Sunday morning arrived, like so many before, with a mix of sunlight and chirping birds outside my bedroom window and a warm greeting from my tiny son, lying beside my wife and me. My wife rose quickly, announcing her plan to jump in the shower and get ready for Sunday school at the Baptist church, not far from our house in suburban Chicago, that she and our two children attend.
As for me, in what has become my ritual nowadays, I turned over and pulled the covers up around my head. Soon I overheard my 9-year-old daughter's familiar question: "Mommy, is Daddy going to church with us?"
"No-o-o-o," my wife replied. After months of my failure to accompany them, she has abandoned the excuse that "Daddy has a lot of work to do."
Sunday mornings used to mean something special to me. But I now face them with dread, with a bittersweet sorrow that tugs at my heart and a headache-inducing tension that makes me reach for the Advil. I am torn between my desire to play hooky from church and my Pentecostal indoctrination that Sunday is the Lord's day, a day of worship when real men are supposed to lead their families into the house of God.
Once, that's what I did. I am the grandson of a pastor and am myself a licensed minister. I love God and I love the church. I know church-speak and feel as comfortable shouting hallelujahs and amens and lifting my hands in the sanctuary as I do putting on my socks. I have danced in the spirit, spoken in tongues, and proclaimed Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. I once arrived faithfully at the door of every prayer meeting and went to nearly every Bible study and month-long revival. I attended umpteen services, even the midnight musicals and my church's annual national meetings, like the one held two weeks ago in Kansas City.
Yet I now feel disconnected. I am disconnected. Not necessarily from God, but from the church.
What happened? Probably the same thing that has happened to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of African American men who now file into coffee shops or bowling alleys or baseball stadiums on Sundays instead of heading to church, or who lose themselves in the haze of mowing the lawn or waxing their cars. Somewhere along the way, for us, for me, the church -- the collective of black churches of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination -- lost its meaning, its relevance. It seems to have no discernible message for what ails the 21st-century black male soul.
While there are still many black men who do go to church, any pastor will admit that there are far more who don't. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago educator and author of "Adam! Where are You?: Why Most Black Men Don't Go to Church," contends that 75 percent of the black church is female. The church's finger seems farthest from the pulse of those black men who seem to be most lost and drifting in a destructive sea of fatalism and pathology, with no immediate sign of the shore or of search and rescue crews. Without the church, most of those men are doomed. But it seems clear to me that the church does not -- will not -- seek us black men out, or perhaps even mourn our disappearance from the pews.
Instead, it seems to have turned inward. It seems to exist for the perpetuation of itself -- for the erecting of grandiose temples of brick and mortar and for the care of pastors and the salaried administrative staff. Not long ago, a preacher friend confided: "The black church is in a struggle for its collective soul -- to find itself in an age when it is consumed by the God of materialism."
This preoccupation with the material world is pervasive, and has bred a culture that has left a trail of blood and tears in black neighborhoods across the country with little collective outcry from the church. Still, it's one thing for the world to be ensnared by the trappings of materialism -- but the church?
I am incensed by Mercedes-buying preachers who live in suburban meadows far from the inner-city ghettos they pastor, where they bid parishioners to sacrifice in the name of God. I am angered by the preacher I know, and his wife and co-pastor, who exacted a per diem and drove luxury vehicles, their modest salaries boosted by tithes and offerings from poor folks in a struggling congregation of families, a number of them headed by single women. This at a time when the church didn't own a single chair and was renting a building to hold worship services.
I wonder why, despite billions of dollars taken from collection plates -- much of it from the poor -- in my own denomination, I see few homes for the elderly, few recreation centers, little to no church-financed housing development and few viable church-operated businesses that might employ members or generate some tangible measure of return on years of investment. I scratch my head at the multimillion-dollar edifice a local church recently erected and wonder if that is the most responsible stewardship for a church in a community filled with poor families.
I have come to see the countless annual meetings and church assemblies, camouflaged as worship services, as little more than fundraisers and quasi-fashion shows with a dose of spirituality. I am disheartened by the territorialism of churches, vying for control and membership, as a deacon at a Baptist church said to me recently, in much the same way as gangs, rather than seeing themselves as communal partners in a vineyard with one Lord and a single purpose.
