"From now until the end of Kwanzaa we're pushing buy black," Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, told me during our Executive Q&A interview, which focused on the intersection of faith and business.
"The language that we're using is buy black with black interest," Rev. Waller said in our interview, published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.
"What we mean by that is we're not trying to become separatists, but 80 percent of the people in this country that are employed are employed in small businesses. In our community, we tend to go after the jobs in athletics, entertainment and the government. If we're going to get more [people] employed, we've got to have a much healthier economy within the context of the African American community, even if it is more ideological than geographical -- by supporting local African American businesses, and by encouraging people to buy black with black interest. And what black interest means is Jeff Brown is not black, but he has a commitment to our community. [Jeff Brown, who is white, owns several Shop Rite supermarkets, and has many community-oriented programs.]
So, we want you to go there and not SuperFresh. That's what we're saying. That's where the jobs come from and that's what can turn this thing around, because you may know this neighborhood. Across the street did not look like that until we built this [sanctuary]. The phenomenon in American is everywhere a mega-church goes up, and particularly in the African American community, the business corridor right near it goes up. The people who own the stores across [Cheltenham Avenue] are Jews from New York. Now, I don't mean this to sound anti-Semitic. They're welcome to do that. That's America. But, the reason they came is because of the large church across the street (Enon). They're not selling kosher meat. They're selling urban wear. So, they're selling what they don't even use.
Question: Are you talking about in Cedarbrook?
Answer: Yes, right here. If you go across the street, there is a K&G, a Ross. There's a beauty school. There's a little store called City Blue, which is just urban wear. I was invited to cut the ribbon. Who lets somebody who has no money in the project cut the ribbon? It is clear that they recognize the spending power of this community in ways that this community doesn't recognize. So, saying to people to buy black is not saying, `Let's create an alternative world.' What it is saying is, `Wake up and recognize what already exists in the community and see what concentrated, conscientious spending can do and how that's going to serve the larger whole.' Because if we start getting young men working, then they won't be out here trying to hurt you or hurt me.
Q: You mentioned in our interview that Enon's white membership has dwindled over the years and that you believe your sermons have become more polarizing in response to the climate. Would you amplify on that a bit?
A: I grew up in Shaker Heights in Cleveland. [Note: Shaker Heights is an integrated community in Cleveland.] I am second generation middle class. I don't have a ghetto story. I wrestled as white. My friends are white. I grew up very well seated. All of us have to challenge our xenophobia, but there's some things that you can't get away from over the last eight years in explaining some of the obstructionist stuff in Washington, and it just is race. So, I've had to speak about it and I recognized that I've gotten much more polarizing.
So, there are white people. Some have left, but some have said to me, `Pastor, we know who you are and what we would prefer is your authenticity. Don't change your voice to try to keep us, because then you won't be who you are.' And, so that's the tension that we live in, but I have publicly apologized at times because at times I've just been angry. It is not at my core who I am, but it is at my core to suggest that there's still some real tough race question and conversations we're going to have to have.
It's the issue of power. I do a Bible study in Philadelphia at Arch Street United Methodist Church every Tuesday for the last 15 years at noon. I go downtown. I teach a Bible study and it's packed, white, black, very racial mix. Of course, it's people from downtown, but in that context, I don't represent power. I'm just a teacher. The same person that could come hear me teach on Tuesday would find it challenging as a white man to come here and belong, where I now am a power in his life. That's the fundamental issue with Barack Obama. We've got 400 years of knowing how to accept white people as the power over us. This is new muscles, particularly for white men to accept.
So, that dynamic is ever present and we're trying to live in the tension of it and point towards the world that we believe can be. I believe the American documents. I believe it's the greatest country on the planet. I believe it can work. I believe that the bubble called Shaker Heights that I grew up in could actually be the world if we work it right. There's a way to live in a healthy way with people who are not like you who disagree with you, but we have love and respect and we just do it.
Q: What worries you in the future for Enon?
A: What worries me is being able to make the organizational shifts that keeps us relevant. Everything has a time stamp on it. I am shaped by the world that I grew up in. I've been here twenty-two years. When I came here in 1994, I was 29 turning 30. My thoughts, I think, were pretty radical. But, my radical 1994 self has become standard.
Now, we've got to make sure we stay on the tearing edge. And, at some point it doesn't matter who you are -- we get old and the young people stop hearing us. It has been said that every one of us can speak to 15 years above, 15 years below. So, you get this 30-year span where they can hear you. After that you need a megaphone. So, you need someone to catch your words and take it. We don't have a problem with getting people here to church on Sunday, but there is a gap between church attendance and church involvement.
Q: Are you seeing it diminish?
A: Right. So, I'm not worrying about church being full this coming Sunday, but I am worried about having enough people to serve the poor next week in the next outing that we do, and enough younger people. Again, if I were to have an alter call this coming Sunday and say I want everybody between the ages of 18 and 35 to join me at the altar. Hands down, there will be 1500 at least who are at that altar. If I wanted to start a choir for that same age, I'd get 10 people. Some of that is explained by Robert Putnam. Are you familiar with his book?
Q: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community? I've heard of it, but I've never read it, even though it's been on my list.
A: It was eye opening for me. In fact, I've been telling every preacher I know, `I think you need to read it.' He really does a good job of sort of explaining what happened. Why, across the board, civic engagement, public religious affiliation has gone down the tubes, which signals an end to community as we know it, which is a scary thought. You can get people for short bursts, but there's also the how do we keep institutions alive. I may be able to get 50 people to come out next week to help this cause, but…
Q: But who's going to lead the Boy Scout troop?
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Well, that's what Putnam gets into in the book. He begins to look at a number of causative factors -- the individualization of our culture and everything from computer to television programming that says to us you really don't need other people. Just go do a good thing, but take care of yourself. One of the phenomenon of the large church is that really, the mega church is not a church family. It's a neighborhood. It has replaced what we remember as neighborhood and it's become the neighborhood for people in ways that church used to be church family. Most of us don't live in our functional neighborhoods. A generation ago. you remember middle class people beginning to do things like planning play dates for their children.
Q: Whereas, when we were kids, we just went out and played in the alley.
A: Exactly. You just went outside because there your friends were.
Q: Of course, Enon draws from a huge geographic area, and you don't even live nearby.
A: I live in the suburbs and his church is in the city. My ears are tired of the critique. The black community is much more of an ideological designation that it is geographical. I accept that, but that's why also this exists. People come here for their play dates. They come here with their time with their community and then we go back to the houses where we live. Now, some people disagree with that. There have been times where people have suggested that my fight for public education and fight for inner city lacks some level of integrity because I live in Ardmore and my children went to Waldron Mercy, Shipley and Notre Dame. I accept the critique, but I would challenge anybody to put their record for fighting for our kids in public schools or in the inner city against what we've done. In fact, what I try to do is when I realized what my girls were getting at Waldron, my commitment was that I need to make sure every child in my church gets what my girls got. And so, we set up a whole scholarship ministry with people to help the children sort of navigate the college thing like the school counselors that [did that for Shipley students]. So, I'm comfortable with living in the tension of that.