D. Keith Naylor, Professor of Religious Studies, Occidental College

"Religious Formations in Black Los Angeles"

D. Keith Naylor makes the observation that the manner in which people organize themselves as a religious community is reflective of the socio-cultural and political milieu that the community is situated in. Taking his cue from Martin Marty’s conception of modernity as involving differentiation, specificity, universalization and uprooting, Naylor plots these dynamics onto the religious history of Black Los Angeles from 1850 to 1950 to draw out observations on Black religion and experience in terms of modernity.

Los Angeles attracted migrants in huge numbers as a boom city in the late 1800’s. The Black population increased exponentially within the next few decades. Within this boom, Biddy Mason, a Black female and philanthropist has the funds to help set up the first Black church of Los Angeles in 1872. As denominations grew, we see popularity of William Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival movement in 1906. While it posed a challenge to denominational structures and authority and also embraced the lower classes left out by the established denominations, this movement was able to draw out a multicultural and multiracial crowd from the population of LA. The split away of the People’s Independent Church of Christ in 1914 was, among other reasons, intended to address the concerns of a considerably wealthy middle class among the Black community in a city still high on the boom. Even the church based socio-political LA Forum established in 1903, was initially tuned in to assist migrant Blacks settle into the city.

In a shift that comes into play after the 1920’s, the Black community’s location within Los Angeles is gradually restricted. South Central LA is emblematic of this segregation because of the restrictions that are effected. Unlike before, racial discrimination increasingly gained momentum and churches had to take on socio-political agendas. From the post-war years of the 1950’s, churches were immersed in the civil rights movements. Alongside, the Nation of Islam became a growing religious institution in these socio-politically tumultuous post-war years.

The ensuing general discussion brought up larger issues pertaining to present day religious configurations. They lead to ongoing consideration of the following issues:

The most recent and visible religious formations can be seen in the mega churches. What do they tell us about religion and also about the larger socio-cultural dynamics in Los Angeles and beyond?

There seems to be a direct relationship between economics and church formation in LA between 1850 and 1950.  Do economics and church formation still go hand in hand today?  If so, what is the relationship?

In what ways do socio-cultural pressures affect the religious voice of communities? How can we account for the variety of ways that religious communities respond to larger crises in their communities? What role, if any, does a commitment to the “public sphere” play in a public response from faith communities?

What are the signifying processes that Black religious communities engage in as they seek to address varied and broader concerns with every successive shift in their socio-cultural situation? Why, using what strategy and what text, tradition, object or practice is/are signified so as to address these concerns?


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