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colin bossen and sadé perkins
religion in houston’s pan-african community

cohort. 2022-2023

project. Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community

location. Houston, TX

Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community traces the intersections between Black religious life and grassroots politics in the fourth largest city in the United States. Despite Houston’s size, little has been written about the city’s Black religious history or its relationship to grassroots politics. To address this lacuna and to preserve the stories of elders within the community, since March 2022, we have organized a series of public conversations with community leaders rooted in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards—the historic heart of Houston’s African American communities—about their religious practices, political commitments, and personal stories. Interviewees represent the city’s wide diversity of Black radical traditions and Pan-African community. Community members are united by a desire to create a sense of kinship and solidarity amongst all people of African descent. They find spiritual grounding and philosophical inspiration from traditions connected to the African continent. Participants in the project share their stories of political engagement and offer reflections on how they have been inspired by a wide range of religious traditions in their social justice work. In our discussions we have placed particular emphasis on retained, transmitted, transmuted, and transformed African traditions.

community members.

photo credit: Christian Holmes

collaborative scholarship.

The project is an ongoing collaboration between Sadé Perkins, a longtime organizer in the community, and the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. Influenced by Alice and Staughton Lynd’s work on collecting the oral histories of labor militants “from below,” we have developed a method of community based collaborative scholarship with two objectives. The first is to create an accessible archive that is open to community members, scholars, and the wider public. This has taken the form of a series of YouTube videos, the full archive of which is both available via First Unitarian Universalist’s YouTube channel and First Unitarian Universalist’s website. Second, we provide a space for community celebration that strengthens existing networks, makes new connections between organizations and individuals, and encourages the intergenerational transfer of knowledge. 


We have approached this effort with an ethic of accountability. Prior to launching it we received the blessing of the S.H.A.P.E. Elders Institute of Wisdom. The S.H.A.P.E. Community Center—the initials stand for Self-Help for African (All) People through Education—functions as one of two major hubs for Houston’s Pan-African community (the other is the Pan-African Orthodox Church, better known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Founded in 1969 by Deloyd T. Parker, Jr. as a place that would function as a launch pad for community programs, S.H.A.P.E. is affectionately known as “The United Nations of the Hood'' and seeks to embody the seven principles of Kwanzaa—Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work & Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. S.H.A.P.E.’s Elders informally provide guidance to many of the city’s grassroots movements. Members of the group have been present at all of our public events and have helped us to identify some of our interviewees. More importantly, they have modeled how elders within the community strive to welcome everyone across its broad diversity of belief and practice with love and the spirit of inclusion. 


In our effort to reflect this diversity, over the last months we have interviewed practitioners of Ifa, Hoodoo, and Vodun, religious humanists, Baptists, a member of the Moorish Science community, and the leaders of the Shrine. Amongst them, we have found three unifying threads: the veneration of ancestors as entities with whom we have ongoing relationships with as guides, inspirations, and sources of responsibility; a commitment to community service and social transformation as a spiritual practice; and a love for the wider community. “To be a revolutionary, you’ve got to have love for the people,” is how Charlotte Hill O’Neal, wife of Pete O’Neal, one of the last members of the Black Panther Party still living in exile, summarized this last point in her oral history. Her sentiment might have been expressed in a different way by other interviewees but all of them, whatever their religious identity, shared with us some version of it. 

oral histories.

In conducting oral histories we have emphasized both the community based and collaborative aspects of our approach. We are part of the community whose stories we are sharing. Sadé has been involved with the Pan-African community for years. Many of the people we interviewed serve as her mentors. This is particularly true of John “Bunchy” Crear, a veteran of the Black Panther Party, which in Houston was originally called the People’s Party II; Ifa priest and jazz musician Baba Ifalade; and housing advocate and Moor Gladys House-El. Colin serves a congregation that has a longstanding relationship with S.H.A.P.E. and was a center for civil rights activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Omowale Luthuli-Allen, a religious humanist and human rights activist, has a connection to the congregation that dates back to those years.  

We have developed the oral histories themselves with the input of the interviewees and the community. Sadé drafted an initial list. As we proceeded, participants, members of the Elders Institute, and community members suggested other people for us to interview. When we conduct an interview, we create a list of questions in advance. Then we meet with the interviewee and run through the questions, adding to or modifying them at the individual’s request. After the initial conversation we conduct a certain amount of secondary research before holding the public oral history. These take place at local institutions, alternating between First Unitarian Universalist and places like the Shrine and Texas Southern University. Videos are made of both the pre-interview and the public one. The pre-interview is preserved for future use and the public one is posted on our publicly available archive. In addition, we have done walking oral histories where we have visited places where historic events took place and asked for someone to narrate their recollections of what occurred there. Since beginning the project, we have been invited to document several community events so that we can incorporate footage and a few interviews from them in the future. 


