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Jun 8, 2004
Divining the future of black churches

Saturday, October 31, 1998

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On his way to becoming an accomplished professor, poet and author, C. Eric Lincoln also slipped into the role of accidental prophet.

Schooled in the classics at a private missionary academy in Athens, Ala., and in sociology at a small Christian college in Tennessee, Lincoln brushed off the dust of the cotton fields and headed north to study at the University of Chicago.

As a financially struggling law student, he happened upon the seminary dean who offered him a scholarship to study theology. Lincoln signed up, earned a divinity degree and in 1953 headed to a church in Nashville, Tenn.

After a year, he discovered that the pulpit was not his calling.

His "gift," he found, was studying black life and religion not as a preacher but as a teacher, sociologist and diviner of how the black church should prepare for the future.

He will be in town tomorrow to deliver a lecture on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the First Baptist Church in Oakland. This isn't his first visit to Pittsburgh. Lincoln, 74, has extended family who live here, as does the widow of his longtime mentor.

Speaking in deep, throaty chuckles on the phone from his home in Durham, N.C., the now-retired Duke University professor says he considers himself something of an expert on King, having known the civil rights leader as a young man. He's even more of an expert on King's proving ground -- the black church and its impact on the black community.

From an "invisible institution" during slavery, the church grew to become one of the wealthiest organizations in the black community. It established many of the nation's leading black schools, nurtured black politicians and gave many black performers their first stage for applause.

Lincoln's nearly 40 years of research produced works of such thoroughness and detail that scholars consider them masterpieces.

Earlier black scholars have studied black religion, but Lincoln's research, coming amid the fight for social justice and anti-segregation, was the first to go mainstream.

"By the early '60s, no self-respecting theologian could go through school and not read his books," said Ronald Peters, director of the Metro-Urban Institute at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Out of the shadows

One of the texts that brought Lincoln to the fore was his 1961 volume on "The Black Muslims in America." Today, there are an estimated 2 million black Muslims in America, and Lincoln's work is credited with bringing them out of the shadows.

Before that book, most Americans saw black Muslims as a devil-worshipping cult or dismissed them as an esoteric black gang with no religious or political significance, said Cain Hope Felder, a former theology student of Lincoln's who is now professor of biblical studies at Howard University. "Muslims in America," he said, made Islam and blacks a legitimate area of study for U.S scholars.

It also helped give prominence to the fiery, charismatic Muslim leader Malcolm X, a man who became Lincoln's lifelong friend. The two met in Atlanta the summer after Lincoln's book on Muslims was published and, despite their different faiths, the relationship flourished.

"We hit it off right away and would visit each other and have conversations all night long," Lincoln said. "We'd solve the problems of the world."

The friendship ended tragically when Malcolm X was gunned down in a Harlem hotel in the winter of 1965.

Lincoln spoke with Malcolm a few days before the killing, inviting him to lecture at Brown University. He remembered how unsettling that conversation was.

Malcolm was very disturbed, Lincoln recalled, and "I had never seen him somber. He told me, 'I'll do anything you ask me to do if I'm alive. (Soon) I may be dead."'

The Sunday following their phone call, while lecturing on racial reconciliation, Malcolm X was assassinated.

Making distinctions

In the decade that followed, Lincoln challenged the prevailing research of the time on the black church. He took on the notions of E. Franklin Frazier, a sociologist who had painted a picture of the black church with a white brush, saying there were few distinctions between black and white congregations.

Lincoln had a fuller view: Socially and economically they are worlds apart, he said, documenting the cultural and historical differences in "The Black Church Since Frazier: Race, Religion and the Continuing American Dilemma," which grew out of a 1973 series of lectures he began at Duke University. The contrast between black and white congregations, he noted, can be as subtle as the choice of sermon topics or as bold as the musical selections marking each worship service.

More revelations followed that book.

After the era of former President Ronald Reagan, when many blacks felt they were under attack because of cuts in social service programs, Lincoln released his book, "The Black Church in the African American Experience." Among scholars, it quickly became known as the bible on the black religious journey.

Based on interviews with more than 2,000 ministers and study of Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion and three other major black denominational groups, the book called the black church a sleeping giant. Its potential for positive change, Lincoln wrote, was undercut by fragmentation and lack of a common vision. Black churches, as a whole, were poorly managed, losing male membership and in need of more theologically trained leaders.

The church responded. Today, many have started credit unions and housing programs, instituted special programs to recruit males and launched services for young people.

As for the future, Lincoln would like to use his influence to have the black church address the problem of youth and crime.

"In a society where a quarter of all young black men are likely to be criminalized before age 30," he said, "the black church has been too silent, both to its own detriment and the detriment of the black community and society at large."

He also welcomes the increasing reception of women as leaders in the church. For years, the male-dominated hierarchy gave a message to half of the black community that it wasn't worried about them, Lincoln said. This was especially critical for women, since they make up more than 70 percent of most black church congregations and are usually the ones who bring the kids to services.

Long road to faith

From the 9-year-old boy in tattered clothing who walked three miles to work every morning as a dairy farmer's delivery boy, Lincoln has traveled a remarkable path.

After all, the 35 cents a week he made wasn't much, but the fatback and molasses he was able to buy for the family "kept us alive," he said.

Lincoln never knew his father, and his mother left the family when he was 4. His maternal grandmother, "Miss Mattie," and grandfather Less raised him.

Through it all, Lincoln had the sense that he was blessed.

Most black kids in rural Alabama stopped school at the sixth grade. But Lincoln was enrolled in Trinity School, a missionary academy out to prove that blacks and women possessed an intelligence equal to white men.

In 1940, Trinity got a new headmaster, Jay Wright, who became a lifelong mentor for Lincoln. The Wrights eventually made their way to Pittsburgh, and Mary Louise Wright, now 86 and living in Mt. Lebanon, remembers the young "Charlie," which is what she still affectionately calls Lincoln. He was "a bright student who finished high school in three years and spent the last in independent study," she said.

There are other Pittsburgh connections for Lincoln. His birth mother, Bradonia Lincoln, married Ernest Blye from Birmingham, Ala. They, too, ended up in Pittsburgh, and Blye became pastor at Second Baptist Church in Penn Hills. Lincoln remained friendly with the family, which grew to include six half-brothers and sisters.

Today, C. Eric Lincoln is deeply satisfied with his five university degrees and his dozen books on religion and race relations, including his latest, "Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America."

He wants his personal story to remind young people that there's something in the world for them -- that, with hope, they can make a way.

"I had never received as much as 25 cents from my family toward my academics," he said. "There's a reason for that. They didn't have it."


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