I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to teach an elective course focused on religion at a prominent state university in Connecticut. One of the assignments for the course requires students to attend a worship service at three different churches throughout the semester and present about their experiences to the class. This week a student asked, in a typically roundabout manner, whether I thought she would be viewed suspiciously and would be unwelcome at any of the services. She said this because she is white and the congregations the students have to visit are predominantly Black. As the only non-Black student in the class, she worried that she would be uncomfortable. Her focus was on how she would feel in the space of the “other.” Her classmates shared that her concern is one they have to face every day except Sunday, even in their own university.
My student’s concern is not new to this class nor is it uncommon for many white people in general. However, as social workers and Christians, we are called on many levels to care for those who have so little, to assist those in their time of need, and to love those whom society has forsaken. We feed, clothe, shelter and heal in the name of God and in accordance with our professional Code of Ethics. These are noble aims and no other profession has these aims at its core in the same way as ours equipping us to render service across a diversity of populations wrestling with a variety of overwhelming challenges.
Yet some among us face trepidation and fear rejection when considering outreach to members of our own Christian family whose faces do not resemble our own. The Black Church, in particular, has had very little outreach from the social work profession despite the deep need for the services and support that professional social workers can provide. The Black Church continues to be the most important institution in the broader African-American community offering both spiritual and social support during times of crisis and they make a way out of no way by rendering service through the benevolence of well-intentioned congregants and providing resources drawn from the tithes and offerings of those who have just a little more to give. Black Churches in low-income communities have been de facto social service agencies for generations – doing the work of God on Sunday morning and the work of the social worker on Monday morning.
As Christian social workers, we can no longer cede this work solely to the Black Church because of the barriers we fear based on racial difference. We cannot allow struggling communities to scratch their way out of the financial, political, and social strife to which they have been relegated through institutional bigotry and prejudice because of individual bigotry and prejudice. We are called to lead like Joshua and to “fear not” whatever the unknown may be because we are walking in God’s purpose. We must act as ambassadors of our faith and our profession using our shared belief in helping those in need to make connections to Black Church clergy and congregations. We have resources that can be brought to bear in the ongoing fight for social and economic justice faced daily by those who are served by the Black Church. This will require, however, starting where these populations are and getting beyond our own personal barriers so that we can help the leaders and members of the Black Clergy lead their people to the promised land.
Kimberly Hardy, PhD, MSW is an assistant professor of Social Work at St. Joseph University in Hartford, Connecticut. She has been a frequent workshop presenter at NACSW conventions, and co-guest editor of an upcoming special issue of Social Work and Christianity focused on the Black Church and Social Reform. She has been a member of NACSW since 2010.