Sadé reflects on the project:

While researching and working on this project over the past two years, I’ve learned the many ways African spirituality and retained traditions have permeated contemporary African American religion and current spiritual practices. Retained ancient African traditions remain present in the Black church but they are also expressed in political philosophies and renewed interest in indigenous African religions. I learned that the link between Black radical politics and Black religion is present in the repeated use of certain African practices, such as the pouring libations, the use of djembe drums and the rhythmic songs and dances that embody and sustain Black liberation movements across the world. 

Baba Ifalede and John “Bunchy” Crear’s life stories inspired me the most. Baba Ifalede gave a wonderful explanation of ancestor worship and how its practice is still necessary in contemporary African spiritual practices such as Ifa, Vodun, and Santería. Although Bunchy doesn’t consider himself to be religious, he understands his work as a former member and active veteran of the original Black Panther Party to be a form of necessary spiritual work. Both men believe in community service as a form of spiritual practice. 

Ifa priest Chief Kolade Fawunmi explained the importance of the sacred songs that accompany many forms of spiritual practice such as ring shouts. We how discussed the beautiful Yoruba songs carried over from Nigeria have blended with and been influenced by Cuban dialect to provide offerings to the Orisha. These simple yet rich musical practices have heavily influenced contemporary gospel, jazz, blues, hip-hop and many other forms of Black music worldwide. 

Our guests have shared with us the most important parts of their lives. Their life stores have inspired me to collect more stories from our ever fading elder community. 


Colin shares:


Our project has been transformative for me and the community that I serve. The wisdom of the elders has challenged me to think about spiritually grounded activism in new ways. In particular, the repeated focus on ancestor veneration has revealed movement building and social transformation to be multigenerational projects.  Bishop Kimathi Nelson and Rev. Nailah Nelson from the Pan-African Orthodox Church, for instance, understand their work as an extension of the efforts of the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr., the founder of the church, and those of Marcus Garvey. This has implications for how they think about their connections to religious and political traditions and how they understand the obligations to future generations. And it has prompted me to consider how my own work with First Unitarian Universalist Church is rooted in the complicated legacies of earlier generations and, at the same time, must be in service of those who will come after.

The members of First Unitarian Universalist are proud of the congregation’s civil rights history. In 1954 it was the first historically White religious community in the city to desegregate and the Senior Minister in the 1960s, the Rev. Horace Westwood, marched in Selma with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite this legacy, the African American membership of the congregation has remained small. In recent months, this has begun to change. I suspect that our project has played a significant role in this shift. It has allowed us to center stories from the Pan-African community in a way that would not have otherwise been possible. More importantly, it has turned the congregation into a resource for preserving and perpetuating the collective memory of the community and brought us into relationship with elders, leaders, and networks—like the Rev. Dr. Samuel H. Smith, Jr, Senior Minister of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church—within the city with whom we would not have otherwise engaged. 

The 2022 Sankofa Caravan to the Ancestors (photo credit: Sadé Perkins)

The 2022 Sankofa Caravan to the Ancestors (photo credit: Sadé Perkins)

next steps.

To date, we have conducted eight interviews and produced two short videos, a short proof of concept that we hope to eventually develop into a longer documentary, and a narrative describing the death of Carl Hampton, the founder of the Houston chapter of the Black Panther Party, at the hands of the police. In the autumn of 2023 and early winter of 2024 we will be conducting four final interviews. Three of these will focus on the place of Islam and Unitarian Universalism within the Pan-African Community. The fourth will be in preparation for one of the scholarly works that is emerging from our project, an essay in a forthcoming anthology on African American religious history, edited by Judith Weisenfeld, Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Vaughn Booker, and Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, on “The Sankofa Caravan to the Ancestors: The Performance of History as Spirituality and Community Service.” 

The caravan is one of the community’s primary annual events. Put on each year by the National Black United Front, it begins in the Third Ward and ends on the beach in Galveston near the pier where slave ships arrived. Amid the sound of drums, chants, and shouts, against the crash of waves, participants from a diversity of secular, political, and religious communities unite for the veneration of the ancestors. They honor those who did not complete the Middle Passage and those who did. They celebrate the lives of more recent ancestors and their contributions to humanity.

Inspired by the caravan and the community itself, our project is an effort to celebrate the lives and contributions of elders while they are still with us. In our celebration we have hoped to share something of not only their stories but the stories of Houston’s broader Pan-African community. They have not been shared enough outside of the city. There is much that activists, organizers, religious leaders, spiritual practitioners, and others can learn from them. 

Colin Bossen_edited.jpg

The Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen has served as First Houston’s Senior Minister since 2018. He earned his PhD in American Studies from Harvard University and an MDiv. from Meadville Lombard Theological School. He keeps a blog at

Sadie Perkins_edited.jpg

Sadé Perkins is a community organizer from Houston’s Fifth Ward, owns and operates the Freedmen’s Town Farmers Market in the Fourth Ward, lives in the Third Ward, and has deep connections to the city’s Pan-African Community. Information about her market can be found at

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