Feb 16, 2014
06:52 AMConnecticut Today
Connecticut's Black Churches Key to Nation's History, Still Vital Today
Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register
Sunday Services at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church. Deaconess Linnetti Chai sings with young congregation members.
NEW HAVEN--Booker T. Washington, one of our most prominent Americans, lunched with President Theodore Roosevelt and was a major leader of the African-American community in the beginning of the 20th century.
Washington’s last public address was from the pulpit of Varick Memorial AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue. The Rev. Eldren Morrison, Varick’s pastor, says Washington spoke about “how the North can help the South and about the differences in education at that time between North and South.”
But the history of Varick, which is the second-oldest African Methodist Episcopal Zion parish in the world, is not why its members gather at the church every day of the week. Like many black churches in New Haven, it is the vitality today that is important.
William and Hazel Johnson of West Haven joined in 1968 for the same reasons they keep coming back. “The church is about being who you are when you come here,” says William Johnson. “You make a change after you’ve been here.”
The black church in this country, formed during legal segregation, still serves as a center of faith and strength for its members, a place where both the soul and body are fed. Seven percent of Americans are members of a historically black parish, according to the Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey. In New Haven, Dixwell Avenue, among other places, is filled with people each Sunday attending services — Varick has three and is thinking of adding a fourth because of its growth, Morrison said.
“I’m happy because I have lived to see the church open seven days,” says Alice Johnson. With a food pantry, clothes closet, choir rehearsal, soup kitchen, Bible study, many black churches are open and active far more days than Sunday. People come for the services, “they get a taste of the ministry and the people and they want to stay,” says William Johnson.
The churches’ foundation, though, is worship of God, rooted in Scripture. “My favorite thing is the Bible,” says Hazel Johnson. “I really love reading the Bible. … I think it’s what’s kept the church going … believing in what God wants us to do.” One of her favorite passages is Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?”
But the strength of the black churches lies in more than their role as centers of worship. “For many people, they were a source of refuge … where communities could feel safe, where they could organize as a community,” says Khalilah Brown-Dean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University. “It’s very evident during the civil rights movement why it was necessary,” she said. In planning the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, for example, “Churches were a physical space where a lot of those meetings happened.”
The issues have changed, but the role of the church has remained. “Now churches have an opportunity to speak to current conditions,” such as economic inequality and mental health concerns. “Churches can fill in that gap between individual responsibility and institutional accountability,” Brown-Dean says.