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Connecting past to present, revealing the ripple effect of discriminatory systems — and the fixes.

The Black church and its cornerstone connection to the health of a people

What Juneteenth reveals about community, faith, and thriving — then and now

Church members wave goodbye to one another rather than hug or shake hands as they practice social distancing in the pews at the Union Springs Baptist Church on Sunday, March 29, 2020, in Rutledge, Ga.Curtis Compton/Associated Press


Kimberly Atkins StohrTEJU ABIOLA/THE EMANCIPATOR

The church, as it is for many aspects of the Black American experience, is a cornerstone of the Juneteenth story.

In her book “On Juneteenth,” Harvard University historian Annette Gordon-Reed notes the earliest celebrations of the holiday, originally called Emancipation Day, took place in houses of worship in Texas. They began in Galveston and spread throughout the state. This was “in keeping with the culture of a generally religious people.”

“I also wonder if holding meetings in churches was thought to provide some level of protection in those days,” writes Gordon-Reed, an Emancipator advisory board member. The author recalled how her own grandmother, to celebrate Juneteenth and other occasions, would make hot tamales from scratch to raise money for the church where young Gordon-Reed was baptized and attended Sunday school, just as her mother did.

As the granddaughter of a minister who once had a vibrant congregation in a small church in Detroit’s Grandale neighborhood, I could relate. Holidays and celebrations often meant donning a dress and my best shoes, listening to my grandfather preach the Word, then gathering in the event space in the church’s basement for a celebratory repast. In that church, I recited scripture during Easter programs and sang at my sister’s wedding.

Now, all that remains of Peace Temple Church of God in Christ, around which the life of my grandfather the Rev. Amos Warren revolved so much that he lived and died in the house next door to the church building, are old files in a Michigan digital database showing the nonprofit was dissolved.

A young Kimberly Atkins Stohr, circa first grade, in her Sunday best.Courtesy of Kimberly Atkins Stohr

Unfortunately, Peace Temple is not the only place of salvation that couldn’t be saved. Black churches have always had a higher rate of closures than other houses of worship due to a number of factors, from neighborhood gentrification to the disproportionate economic barriers faced by congregants whose tithings and donations keep church doors open.

But a recent Brookings Institution study found not only the highest rates of church closures per general population were in the areas with the highest percentage of Black people but also the loss of those spaces meant far more than silencing hymns and sermons. It meant the absence of crucial centers Black communities depend on for critical public health services, whether residents were part of the churches’ congregations or not.

The study was inspired when one of its authors, Yale School of Public Health professor Yusuf Ransome, noticed that one usually busy Black church in a New York City neighborhood fell eerily silent during the pandemic lockdowns.

Ransome says protecting important cultural institutions such as Black churches is vital for more than their congregations. Ensuring a more equitable nation means their survival is critical, and protecting them must be a public-policy priority.

“On certain days, I would walk by and there would be lines that would stretch an entire city block at the church’s food bank,” Ransome recalled of the church’s previous days. “When the church was closed, the first thing that came to my mind was, where are all the people who used to get food from this particular place?”

Feeding those in need is just one community service Black churches have served for generations. Early in the pandemic, Black churches operated as important community health resources that provided not only testing, information, and vaccination drives but also helped allay fears and distrust about preventive care and treatment. The result: Regular Black churchgoers were more likely to be vaccinated, according to a Pew Research Center poll. That served as a vital lifeline during a pandemic that has sickened and killed Black people at higher rates. When churches closed temporarily due to pandemic mitigation orders, it left a void. Permanent closures left a major cleave.

People line up to speak during a reparations task force meeting at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, Wednesday, April 13, 2022.Janie Har/Associated Press

Throughout history, the Black church has been a foundational pillar for civil rights and social justice movements, voting mobilization efforts, and more. The settings where Black people worship have also always served as the place where the community mobilized, energized, and fought for justice for all. From the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 at the African Meeting House in Boston, to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and headed by prominent leaders from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA).

Ransome says protecting important cultural institutions such as Black churches is vital for more than their congregations. Ensuring a more equitable nation means their survival is critical, and protecting them must be a public-policy priority.

Some organizations are heeding that call: The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund launched the Preserving Black Churches Project earlier this year with a $20 million investment from Lilly Endowment Inc.

The funds are to boost “the capacity of church leaders and the congregations to invest dollars to preserve their historic buildings,” says Tiffany Tolbert, associate director of the fund.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr's grandfather, the Rev. Amos Warren, in the church yard with her mom, Constance Atkins.Kimberly Atkins Stohr

The program, aside from creating a general grant fund to help Black churches meet staffing, capital, and infrastructure needs, also includes a pilot initiative focused on Black churches in Alabama that have been central to the push for social justice in America.

“We’re working to bring a targeted, direct cohort of consultants and expertise to work directly with specific churches in Alabama associated with the civil rights movement,” Tolbert says. “It will help them develop the architectural plans they need, maintenance plans, guidance on fundraising and capital campaigns, as well as the governance and structure.”

The idea, Tolbert says, is to create a model that can be replicated, something Ransome concluded was needed to protect not only the spiritual health of congregants but also the public health of Black communities.

Ransome points out that the pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program, aimed at keeping businesses and other organizations afloat, was open to churches only in its second round. But, he says, it proved a successful lifeline for those religious institutions that could access it. That, too, could be used as a model for the future, with a focus on the community service churches provide.

“If we needed to keep businesses around,” Ransome says, “then potentially keeping religious institutions around is important as well because they are institutions that improve equity in these communities.”

Let the church say amen.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe and The Emancipator. She may be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.