The ladies in their fancy, wide-brimmed hats and the men in their shiny shoes have taken their seats in the red-carpeted chapel of Calvary Baptist Church.
The ushers motion with white-gloved hands and a momentary hush falls over the largely African American congregation. In comes the choir, hands clapping, silky blue robes swishing, praising God. Men, women, children come alive, swaying back and forth to the music, interjecting “amens,” throwing their hands up in the air.
“How great is our God,” they sing together, no longer individual people but one mass moving together. “How great is our God.”
Aside from the gaiety, at first glance, Calvary Baptist appears to be a church like any other — a place where people of faith gather to read scriptures and worship their God. But in many ways the nondescript brick building on State Street in Salt Lake City, along with 30 or so other black churches scattered along the Wasatch front, is a social and cultural center for Utah’s African American population.
African Americans, of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, according to The Pew Center for Religious and Public Studies.
They pray more frequently and attend church services more often than the general population. Even among those who do not claim affiliation with a particular church, three out of four say religion is important in their lives.
Close to 60 percent of the nation’s African American population chooses to worship in predominately black churches. And yet, the black church is facing turbulent times.
Like many of their peers, the rising generation of African Americans is less interested in religion and find the idea of a predominately black congregation less appealing than their parents did, studies say.
The recession has also hit the black community disproportionately hard, shuttering hundreds of churches across the country due to foreclosure. But the greatest challenge may come from a shift in emphasis. As preaching focuses more on individual prosperity than community uplift, some scholars speculate the decades-old power the black church has exercised as the “soul” of the African American community is “dead” — or on it’s way there.
Today marks the 48th anniversary of the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before 200,000 civil rights supporters and declared, “I Have a Dream.”
Now, with 16 percent of African Americans unemployed and 26 percent living in poverty, King’s dreams of social equality are far from realized. The question is whether the black church will continue to play a role in the progression of the African American community, or if like so many other churches, it will lose grip on its congregations.
The answer to that question will say a lot not just about the role religion plays in the African American community, but the future of black community as a whole.
Lifting the people
Pastor France Davis dances up to the polished pulpit to the beat of drums and a clapping, electric congregation. He greets the crowd with twinkling eyes and a broad smile. Today’s sermon: charity.
There are hungry children, he tells the crowd. His people respond with a smattering of, “Oh, yeahs” and “amens.” “Break it down,” says one man, eyes closed, rocking back and forth, feeling the spirit.