Religious Institutions in African American Communities

Religious institutions have been a major staple and institution in African American communities for more than a century. These institutions, more so than others, are the predominant sources of support and leadership for African Americans. This is consistent with the breakdown of religious beliefs and practices of groups considering that most of the country is religious. Specifically for African Americans, 90% of individuals who attend historically Black churches are absolutely certain that God exists and 85% report that religion is important in their lives (Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, 2008). Many people look toward religious for counseling in place of traditional mental health services. Religious institutions have also been a vanguard for enacting social change. They have also been at the center of controversy, whether it is warranted or not. Understanding these institutions is also vital for understanding African Americans and also how to interact with these communities.

Many individuals go to religious institutions in times of distress and turmoil for guidance and support. This seems to be particularly the case for African Americans. While many may see this as an instance of people believing that faith can solve any problem, and there are some people who think this way, it may also be a result of the lack of trust that African Americans have toward mental health and medical professional. This mistrust is not unwarranted. Issues such as the Tuskegee syphilis study and incorrect psychiatric diagnoses of African American children serve to reinforce this mistrust. Given these issues, it is understandable that African Americans would place more trust in the church to help with these issues.

These religious institutions have also been a source of social support and fellowship. Many faith-based organizations provide additional services such food and clothing drives and opportunities for youth to become involved in the community. Also religious institutions provide opportunities for individuals to reintegrate into society when they would otherwise be excluded from most areas of society. For example, the Nation of Islam has served as a model for relatively successful reintegration of individuals into society after being incarcerated. People also use religious institutions as a meeting place for socializing and establishing a sense of community.

Aside from serving as a realm for community building and counsel, religious institutions have often served at the forefront of social justice movements such as the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This has been a theme throughout history as organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Nation of Islam headed by Elijah Muhammad sought to not only to lead people spiritually, but also to fight against the racism that African Americans had been experiencing.

An interesting point to be made is how the religions of Christianity and Islam as practiced by the Nation of Islam, had differing effects on ideas about how to best ameliorate the effects of racism on African Americans. For followers of Martin Luther King and others like him, there was an integrationist strategy that sought to appeal to the conscience of people through non-violent protesting. This was non-violence to the point of refusing to defend oneself if attacked by angry mobs and police officers. This could be said to be influenced by the Christian belief of “turning the other cheek.” The civil rights movement also had an egalitarian view in terms of race because of the belief that people were equal regardless of race, which also likely feed into an integrationist view.

On the other hand, while violence was not promoted for the sake of violence, the idea of owning guns to protect oneself and the community was advocated by the Nation of Islam. The ideology was also separatist because they believed that African Americans should separate themselves from mainstream society and create their own nation. This was very likely due to their belief that the Black people were the original people and that White people were the devil so that there could be no reasoning with them. These two contrasting views often clashed as people disagreed on what would be the most appropriate to improve the situation of African Americans and this often prevented the two groups from collaborating in order to gain more ground. Also, more evidence of how important religious groups are in terms of being agents of social change is evident in some of the preeminent African American leaders in the past half century: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. All of them were reverends and ministers. The first two men rose to international prominence during the 1950s and 1960s because of their leadership in the struggle for civil rights and the latter three men have been prominent leaders for the better part of the last three or four decades.

Although religious institutions in African American communities have been a source of support and social change, there are instances in which these institutions have not served to their capabilities or have had some failings. Individuals point out the homophobia in Black communities, particularly in Black churches and also the sexism that occurs within these spaces in terms of who leads these religious institutions. Some make the observation that predominantly female congregations are mostly led by men and that this is a problem that should be addressed. There is also the stereotype of the preacher who has expensive cars and a large home that were paid for by the congregation’s contribution to what they believed was the church fund. Then there are the scandals involving impropriety of religious leaders that become big news stories. It is important to concede the fact that these are important issues to consider and address; however, it is problematic to focus solely on these issues when evaluating the effect of these religious institutions and to make them emblematic of all churches and mosques in African American communities. These institutions can be as different from one another as the individual members and this variance is present even within the same religion or denomination. To stereotype them is to deny the diversity of these groups. Also, to single out religious institutions in African American communities is racist and implies that these groups are deficient and corrupt in comparison to their White counterparts. This also ignores the context in which these institutions are nested and neglects to acknowledge how heteronormativity, patriarchy, White supremacy, and capitalism are embedded into many if not all layers of society.

Religious institutions have been vital for African American communities for many years, but the question has to be asked in terms of whether this will continue for the foreseeable future. There is an ongoing trend of decreasing numbers of people who are religious and an increase in the number of people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion. There is also a generational trend such that each generation is less religious than the previous one (Pew Research Center, 2012). Only time will tell if religious institutions will have the same importance for communities as in past years. It is also important to consider the implications of understanding these groups. These institutions are often gatekeepers in African American communities so it is beneficial for psychologist establish relationships with these organizations in order to most effectively integrate into the community. Considering one’s religious beliefs also helps in terms of mental health services. Psychologists and mental health professional have to take care in not dismissing an individual’s religious beliefs as a method of coping and they should try to strike a balance in providing traditional mental health services and providing room for their clients to draw from their religious and spiritual beliefs in the process. Additionally, psychologists should be aware of the context of the relationship between African Americans and these institutions and why they may be the preferred method of counseling, given the abuse that African Americans have suffered at the hands of mental health and medical professionals. All of these considerations can facilitate a more beneficial relationship between individuals in these communities and psychologists mental health practitioners.

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