The Church’s Black Exodus

Pastors’ silence on racism and COVID-19 is driving Black parishioners away from their congregations.

A black-and-white image of Black women sitting in church pews
A church service in Woodville, Georgia, in October 1941 (Jack Delano / Getty)

Across the country, Black Americans feel under siege from the coronavirus pandemic and raw from the police brutality fueling Black Lives Matter protests. But some are nursing another intimate wound: their church’s failure to acknowledge their pain. Many Black parishioners, especially those at multiracial institutions, bristle when they hear rhetoric from church leaders that ignores how health inequities and racism are affecting the Black community right now. Others are hurt by their church’s conspicuous silence on these issues. The result is a quiet but resolute contingent of Black church members leaving their congregation to seek spiritual healing elsewhere.

Leaving one’s church represents a personal loss for the individual, but the institution also suffers when parishioners decide to take their valuable perspectives away from the flock. It’s still too early to quantify exactly how many Black churchgoers nationwide have made such a decision, or how many might still leave their church if their concerns aren’t addressed. The parishioners who spoke with me, however, had very similar stories, pointing to a potential trend.

Like others I talked with, Delisha, 58, isn’t one to miss church. For the past seven years, she has made sure to be in the faithful number of a large, multicultural New Orleans congregation. But after the pandemic hit in March, she decided to attend services only via live-stream. Black people like her are disproportionately at risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19, and Delisha, who lives with her elderly mother and a daughter with asthma, has hypertension. (Delisha asked that I identify her using only her middle name, because she had not yet contacted the church about her concerns.)

What she saw on video one Sunday dismayed her. As the camera panned over the congregation, she noted that some people had masks on and some didn’t. The church did not require them. What’s more, the pastor, who is white, scolded the missing members over live-stream: “Why are y’all not here today? You scared?”

Delisha was appalled. “That blew me away,” she said. “I am a Black woman with preexisting conditions. That’s why I’m not there.” She felt like the pastor was failing to empathize with parishioners who had been dealt staggering blows by the pandemic.

Then, as the George Floyd protests began later in the spring, Delisha waited in vain for her church’s leaders to express their concern over his killing. She received no church email, no newsletter, no pulpit address on racial injustice—just silence. She’s decided that she will not return to her place of worship once the pandemic ends. While she hasn’t terminated her membership officially, she’s no longer attending services virtually.

It’s not uncommon for people of color who attend multiracial churches to hear very little about racism, says David Swanson, 43, the founding pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Chicago. Instead of supporting systemic change, some white Christians view racial reconciliation as a matter of fellowship among churchgoers of different races—something that can be achieved through interpersonal relationships. As a result, churches may not perceive the need to acknowledge or lament racial injustice. Others might hesitate to endorse Black Lives Matter, because of ideological differences with the national organization and its founders. But Black parishioners’ desire for recognition doesn’t mean they’re ideologically aligned with the national group—they just want to know that their congregation values them. If more Black Christians leave their church, their absence threatens to tilt congregations’ demographics toward the segregated status quo.

Swanson has framed the stakes of churches’ silence in stark terms. “A multiracial church which never confronts white supremacy is a white church,” he tweeted in April. By that, he meant it’s a church “still mostly interested in white people’s comfort,” Swanson explained to me over the summer. Put another way: A church’s silence on police killings communicates almost as clear of a message as all lives matter on the marquee.

Amber Wright, 39, felt a jolt of recognition when she read Swanson’s tweet this spring. The absence of a church-wide stand against police brutality had frustrated Wright for years. “I remember there was no comment or commentary [at my multiracial church] about Trayvon Martin [or] the series of Black people slain in the streets,” she told me. By the time of Floyd’s killing, on May 25, Wright knew she was done. “It’s important to us that we go to a church where we feel the leadership can call these issues out in a way that speaks to the worth of my life and the life of my husband and my children,” she said.

