Speaking & Teaching
Detroit has more churches per square mile than any other city in the entire United States. Yet, Detroit has the highest crime, poverty, and unemployment rates. This irony begs the question: How can a city with approximately 3,000 churches also be known as the Murder Capital of the State of Michigan or the Murder Capital of the United States? Before I address this paradox readers must be reminded of certain historical experiences that affect the attitudes and conditions of many African American communities today. The period I reference spans three centuries, dating back to the beginning of slavery in the United States from the early 16th century to the mid-1860s when legal slavery ended with the cessation of the Civil War.
Before the abolition of slavery, the government passed laws that made it a capital offense for captured Africans to learn how to read, out of fear that education would liberate the minds of the captives and hence make our captured ancestors harder to control. However, the slave masters made a small exception: on each plantation selected slaves were permitted to learn how to read and preach the Bible; because those plantation owners felt that if the Bible was mistaught in a way that serves the interests of slave masters, the natural urge to resist oppression would be tamed if not outright extinguished. This allowance created an intriguing cadre of colorful pastors among the slave population. In fulfilling their important roles these preachers were rewarded with leniency and preferential treatment from slave masters and were given offerings from whatever fellow slaves could muster.
When slavery was abolished, former slave masters still considered the pastors as representatives of freed slaves and African American ex-slaves continued to look upon Black preachers as their leaders. This explains why even today our most prominent, influential African American leaders have predominantly been people with titles such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. TD Jakes, etc. This also gives us an idea why Donald Trump sought and ultimately got, the approval of a group of African American pastors who were the first recognizable black community figures to endorse his 2016 presidential candidacy.
The problem with this legacy, as one pastor I privately spoke with pointed out, is that “many African American pastors do not belong behind the podium because they don’t have righteous intentions as a lot of sincere Christians believe." On the contrary, these opportunistic supposedly religious men are taking advantage of the fact that African Americans are, according to leading sociologists, the "most religious people in the world with very few elected officials they can count on.’ " In many of our communities whether urban or rural most African Americans still seek meaning and guidance almost exclusively from their church pastors.
Former pastor Jaumon Baker, Sr., explained it more bluntly. “These preachers have made themselves idols,” he told me. “They use the name and teachings of Jesus to get people to worship them.” In essence, Jaumon Baker is saying that the motivations of those kinds of pastors are no different than politicians and another occupation that start with the letter p. Specifically, they use (sell) the Bible for self-advancement and for fulfilling personal vanities that come mostly in the form of baskets of cash, exotic cars, pricey homes, elevated social prestige, and sex. These religious businessmen betray the interests of African Americans in many ways not limited to those highlighted below.
For one—because of the cost associated with such an endeavor--they choose not to leverage their enormous power and influence to help solve chronic problems ailing African American communities that these pastors are supposed to serve. I know not one Detroit African American pastor who has attempted to mobilize his congregation to publicly protest, for instance, how police have impounded the cars of thousands of mostly poor single parent mothers who were unable to pay extremely high car insurance premiums that Detroiters are forced to pay. (Detroit has the highest monthly insurance rates in the world. it is even double the rate of Chicago!)
In addition, many wonder why these self-anointed men of God are not demanding explanations from Mayor Mike Duggan and city council members about how government officials are enticing tens of thousands of out-of-state and suburban middle-class whites to move into downtown Detroit, and into targeted Detroit neighborhoods like Midtown and Corktown? It is a laughable secret among White Detroiters who boast that non-Blacks are offered incentives such as free rent and school vouchers, guaranteed employment, and lucrative investment opportunities to move into the city of Detroit. Some Black Detroiters, on the other hand, living in these areas, tell me that their leasing applications were outright rejected or their lease renewal was raised so high that they were effectively “priced out the neighborhood.”
The biggest tragedy of many Detroit churches is how they misappropriate or mal-distribute the literally millions of dollars they receive weekly from black and brown churchgoers. Instead of recirculating or investing some of the money into the community to help create Black entrepreneurs, they prefer to deposit those millions of dollars they receive every Sunday in tithes and offerings into white-owned banks on Monday morning. Rather than using a portion of the basket of money to benefit Black communities in need, the pastor often uses the ‘tithes’ in the following ways:
1) Build a larger church
2) Buy expensive cars for himself, first lady, or his children
3) Buy a posh home in the suburbs
4) Take luxurious vacations and fabulous trips
5) Celebrate the birthdays or marriage anniversaries of either the church's pastor or church's first lady.
Since Black churches enjoy tax-exemption they don’t have to pay taxes like other businesses. They also have the luxury of hiring volunteers to administer the church. This allows the pastors to pocket more disposable income because they do not have to pay salaries to a church official and even that church's choir singers. In all fairness, this article is not suggesting that the Black community would be better off if there were fewer churches in Detroit. I am aware that religion is an important component of a peoples’ identity and culture and serves as a bonding agent. Many churches are instrumental in motivated people to register to vote. To be sure, a nun recently told me that “there are many pastors working in the spirit of Jesus Christ who deserves applaud. “But,” she cautioned, “they are not present in every church you visit. Rather, a few are sprinkled here and there. You will notice them without them telling you who they are.” In fact, this article is written to inspire good-intentioned people to not be afraid to ask their pastors questions about issues affecting African Americans.
Start asking your pastor why isn’t your church taking action to improve conditions in society, or helping church members start their own businesses with just a portion of the billions of dollars they collect every Sunday. Just imagine the thousands of good paying jobs these black pastors would create if they each invested in the same communities their churches are located. This will enable paid employees to pay rent or bills. Since African Americans are not investing their money but giving it to the churches, non-Detroiters have come into the city and in less than twenty years own ninety-eight percent of the businesses. Concerning this, an immigrant told me that his people smile every time another church is built because this gives them another opportunity to open another grocery store or gas station.
In closing, if this surplus amount of churches were good for our people we would have plenty of positive correlations to point to. In fact, my research shows me that these churches have absolutely no measurable impact on key social indexes that reflect the well-being of the respective communities they are in. Furthermore, I compared unemployment and incarceration rates in selected zip codes and neighborhoods of mega-churches with that of lesser known churches and discovered that the crime and poverty rates are the same. These social indicators will always be detestable—in part--as long as our churches remain socially neutral and squander the tons of cash they receive from their black religious believers.
Dennis S. Boatwright IIfirstname.lastname@example.org
(The Center for Pan-African Studies)