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How Black Churches Can Change the World

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Headshot of Edwin Robinson, a Black man, with graphic Black and White background behind him

Reverend Edwin Robinson explains how organizers are using a generational shift to transform Black churches into powerful social justice congregations.

Reverend Edwin Robinson is a pastor in Dallas, Texas, where he works with Dallas Black Clergy, and Faith in Action, a national network of faith-based community organizations working for social justice. Convergence’s Stephanie Luce interviewed him about his work.

Stephanie Luce: How did you get introduced to faith-based organizing?

Edwin Robinson: I got into this work with the murder of Sandra Bland, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. At the time, I was a Young Adult and Singles Pastor at Concord Church in Dallas, Texas. I think for millennials –– I’m an elder millennial at 39 –– it was one of those moments.

I had a working relationship to what was then the PICO National Network, now called Faith in Action. They had just come back from Ferguson, and a few weeks later, Sandra Bland was murdered. They didn’t know anyone in Texas––only me––and they called me and asked if I could go to Waller County to organize, and I said “yes, absolutely.”

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From there, I began to build what is now Faith in Texas, with my partner at the time, Dr. Lydia Bean. We built a multi-issue organization. I was thrown into the deep end of the pool and had to learn how to swim as quickly as I could. I was gonna drown a few times, but here I am.

SL: Can you say more about how you see your faith-based work connect to social and racial justice organizing?

ER: People are doing some amazing organizing, but what they’re finding is that they don’t have anything to tether people to. So, someone is shot by the police. Roe v. Wade is overturned. Voting Rights are attacked. Now we have a moment we can organize people around. But for the long haul, they need to be tethered to something to stay connected to the work. And the beauty of faith organizing is we always have something to tether it to. So many on the progressive Left are running away from faith organizing, but this is misguided.

The hurdle is that people have misrepresented our faith, whether it is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish; we can run down the list of faith traditions. Our hard work is to show what it really means to be a person of faith and what our tradition stands for. How do we talk about our faith and this moment in a way that’s life-giving?

SL: You have talked about some of the challenges in the work because young people are looking for something different from the Church. Can you say more about that?

ER: There’s a shift happening, driven by the younger generation. Young people like my great niece who just graduated from college are wrestling with politics, their frustrations with Christianity, and just being in the world. I think so many organizations don’t know how to talk to young people. The church isn’t any different. We have faith communities that don’t know how to talk about Jesus alongside what’s actually happening right now. I’m talking particularly about Christians, but I’m sure this translates to other traditions as well. 

My gut tells me, being in the field and talking to young people, that they are not going to come back to church for a good speech and a song. They can get that anywhere. Young people want to change the world. They’re going to come to the Church if they can feel like they can change the world through the church. Because the world they currently live in is quite literally making them feel crazy. Unless they can see the Church writ large as a space that’s actually going to change systems and move things, why would they show up? 

We’re in trouble on the progressive Left because the conservative Right just proved that through their faith, they can shift and change the world. Particularly with the Roe v. Wade decision, because that came through the evangelical church, period.

SL: Speaking of Roe v. Wade, how do you navigate talking about abortion in your faith-based work?

ER: Based on the most recent Pew Research Religious Landscape study, 83% of Black people believe in God and 79% of Black people claim Christianity as their faith. That’s a huge subset of Black people. Christian values around aborting a life aren’t going to change anytime soon if at all. I’m not saying that’s right. I am saying that it is. 

What we have found is that if we talk about health care, if we talk about the maternal mortality rate, which is highest among Black women, and make those connections between the ability to access health care, and the ability to access prenatal care, then, Black people say, “Absolutely, yes. Let’s fight for this thing.” 

So, we talk about what directly impacts Black people. And the issue that is directly impacting Black people at the largest rate is the maternity mortality rate, which is ridiculously out of proportion as it relates to Black women.

Now Black people aren’t stupid. We understand that Roe is about abortion. We don’t talk about it aloud, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know people who had abortions or that we haven’t experienced it ourselves. It’s just that’s not the way the conversations happen in our households.

We can take it another step further: Black women vote upwards of 90% for the progressive Left. So, if we’re going to have a conversation, let’s talk to our base, starting with what they care about.

SL: How are you changing the culture in the Black Churches you are working with? 

ER: There’s always a generational shift in organizations. Younger pastors are coming in. Black clergy and pastors my age and younger, who, like me, have been going to places like the Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a Black Christian faith social justice conference led by Rev. Dr. Iva Caruthers, among other Black faith and justice leaders, since we were in undergrad and seminary. It’s a training ground for the proclamation of the Christian Gospel through a justice lens. And it’s particularly centered on the experience of the Black diaspora. That is where you’re going to learn about the Black Palestinian Jew named Jesus, who loved people so hard that the state crucified him for it. That’s where you’re gonna learn about Jesus.

We’re reading James Cone. We’re reading Anthea Butler. We’re reading Barbara Holmes. We’ve been steeped in the deep history of our culture. And it is where these pastors are taking pulpits that we’re seeing the most engagement and the most change.

Some of our elders are struggling and trying to figure out why people are not coming back to Church. They can’t just make some small changes; the shift is going to have to live in the DNA of a congregation. We know it’s not going to be a switch that you can just flick. We’re going to have to develop, train, and support these shifts.

We need to build consistent training. I don’t want to say “training center.” It feels too brick and mortar. But there needs to be a consistent space where we can train and develop Black clergy and their congregational leaders around what it means to organize in their language and space; to have your church be a social justice congregation. That’s something that we’re working to develop and build.

