African Methodist Episcopal

400th anniversary special report: Don't miss Adelle Banks' must-read RNS series on slavery and religion

400th anniversary special report: Don't miss Adelle Banks' must-read RNS series on slavery and religion

I’ve been in Southern California for nearly a week, mixing a bit a reporting with time on the beach. Tonight, my son Keaton and I plan to join a minister friend for a game at Dodger Stadium.

Relaxing in the sand Saturday as the tide washed in and out, I listened to classic country music and avoided checking my social media feeds every few minutes as I typically do.

That meant that I didn’t find out later until the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

Of course, by the time I woke up for church Sunday morning, there had been another mass shooting — this one in Dayton, Ohio.

The preacher at the congregation I visited took time to lament the carnage in Texas and Ohio. The minister also mentioned another mass shooting that happened the previous Sunday in Gilroy, Calif., not far from here.

I have not tweeted or posted on Facebook about this weekend’s shootings. I don’t feel like I have anything to add to those on the left who immediately want to make it about guns and those on the right who immediately want to make it not about guns and those in the middle who immediately want to lecture those on the left and the right not to make it about guns or not about guns. As a journalist, I have covered so many mass shootings and other kinds of terrorist attacks over the years that I feel like I have lost the ability to devote much emotional energy at all to the latest round of headlines.

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Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Please read the headline a second time and think about it.

The Religion Guy asserts the obvious answer to this question is Baptists in “historically” or “predominantly” African-American denominations. By out-of-date estimates, their cumulative membership exceeds 12 million. That’s not so far behind the 15 million members in the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, whose Dallas meeting June 12-13 will grab the usual media coverage.

No reporters are likely to staff the June 26-28 Columbus, Ohio, meeting of the Atlanta-based Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Admittedly, with only 800 congregations it’s small compared with the mighty SBC, but there’s an angle: It’s the youngest black Baptist denomination, formed in 1994 by  those leaving the older groups to emphasize Pentecostal-charismatic style “gifts” of the Holy Spirit.  

It can be argued that publications neglect black religion when the majority of their reporters are white.

No question, the “mainstream media” mostly have a narrow interest in black churches as political players, ignoring their central mission as a powerful religious force.

Meanwhile, black churches have a history of expending little energy cultivating visibility. For example, those Full Gospel Baptists don’t provide information for the standard online church listings at  www.yearbookofchurches.org. Nor does the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal body that equals the Baptists in neglect though it claims to be the single largest U.S. black denomination, with 6.5 million members. Datebook note: Its annual convocation is Nov. 5-13 in St. Louis.

Reporters should also be familiar with groups founded two centuries ago, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (headquarters in Nashville) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (headquarters in Charlotte). Neither  provides membership estimates to that online church data base.

Back to the Baptists.

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New York Times learns that, yes, leaders in liberal black churches are mad at Donald Trump

New York Times learns that, yes, leaders in liberal black churches are mad at Donald Trump

If you have studied religion in American life -- either as a reporter or in history classes -- then you have had to wrestle with the complex and fascinating role that the black church plays in African-American communities, large and small, rural and urban.

Obviously, black churches and their charismatic leaders have always been politically active at the local, regional and national levels. In the second half of the 20th Century, most of that activism has taken place inside the structures of the Democratic Party.

Thus, most reporters think of African-American Christians as loyal Democrats. Period.

However, if you have followed the debates about who is, and who isn't, an "evangelical" these days, you know that lots of African-American churchgoers fit quite comfortably -- on doctrinal issues -- in the true "evangelical" camp. This is one reason why it's so misleading to use the "evangelical" label as another way of saying "white, Republican conservatives."

What about issues in which doctrine and politics have been known to clash? Take abortion, for example. Or flash back to 2008, when black voters in California voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama's White House bid AND also voted to oppose same-sex marriage. As the Washington Post noted at that time:

The outcome that placed two pillars of the Democratic coalition -- minorities and gays -- at opposite ends of an emotional issue sparked street protests in Los Angeles and a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. To gay rights advocates, the issue was one of civil rights. ...
That appeal ran head-on into a well-funded and well-framed advertising campaign in favor of the ban -- and the deeply ingrained religious beliefs of an African American community that largely declined to see the issue through a prism of equality.

