Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.
On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.
There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.
Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?
Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?
So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?
Now what else is missing in this picture?
I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.
Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?
I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.
What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.
The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.
The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.
In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.
One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.
“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”
That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.
Take that famous evangelistic sermon at 1st Mariner Arena, the one that put 14,000 people in the seats and, I would imagine, pulled scores of people forward during the altar call?
That pivotal sermon is never mentioned again. The story does not, in fact, include any material at all from this great man’s sermons and prayers — not a single word.
The obituary does include a fine overview of his solid career in academia. He was the son of an Old Testament professor and had earned doctorates from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and at Colgate Bexley Hall/Crozer Seminary in Rochester, N.Y. But what did he study? Nothing worth mentioning, apparently.
The obituary places a heavy emphasis — as it should — on his ties to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. It talks about Carter’s powerful role as a community leader and as a social entrepreneur. This is crucial material
It quotes the mayor. That’s fine.
It quotes a U.S. senator. I guess that’s OK.
This obituary quotes all kinds of people. But it never quotes Carter in the pulpit, it never quotes him addressing the issues that truly dominated his life — prayer, preaching and evangelism. In the end, what really mattered was the work he did — you guessed it — that journalists would see as linked to politics.
I am sure that GetReligion readers are shocked, shocked to know that.