SL: It seems hard to develop and build when you are having to fight immediate battles on a daily basis. 

ER: We are gonna keep losing without a long-term plan. Look at Roe v Wade, right? We’re watching a 50-60 year project to undo Roe unfold before our eyes. They took a whole lot of losses, year after year, losses, losses, losses. But then all of a sudden, they started getting wins. And here we are. But that was five, six decades in the making.

I always use the biblical metaphor of the children of Israel. So, they say, “Hey, let’s go to Pharaoh and say, ‘Pharoah, can we have a day off to go and worship?’ Pharaoh’s like, ‘y’all don’t want to worship, y’all are just lazy. And so, what I’m gonna do is take your straw, and not only that, I need you to have the same output of bricks without the straw. And I’m gonna tell the people––who are your people––who I’ve made overseers to beat you worse if you don’t have the same output.’ So, what did the people say to Moses? ‘Moses, the hell is wrong with you? You’re crazy. Pharaoh’s gonna kill us. We’re cool on that ‘freedom’ stuff you’re talking about. Just give us straw.’” And that is the trick of fascism, to beat us down so low that we stop asking for freedom and liberation, and just say we’ll take straw.

The short-term mindset of the progressive movement has us consistently asking for straw. And we’re not building the sort of infrastructure, the sort of organizing that is needed for us to push for life-giving liberation. And that’s what I want to begin to build, particularly in Texas, particularly for Black people.

You can’t build a new American majority unless you get Black people, and you can’t get to Black people unless you go through the church.

It boggles my mind when I think about all the money that gets thrown at progressive organizations while no real resources are put into organizing Black churches. It’s quite literally where the Black people are. Now candidates will ask to speak at Black churches and make pandering promises to Black folk. But obviously that’s not the same as resourcing Black people and organizations so that we can more effectively organize ourselves and develop our own social and political agenda which could then be incorporated into a candidate’s campaign plan. 

SL: Some of your work involves getting people out to vote but working in electoral politics can be demoralizing. And the Democrats are better than Republicans but they often let us down. How do you approach this?

ER: You got to work with the tools on the table, always understanding that you’re trying to build something bigger. We’re going to use this (electoral) vehicle to build power but we’re not confused about what it is. I’m clear about the people I’m fighting for. And I will never sell the people out for the vehicle. I’ll let the vehicle crash and burn first. 

About half of black people are cynical about voting. People know what’s going on. They are not stupid. I say to them, “You’re right.” And then we have a conversation about power. I tell my own personal stories about when I went to the City Council and was thrown out in handcuffs and threatened with arrest. I’ve been organizing in the city, and I sit on boards, I sit on commissions. I have all these relationships with city officials and leaders. I advise our District Attorney. They know who I am. But when I stood up and interrupted a city council meeting to speak on behalf of Black people in our city and their historical inaction in addressing our needs, they had me thrown out in cuffs, while I was wearing my clergy collar. 

What I realized in that moment was I didn’t have enough power. Because if I had enough power, they wouldn’t have been able to do that to me or doing that to me would have had immediate consequences. And that’s the conversation that I have with folks who are cynical about voting. I’m not saying they are wrong to be cynical. What I am saying is the issue is we don’t have enough power and our lives depend on it. 

Electoral power is one kind but we also need to be building economic power. We need to be building solidarity power. We need to be building narrative power and disruptive power.

I say, “So which one of those forms of power do you want to build? Come join the team. This isn’t about ‘did you vote’ or not. No. This is about are you really angry, really pissed off, and feel like the system isn’t working for you? Are you going to sit on the sidelines and complain? Or are you going to get in the game and get busy changing this shit?”

SL: How do you answer people who talk about Black electoral power weakening?

ER: When I hear people talking about Black men voting for Trump, my gut reaction is that this is just another reason used by white progressives to not give money to Black folks. Because you know, 89% of Black men are still voting for Democrats. Let’s talk about how upwards of 70% of white men are voting for Donald Trump. Is the mission to convert them or hold on to your base? 

Why is this even a conversation that Black men are no longer voting at 91%? It can only be a conversation for one reason: we are the heartbeat of the party. If you get the Black vote to less than 85%, you lose everywhere. Every time. I don’t care how many other people vote, you lose. Because white people are 50/50. Latinx voters, you’re getting six out of 10. But with Black voters, you get nine out of 10 votes for the progressive Left in every election. So, we are the heartbeat of the party and that scares the hell out of them. People want to talk about building multiracial coalitions, but there’s no conversation about engaging and energizing the base. Black people. 

SL: What keeps you going? What gives you hope?

ER: When I am with my great nieces who are 22 and 21, and I hear how they and their friends talk about the world, and the way that they’re wrestling with their faith, I’m able to offer them hope. I can tell them that the Jesus that was given to you, that is oppressing you, that’s not the Jesus that I understand. Fuck all that morality shit. I understand a different Jesus. Being able to share that gives me hope. I’m excited because they want to change the world.

They are sick of all oppression and exploitation, white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. Even if they can’t name it, they hate it. And they don’t want to be worn down by the waters of oppression. They want to stay edgy, in their lives, looking for places that can help them create a world where they’re able to be in their own bodies, in their own skin. And there’s so many 18 to 22, 23, 24 year-olds, particularly Black women, who are ready to change this world. They give me hope.

Featured image: courtesy of Reverend Edwin Robinson


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