This brings me to a recent New York Times story that ran with this headline: "In Trump’s Remarks, Black Churches See a Nation Backsliding." The key question: Did this story seek to diversity, in terms of the kinds of churches that reporters visited?

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For journalists, three crucial things to consider linked to #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches

For journalists, three crucial things to consider linked to #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches

#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches is trending on Twitter.

The bright orange flames and charred remains in images shared by major news organizations tell part of the story.

As social media fans the flames, however, journalists intent on reporting the full story must focus on the basics.

Here are three important considerations:

1. Facts are crucial.

Even as speculation — on Twitter and elsewhere — fixates on the possibility of arson or hate crimes, news organizations must be careful to report what they know. No more. No less:

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New York Times probes the Rev. Pinckney's 'higher calling,' with no sign of Jesus

New York Times probes the Rev. Pinckney's 'higher calling,' with no sign of Jesus

What was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney's ultimate goal in life? What drove him to do what he did?

One thing is clear, early on, in the recent New York Times news feature on the slain pastor of the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in the heart of Charleston, S.C. From the beginning, Pinckney was ambitious -- but saw his future through the lens of the church.

This figures into the simple, but touching, anecdote that opens the story. However, the story quickly takes this image and hides it behind a bigger vision -- Pinckney's work in politics showed that he was headed to "higher things."

Really now? Did the man himself see his calling in that way? Did he automatically assume that politics was a higher calling than the ordained ministry? Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

RIDGELAND, S.C. -- The morning worship had ended at St. John A.M.E. Church, and as Clementa Pinckney walked through the simple country sanctuary with its 10 rows of pews, he was startled to hear a disembodied voice. It was soft, almost whispery, and yet clearly audible. “Preach,” it said. “I have called you to preach the Gospel.”
He was only 13. But, in a story he often repeated, he discerned it to be the voice of God, and within months he stood before an audience of hundreds of African Methodist Episcopal pastors to present himself as a candidate for ministerial training. The bishop, the most powerful official in the state, asked what he hoped to become. The boy did not hesitate. “A humble bishop of the A.M.E. church,” he answered, with no hint of a smile.

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Baltimore Sun, before the fire began falling, talks to (a few) black pastors about Freddie Gray

Baltimore Sun, before the fire began falling, talks to (a few) black pastors about Freddie Gray

It's time to give a salute to The Baltimore Sun for trying to do a timely, highly relevant religion-beat story in the midst the civic meltdown ignited by the still mysterious death of Freddie Gray. If you have a television, a computer or a smartphone (or all of the above) you know that the situation here in Charm City is only getting more complex by the hour.

This past weekend's story -- "What's the role of the church in troubled times? Pastors disagree" -- reminded me of some of the work I did in a seminary classroom in Denver while watching the coverage of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. Facing a classroom that was half Anglo and half African-American, I challenged the white students to find out what black, primarily urban pastors were preaching about the riots and I asked the black students to do the same with white, primarily suburban, pastors.

The results? White pastors (with only one exception) ignored the riots in the pulpit. Black pastors all preached about the riots and, here's the key part, their takes on the spiritual lessons to be drawn from that cable-TV madness were diverse and often unpredictable. The major theme: The riots showed the sins of all people in all corners of a broken society. Repent! There is enough sin here to convict us all. Repent!

So when I saw the Sun headline, I hoped that this kind of complex content would emerge in the reporting. The African-American church is a complex institution and almost impossible to label, especially in terms of politics. There are plenty of economically progressive and morally conservative black churches. There are all progressive, all the time black churches that are solidly in the religious left. There are nondenominational black megachurches that may as well be part of the religious right. You get the picture.

So who ended up in the Sun, talking about the sobering lessons to be learned in the Freddie Gray case, in a story published just before the protests turned violent?

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