Dr. Iva E. Carruthers and the Rev. E. Terri LaVelle talk on a panel during the CBC Annual Legislative Conference about the Black church in America. (Photo by Shantella Sherman)

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is no stranger to the pulpit – he is an ordained minister – or civil unrest, as a former member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

In hosting the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference forum, “The Black Church in the 21st Century: Victorious, Vigilant, Viable?” Rush asked participants and the audience what had changed in the relationship between the Black Church and America’s political and social arenas.

“I’ve been both a Panther and a preacher and this is the only institution in the land that we still have that is authentically ours and that is still powerful,” Rush said.  “It was the church as an institution, and our faith in the Church, as its body, that helped us face down the inhumanity that characterized our citizenship.”

But with God and the Church removed from public spaces, including schools, many churchgoers have come to view their faiths and the church as hindrances to their social and economic progress.

“As a young person, I see comedians making fun of the church ladies and televangelists, who seem more interested in building personal wealth than the characters of the members,” said Anwar Mohammed, a college sophomore who attends Rankin Chapel Church on the campus of Howard University.  “When the reverence for the church as an institution is missing, it makes it difficult to lean on it when in crisis.”

Dr. Charles Steele, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that part of the problem is that too many people outside of the Black Church have attempted to define it for the people inside it.  In the process, they have overlooked the sheer power of the faithful.  One of the first Black state senators in the state of Alabama since Reconstruction, Steele said the Black Church is internationally recognized and celebrated.

“We don’t know how powerful we are,” he said, who was the only American to receive an invitation to the 25th commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Mikhail Gorbachev.  “Once there, I asked Gorbachev how did he have the courage to knock down the Berlin Wall, and he said it was Martin Luther King and the Black Church… that he’d heard King say years ago while visiting Russia that ‘no man-built wall can separate God from His children.’  It was the Black church and Dr. King, who brought that message home to him.”

Marcel Jackson, a church advocate, said that since the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Church has lost a considerable amount of its power through neglect.

“The Black Church has been the foundation of the Black community in the past and today we have too many superstars in the church and not enough workers.  Collaboration is nonexistent and everyone has own agenda, so it dilutes the power of the Black Church,” Jackson said.  “They knew the power of cohesiveness and collectiveness.  It was not, ‘I am doing this and you are doing that….’ It was, ‘We are doing this to make things happen.’  The Black Church has lost some power – the Holy Ghost power is one thing, but they have no community power anymore.”

Still others insisted the Black church is too diverse to paint with a broad stroke.

“The Black Church is not monolithic; it is very diverse.  There are many myths about the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement, including that the church was the movement—the people were actually the movement,” said Anna Wingate, an audience-member from Baltimore.  “We have had episodic victory, but not sustained victory, and it’s the sustainability that we are struggling with today.”