Many Black parishioners swallow their discomfort with churches’ lack of attention to racism, because they like the diversity of multiracial congregations. Although Wright has fond memories of growing up in a traditional Black Baptist church, she said she appreciates the contemporary culture of nondenominational multiracial congregations. Delisha said she feels more at home in a multiethnic church because it embodies her vision of racial harmony in heaven. But this value can’t make up for their churches’ failings, both women said.

Historically Black churches have ignored their congregation’s needs in recent months too. Some parishioners are angered by church leaders clinging to attendance as a barometer of faithfulness even during the pandemic. Pastors “keep wanting people to come to church based off of faith, but then [they] don’t even go see people in the hospital,” because of the risk, Terrance Thomas, 45, the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Champaign, Illinois, told me. This contradiction feels especially callous to those grieving losses from COVID-19.

The unrest in cities across the country also threw into sharp relief a schism between older clergy upset by property damage and those who believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Pastors who are politically more conservative than their congregation risk alienating their flock when they voice displeasure about looting.

They also risk losing parishioners if they stick to preaching only on matters of the soul. “In the middle of a social unrest, people don’t want to hear [about] the by and by … People will leave the church and they’ll leave the faith,” Thomas said. For many Black Christians, the Black church provides a sanctuary for both their culture and their faith; it’s where they were raised and where they want to raise their children. The decision to abandon it often means severing deep social ties.

Leaving the Church as an institution is the next step for Marie, a campus minister at a university who has boycotted her Methodist church’s services since Pentecost Sunday, in May. While providing remote support to students struggling with racism, the sudden loss of housing, and family bereavement, she lost more than five family members to COVID-19. But no one from her church reached out.

“As the only Black woman [in my local church administration], no one calls to say … ‘How are you doing?’” said Marie, who also requested that I use only her middle name, for fear of professional and personal repercussions.

Her frustration and sadness were compounded by the Church’s silence on the shootings of Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, and Breonna Taylor this spring. After protests began to sweep the nation following Floyd’s death, a Church leader responded in a sympathetic letter to Marie’s region’s clergy and laity, but she felt that it failed to acknowledge the Church’s history of segregation.

“This is going to be my last year in the Church” entirely, she said. “I’m tired of the Church and their prayers and their silence on racism.” Going forward, she wants to build a “ministry of presence” to sit with the dying and the bereaved the way her fellow clergy did not sit with her.

Parishioners’ decision making has been shaped by the introduction of technology to their normal Sunday routine. Moving fellowship online during quarantine has allowed Black parishioners to closely scrutinize how Christian leaders react to COVID-19 and the protests via social media. In many places, socializing has largely relocated from the church lobby to Facebook comment sections, as pastors encourage online engagement to avoid a shrinking membership base. But many pastors who post about political issues become fodder for discussion on public forums and in direct messages. Not unlike during a physical church service, the congregation is trained on its leaders’ every word, but parishioners are now able to dissect their comments in new mediums.

Shutdowns also present a unique opportunity for parishioners to explore other churches virtually—without blowing their cover or being notably absent from their home congregation. Delisha, for example, observed another church’s live-stream, where the pastor expressed concern over Floyd’s death. For others, however, it’s still too soon to find a new church: Wright and her husband have decided to take a break from attending even online services.

Swanson and Thomas told me that churches’ failure to address Black parishioners’ fears and sadness means they’re neglecting a crucial area of ministry: helping people lament and heal from trauma. Thomas said that his fellow pastors must resist the empty catharsis of platitudes and affirm “brothers and sisters in the margin.” “As a pastor,” he said, “if you’re doing the work of checking in, if you’re doing the work of loving on your people, you’ll notice who’s missing.” Swanson said that he talks with his congregation about the effects of racism on Black Americans’ physical, emotional, and psychological health, and tries to mitigate the stigma associated with therapy.

Most of the parishioners I spoke with are optimistic about joining another fellowship after leaving their congregation. No house of worship will be perfect. But Wright is certain that her next church will be one where “the pastor has no problem saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’”