In Trump’s Remarks, Black Churches See a Nation Backsliding
Posted January 14, 2018 8:34 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — In the middle of a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome” on Sunday morning, the Rev. William H. Lamar IV of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church made a sudden change to the lyrics.
“OK, we are not afraid, but replace ‘someday’ with ‘today,'” he told the congregation.
The worshippers sang back: “We are not afraid today.”
On the day before Martin Luther King’s Birthday, African-American churchgoers gathered as they always do, to pray, give thanks and reflect on the state of race in America. But after a disheartening week and an even more disheartening year, black Americans interviewed on Sunday said they were struggling to comprehend what was happening in a country that so recently had an African-American president.
“I’ve been involved in the civil rights movement since my college days, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more confused than I am right now,” said Sterling Tucker, 94, a civil rights leader in Washington. “There’s not a lot of honesty in the country now about who we are and where we are.”
In interviews at churches in Washington; Atlanta; Kansas City, Missouri; Miami; and Brockton, Massachusetts, black Americans expressed frustration and disappointment about the direction of the country in Donald Trump’s first year in office.
They said they saw America slipping into an earlier, uglier version of itself. And when Trump used crude words to describe Haiti and African countries in an immigration discussion, they said, he was voicing what many Americans were thinking, even if it was something they no longer felt comfortable saying: America prefers white people.
“Donald Trump is America’s id,” said Lamar, whose 180-year-old church is five blocks from the White House. “He is as American as baseball and apple pie.”
He added, “America has to think long and hard about whether it wants something different.”
For millions of Americans, Trump’s first year in office has been a time of fresh uncertainty and anxiety, full of setbacks both on policy and in attitudes. Worshippers on Sunday were heavy with those feelings.
“The mood? It’s cold, like the weather,” said Shirley Ambush, 62, as she huddled in a winter coat, waiting with friends for the doors to open at an auditorium in Washington where the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. was to preach.
Ambush, a retired school principal from Frederick, Maryland, put the blame squarely on Trump. “He is slashing everything that we achieved,” she said as she pushed inside with the crowd. “Cutting it with a knife. Shredding it to pieces.”
In the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Saintalise Briceus, 85, a worshipper at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, was offended by the president’s remarks.
“He said my country was caca,” said Briceus, a native of Port-de-Paix who moved to the United States in 1978. “I don’t feel good about it. I’m angry. My country is a good country.”
In Atlanta, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor of the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor, rewrote part of his sermon after Trump’s comment. (Trump later denied he said it, and on Sunday, a Republican senator who was present did as well.)
“What we heard was not new; it was a new low,” Warnock said. “I had to wrestle with how do I characterize what he said without saying it.” What emerged was a service that swerved between the past and the present, a renewed political reckoning and another denunciation of the president from one of the country’s most prominent black churches. Before a rapt crowd that included King’s only surviving sibling, Warnock accused Trump of trafficking in “hate speech” and described him as “willfully ignorant, racist, xenophobic.”
“I don’t know that he’s listening, and I don’t know that it matters,” Warnock said in an interview. “Even if Trump were to leave tomorrow, we still have to deal with the large segment of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. My battle is not so much with Trump as it is with Trumpism.”
Tucker said that perhaps the progress the civil rights movement had fought for had missed parts of the country. Maybe black progress had engendered more resistance than he had understood.
“We moved beyond a point, but we didn’t carry the country with us,” he said. Today he hears white people complain that their problems have been forgotten as political leaders focus on black misery.
“White people are saying that what has happened is you took equality from some white people and gave it to black people,” he said. “That’s where we are right now, I think.”
Some say that Trump’s language is distracting from an important policy question that will affect millions of people. But church leaders said that made his remarks all the more inexcusable. Words matter all the more, they said, when they come from the mouth of the president.
“This is not a Confederate uncle that’s locked away in the attic,” said Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington. “This is someone who is making policies, and he’s doing so from an openly racist point of view.”
He added: “It teaches us that our country is in peril. We are in danger of going back to those old policies. If we are not awake and active, that will surely be what will happen.”
Some worshippers on Sunday prayed for Trump.
In Brockton, Massachusetts, a largely blue-collar city south of Boston, the pastor at St. Edith Stein Roman Catholic Church never mentioned Trump in the morning service. But Beatrice Wakahia, 40, an immigrant from Kenya who came to worship, was thinking about him anyway.
“I was praying for the country, I’m praying for his Cabinet,” Wakahia said. “Maybe the Holy Spirit will guide him.” The pastor of Kuomba United Methodist Church on the northeast side of Kansas City, Missouri, was thinking of Trump as well. The Rev. Fataki Mutambala, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told his congregants not to let Trump’s words disturb them.
“Don’t be mad about the message that you received from Donald Trump,” said Mutambala, who came to the United States three years ago. “The respect that you receive is from God.”
He urged his flock to ignore the president’s remark. “Forgive the message that has been said,” he told them, “and feel happy and hope in the name of Jesus Christ.”
American-born black church leaders were angrier.
Anyabwile noted that today’s problems were rooted early in the nation’s history, and observed that in contrast to Germany after the Holocaust, the American South has not been forced to fully confront the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.
“Corners of the country could put their hands in their pockets, whistle and quietly shuffle off, as if the history was never theirs,” he said.
But that history can rear its head. “We are in the grips of the revenge of an American conscience that’s never repented of its racist history,” he said. “Things that were left smoldering, embers have caught a bit of wind from our current president, and from time to time we are seeing flashes of fire.”
Lamar agreed that there was a problem with the American story.
“The narrative that held America together has been fractured,” he said. “The ground is shifting underneath us. You have to tell a truthful story about how America got to where it is. The factories are not gone because of immigration.”
In Miami, Trump’s negative stereotyping of immigrants, especially Haitians, seemed to rankle most.
“The Haitians are family-oriented, strict with their kids, and hardworking,” said Xavier L. Suárez, who became Miami’s first Cuban-American mayor in the 1980s. He went to Notre Dame d’Haiti on Sunday to show support.
“If you’re going to stereotype them, you should say they’re law-abiding, super ethical, warm and kind to strangers,” he said. “They want to thrive in this country, as I did, and become part of the American dream.”