Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming, and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
When Obama said "black churches," he was referring to a highly decentralized collection of seven major black Protestant denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Convention, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Each of these denominations grew out of the antebellum South, dating back to a time when Methodists and Baptists made concerted efforts to convert slaves to Christianity. Anglican ministers had made similar attempts, but to little avail. Select white owners allowed the enslaved to worship in white churches, where they were segregated in the back or on the balconies and made to listen to messages of strict obedience. The Methodists and Baptists changed all that, recasting their evangelism for a black audience. Some Methodists even licensed black men to preach, and many of the new black ministers framed Bible stories in ways that made them newly relevant to black audiences -- particularly the Exodus theme of liberation from bondage. Some black preachers even succeeded in establishing churches in the South, though they encountered harassment. When the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century caused many Americans, black and white, to get swept up in religious revival, the independence of black churches was curbed by law, and by the white Southern response to slave uprisings and the abolitionist movement.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the black church found its political voice in abolition. Former slave Frederick Douglass challenged Christians to confront the debasing institution that was slavery, while ministers and members of the black community organized the Underground Railroad in the North. Following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (which legitimized the Exodus story for many African Americans) and continuing on through Reconstruction, the black church became more organized, rallying around the black preacher as a central figure. In "Of the Faith of the Followers," an essay that appeared in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois described the preacher as "the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil.'
A century later, still plagued by institutionalized racism and violence, African Americans coalesced into action after the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Then, in 1955, activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. By the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the official face of the struggle, civil rights had gained a clear moral and religious dimension. King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" (which appeared in The Atlantic under the title "The Negro Is Your Brother") was a response to a group of angry white ministers, a reflection on Christianity and the path to social justice. Again, the crusade was sustained by the Exodus story.
Today, with an electorate still bitterly divided over the issue of race, the black church is arguably losing its power. While "white flight" and the Civil Rights movement galvanized the black community, "black flight" (middle-class African Americans relocating to the suburbs) and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods across America have put the black church on the path to obsoletion.
In Washington, D.C., these demographic shifts have been particularly fraught. Many neighborhoods arerecovering even today from the 1968 riots, a four-day response to Dr. King's assassination. The H-St. corridor saw numerous buildings destroyed during the violence. But even as storefronts remained boarded up, churches continued to thrive. Church members in the area look back wistfully at the many events once sponsored by or held at the church, including potlucks, tutoring sessions to help teens stay in school, Alcohol Anonymous meetings, single-parent funds, and counseling services. Pews were packed every Sunday morning; everybody knew each other by name. Only in the last few years have these churches felt their bases slipping away.