During Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he was recognized as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and, along with it, America’s foremost clergyman. His career as a minister wasn’t in addition to his role as an activist. Instead, the two were inextricably linked. Due in part to his leadership, in much of the South, Black churches became torch bearers in the fight for Black liberation in America, even on the front lines. 

This year, after witnessing the largest Black liberation movement in summer 2020 and a Donald Trump’s presidency ending in a white supremist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, one question in need of serious reflection is: Where do Black churches stand in the Black liberation movement today? To properly answer that question within the context of Chicago, we must start with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

In January 1966, half a year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law giving Black people the right to vote in the South, King moved into an apartment in North Lawndale while protesting de facto housing and education discrimination against Black people in the North. By working with churches around the city, King hoped to inspire a similar culture of liberation theology.

That mission was stifled by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who threatened churches that might host King, and later, after King left the city, actively targeted clergy who did allow him to preach. 

“You would be punished in some way if you were supportive [of King],” said Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ. 

According to Moss, Daley’s stranglehold helped to create a culture of Black churches in Chicago that avoided explicitly addressing race out of fear of retaliation.

A woman worshipping during church service at New Mount Pilgrim Church in January 2021. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
The congregation at New Mount Pilgrim Church is social distancing during service. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

“Many pastored on a Wednesday or Sunday, but they might have worked with the city,” Moss said. “So what do you do when you get an edict from your boss that you can’t attend something or you’ll lose your job?” 

One example of this was the late Rev. Clay Evans of Fellowship Baptist Church on the South Side. After hosting King in 1966, Moss said, Evans’ plan to build a new church was sabotaged by the city government when it suddenly lost the plans and blocked construction with errant zoning issues. 

The punishment was effective at getting churches in Chicago to back off from being vocal about social justice issues, especially in a way that pushed back against the actions of city government. 

Moss’ parents were both members of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and his father co-pastored alongside King’s father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Along with having studied at Morehouse, Yale and the University of Colorado, and later working in Augusta, Ga. as a pastor, Moss is quite familiar with the culture of Black churches nationwide, which he said, as a whole, are much more actively connected with the fight for Black lives. 

“Chicago is exceptionally conservative in terms of its church makeup, which is very different from say Atlanta, Charlotte or even New York,” he said. “I would say, young people on the front line are deeply faithful, spiritual and have a serious commitment to the faith community, but do not want to be a part of conservative, disconnected churches in Chicago.” 

Moss’ perspective on the subject comes from the fact that many of the folk in his congregation are active in the movement themselves. 

Kham Riley, 29, is one such member of Trinity United Church of Christ, who also holds membership with BYP100. According to RIley, the education in liberation theology that he gained at Trinity is tied directly to his involvement with BYP100 — but there is a glaring issue standing in the way of unity between Black organizers of direct actions and Black churches in the movement. 

“I think the friction between the church and the young Black organizer community really comes down to what each organization’s end goal is,” Riley said. “I think some people accuse the church of being more reformist in a way. And then the church can accuse the organizing community of being anarchists in a way. This is just violence against one another that really needs to be hashed out.” 

Riley used the example of the 2020 election to illustrate the discrepancy. 

“The Black church pact that Trinity is a part of was really trying to get out the vote, but there are a lot of younger folk that lack faith in the system and didn’t want to vote, who were [instead] still very much out there on the streets fighting for our freedom via direct action,” he said. “The solution could be a roundtable of organizations like Black Lives Matter Chicago, BYP100, indigenous leaders, the church pact that Trinity is a part of. I’m not saying that there really needs to be like some homogeneity of thought. I just want people to try and listen and understand the merits to these different perspectives”

One organization that might find themselves with a seat at such a table is the MAAFA Redemption Project, a ministry of New Mount Pilgrim Church on the West Side run by Marshall Hatch Jr., whose father, Hatch Sr., is pastor at the church.

Through MAAFA, Marshall Jr. brings in young men to educate them through what they call “liberation learning.”

"In the Black Lives Matter movement today, we see the triumph of Fannie Lou Hamer's legacy, Ella Baker's spadework philosophy of organizing, Hatch Jr. said. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

“The church has to address more than just the spiritual needs of Black people. It’s also the socio-political needs, it’s the economic needs, the mental health needs,” Marshall Jr. said. “It’s grounded in liberation theology. So we’re studying the work of Howard Thurmond, James Cone and the more radical Dr. King,” 

Black liberation theology is what drives the work at both New Mount Pilgrim, and Trinity United, and it is a belief system that contextualizes Christianity in a way that addresses the social, economic, political and religious injustice faced by Black people.

“Although Black Lives Matter may not directly say that the philosophy is steeped in Black theology, if you look at what it’s calling for, if you look at the ethos that informs the protests it is a Black theology ethos,” he explained. 

There is a key difference, though, in the make-up of historical Black theologians and the Black liberation movement of today.

“The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a panacea. There was a lot of discrimination against women and homosexuals. In the Black Lives Matter movement today, we see the triumph of Fannie Lou Hamer’s legacy, Ella Baker’s spadework philosophy of organizing,” Marshall Jr. said.

Thus the goals of New Mount Pilgrim and Trinity United are not dissimilar than that of the organizers of last year’s uprisings. Hatch Sr. even expressed his support for defunding the police saying, “We spend $1 billion dollars a year on policing in Chicago and we still have one of the highest murder rates, so obviously it’s not effective.” 

Statements like these are echoed by most of the youth on the front lines. Why, then, does that disconnect between the Black church and the movement for Black lives that Rev.. Moss mentioned, still exist in Chicago? The answer is in the number of churches actually doing the work, which isn’t many, according to Hatch Sr.

Rev. Hatch Sr. preaching to his congregation in January 2021. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

“This ministry is about standing with the people, particularly those who are at the bottom,” Hatch Sr. said. “Even during King’s life it was rare for pastors to dedicate their faith to that kind of ministry.”

Moss suggests that the way toward changing that scarcity is for churches who aren’t already involved with movement work to use resources that will help them properly implement liberation theology. 

“I immediately recommend [the] Community Renewal Society,” he said referring to the faith-based social justice organization that Trinity is a part of. “They will come to your community and train your leaders on how to do faith-based social justice organizing. So you can look in your neighborhood and ask ‘What can we affect?’ ‘How do we lobby our aldermen?’ ‘What are the policies that are affecting our community?’ ‘What do we do if there is a police shooting in our community?'”

By using resources like these, and building on the ministry of liberation theology applied by churches such as Trinity United and New Mount Pilgrim, Black religious leadership can better address the multifaceted needs of their membership. 

It’ll hopefully bring the more conservative church community of Chicago towards what Marshall Jr. calls a critical pillar of the theology: “God takes sides, the universe, takes sides, and that is the side of the oppressed and marginalized.”

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.