The religious faith of African Americans is generational, historical and spiritual. Our lived experiences of incessant afflictions, suffering and injustices have seen Christ’s redemptive grace, healing and faithfulness. He has shown us that he is the promise-keeper. For many of us, our hope is built, anchored and bound in the salvific power of Christ.
That’s why I was not surprised to learn from two recent studies that African Americans have the highest religious engagement of any group of Americans. We say grace and pray more with our families than other racial groups: 69% report doing so, compared to 42% of whites, 41% of Hispanics and 31% of Asian Americans, according to new research from the Survey Center on American Life.
And according to new Deseret News/Marist Poll research, nearly half of African Americans say they attend church at least weekly and two-thirds pray every day. Three-quarters of African Americans believe in God as described in the Bible, compared to just half of whites and Latinos.
There is a correlation between our faith and our struggle. The journey of African Americans is replete with immoral treatment, degradation and humiliation by people who saw us as inferior, unworthy or a threat to their prosperity. Historically, we have not had wealth and connections. We have not had the law on our side. All we had was Christ. And we had biblical promises speaking to our suffering with inspiring scripture such as Psalm 30:5 — “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” — and Job 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
Even though our nights turned into years and decades, joy came in the morning, when Christ delivered a breakthrough, provided relief and gave us manna in the form of opportunities and hope. They came as fearless leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., role models like Oprah Winfrey and partnerships like that of the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What we know is that any small advancement, freedom or opportunity can be revoked, ripped away and removed without justification. We have experienced it over and over again in all areas of our life. We traditionally pray over meals and regularly attend church so that we can withstand the subtle and overt threats and attacks to which we are subjected almost daily, and also so we will be replenished in their wake. In our darkest hours, when it seemed like we were defeated and there were no options, Christ stepped in and provided a remedy, a resource and a respite. When we had no authority, he was the ultimate authority.
While others may view their liberties and freedoms as stable, African Americans know that ours can be fleeting. We can look at advancements in legislation and believe our future is built on a solid foundation only to realize that the ground can shift with almost every step we take. Examples of this include the hope that Barack Obama ushered in with his presidency, which was followed by the escalation of police brutality toward African Americans, and the celebration of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson being nominated for the Supreme Court, which was followed by the unprecedented racially charged skewering she had to endure. It is both hope and fear that bring us to our knees to pray to God for protection and relief.
When our opponents and oppressors were sometimes fearless, lawless and seemingly godless, God’s promises, like “the peace that passes all understanding,” have always sustained us. We have traversed rough and turbulent terrain, with few seasons of relief. Yet, we believed in Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
In the 1970s, many African Americans adorned their homes with three pictures: Jesus, King and President John F. Kennedy. Today, Kennedy’s picture has been replaced with Obama’s. The victories throughout our journey have demonstrated that Christ has not forsaken us. His presence has abided, undergirded and protected us.
He restored our soul when we were exhausted, depleted and ready to give up. When we were subjected to atrocities such as being sold on an auction block, slavery and lynching, he led us into the light. With silent tears, whimpers and grief from slave ships, plantation fields and jail cells, Christ heard us, answered us and freed us. When we were bloodied, bruised and broken, Christ was our balm.
We know from our ancestors’ sacrifices, and their testimonies of survival, that it is no secret what God can do. What he has done for others, he will do for us too. Our prayers are also our joyous praise, because we can look back from where we have come and thank God for his goodness, grace and mercy toward us. That is why we continue strong and unwavering in our faith.
The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.