Black Liberation Theology stayed in the seminary; on the streets, new dangers faced a black community less unified in faith in the 1980s than it had been in the fifties. As the new economy took old blue-collar jobs away, families were left with no income. And while the old sins of drug addiction and promiscuity had been around as long as the Old Testament, a new disease - AIDS - challenged the church, the mosque, and the temples.
It was a difficult issue. Ministers had to confront behaviors they define every Sunday from the pulpit as highly immoral: homosexuality, drug use, and promiscuous sexuality. Homosexuality is particularly stigmatized in black communities, and black ministers voiced their disapproval - despite the presence of gay worshippers in the congregation.
Black churches were not alone in ignoring the AIDS epidemic. Prominent black civil rights organizations such as the Urban League and NAACP refused for years to make AIDS a priority. White churches, too, were reluctant to take on the issue.
By the end of the 1990s, as the epidemic continued to grow, black churches finally embraced those with HIV/AIDS. In 1989, 50 churches participated in the first Black Church Week of Prayer for Healing AIDS, led by Balm in Gilead, a nonprofit organization that helps black churches provide AIDS education and support networks. During the 1999 Week of Prayer, 5,000 churches held worship services, lectures and concerts to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, according to Pernessa Seele, CEO of Balm in Gilead.
"My strategy is simple," she says. "I ask the ministers to offer a prayer for those who are sick or dying of AIDS. After service, they are always surprised by how many of their parishioners come up and tell them how this disease has touched them personally."
In 2002, she took the program to Africa.
A former administrator at Harlem Hospital, Seele founded the organization after growing tired of watching hundreds of AIDS patients die alone, without the support of their churches. "The church I knew in the South was always a place you could bring your pain, sickness, and grief," Ms. Seele said. "I couldn't bear the silence anymore."
One man, Rev. Eugene Rivers, took a similar approach to the crack epidemic. Black churches, Rivers said, "need to have their feet put to the fire around this issue." He and three other ministers formed the Ten Point Coalition to combat violence and gang activity in Boston. Read more about Rev. Rivers' program at http://www.tgsrm.org/Church%20Leadership%20Crisis.html
The crack epidemic declined, and crime dropped nationwide, so churches were perhaps not forced into action in the same way they have been by the rise of HIV/AIDS among black Americans. Still, black churches have long been characterized as the first line of defense against crises in black communities. The fact that it took nearly a decade-and in the case of AIDS, almost two decades - before black ministers and their congregations could respond to two devastating epidemics suggests that the church may no longer be in the vanguard of the black community.