Bonhoeffer and the Black Church in America
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as one the great heroes of the faith in the twentieth century. He was not only a widely respected and influential theologian in his day. His classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, profoundly shaped the thinking of many Church leaders, including Martin Luther King. He is also the most well- known Christian martyr to die at the hands of the Nazis. He was only 39 years old when he was executed in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. He is recognized as a man of great courage, who opposed the policies of Hitler’s Germany.
But there are other aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life that are much less known, nevertheless, they are not without significance. The one I wish to focus on at the present has to do with his time here in the United States, while he was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This was in 1929, when he came from Germany at the age of twenty-three. It was during that year in America that something was “birthed” in him that shaped him for his future mission in life.
While at the seminary, he became friends with fellow student by the name of Frank Fisher, who was a black man from Alabama. Frank Fisher attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. This church was a prominent black church in America pastored by Adam Clayton Powell Sr. There at that church Bonhoeffer was able to spend nearly every Sunday and several evenings preaching and teaching the catechism. There he developed a great fondness for the “negro spirituals” and took recordings back with him to Germany. But more importantly, he found himself growing in his solidarity with the oppressed.
He witnessed firsthand the poverty and disenfranchisement of young blacks. The racial injustice that he was exposed to disturbed him greatly, along with the segregation of the white church. He also recognized that the only thing that kept the nation from descending in racial conflict was the preaching of love and patience within the black church. He stated categorically that if the blacks ever became godless, he would hold the white church in America responsible. He predicted that racism would become “one of the most critical future problems for the white church.”
Bonhoeffer’s time here in America and his engagement with the black church was crucial to his development as an advocate for the oppressed. This distinguished him from others in his own nation who failed to see the oppressive nature of Nazism. He was undoubted shaped, at least in part, by his exposure to the social injustices he witnessed.