It was hot in Camden. Our church’s evangelism team had stopped on a street known colloquially as the “Heroin Highway” because of its reputation for attracting drug addicts, prostitutes, and violent crime. Hoping to keep our neighbors cool on a recent humid afternoon, we had packed coolers with Italian ice and chilled water to distribute to passers-by. Eager to start conversations with residents about faith, we set up our refreshment table just a few blocks away from our church. Within minutes, residents began flocking to our makeshift refreshment stand.
One older gentleman was particularly friendly. After reaching into the cooler for a beverage, he walked towards me and we shook hands.
“What brought y’all out here today?” he asked me.
Sensing the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I began to share about the faith which had inspired our church’s visit. But as I continued, his friendly demeanor became contentious.
“This is why I can’t stand you stupid n***as,” he stepped forward, and gave me a poke in the chest. “You don’t know anything about your history. Don’t you know that Christianity is a white man’s religion? You’re just regurgitating his racist rhetoric!”
I listened to his frustrations for several minutes before I pushed his hand away.
“You’re wrong,” I said. (I’d heard these claims before and had grown accustomed to hostile exchanges.) “Christianity started in the Middle East, and the gospel traveled to Egypt and Ethiopia the same year that Jesus rose from the dead. Frankly, many of the earliest theologians were from Africa.”
Unsatisfied with my answers, he pelted me with questions for the next 30 minutes about the Nation of Islam, Egyptology, and the Ausar Auset Society. “Didn’t you know that Moses used the Babylonian creation account Enûma Elish to write the Torah? Science has already proven that Adam didn’t exist so what’s the need for a second Adam? Jesus was just a plagiarism of the Egyptian god Horus, so why would I worship him?”
Despite my seminary training, the conversation was challenging. None of my courses had addressed any of the religious sects the man named. And few had offered training on how to articulate my faith in an inner-city context—much less in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.
What I needed—likely along with many other inner-city pastors—was a course on urban apologetics. That is, a branch of apologetics that addresses matters of faith within the larger context of race, inequality, economics, justice, and religious pluralism. Many urban cults thrive because they provide a sense of communal identity by addressing the pressing issues of the urban dweller. But the Christianity that many of us learned in our churches and seminaries rarely speaks to this—and most apologetics fall under the influence of the academy or the suburbs.
To address these gaps, intellectuals and urban ministry practitioners will need to collaborate to develop new frameworks and curriculum. Key to the efficacy of these resources will be their grasp of how America’s past, especially with regards to race, informs inner-city sects. Knowing the history of our country helps explain the source of the questions these sects claim to answer—and indicates what arguments our own apologetics will have to respond to in the present day.
Missing Church History
Urban apologetics relies on a strong understanding of the Great Migration’s effect on African American Christianity. By the end of the 19th century, 90 percent of the African American population was concentrated in the rural South. That was about to change. Agricultural jobs (read: sharecropping) in the old confederacy became increasingly scarce following the boll weevil infestation. With the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in tandem with the heavy hand of Jim Crow, millions of Southern black people journeyed north over the course of the 20th century.
Unfamiliar with the urban context, many of these country-raised migrants searched for churches to provide the spiritual, family, and community ties they had enjoyed in the South. Once up North, many migrants were overwhelmed by the sudden volume of religious options. Some left the faith for Islam, others for off-shoots of Judaism and African spiritualism.
Still others joined urban folk religious movements. These sects highlighted the poor treatment of African Americans and people of color by white Christian communities and leaders. For many adherents, freedom from this oppression began by liberating oneself of the white man’s God and the slave master’s religion and accepting invitations from these sects into a new black identity.
This focus partially explains why today, despite the fact we’re more than 50 years removed from the civil rights era, these sects continue to meet a felt need for African Americans affected by generational poverty, persistent racism, and mass incarceration.
