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Woven with Words: A Collection of African American History in Berks County, Pennsylvania


 

Article - Religion in the 20th Century

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Religion in the Twentieth Century

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As the only established public institution in the early life of African Americans, the church and the African American community became intertwined. This continued well into the 1900s. Jessie Evans Long, who was born in 1918 in Reading, remembers when “the church was everything. Young and old alike were in church most the time. It was all I knew growing up, it kept us busy day and night.”  Suppers, summer “bush meetings” in the country, church school and youth meetings, missionary societies, a band, and an array of other church-related organizations and activities drew all ages into a cohesive whole. White-dominated social events and groups were off limits, and church members constructed their own parallel activities and organizations. In a very real sense, the church built an encompassing African American world that paralleled the exclusionary larger world. At least until the civil rights era of the mid-twentieth century, African American churches continued to function at the very center of the African American experience. There is strong argument that they continue to do so today, although new realities are undeniably reshaping and impinging on that role.

            Members of the African American community freely note that changes are occurring. Many are the broader social changes that cut across American culture: for example, social isolation and the decline in personal contact. In Berks, weakened social bonds among members of the African American community are often pointed out as one of the most disturbing changes. “Because of the fellowship, probably every African American knew every other, probably until the 1940s, one person commented. “Visitations,” the continuing round of social calls between community members, have essentially disappeared. As another member observed, when members saw each other often, “it was easy to see if somebody was sick, or had a problem and needed help. Today, you might pick up the phone and call, but it tells you much less.”  They also note that the missionary impulse seems to have lost strength, and that the different churches “aren’t connected” as they once were.

            Indeed, the decline in community has created a new set of challenges for African American churches. As housing restrictions fell in Berks, African Americans became increasingly dispersed. This accelerated a change begun in the 1960s when redevelopment efforts in the city uprooted traditionally African American neighborhoods. As African American families joined the migration to the suburbs, white churches began to open their doors to the newcomers.

            The young, in particular, are less drawn to the churches than they once were. A senior member observed that in his youth, “the church had no competition—there was nowhere else to go. Today, there are all kinds of distractions available.”  Moreover, those with good educations are overwhelmingly moving in search of opportunities. Parents commonly express the hope that someday their children will “return home,” but few seem to seriously think that will happen. In an institutional sense, the churches don’t need to perform the variety of social roles they traditionally did. Other options and opportunities are abundant. Social change has made it no longer possible to “be everything” and keep members “busy day and night.” 

            Nonetheless, it would be misleading to suggest that African American churches here are in decline—they are anything but. In 2005, Berks was home to twenty-one predominantly African American churches. They all grapple with issues of change, but then, change is nothing new; it has been a hallmark of African American religion.

            To successfully embrace change demands responsiveness. A prime reason for the enduring success of African American churches has been a constant responsiveness to their communities. As their old roles disappear, churches have been ready to tackle new issues: poverty, child care, healthcare, crime and the criminal justice system, opportunities for young people, addiction.

            Whether by making change within existing churches or by building new ones, African American churches in Berks have consistently demonstrated a fluidity that allows individual members or groups to travel new roads as needs or wants dictate. Largely for this reason, Berks has been a fertile field for growing churches. This fluidity, too, has been central to the strong attachment of African Americans to their church— the church “is theirs” in a very personal sense. In Berks County, as in other communities, the future will no doubt build on the foundation laid down the better part of two centuries ago; there is every indication that African Americans will continue the process of fashioning religious institutions uniquely responsive to needs of both their community and their individual members.

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