It was a full house as three Black pastors preached the gospel of freedom to a packed assembly at the Black Panther Party 50th Anniversary conference at the Oakland Museum last month.
Asserting social justice as the rightful heritage – and duty — of the Black church, and exhorting a church that was born out of the hush arbors where enslaved people gathered to pray or developed because Blacks were not allowed in white churches, the four presenters drew the rapt attention of an audience that clearly included churchgoers, leaders and theology students.
The Holy Spirit of Freedom guides the theology of Liberation, a theology that was natural to the black church from its inception, they said.
“There were 326 rebellions (before the Civil War). Of those, 321 arose from Black churches,” said the Way Christian Center’s Pastor Michael McBride. The Black Panther Party was carrying on that same battle against the status quo.
“The church must recover its prophetic fire to speak truth to power no matter the cost,” he said.
“The holy spirit of freedom doesn’t fear black leather jackets and berets,” said Rev. Kamal Hassan of the Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, referring to the agreement between the BPP and St. Augustine Episcopal Church where the free breakfast program started in West Oakland in 1969.
“One thing the party did was unite the streets with the church and allow the will of God to be in church but also the sacred space of the neighborhoods, homes and schools,” said Rev. Hassan.
“When the children came, they shared sacred space, that moment when the Almighty says that no child should go hungry.”
Both Hassan and McBride object to the Black church abandoning its roots for the currently popular prosperity movement.
“What happened to the Black church that we don’t do more than tell folks to forgive, hold chicken dinners and hold big conferences?” McBride asked. “We have to hold ourselves in a righteous resistance… Our allegiance must always be to a higher calling.”
That higher calling, according to Hassan, is to “do the work Jesus said was what the Holy Spirit empowered Him to do. We are determined to fight for our peoples’ dignity, human rights and justice.”
Both pastors also call out the Black church for its sexism and homophobia. “We have a lot of work to do around women and queer people,” Hassan said. The dominance of both groups in the Black Lives Matter Movement requires the church to stretch if they want to remain relevant.
“We must get past our comfort zone. If you want to be comfortable, you can’t follow Jesus. He’s always going to ask more of you than you are willing to do,” Hassan said.
That includes tolerating the way young people in Black Lives Matter talk and protest, he said. “The young folks in Ferguson are our prophets and prophetesses.”
And dropping into the vernacular, he added, “The only weapon they have is they mouth. Don’t it make sense that they would load up they mouth?”
In closing, the pastors asked Black people to fall in love with their children again, despite their heartbreak.
Churches must develop a theology of justice that is anti-capitalist and anti-homophobic, McBride asserts. “We have to have churches as safe places for healing.