The critically acclaimed film “Detroit,” with its the brash and tragic cinematic portrayal of the Algiers Motel Incident in Detroit in 1967, has raised many an eyebrow since the film debuted.
The film, which has generated much pertinent pushback from critics, neglects to mention (among other things) how the black church served as an alternative site for legislative justice when the Shrine of the Black Madonna hosted the People’s Tribunal.
But “Detroit” also shows how the black church became an alternative site for economic justice. I want to offer some concrete ways the black church can pick up this mantle and ensure we do not participate in the production or perpetuation of poverty but instead in the economic empowerment of our people.
(Slight spoiler alert.)
One of the most intriguing figures in “Detroit” is Dramatics cofounder Larry Reed. Reed was one of the unarmed citizens (12 total, 10 black men and 2 white women) who were terrorized and brutally beaten by law enforcement in the Algiers Motel. Three teenagers were killed by police. Reed was fortunate to make it out alive.
The encounter left Reed traumatized. He no longer was willing to perform with the Dramatics in public. He feared that public stages would make him a target for another attack by police.
In search of refuge and employment, Reed learns of a local church seeking a minister of music. He journeys to the church and pleads with the church representative for the job. The church rep states that Reed is overqualified. But after a continued petition for mercy, Reed is hired and the church provides a redemptive platform for him to exercise his gifts and earn a living.
The black church is presented here as a place that offers economic justice — a chance for redemption and gainful employment.
This is a potential we must make more prevalent.
The black church cannot hire everyone who has been victimized by systemic racism and police brutality. But we can contribute to structural changes in our communities. We can work to ensure that we no longer have more access to drugs and guns than we have to an adequate education or a job with a livable wage.
What the church must do is practice what Jesus preached. Jesus proclaimed that he was anointed to “preach good news to the poor” and to proclaim jubilee — the cancelation of debts — to the masses. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed trying to make good on that proclamation.
As we prepare for the 50 year commemoration of King’s assassination, I want to propose a few ways for the black church to be an alternative site for economic justice and the eradication of abject poverty.
Here are a few things the black church should do immediately:
1. Pay all of our employees livable wages –Whether we employ a large staff or do contract work with guest speakers, clinicians, or trade workers, everyone should be adequately compensated for their work. Let us not contribute to the exploitation of black labor and the infrastructure of poverty with callous appeals to Christian charity. Those who do “the Lord’s work” should not be taken advantage of. Ideally, every congregation would endorse and affirm the Fight for $15 movement. But, at least, let’s calculate the living wage for our particular community and pay employees what they need to survive.
2. Pay Women Equal Wages — Too often, women in ministry (as is true in most sectors of society) are overworked and underpaid for the same jobs their male counterparts perform. Sacred sexism is just as evil and unjust as white supremacy codified as Christianity. The church should be the vanguard for equal pay for women because the bulk of church attendees and contributors are women. Anything less than equal pay for women in ministry amounts to ecclesiastical and economic apartheid.
3. Contract with and Advocate for Black Businesses — The early church is portrayed as “selling their possessions and goods” and “sharing with anyone who was in need.” Black businesses need our support. If black churches committed to contracting with black business (especially within their local communities) this economic model could generate wealth in the community. Churches can also join advocacy efforts for fair governmental contracting with black businesses.
The employment, compensation and contracting practices of black churches must be rooted in economic justice. The church cannot perpetuate poverty and inequity in its business practices while trying to claim a space of moral authority and public conscience.
What would Black Jesus do? Black Jesus would ensure that the black church is a place that proclaims and practices economic justice.
Rev. Earle J. Fisher is the Senior Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis and the co-founder of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition. Pastor Earle is also a PhD student in the Communications Department at the University of Memphis and the president of the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation.
This editorial was produced through a collaboration between The New Tri-State Defender and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.