Black Americans are in many ways the most religious people in America. Some 82 percent of blacks (versus 67 percent of whites) are church members; 82 percent of blacks (versus 55 percent of whites) say that religion is “very important in their life.” Eighty-six percent of blacks (versus 60 percent of whites) believe that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems.”
And the religious faith of black Americans issues today, as it has for more than a century, in active work in the community. In his 1899 classic, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, W.E.B. DuBois observed, “Without wholly conscious effort the Negro church has become a centre of social intercourse to a degree unknown in white churches….” Consequently all movements for social betterment are apt to centre in the churches.” Almost 100 years later, in their 1990 The Black Church in the African-American Experience, Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya made a similar finding. In their surveys encompassing nearly 1,900 black ministers and more than 2,100 black churches, some 71 percent of black clergy reported that their churches engaged in community outreach programs. Urban churches, Lincoln and Mamiya found, were generally more engaged in outreach than rural ones. From their comprehensive survey, the authors concluded,“We suspect that black churches, on the whole, are more socially active in their communities than white churches and that they also tend to participate in a greater range of community programs.”
In my view, the most vital work of these active black churches is that done on the streets in America’s inner cities. Day by day, clergy, volunteers, and people of faith monitor, mentor, and minister to the daily needs of the inner-city black children, who, through absolutely no fault of their own, live in neighborhoods where opportunities are few and drugs, crime, and failed public schools are common. There, faith-driven community activists strive against the odds to help these children—from innocent toddlers, to pregnant teenagers, to young men on probation—avoid violence, achieve literacy, gain jobs, and otherwise reach adulthood physically, educationally, and economically whole.