Writing for Social Sciences
Ethnography of the Black Church
I decided to choose the history of the Black Church and its profound effects on African Americans, its positives and negatives. I will start with The Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded in 1808, where my mother and father are members and where my brother and I were christened. I attended Sunday School there and attended Thurgood Marshall Lower School Academy, founded by The Abyssinian Baptist Church.
My in-person observations took place on Father’s Day, Juneteenth Sunday, June 19, 2022 and the following Sunday, June 26, 2022. Later, I will share an interview with Alexis Thomas, Chairperson & Trustee of the church and Dr. Bert Petersen, member of the Men’s Us her board. I will also introduce three interviews of officers of Canaan Baptist Church, which I have visited on previous occasions and listened to the live stream of Sunday, 6/26/22 church service.
Abyssinian Baptist Church – Sunday, June 19, 2022 – Father’s Day Service/Juneteenth
The first in-person event that I observed was the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s Father’s Day service on June 19th, as well as the celebration of Juneteenth and Communion Sunday, which takes place the third Sunday of every month.The church Sanctuary was packed with lots of visitors and long time members. Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, lll, Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, officiated the service and the themes of his sermon were Fatherhood, manhood and the importance of those roles in the African American communities. He said, “We are called upon by God to represent ourselves as good fathers and husbands, not only to our families but to our communities in all that we do”. Letting the church be their support and a platform for black men to stand strong and uphold their responsibilities to their families and their communities.
The following Sunday, June 26, I attended Abyssinian Baptist Church again for Baccalaureate Sunday, to celebrate the high school and college graduates of the church. This was a very exciting service and to my surprise, sitting in the congregation were two democratic candidates running for governor who were introduced and said a few words to the congregation. The highlight of this service was the guest speaker Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President, Fordham University, who delivered an electrifying address to the Graduates and the congregation. He implored them to, “take your knowledge and accomplishments, partnered with your faith, and go out into the world and be the conscience of the world”. Rev. McShane encourages the graduates to live everyday with their reflections, showing gratitude and generosity always.
Lastly, the former principal of the Thurgood Marshall Lower School Academy, at the time when I was a second grader there, received his appointment as the Superintendent of Schools for District 5. I along with the entire congregation rose to our feet, began to clap and cheer in celebration of him.
Abyssinian Baptist Church – Sunday, June 26, 2022 – In-Person Interview with Alexis Thomas, a Deacon and Chairperson of the Trustee Board
After the church service ended, I was making my way over to Jumaane Williams who ran for governor in the Democratic primary. I wanted to meet him and ask him about his policies. I did not get to speak to him at length because I was to interview Alexis Thomas right after the service was over, downstairs in the church bookstore. I entered the small bookstore where members were standing in line to purchase tickets to the Church picnic, which was announced during the service. Alexis Thomas was seated at a table in the corner of the bookstore patiently waiting for me to get settled. It was very busy in the bookstore and this created some background noise during my interview, but we were able to have a great conversation. I began by asking her what her role was in the church and how she got to be in that role. She told me that she is a Deacon and the Chairperson of the Trustee Board. She went on to say, “to be considered for an office of the church, you must have been a volunteer for different ministries in the church, then you are likely asked to take a specific office”. She was elected to be the Chairperson of the Trustee Board by the members of the Trustee Board (18 members).
The responsibilities of the Chair of the Trustees is to oversee the financial obligations of the church and deal with any issues among the Trustees. The responsibilities of the Deacons are to officiate over all the different ministries of the church and to deal with any issues that may arise among the members. I was curious as to why she was driven to do this work in the church, so I asked her to elaborate a little. “I have always volunteered for certain roles in my church, ever since I was a child and my family was always very active in our church. I believe that everyone should give back to their church in some way, this is how the church is supported and can do the good work in their community, it starts with the members of the church”. Her responsibilities have grown more complex over the years, but she feels that this is what she is called to do to help the church remain financially sound and to be able to complete the various outreach programs the church has put in place.
Abyssinian Baptist Church – Monday, June 27, 2022 – In-Person Interview with Dr. Bert Petersens, Senior Men’s Usher
I met up with Dr. Bert Petersen at his apartment for the interview. His apartment is adorned with different types of artwork and sculptures from his travels all over the world. We sat down at the dining room table and began to talk. His responsibility as a member of the Senior Men’s Usherboard, the first and oldest ministry in the church, is to assist the members and visitors as they enter the church and hand out the programs/offering envelopes. “Ushers have important duties, such as making sure people are not taking pictures or tape recordings of any kind”. Dr. Petersen is a surgeon and uses his medical training to assist anyone who may experience a medical emergency while in church. “I have had to give medical assistance to people and it just comes naturally to me. I just jump into action, because that is what I would normally do”. I asked him what he has learned from being an usher, he replied, “I will answer it this way, where I have grown in the job, is having patience and compassion for the people that come to church and may have other things on their mind. If they are upset, I don’t need to be upset and get in the way of them receiving the message and the prayers”. Dr. Petersen has been ushering in the church since 2003 and by day is a breast cancer surgeon. I admire him for being able to humble himself to serve as an usher three Sundays out of the month with such a demanding career.
