Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Abandoned Souls, by John W. Fountain

I haven't posted an entire article in a long time, but given some of the recent discussions on this blog, this is too appropriate. Part II will be my response...

Abandoned Souls, by John W. Fountain (a former pastor)

Sunday morning arrived, like so many before, with a mix of sunlight and chirping birds and a warm greeting from my tiny son, lying beside my wife and me. My wife rose quickly, announcing her plan to get ready for Sunday school at the Baptist church, not far from our house in suburban Chicago, that she and our two children attend.

As for me, in what has become my ritual, I turned over and pulled the covers up around my head. I overheard my 9-year-old daughter's familiar question: "Mommy, is Daddy going to church with us?"

"No-o-o-o," my wife replied. After months of my failure to accompany them, she has abandoned the excuse that "Daddy has a lot of work to do."

Sunday mornings used to mean something special to me. But I now face them with dread, with a headache-inducing tension that makes me reach for the Advil. I am torn between my desire to play hooky and my Pentecostal indoctrination that Sunday is a day of worship when real men lead their families into the house of God.

Once, that's what I did. I am the grandson of a pastor and am myself a licensed minister. I love God and I love the church. I feel as comfortable shouting hallelujahs and lifting my hands in the sanctuary as I do putting on my socks. I once arrived faithfully at the door of every prayer meeting.

Yet I now feel disconnected. I am disconnected. Not necessarily from God, but from the church.

What happened? Probably the same thing that has happened to thousands of African-American men who now file into coffee shops or baseball stadiums on Sundays instead of heading to church, or who lose themselves in the haze of mowing the lawn or waxing their cars. Somewhere along the way, for us, the church – the collective of black churches of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination – lost its relevance. It seems to have no discernible message for what ails the 21st-century black male soul.

While there are still many black men who do go to church, any pastor will admit that there are far more who don't. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago educator and author of Adam! Where Are You?: Why Most Black Men Don't Go to Church, contends that 75 percent of the black church is female. The church's finger seems furthest from the pulse of those black men who seem to be drifting in a destructive sea of fatalism and pathology. Without the church, most of those men are doomed. But it seems clear to me that the church will not seek us black men out, or perhaps even mourn our disappearance from the pews.

Instead, it seems to have turned inward. It seems to exist for the perpetuation of itself – for the erecting of grandiose temples of brick and mortar and for the care of pastors and the salaried administrative staff. Not long ago, a preacher friend confided: "The black church is in a struggle for its collective soul – to find itself in an age when it is consumed by the God of materialism."

I am incensed by Mercedes-buying preachers who live in suburban meadows far from the inner-city ghettos they pastor, where they bid parishioners to sacrifice in the name of God. I am angered by a preacher I know, and his wife and co-pastor, who exacted a per diem and drove luxury vehicles, their modest salaries boosted by tithes and offerings from poor folks.

I wonder why, despite billions of dollars taken from collection plates, I see few homes for the elderly, few recreation centers, little to no church-financed housing development and few viable church-operated businesses that might employ members. I scratch my head at the multimillion-dollar edifice a local church erected and wonder whether that is the most responsible stewardship for a church in a community filled with poor families.

I have come to see the countless meetings and church assemblies, camouflaged as worship services, as little more than fundraisers and quasi-fashion shows with a dose of spirituality. I am disheartened by the territorialism of churches, vying for control and membership, as a deacon at a Baptist church said to me recently, in much the same way as gangs.

But even in an age of preacher as celebrity, it is not the evolution of a bling-bling Gospel that most disheartens me. It is the loss of the church's heart and soul: the mission to seek and save lost souls through the power of the Gospel and a risen savior. As the homicide toll in black neighborhoods has swelled, I've wondered why churches or pastors have seldom taken a stand or ventured beyond the doors of their sanctuaries to bring healing and hope to the community – whether to stem the tide of violence and drugs, or to help cure poverty and homelessness or any number of issues that envelop ailing black communities.

Once, after a service at my grandfather's church in a Chicago suburb, I mentioned to a visiting pastor that there was a drug and gang war going on in his community. "I don't know nothing 'bout that," he responded. How could he not know about something that affected a community in which he was a "shepherd"?

Given the state of black men in America, given the number in prison or jail or headed that way, given the thousands of us who find our way to early graves, given the number of us who seek solace in a bottle of liquor or in illegal drugs, it seems that we would make for a plentiful harvest for a church really seeking souls.

I suspect, however, that as long as our wives, our children and our money flow through the church's doors, few are likely to ever come looking for us.

I could be wrong. My criticism might be too harsh.

But it is no harsher than my pain.

John Fountain, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of "True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity." His e-mail address is author@Johnwfountain.com.

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