New York City

Black churches give back

A short history of faith-led community outreach projects in NYC.

Abyssinian Baptist Church

Abyssinian Baptist Church Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

Historically, Black churches have played a significant role in the lives of Black Americans, offering spiritual solace, community and charity to their congregants. And in New York they have embarked on many community outreach projects over the years that have tackled a wide range of issues, from social injustices to dire health disparities. 

Today, members of the city’s Black clergy are once again offering their support to their communities, this time taking on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black New Yorkers, by launching the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan, which will educate individuals about the virus as well as other health disparities and provide COVID-19 testing. Here’s a more comprehensive look at a few of the ways that Black churches in the city have intervened during times of crisis.

The civil rights movement

During the 1940s, many Black Americans moved to the city from the South, eventually making New York the city with the densest Black population and the center of the Northern civil rights movement. This growing community still faced segregation in the city, despite how socially liberal we may consider it to be today. Black churches stood together with their communities from the 1940s – up until today, even – asking that members of their community be granted fair labor opportunities and calling for desegregation. 

Two churches that played a significant role in demanding equality for Black Americans included the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn. "Abyssinian was an important base for raising money for the national civil rights movement," Clarence Taylor, a history professor at Baruch College, told Newsday in 2008. "The church was a key meeting place for civil rights demonstrations and protests, many of them led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr."

Many ministers from across the country who were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., frequently came to New York to make their call for justice. King even delivered one of his most famous speeches, that railed against the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, at the Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1967, just one year before his death.

The HIV crisis

Beginning in the 1980s, as the HIV epidemic swept across the country it had a particularly harrowing impact on the city’s Black community. Many of the city’s churches were initially reluctant to confront the crisis, given that the disease was transmitted through sexual activity and intravenous drug use that was typically frowned upon by conservative leaders of faith. However, as the disease continued to ravage much of the city and state’s Black communities, Black churches, among other religious institutions that served these communities, felt it was their duty to assist those struggling with HIV and AIDs.

In 1987, The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS was founded, aimed at getting leaders in Black communities to help educate individuals about the sexually transmitted autoimmune disease, provide testing and lend support. Black faith leaders who engaged with such community outreach programs were found to have an impactful effect in mitigating the stigma that surrounded the disease. And in 1989, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem became one of the first churches in the city to bring the religious community together to support families dealing with HIV and AIDs, and even formed its own HIV/AIDs ministry.

Drug addiction

New York’s Black community befell another health crisis in the 1980s, when a smokeable version of cocaine, known as “crack” became prevalent throughout the city, sparking a serious new wave of drug addiction. However, even before the arrival of this new drug, many of the city’s leaders of faith became outspoken anti-drug activists, who sought to increase the presence of police in their neighborhoods to combat the rise in drug addiction among Black people.

Many Black people, especially during the 1980s, became subjected to increasingly harsh drug laws that sought to put them behind bars rather than help them overcome their dependency on the highly addictive substance. Upon seeing this, leaders of faith who once championed these anti-drug initiatives have increasingly begun calling for less damaging penalization and more community-oriented approaches to dealing with addiction, such as youth programs and counseling. 

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