But even in an age of preacher as celebrity, it is not the evolution of a Bling Bling Gospel that most disheartens me. It is the loss of the church's heart and soul: the mission to seek and to save lost souls through the power of the Gospel and a risen savior. As the homicide toll in black neighborhoods has swelled, I've wondered why churches or pastors have seldom taken a stand or ventured beyond the doors of their sanctuaries to bring healing and hope to the community -- whether to stem the tide of violence and drugs, or to help cure poverty and homelessness or any number of issues that envelop ailing black communities.
Once, after a service at my grandfather's church in a small western suburb of Chicago, I mentioned to a visiting pastor that there was a drug and gang war going on in his community. "I don't know nothing 'bout that," he responded. I wondered why not. How could he not know about something that affected a community in which he was a "shepherd"?
When I returned to Chicago nearly five years ago, after living in Northern Virginia, where I worked as a reporter at The Post, I was eager to assist in the ministry at my grandfather's church. Within a few months, however, it became apparent to me that there was little serious interest among the leadership in connecting to the local community -- aside from the idea that they might potentially fill the empty pews. And I decided to leave, though not without first having many conversations with my grandfather about the implosion of church ministry.
And further contributing to my disappearing act is that, after being put down and put upon in a society that relegates black men largely to second-class status, the last place I want to feel that way is at church. And yet, in the church, where I have at times in my life felt the most uplifted, I have at other times felt greatly diminished, most often by insecure leaders. If such leaders feel threatened by your ability to speak or preach or teach better than they, or by the fact that you think differently from them, or by the fact that you possess some other social badge they do not -- like a college education -- then they perceive you as stealing a little of their sheen in the public's eyes. And you become subject to the same kind of shunning and subtle disconnection that I have seen and known in the professional world.
By the summer of 2002, there had been a myriad hurts and disappointments to accompany my disillusionment. When the then-pastor of my Chicago area mega-church responded to my inquiry about not being able to reach him for weeks, I was already bending in the wind.
"Do you have a cell phone?" he asked during a follow-up telephone conversation to a letter I had sent him.
"Yes," I answered.
"Then let me ask you something, John," he continued. "If you had a problem with your cell phone and you called SBC, would you expect to reach the CEO?"
His words blew me away.
Given the state of black men in America, given the number in prison or jail or headed that way; given the thousands of us who find our way to early graves and the black men on the other side of the guns who send us there; given the number of us who seek solace in a bottle of liquor or in illegal drugs; given the number who silently cry ourselves to sleep at night, it seems that we would make for a plentiful harvest for a church really seeking souls.
I suspect, however, that as long as our wives, our children and our money flow through the church's doors; as long as there are still a few bodies to fill the seats; as long as the church can claim a semblance of relevance to the community; as long as some of us on the outside loom as potential critics of the direction, heart and stewardship of those black men charged with leading the church, very few are likely to ever come looking for us.
I could be wrong. My criticism might be too harsh. But it is no harsher than my pain.
And so I have taken some solace in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, more than 40 years ago in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," wrote that the church was in danger of being "dismissed as an irrelevant social club." "In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church," he lamented. "But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church."
So do I.
And come Sunday mornings, especially on Sunday mornings, I miss the rev of the organ. I miss the spiritual song drifting through the sanctuary. I miss the sight of the gray-haired church mothers in their Sunday regalia and their warm embrace after service. I miss the sound of a spirit-filled choir whose song can be a salve to a hurting soul. I miss the beauty of worship, of lifting my hands in the awesome wonder of fellowship with my sisters and brothers in Christ gathered in the house of God with my family.
"Imani, have you said bye to Daddy?" my wife called to our daughter.
"I already did," she answered.
Actually, we hadn't said goodbye. A few minutes earlier, I had called her upstairs and given her a dollar for Sunday offering and hugged her tight, unable to address her question about why Daddy doesn't go to church anymore.
Perhaps I will explain one day. Or perhaps I won't have to.
John Fountain, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign, was a reporter at The Washington Post from 1995 to 2000. He is the author of "True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity" (Public Affairs).