black church,” Gates concludes.
“The Black church was the place where our people somehow made a way out of no way. And it’s the place to which after a long and tiresome journey, we can always return and call home.”