The Black church saved my life.
In my tweens, I had to be home-schooled, because juvenile rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult for me to walk without crutches. Isolated from my peers, I struggled with loneliness and depression. I wondered what was so wrong with me that my parents abandoned me into the care of my loving but super-strict grandmother, Big Mama.
So one day, I took a handful of the anti-inflammatory pills prescribed for my arthritis, stood at the sink in the bathroom and contemplated suicide.
It was at this low point that I recalled Psalm 23, from one of the many sermons at the small church I attended with my grandmother in Baltimore: “For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
I let the drugs drop down the drain.
It was a moment that never repeated, because of the many ways the church sustained me. At church, I found a community of people who cared about me and checked up on me. At church, premarital counseling helped me work through trust issues that might otherwise have troubled my now-29-year marriage. At church, a women’s group taught me how to forgive my parents.
When a financial planner noted the amount of money my husband and I give to our church each year — 10 percent of our gross income (not net) — she asked, “Are you sure you want to give that much?”
What was implied in her question was how much more money we could gain by investing that amount in the stock market.
But we are investing, and we get a better-than-average return. We are also not alone or unique in our generosity.
It might surprise you to know that Black Americans give a larger share of their wealth to charities than any other racial group in America. But the stereotype of Black Americans as takers and “welfare queens” haunts us like the heavy chains Jacob Marley can’t escape in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Think “Black” and you probably don’t think “philanthropist.”
Yet, nearly two-thirds of Black households donate to community-based organizations and causes, to the tune of $11 billion each year, according to a joint 2012 study from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Black households on average give away 25 percent more of their income per year than Whites. Communities of color are giving at an increasing rate, the report found.
“We have to change the perspective on how we think about Black giving and giving in communities of color,” said Alandra Washington, the Kellogg Foundation’s vice president for transformation and organizational effectiveness. “We know from historical context that Black communities have been givers from the time of slavery to reconstruction to where we are now.”
Black donors don’t just give to the church. Their largesse generally falls into three categories: “Cornerstone” (giving to higher education and the arts), “Kinship” (donating to organizations serving the Black community) and “Sanctified” (supporting Black churches), according to “Giving Black: Boston,” a 2015 report from the nonprofit New England Blacks in Philanthropy.
You can trace the myth that Black philanthropists are a rarity to the oft-reported racial wealth gap. White families have the highest level of median family wealth, $188,200, compared with Black families’ median wealth of $24,100, according to the 2019 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.
When you look at charitable giving as a share of that median wealth, Black Americans give considerably more, said Shena Ashley, vice president at the Urban Institute, where she leads the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, a policy research organization focused on race and equity in philanthropy.
Between 2010 and 2016, White philanthropy remained consistent at 2 percent of their median wealth. Black families, by contrast, contributed 6 percent of their median wealth to charity in 2010. The rate jumped to 11 percent in 2013 and then dropped to 8 percent in 2016, according to a 2018 Urban Institute report.
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Despite structural racism and discriminatory practices that have blocked asset-building and wealth creation, Black people have always prioritized philanthropy, Ashley said in an interview.
“It’s important to see ourselves not just as people who are takers from government programs but people who fill in those gaps and who support each other with our own income and wealth,” Ashley said. “We are builders of opportunity, but we are not seen in that narrative.”
One misconception, rooted in racism, is that Black people give to the wrong causes. Their support of the Black church isn’t often viewed as philanthropic, Ashley said. Rather, the Blacks who contribute to churches are dismissed as unsophisticated givers who blindly support prosperity ministries headed by pastors bilking the community for their personal gain.
“When you’re talking about Black donors, there’s the feeling that we should be doing something different, that our charitable-giving impulses are not the same as every other American’s charitable-giving impulses,” Ashley said. “It’s a way to disparage our giving as not being strategic. Our religious giving actually represents more than giving to an institution. When we give to the church, we are giving to people who are in that mutual aid society with us who are being served.”
My family attends First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Prince George’s County, Md. Our donations support a community-centered church focused on the spiritual, physical and psychological well-being of members and nonmembers.
During the 2019 federal government shutdown, our church handed out more than 42,000 bags of groceries to families affected by the furlough. The church operates more than 100 ministries serving military families, young adults, parents caring for children with special needs and others.
My husband and I direct a financial ministry. In just the past few years, we and other volunteers have mentored hundreds of people struggling with their finances, helping them to pay down close to half a million dollars in debt.
There are classes for married couples who want to strengthen their relationships. Plans are also in the works to administer coronavirus tests. All of this is made possible by contributions from our mostly Black congregation.
Black philanthropy also includes person-to-person giving.
Every Black person I know understands there is an expectation that they help members of their extended family who are less well off. “Each one, reach one,” is something that was drilled into me by my grandmother. My salary isn’t just for me. It was expected, as soon as I graduated from college, that I would financially support my disabled brother. And I did assist him throughout his adult life, until he died of a massive seizure at 32.
Yes, I realize that many other people assist their relatives. But think about how much harder it is for many Black Americans to be so generous, given the systemic racism that has impeded their ability to build wealth for their families.
Black people give not out of guilt but from a desire to lift others up, said Ciciley Moore, program officer for the Kellogg Foundation president’s office and the lead for the organization’s Catalyzing Community Giving initiative, which supports locally driven philanthropy by communities of color.
“We know that it is this kind of giving and this kind of ancestral love and generosity and strength that has carried Black folks through moments of joy and injustice,” Moore said. “We see our partners dispelling the myths of Black donors every day, especially during a year like 2020, where there is a greater need.”
I know my life would have been far different if not for Black philanthropists — my grandmother who raised me, members of the various churches where I’ve been a member, Black community volunteers and activists — all of whom have given of their time, talent and financial treasures. Most aren’t ridiculously rich, giving out of an abundance of assets they won’t miss. They are effecting change in their own communities. They are literally saving lives.