'Freedom must be taken'

Panelists discussing the role the Black church can play in the fight for social justice agreed that the blue print to do so was established during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Greater Bethel AME Church Pastor Ron Rawls, left, and University of Florida African American and African Studies Professor the Dr. Rev. Rik Stevenson, right, were two of the four panelists at the town hall symposium billed as “The Role of the Black Church in the Modern Social Justice Movement" held Wednesday at DaySpring Baptist Church as part of the 2022 King Celebration activities.
Greater Bethel AME Church Pastor Ron Rawls, left, and University of Florida African American and African Studies Professor the Dr. Rev. Rik Stevenson, right, were two of the four panelists at the town hall symposium billed as “The Role of the Black Church in the Modern Social Justice Movement" held Wednesday at DaySpring Baptist Church as part of the 2022 King Celebration activities.

The panelists discussed the topic during a town hall symposium billed as “The Role of the Black Church in the Modern Social Justice Movement” that was held last Wednesday at DaySpring Baptist Church as part of local 2022 King Celebration activities sponsored by the Martin Luther King jr. Commission of Florida and its partners.

Local attorney AuBroncee Martin, an honorary member of the King Commission board of directors, moderated the discussion. The panelists included the Rev. Dr. Rik Stevenson, a professor in the University of Florida’s African American and African Studies department, Penn State University’s Assistant Professor of African American Studies the Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Mingo, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, Bartley Temple United Methodist Church Pastor Mary Mitchell and Greater Bethel AME Church Pastor Ron Rawls.

To understand the present, one must better understand their history, Mingo said.

“We have this nostalgia of marching but that wasn’t the reality,” Mingo said. “Some Black churches were afraid to open their doors to activism in fear of the mortgages being raised and the church being lit on fire.”

She suggests that the church community must join forces with the activists who are fighting for change.

“We have to see who is doing the work and we must align with them,” Mingo said. “Focus more on the people in your community, not just the halls of the church. See whose works align with Christ.”

It is important for the black church to be involved in politics and to make sure the congregation properly vets each candidate, Rawls said.

“The church has to be involved in politics,” Rawls said. “The church has to be deeply involved, and we do have to be good stewards because God will hold us accountable.”

The Black church needs to lead the community by action and not through words, Rawls said.

“The reason people don’t trust the church is because we don’t demand justice,” Rawls said. “We need to go back to the village mentality. When someone does wrong, confront them with or without the camera. Put your own self-interest aside and help build our community. I don’t shove Jesus down their throats. We need to show Jesus through activism and through action.”

The Black community must know what each candidate stands for, Mitchell said.

“Be intentional in knowing what candidate you are voting for,” Mitchell said. “Look more into their ideals and values. When they get voted in, what do they do?”

Mitchell talked about how church members must hold the candidates accountable after winning the election.

“We need to have our members watch the meetings and contact the politicians,” Mitchell said.

It is important for the Black church to move strategically and exclusively when it comes to the issues of the community, Stevenson said.

“Stop having white evangelists be the mouthpiece for the Black community,” Stevenson said. “Stop allowing them in our pulpits. We need to keep our mouth shut on what we’re going to do and just do it. Why do we trust white America to deliver us and not God? Freedom must be taken, you cannot rely on the oppressor to set us free.”

The Black church was protective of its people and did not adhere to the “passive” narrative that some people shared, Stevenson said..

“People talk about the Black church as if they are passive, but they were the Deacons of Defense because the Ku Klux Klan were blowing up churches,” Stevenson said. “We have to expand our historical narrative. If information is not transformative, what’s the point?”

The community needs to talk to the people of the civil rights movement and learn first-hand about the lessons they have learned, Mingo said.

“It’s important to study our history and not study in the way that was taught to us,” Mingo said. “There’s many roles we can play when we know not all of us can be on the front lines.”

The Black church must cultivate relationships and be in the community consistently, Mingo said..

“Since we don’t have the relationships, we don’t have the relevancy,” Mingo said. “We need to push ourselves to be accomplices in the work. Be present regularly if the media is there or not. They [youth] know what’s going on, they just need you to come alongside them and support them.

The Black church needs to learn how to use discernment and start leading the conversation in the political arena, Rawls said.

“We cannot be a church and be afraid of the truth,” Rawls said. “We’re only a benefit to them when they need us. We follow them as if we never read a history book. We always follow them, but do they follow us? We try so hard to have allies that we don’t see a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Rawls explained how he mainstream media embraces its version of King’s message but rarely mentions the teachings of Nat Turner and Demark Vessey, enslaved Black men who fought for their freedom from chattel slavery.

“They embraced him [Martin Luther King Jr.] so much after his death because they won’t embrace the other message during that time which was Malcolm X,” Rawls said. “We need to have our own understanding of the word of God and not the handpicked, brainwashed version they give to us. Don’t let them trick you to turn against me when we’re fighting for you.”

Mitchell thanked those who fought for the rights Blacks currently have and gave a call to action.

“They’ve done everything they could for us to have the freedoms we have today,” Mitchell said. “A different world is possible. Black church, what are you going to do to make it happen? If you don’t want to go out and protest, at least help make the signs. The church is the foundation of our community. The things that happen in our community are all of our problems. We need to show up. We’re going to have to do something different this season.”

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: 'Freedom must be taken'