Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley is the 8th pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA. At 211 years old, Alfred Street is one of the oldest historically black churches in the United States of America. Alfred Street has a growing congregation of nearly 5,000 members.
Dr. Wesley is the fourth generation of Baptist preachers in his family. He graduated magna cum laude of Duke University in 1994 with a double major in biomedical and electrical engineering. He yielded to the Lord’s calling and departed medical school to graduate summa cum laude of Boston University School of Theology in 1997 with a concentration biblical studies and African-American religious history. He graduated from the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary with his doctorate of ministry in 2003. Dr. Wesley has also completed post graduate studies at Oxford University in Oxford, England. All information about Alfred Street and Dr. Wesley is courtesy of Alfred Street Baptist Church official website.
Pastor Wesley, in my blog post on yesterday, I wrote about the inevitability of raising the African American voice without talking about the Black church. I thank you for sharing your perspective as a pastor of a historically black church. Let’s begin with a quote I recently read by Soong-Chan Rah. He writes:
The American evangelical church needs to acknowledge the great debt we owe to the black church. The black church is an example of tremendous perseverance in light of tremendous suffering. The black church has been the prophetic voice and social conscience and one of the few examples of Christian groups in American history that confronted systematic injustice with the justice of the gospel (The Next Evangelicalism, IVP, 2009, pg 158).
What are your thoughts on this statement?
Wow! I would say, “Amen!” We cannot talk about Black history and culture without talking about the Black Church. For the African American community, the Black Church is like Tylenol which heals the pain, the medicine that keeps us from going crazy, and the glue that holds us together. For us, the Black church is the saving mechanism in American culture.
When people say “Black Church” what do they actually mean?
It’s really hard to define because the Black Church is not so much about race as it is about a theology and message in the American church. Black people experience worship differently and that worship is not only about the words spoken from the pulpit, but that worship experience also means meeting the needs of the people in the pew. So the message is always one of hope and celebration, rejoicing and affirmation.
The Black Church is birthed out of pain from an oppressed people who needed a place to find hope, to rejoice, and be grateful. From slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to Jim Crow to the present, the Black Church is a place that offers safety for its congregants and that safety includes arming and protection them from the various forms of systematic racism still impacting us today. Therefore, it is not a good assessment for people who have only experienced privileged perspective to devalue any homogeneous ethnic structures. Those people will continually question the purpose of Black Churches or Historically Black Colleges and Universities because their perspective does not allow them to see the need or value of such structures, but that’s only one perspective.
Considering the changing demographics in America, do you feel the Black Church is still relevant today? Will it always be? Why or why not?
The Black Church is still relevant today because there is still a racial component of American society which yields to the comfort found in the Black worship experience. To the point of the author previously quoted, the Black church has done more to usher in welcomed changes to the white church structures. The way we commit to our message and ministry is different. Our worship is not always quiet and contemplative. Our history calls for spiritual traditions which we value and that does not automatically translate to racism. It is simply a matter of different expectations.
We will continue with Part II of this interview on tomorrow. Follow Pastor Wesley @PastorHJW
© Howard John Wesley and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012