Black pastors have always been the first to call

Friday morning, the Rev. Shanan Jones was waiting for a call from a family needing help. The family’s matriarch had died and while her estate was in probate, a tree toppled on her home. The bereaved had reached out to Jones, who plans to help them find an attorney to settle the issue.

He recently worked with the family of a suicidal youth and referred them to an agency that could help. He’s also been front and center on voting rights issues and there when families have called seeking help when a relative is incarcerated, in the hospital or has died.

Not all needing help are members of his congregation at The Gathering Baptist Church in College Park.

“In the Black community the pastor is generally the first person who is called,” said Jones, president of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta. “We’ve always been the Balm of Gilead. ‘Let’s call the pastor, he will know what to do. Let’s call the pastor, she will know what to do’. We have a wide network of relations. It’s no different than a rabbi or an imam. That’s what we do.”

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The role of Black pastors has come into the spotlight during the trial of Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, who are accused in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.

Attorney Kevin Gough, who represents one of the men accused in the February 2020 shooting, repeatedly has complained about Black pastors sitting with the Arbery family, saying their presence could intimidate or pressure the jury.

“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” he said.

In response, hundreds of faith leaders arrived at the Glynn County courthouse Thursday to stand in prayer with Arbery’s family.

“I think it’s privilege that allows that to be said,” the Rev. Susan Hillary Buckson, senior pastor of Allen Temple AME Church in Atlanta, said of Gough’s incendiary comments. “You wouldn’t say that to police officers who show up in full uniform with their guns on their sides. What’s the difference between that and the Black community and the faith community showing up for those who are faith-based?”

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Historically, the Black church has played a key role in the lives of Black people beyond the pulpit, from jobs and health-related programs to providing food and fighting racism.

After Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed after a parking lot struggle with Atlanta police in 2020, local pastor and activist Rev. Darryl Winston went to the Wendy’s where the incident occurred to try to restore calm. U.S. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has preached about mass incarceration, police brutality and equal opportunity. Others have stepped up to offer their churches for funerals, meetings and community events.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that roughly three-quarters of Black adults say predominantly Black churches have done either “a great deal” (29%) or “some” (48%) to help Black people move toward equality in the United States.

“I think the history of Black folks in this country carved out a specific role for the Black pastor that no one else has to play,” said the Rev. Martha Simmons, pastor and author. “That’s bringing hope to people in their most hopeless moments.”

Over the years, Buckson of Allen Temple has gotten calls that ranged from people needing food and clothing to families asking her to show up a court hearing or to address economic opportunity and race issues.

The scene in Glynn County underscores how powerful the voices of Black clergy persons are and is a reminder that their presence that has been a staple before and during the civil rights movement, she said.

The prayer vigil outside the courthouse is a wake-up call for the Black church to understand its own power, she said.

“A lot of people have walked away from the role of social justice but it can’t be separated from our Christian responsibilities,” Buckson said. “I just don’t mean the Black church, but it’s a Christian responsibility to speak for those - just as Jesus did - who are unable to speak for themselves.”