Bishop Richard Howell preaches the word of God to a congregation rarely reflected by the evangelical leaders making headlines. The faithful in his pews are black evangelicals, and many are outraged over the racial rhetoric in Washington and the feeble response from white brethren.
President Donald Trump’s derogatory statements about people of color not only are degrading and dangerous, said Howell, but also are deepening rifts among black and white evangelicals, the latter who overwhelmingly support Trump.
“Make America Great Again — what’s that supposed to mean?” asked Howell, pastor of Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis. “We believe it means the president wants to bring back the days of white superiority in this country.
“We’re hoping our white brothers and sisters aren’t reverting to that mind-set,” Howell said. “We worked too hard to remove that wall. We want to make sure all the work we put in wasn’t in vain.”
Evangelicals were key to Trump’s election in 2016, and white evangelical support has diminished little even as racial tensions rise. Nearly 70% of white evangelicals support the president, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, compared with 12% of black Protestants, the vast majority of whom consider themselves evangelicals.
The numbers reveal a deep schism in this broad religious coalition that shares core tenets such as the infallibility of the Bible, a call to spread the Gospel, and the belief in conversion, or to be born again.
Many black and white evangelical leaders have worked for years on racial reconciliation to address the historic wounds caused by white Christians’ justification of slavery, Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation and opposition to civil rights legislation.
The nation may be entering another pivotal juncture, black pastors say, and they’d like to hear more support from their Christian counterparts. As it is now, the most high-profile evangelicals are Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, both unequivocal supporters of Trump.
When the president tweets that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to where they came from, or calls a black congressman’s district of Baltimore “rat and rodent infested,” black religious leaders ask, where’s the moral outrage among brothers in faith?
“It reveals an ugly underbelly that hasn’t been exposed,” said the Rev. Melvin Miller of Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul. “The divide is bigger than we thought.”
In response to heightened racial tensions, the National Association of Evangelicals posted a statement atop its home page two weeks ago titled, “Affirming the Dignity of All Races and Ethnicities.”
The principles in the statement included: “We confess and repent of the Church’s role in justifying or ignoring racism and racial injustice, and call on Christians of all races to reject white supremacy.”
Leith Anderson, National Association of Evangelicals president and former senior pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, said he doesn’t believe the white evangelical community is racist by virtue of supporting the president. Black and white evangelicals still share many common goals and priorities, “but they are ordered differently.”
Repercussions from the racial tensions can be felt at black churches on Sunday mornings, at events during the week and in phone calls to minister and staff.
“The damage is being done,” said the Rev. David Keaton, founder of Kingdom Life Church in Robbinsdale. “People tell me, ‘Pastor, I was followed in the store. I was pulled over in my car.’ … As a faith leader, we preach the love of all people. But that’s not the message people are getting.”
On a recent Sunday morning, Keaton stepped behind the church lectern and began his sermon by repeating lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We need to hear those words today because of the moral erosion of society,” Keaton told the congregation. “Hate is being normalized before our eyes! Isn’t it strange that people are calling the police to report [black] people sitting in Starbucks or entering their own apartments?”
King’s dream also was being revisited a few miles away at Shiloh Temple. A poster by the front door announced the Dream Conference, events this week to stir up people’s imagination and hope. Church member LaQuinta Jones, standing nearby, explained, “A lot of people are losing hope. They’re trying to get people to dream again.”
Inside the large church, the first gospel reading seemed to reflect the challenge at hand: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Howell has led this church for more than 30 years and grapples with the unprecedented wave of derogatory remarks from a president. “How do you respond to daily tweets?” he asked.
“There’s a lot of hurt now among black evangelicals who feel betrayed by those who took positions without explanation,” Howell said. “We ask for clear explanations — theologically and lovingly — so we do not cast blame for the wrong reason.”
Bridging the divide
Minnesota churches and religious groups have long offered opportunities for black and white Christians to develop relationships and explore racial injustices. Those efforts have intensified.
Transform Minnesota, the umbrella organization for Minnesota’s evangelical churches, for example, drew more than 1,500 members at a conference in November featuring Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.
It also hosted two “Dismantling Racism” trainings this year, and a tour that brought black and white church leaders to civil rights landmarks in the South to explore the roots of racism. In October, it will be the key sponsor of a conference titled, “Fighting Racism: Moving from Passivity to Intentionality,” featuring author and black historian Jemar Tisby.
“Many white evangelical Christians have a limited understanding of racial injustice in our society,” said Carl Nelson, Transform Minnesota’s president. “We want to help them understand the history of racism in America in order to make sense of the current reality we are experiencing.”
Nelson added: “We think our efforts are pretty unique.”
Pastor Billy Russell, of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis will also host Tisby at his church during his visit. Russell, like many veteran clergy, urgently wants his white colleagues to understand the history and damage caused by racism. Polarization is seeping into clergy relations, he said.
“It used to be, we were all together,” said Russell, stretching open his arms. “Now I’m not as eager to talk to you as I used to be … If you want to hang with me, you need to know about me, not just be hanging around with a black minister.”
The Rev. Curtiss DeYoung, president of the Minnesota Council of Churches and a national authority on racial reconciliation, said Trump’s disparaging remarks about racial minorities have been a setback for all evangelical churches seeking to draw diverse members.
“Any attempt to build unity in Christian circles is set back by the polarization,” DeYoung said.
Black pastors say they are taking their cues from the Scriptures as they respond to the divisions, and that means “love thy neighbor” even when it’s a challenge. They see no end in sight to their task.
“It’s the center of everyone’s conversation right now,” Russell said. “You’re constantly in the mode to tell people not to hate.”