Ministers reflect on the past, present and future of the black church

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Published: Feb. 20, 2020 at 6:29 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It’s considered a beacon of light and signature of hope. The church has often served as a place of refuge in times of tragedy or despair.

For African Americans, the church represents something more.

“The African-American church has sustained the moral, spiritual and even survival and even the process of the African-American community. This doesn’t mean that the church has been perfect and on point for every step of the way,” said Rev. Otis Moss, Jr.

For a quarter century, Reverend Otis Moss, Jr. led parishioners at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland.

When he spoke people listened. His message was unwavering. His voice assertive. The plan was always clear. All of these characteristics that made Rev. Moss a great leader in Cleveland were learned in college.

It was also there where Rev. Moss first became acquainted with a Civil Rights icon.

“You could not attend Morehouse, without becoming acquainted with the King family. We had already celebrated him at Morehouse before the movement, because he was this young, dynamic graduate of Morehouse," said Rev. Moss, Jr.

Rev. Moss would soon lean on Dr. King as a friend and mentor, even officiating Moss’ wedding.

He would see Dr. King in more serious times during the Civil Rights Movement, with his demeanor and calmness.

Understanding the significance of the moment, which would shape him as a future church leader.

“Day after day the message of the Freedom struggle was before us," said Rev. Moss, Jr. "It was on our agenda, it was in every classroom, it was in the dining room, it was in the lunch room, it was in our discussions, before, during and after class. So we were involved in the movement, both in the perspective of our own lives and heritage, from the church and from the classroom. You could not miss it.”

Millions saw African American’s determination and courage during the Civil Rights movement. It was the black church that served as a meeting place to plan and pray. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone was willing to make that sacrifice.

“All of the pastors were not candidates for jail and protest and risking their lives," said Rev. Moss. “A few bold and daring and dedicated pastors and congregations, represented the whole community. Not always with the backing with the support of the whole community, but they became that image."

Since the Civil Rights Movement, an evolution has taken place within black churches around the country, that would change the relationship with the church and the community.

“You take away the black church and you have no Civil Rights movement," said Rev. R.A. Vernon. "There was no Rocket Mortgage Arena, there was no Cleveland State Convention Center. There was no city-wide convention places to meet. When you met, you met at the largest church in the city.”

Rev. Vernon is the pastor and founder of The Word Church in Cleveland. Rev. Vernon, who like Rev. Moss, was also trained in the religious doctrine of civil rights.

Rev. Vernon said motives for some churches revolve primarily around financial gains, rather than social justice.

“There are churches who are maybe more about the dollar and what they can drive and what they can have, than meeting the needs of people," said Rev. Vernon. "What bothers me is when all churches are put into the same category. I’m arguing that their are some of us who are Mega, who are seminary trained. I went to school eight years to learn something about theology and become good at what I do. But at the same time, I never forgot where I came from. I’m a boy from the projects of CLE and there’s no way that God put me here, in the city that I was born in, gave us the largest African-American church in three places and not to make a difference. That would be a tragedy.”

For his efforts, Rev. Vernon and his church have given back just as much as they’ve received. The congregation has given away free gas and food every holiday to free cars and free homes. However, he said the core of how church should be is speaking truth to evil.

“I don’t think any black pastor can afford not to say something about justice. You have to, to me, as a black pastor. Every Sunday isn’t about social justice, but not to speak about a Tamir Rice, who needlessly lost his life right here in the city of CLE. I know that opens up old wounds, but I’ve put a lot of my heart into trying to get justice for that not to speak against that, not to speak up for an Eric Garner, Michael Brown. God is a God of justice, he’s a God of mercy..but he also wants justice for the least of these.”

Being chosen is a role, not everyone can accept. Rev. Damien Durr has embraced his calling, with open arms.

“I think that the black church serves as a space that will help folks be resilient up against those odds, but the need for resilience as it pertains to who God really called them to be and what God was calling them to do and how God was calling them to accept and embrace the fact that they were chosen," said Rev. Durr.

Rev. Durr is the Executive Pastor at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas.

However, his roots are here in Cleveland. He said the core of the black church, ironically, began out of protest.

“The founding principals of the free African society were rooted in preaching the gospel, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, cheering the fallen, providing jobs for the jobless, promoting economic thrift and economic advancement. And I think to a great degree, some black churches have gotten away from that essence.”

For other churches, Rev. Durr said concern of public retribution is another factor.

“Some black churches are fearful of what are the results of what does it mean to stand up and protest and stand against white supremacy and stand against racism. So to a great degree, I think some of it is that disconnect to the historical reality of who we started out as, which is why we have so many institutions and organizations in our community, but at the same time some have been handcuffed by fear.”

Moving forward church leaders said getting back to the core of the church will bring hope and trust back to the community.

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