Canaan Baptist Church of Christ – (Virtual/Live Stream) Sunday, June 26, 2022 – Women’s Day
My next event I observed virtually by listening to Canaan Baptist Church’s Sunday church service, which took place on June 26. The church was celebrating Women’s day and the women’s Day speaker was Pastor Sharon L. Bierra who delivered a sermon lifting up the women in the church and all over the world. She read from the Women’s Devotional Bible and spoke about how women stand firm in their faith while going through their challenges, raising children and taking care of their families. “God will see them through”. She said,t “women must stand together because no one woman can do it by herself”. The speaker was very motivational and relatable in her quest to celebrate women.
Canaan Baptist Church – Saturday, June 25, 2022 – In-Person Interview with Paulette Martin-Carter, Assistant Dean of Youth
I conducted an in-person interview with Paulette Martin-Carter at her apartment in Harlem. She is the Assistant Dean of Youth at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem. She previously held the position of the Dean of Youth for five years. Then, she took a year off and returned to the role of Assistant Dean of Youth, which she presently holds.
She assists the youth in the church to help them to grow spiritually to lead and be able to direct the church in the future, because they will be the ones to run and support the church in the future. She teaches the children with the support of their guardians, to further their knowledge spiritually and encourage their presence in the church. She said “there are several different ministries in the church that the children may participate in and we support them throughout their journey. Once a month is Youth Sunday and the children run the church service on this Sunday.” One of her roles is to rehearse the children and help them prepare for their specific role on Youth Sunday.
During my interview, when I asked her what inspired her to work in the church, she became very emotional and said, “My grandmother & grandfather were both deacons in the church and had a major influence on my spiritual journey and my choice to be active in my church”. “I like to see my youth become confident in their faith and see how their decisions that they make as I watch them grow up in the church, are a result of the support and nurturing I gave them while teaching them about the word of God”. I think her role is crucial, in teaching them the scriptures and how it relates to their everyday life. The participation from the children and their commitment to Saturday Church School seems to have a positive impact on their daily lives. When I was a child, I was fortunate to have visited their Saturday Church School a couple of times, when Ms. Carter was the Dean of Youth. I remember going back to Saturday Church School for an Easter egg hunt where I met Deacon Viaer, who is one of my interviewees for this assignment. Ms. Carter reiterates, “I want to touch lives and be there for children who need a support system and someone who tells them that they matter when they need it the most”.
Canaan Baptist Church – Saturday, June 25, 2022 – Telephone Interview with Carol Viaer, A Deacon and Chairperson of the Trustee Board
I asked what inspired you to join the church? “I was looking for a church home and was told to stop by Canaan, I heard the Pastor preach a sermon and I joined the church the next Sunday in 1989”. “I have always been a part of the Saturday Church School, but I have been a part of most of the other ministries in the church over the years. I make sure they have what they need and sort out any problems that arise”. She was asked to be a Deacon after serving in so many of the church ministries and in 2021 was elected to be Chairperson of the Trustee Board by the Diaconate She is the person that handles any problems that arise in the ministries or among the congregation. She also takes care of the Pastor’s needs and discusses important matters with the Pastor that need his attention. She said with determination that she attends Bible Study to learn about God and encourages others to do the same. Deacon Viaer is very devoted to upholding the standards of the church and making sure the members feel heard.
Canaan Baptist Church – Monday, June 27, 2022 – Telephone Interview with David Francis, Assistant Pastor and Youth Minister
I set up a telephone interview with Pastor Francis for Monday evening. I called at the designated time, but he was driving, on his way home and asked me to call back in an hour. I did so and began the interview with a few basic questions. Rev. David Francis is the Assistant Pastor and Youth Minister at Canaan Baptist Church, ordained in 1998. I asked him what the educational requirements are to become a minister. “You must have a Master’s of Divinity, and most importantly, you must have the passion for Christ and a willingness to serve”. One of the important roles of an Assistant Pastor is to support the Pastor of the church when he/she is not available to give the Sunday sermon. He is asked to perform weddings, baby christenings and sometimes he is asked to do private counseling. “There is nothing more important than raising children to be responsible, spiritual people”.
I felt a little awkward in the beginning of the interview, as he seemed very aloof and gave short answers to my questions. I quickly changed gears and reframed the questions I had left to ask him, in an attempt to get more out of him. I continued with my final questions and ended with, what has being a minister taught you? “It’s given my life meaning, purpose, and direction, it’s made me a better person. I am more caring, empathetic and willing to look beyond myself and help others”. Then I asked, what is the most rewarding aspect of your profession? “Watching young people grow from little babies to adults, and they are successful, happy, they are still Christians and have not lost their faith or been jaded by the world”
My conclusion based on my research and personal observations of the Black Church overal, is that it has had a positive and in some ways life changing effect in the black community. I found through my observations and interviews that the black church is not only a place of worship and spiritual outreach, but it also provides essential services to the black community. They build schools, housing developments, open food pantries, summer camp, health & wellness programs, and offer various counseling services to their communities. For example Canaan has a Saturday church school for the children, which also serves them lunch. During the week after school, they offer tutoring services for students who may be struggling in a certain subject. A very important area of both churches I observed was their ministry that caters to the senior citizens, which consists of home and hospital visits as well as providing meals for those senior members who cannot get outside.
Lastly, I am proud of the Abyssinian West (AbyWest) project, a building that Abyssinian to date, has raised over $3.5MM. AbyWest, when completed, will offer various vehicles for spiritual, educational, political and cultural/social events, all housed in one building.
My experiences as a result of doing this assignment, has deepened my desire to help make life easier for people. I walk away feeling more connected to my family and my community realizing that the Black Church has had an enormous effect on African American people and their communities.