Early Church Apologetics
The onslaught of urban folk religions in tandem with the myriad social problems already confronting the inner city has left many churches scrambling. Arguments for Christ in the inner city must have a robust understanding of the area’s spiritual, socioeconomic, and historical context, elements that today’s ivory tower–shaped apologetics do not often consider. In contrast, their New Testament underpinnings suggest an argument for the faith highly sensitive to a place’s culture and history. Writing to predominantly urban contexts, the apostle Paul used the word apologia meaning a “reasoned defense,” in a variety of contexts in his letter, from defending his apostleship (2 Cor. 12:19) early in his ministry to thanking the Philippian church for aiding him in his defense of the gospel (Phil. 1:3–6).
Paul possessed a city-facing focus that compelled him to reach influential municipalities as opposed to smaller villages. His desire to share Christ with as many people as possible meant that he intentionally visited the places where the most people live.
But Paul’s strategy to reach cities did not lead him to only engage the area’s elites. The apostle, who experienced the debt of poverty and abundance (1 Cor. 4:11–13), not only engaged the financially well-off such as Lydia (Acts 16:13-15), Philemon (Phm. 1), and many devout persons in the marketplace (Acts 17:16), but preached to modest migrant workers like Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2) and the poor, marginalized Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17) and Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1–2).
Within a half a century of the apostle’s letters, the general term defense began being more narrowly used to refer to urban-minded Christians often interested in engaging Greek philosophy within the larger Roman society. Their work continued to influence the church over the next centuries: Samaritan philosopher Justin Martyr authored First Apology, a defense of Christianity directed to the emperor. Tertullian wrote Apologeticum as a polemic against Christian Gnosticism. Their works influenced Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas.
Since the early church, apologetics has evolved into an academic discipline vindicating the faith against the various forms of non-Christian philosophies. A resurgence of interest in apologetics at the turn of the 20th century occurred as Christians increasingly wanted their faith to be able to contend with classical liberalism and other Enlightenment-inspired ideas. Much of the writings of scholars such as C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Norman Geisler, Francis Schaeffer, Gordon Clark, and Cornelius Van Til were influenced by these forces.
Today, academic apologetics have done an immense job contending for the faith in the urban context, a term that can connote the inner city, but here refers to the epicenter of cultural formation that catalyzes new ideas, sets the entertainment agenda, and is chock full of socially connected and financially well-off people.
Because apologetics has focused on targeting the upwardly mobile, however, it often seeks to answer obstacles to faith specific to the lives of the affluent and resourced. Because its audience has in many ways benefited from broader systems and structures, it does not see these as barriers to their understanding of Christianity.
In contrast, today’s apologetics has done a weak job in addressing the theological issues within the under-resourced inner city. The discipline rarely anticipates that the crisis of faith of a poor person may look entirely different than that of a wealthy one and that the heresies one may be enticed by may have little in common.
Should Christian academic institutions begin creating resources to address the inner city church, they would likely discover that their work would benefit the entire church. Many of the these heresies exist due to the maltreatment of people of color by their countrymen, white Christians. Consequently, white Christian communities seeking to defend their faith in the inner cities would do well to confront their past actions and beliefs.
After our testy introduction, I continued to dialogue with the inquisitive man on Heroin Highway. While much of it consisted of playful banter—I often chided him for wearing skin-tight Under Armor compression shirts—I made little headway theologically, and at times our conversations grew contentious. Acros the country, there are unprepared brothers and sisters having similar exchanges in their own cities.
In 2016, the answer to this question will not exist in a textbook or within the confines of the classroom. Will support be defined as additional essays and books? Probably, but it will also look like reading about the complicated history of American Christianity, advocating for justice for urban communities—even when if it comes at one's personal cost—and learning alongside inner city evangelists. Maybe that interaction starts on Heroin Highway with an Italian ice.
Ernest Cleo Grant II (@iamernestgrant) is a pastor in Camden, New Jersey, a doctoral student, community advocate, and writer. He blogs at iamernestgrant.com