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   NATIONAL NEWS
 Rev. Joseph Lowery
 By: HistoryMakers.com
Ministers Try to Re-gain Faith and Trust of Followers
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 4/11/2005


WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Since the last presidential election, Black clergy across the country have been struggling with how to prevent African-Americans from being politically exploited over moral issues while forcing politicians to fight for civil rights and social justice, some leading ministers say.

“When we poll our people now and ask them how many of them know someone who is dying of cancer or has died of cancer related to them, the majority of our members raise their hands. We ask people how many of them know someone who is in a jail complex, most of them raise their hand,” says the Rev. Steven Thurston, president of the 3,000-congregation National Baptist Convention of America and pastor of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. “When we check with our churches or our pastors, we didn’t have one that said that any one of the same-sex marriage idea had ever asked them to conduct a wedding for them. That’s not an issue for us in our community.”

Yet, in the November election, President George W. Bush won 2 percent more of the Black vote than he got in 2000, partially because of a re-election campaign that focused largely on same-sex marriages. For example, in Ohio, the GOP benefited from Blacks going to the polls to support a Republican-led referendum to prohibit same-sex marriage. Approximately 16 percent of Ohio’s Black population supported Bush in the state, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That amounts to about 90,000 voters according to calculations of the U. S. Census Bureau.

Similar scenarios around the nation have caused Black Christian leaders concern. They say issues such as same-sex marriages have distracted African-American Christians at the expense of civil rights and other social issues and they are seeking ways to end it.

“We are victims of weapons of mass distraction. These are not our issues,” says Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights pioneer who is a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He says the Black church must turn back to its traditional ways of fighting for civil rights in order to bring attention to the real problems in the Black and poor communities.

“I’m talking about the whole gamut of advocacy,” Lowery says. “We never did just one thing. We never just marched. We never just picketed. We did it all. We negotiated. We adjudicated, we marched, we picketed, we went to jail, we registered to vote, we voted. We had to do all those things and we need to do them all now.”

The Black Church has long been a base for political and social movement in the Black community. Before emancipation, slaves would sing hymns that sent hidden messages about the Underground Railroad.

Many activities of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s originated in the Black church.

But November 2004 was different.

Before Democrats knew what hit them, Republicans have carefully crafted a strategy to gain Black votes. They did this, in large measure, by
Focussing on same-sex marriage, which most African-Americans oppose.

“It was a narrowing of the issues of morality and therefore, in many ways, it was an immoral activity,” says Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the 7.5 million-member National Baptist Convention U.S.A. “The Democrats are going to have to take a look at that and do a better job at defining new issues as well as trying to rely on past issues.”

Shaw was among the leaders of four Black Baptist organizations that met for a week beginning Jan. 24, in Nashville to discuss strategies for working together after 90 years of separation. Simultaneously, President Bush held a meeting on Jan. 25 with some leading Black clerical representatives at the White House.

Rev. Major L. Jemison, president of the 1,500-congregation Progressive National Baptist Convention, who also attended the Nashville conference, says the key to avoiding a repeat of last November will be to educate and equip members during the organizations’ conventions, so that clear information on political focuses and agendas can be taken back to communities and spread.

“You educate them clearly by starting early, talking to them; not only on a national scale but on a grassroots level,” Jemison says. “What we’re seeing now is a total disregard for the very issues that they campaigned on during the election. We hear nothing now about same-sex marriages. I think reality has set in the Black community that this administration does not have their best interest at heart and that they became a pawn that was used for the re-election of the president.”

Some Black clergy acknowledge that they’re in a dilemma.

“We’re kind of put in the middle of the road because in regards to these issues we’re going to kind of line up kind of with the Republicans and Christian right,” says the Rev. Charles Blake Jr., community relations director at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles. “But, when it comes down to the programs and the policies that are enacted to help out the poor people of our community, we’re lined up somewhat more with the Democrats.”

The answer is pulling away from both parties and becoming independent, Blake says. “They’ve put us in a position of where we, as an African-American church community will have to come up with our own agenda or our own platform as to what’s going to benefit the African-American community at large.”

Black churches must unify, says activist and civil rights minister, the Rev. Albert “Al” Sampson, pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago.

“I would hope that ministers on both sides of the issue would call a national summit of dialog. I think it’s very important that we put White folks out of our house, out of our business, out of our churches and come together as brothers and sisters called by the God of our ancestors,” Sampson says. “This is causing a split from the pulpit to the pews. Brothers and sisters should come and reason together.”

He says planning meetings for Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan's second Million Man March next fall might be good settings to rally around.

“The dialogue can begin in major cities around the Million Man March mobilization, so that by the time we get to the 10th year anniversary Oct. 14, 15, 16, a lot of dust will be settled, a lot of wounds will be healed because we should have a covenant among ourselves.''

Such meetings always have the potential to become volatile. Some clergy have expressed anger towards others who have supported President Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.”
Says Lowery, “While there are some who are opportunistic, we need to engage in serious, honest brotherly and sisterly dialogue.”

Any strategy should include sending a message to the Democrat Party, which normally wins 90 percent of Black voters, says Susan Johnson Cook, president of the 10,000-member Hampton (Va.) Ministers Conference.

“I think President Bush actually campaigned better, to be very honest. Politics has its target communities and he actually targeted the Black Christian communities as well as the White Christian communities, so more people responded,” says Cook, pastor of the Believers Christian Fellowship Church in Harlem. “I think the campaign could have been run better on the Democratic side. Now that’s just a basic. … We’re not voting as emotionally anymore. It’s also kind of, ‘Give me some information.’”

If Black churches were to get more active in dealing with social ills, then people would be less apt to become distracted and they would learn more, says the Rev. Willie Barrow, minister of justice at the Vernon Park Baptist Church in Chicago and long-time member of the Rainbow/PUSH board of directors.

“Every church has got to expand its ministry in this new age to deal with homelessness, deal with poverty, deal with education and deal with health care,” says Barrow. “If you get the people involved, then they will see the injustices. Most people don’t even know their congressman. They don’t even know their aldermen or their council members. We are not so much divided as we are disconnected.”

Former Alabama State Sen. Charles Steele, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, agrees.

“We must go back to the basics. The basics being that we must represent disenfranchised people, which happens to be Black folks, people of color and poor White folks,” Steele says. “And the point being, you can’t allow any strategy by the opposition to get us off of our foundation, to get us off of our mission. I don’t care what your religious faith is. If you’re Black, you’re catching hell.”


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