During Reconstruction, black churches already in existence and newly formed churches expanded their focus in the community from providing for spiritual and physical needs of the congregation. They added reuniting and strengthening families and, with help from white churches, also added educating and teaching work skills, according to the book “Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years,” by Henry H. Mitchell.    

After the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which gave African-Americans the right to vote, the black population in Southern states voted on representatives who were among those who drafted new state constitutions. Most of those representatives were preachers. 

Black churches also worked actively with governments to integrate the 4 million freed slaves into the workforce and later create public schools for black students. 

In the 1960s, preachers led the Civil Rights Movement.

“God used the church to get us where we are now,” said Hewitt Sawyers, pastor of West Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church. “Without the church we have nothing else to hold onto. Our history is rich. We started coming out of deep, deep, deep burdens. The church appeared and became the answer to our spiritual needs — then the church developed schools. Sometimes we can so easily walk away and forget how far God has brought us.”  

Today black churches in Williamson County still provide for the spiritual needs of the congregation; however, their role in the community changed. Some say it was because of constraints such as the number of congregants and their own economic circumstances. Food pantries, clothing drives and temporary emergency financial aid are the primary ministries of many churches. 

Over the years, “the church has lost a great part of its significance,” said Anthony Pickettt, associate pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church.  

“We’ve progressed and made gains, but a lot of things we should be speaking to, we’re not speaking to.”

Pickettt realized that in 2012 when he was visiting family in Saginaw, Mich., and police killed a mentally challenged Milton Hall because they didn’t know the young man’s limitations when he lunged at them with a small knife.

“That incident stayed with me,” he said. “If one officer knew Milton Hall he may still be alive.”

The emotions Pickett felt from the tragedy were channeled into creating the Community Appreciation Ministry (CAM) in late 2012. The ministry is dedicated to breaking barriers and creating relationships. 

The first step is a friendly, non-threatening get-together to recognize community leaders and agencies — police, firefighters and government leaders. The next step is developing relationships and having conversations. 

The first group the church recognized was the Franklin Police Department. Other agencies recognized by the church include the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, area firefighters, and Franklin City government officials. And on May 31, County Mayor Rogers Anderson will be recognized. Those recognized are invited to attend other community functions.  Since CAM began, a relationship has been forged with Franklin Police Chief Deborah Faulkner and the entire Franklin Police department resulting in improved relations between the department and the community. 

“Chief Faulkner keeps in touch and has even spoken at the church,” Pickett said. “Now they know Milton.”

We’ve had the same results with other government agencies, Pickett said. They are all getting to know Milton.

Spurred on by the younger generations, black churches are struggling to be more impactful and regain their place in the community. 

“The younger population is looking for a place where they can be a part of change without standing out,” said Sawyers. “When scripture says go into the vineyard and work, it doesn’t mean just show up.”

Sawyers said his church is in the process of redeveloping itself with programs that are a blessing to the congregation and the community. It currently works with One Gen Away, an organization working to “eliminate poverty, racism and denominationalism in our lifetime,” and other established groups, in an effort to rediscover its own purpose.

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