By Carl Stagner
Cultural traditions and observances have long been a part of the church calendar. While they don’t demand acknowledgement in worship settings, they’ve been used effectively to establish connections between Christ and community, and between the present-day congregation and faithful servants of the past. From “Souper Bowl” Sunday to fall (Halloween?) festivals, from Labor Day picnics to celebrations of God and country (Independence Day), celebrations of otherwise secular occasions are often used by the church to reach neighbors, encourage fellowship, and/or put into practice biblical values. Each February, numerous Church of God congregations celebrate Black History Month and, in so doing, build bridges between church and society, often shining a light on topics sometimes overlooked or ignored by popular culture. Three Church of God congregations in the Northeast offer a snapshot of Black History Month in the Movement.
With such a beautiful heritage of African Americans in the Church of God and in society, it’s no wonder these Church of God congregations find tremendous meaning in Black History Month. Tatum Osbourne, executive pastor of Refuge Church of God in Brooklyn, New York, considers it a “vital component” of their calendar. “It’s important for us to observe it because we are comprised of African Americans and Caribbean Americans,” she explains. “But also, the recalling of our history is a reminder of three things: the favor of God towards us as a people; the hope of us as a people to believe that God’s plan included and includes us, regardless of the obstacles or oppression we face; and the knowledge that the same God who brought past generations through is the same God who will be with future generations.”
Some may wonder why Black History Month is necessary, especially as a celebration by the church. Clifton McDowell, senior pastor of the Church of God of East New York, answers by explaining that the “stories of the contributions of people of color are often not taught and not very often highlighted.” He continues, “We want to inspire our children, youth, and young adults, and we want to remember the struggle and those who went before us to pay the price. We also don’t want to become complacent and think that all is well, while great strides have been made and many problems still exist.” If society isn’t calling attention to these concerns, why shouldn’t the church step in to meet the need? That’s exactly what they’re doing, all the while acknowledging the God who loves all people.
In celebration of Black History Month, the Church of God of East New York pulls out all the stops. “We have a video moment in black history each Sunday,” Pastor Clifton explains. “People are free to dress in Afro-centric attire, and we sing the anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at least once in the month. We end with a culture recognition day where we identify the different places of congregants’ ethnic heritage, involving ethnic food and dress.”
Outreach is also enhanced during Black History Month, as evidenced by what New Antioch Church of God is doing in New Haven, Connecticut. They recognize that African American young people are often less likely to choose the empowering path of higher education. As part of their ongoing urban ministry, and in view of Black History Month, they’re sponsoring a college fair. “It’s another avenue to give them some hope that the streets aren’t the only place for them,” Pastor Esau Greene explains.
In Brooklyn, Refuge Church also incorporates special music, drama, and a retelling of history from the lens and lives of black people.
Celebrating Black History Month in the Church of God is also about paying tribute to African American ministers in the Church of God who have been leaders and mentors, paving the way for those who follow. Pastor Tatum has a hard time narrowing it down to a few of these heroes. “If I had to choose only three, they would definitely be the late Rev. Dr. James Earl Massey, Rev. Dr. Arnetta McNeese Bailey, and the Bishop Timothy Clarke,” she reflects. “Each in their own unique way live/lived out the mandate that Jesus gave to Peter in John 21 to feed and take care of the flock of God. Each in their own way has understood that real ministry goes to the fringes of society, reaching the marginalized and forgotten of this world. Each in their own way has had a passionate and committed love for the Lord and his bride—the church.”
Among other heroes of the faith, Clifton McDowell and Esau Greene mention Horace Sheppard Sr. (and Jr.), Edward Foggs, John Hall, Wallace Hazard, Gideon Thompson, and Handel Smith.