'Million Man' Plan Divides Churches : Some African Americans View March as Effort to Legitimize Farrakhan

From Religion News Service

Willie Wilson and Earl Trent Jr. are African American, both pastors and leaders of churches in the nation's capital that are affiliated with the black Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Both men also hold strong feelings about the "Million Man March," an Oct. 16 rally in Washington organized by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to spiritually rejuvenate America's black men. But that's where the similarities end.

Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church, supports the march, calling it a unique opportunity for black men "to reconcile with our creator" and unite for the betterment of all African Americans.

Trent, pastor of Florida Avenue Baptist Church, opposes the march, calling it "a bid for legitimization by the Nation of Islam within the social and political arena . . . [with] no real purpose other than that."

Farrakhan--whose past statements have condemned Jews and brought rebuke from Jews, Catholics and whites in general--seldom fails to elicit a powerful response, either for or against. His call for one million black men to gather for a "holy day of atonement and reconciliation" has been no exception.

In the black community, nowhere is this more evident than among religious leaders, who--like Trent and Wilson--are divided over Farrakhan's role as architect of the march.

Leaders of the Progressive National Baptist group have officially distanced their 2.5-million-member denomination from the march. But among church members and local pastors in the denomination, support for the march appears strong.

"They're trying to look beyond Mr. Farrakhan and his views because of their need to do something about the plight of black men and the entire community," said the Rev. Bennett W. Smith Sr., the denomination's national president. "But some of us have walked with Jesus too long to compromise that position now."

The head of the National Baptist Convention, with 8.5 million members, said his group "adamantly refuses to support, endorse or participate" in the Million Man March on religious grounds.

"Although we all agree that the African American community faces severe challenges, problems and attacks, Christians and Muslims have extremely different ideas about the solution to this dilemma," said the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the denomination.

"Since Muslims do not believe that Jesus Christ is the answer for all of society's problems, marching with them would be both hypocritical and in violation of the word of God," Lyons said.

This week, the Washington-area Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference, a group of about 500 ministers representing every black Baptist denomination, announced it would not support the march "because of all the possible divisiveness."

And the nation's largest African American Muslim group, the 1.5-million-member ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, also opposes the march. Imam E. Abdulmalik Mohammed, a spokesman for W. Deen Mohammed, said the group, long at odds with Farrakhan, considers the march a "publicity stunt."

Abdulmalik Mohammed said Farrakhan sent a note to W. Deen Mohammed--the son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad and an orthodox Sunni Muslim recognized by Muslim leaders worldwide--asking for his support for the march. The request was denied.

"Farrakhan is known for his denial or rejection of his American identity," said Abdulmalik Mohammed. "For him now to lead a million black men to demonstrate in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital is, ambiguous at best."

The Million Man March--which, despite its name, will not be a march but a rally on the mall area between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial--is a combination religious revival meeting, men's consciousness-raising session and political demonstration.

Farrakhan has been unavailable for interviews. But in a speech recently at predominantly black Howard University in Washington, Farrakhan said the rally's objective is to revitalize black men spiritually, and to send a message to the Republican-controlled Congress, which he said is hostile to the economic, political and social needs of African-Americans.

The event is a men-only affair, Farrakhan said, because black men need to atone for their mistreatment of each other and black women, their abandonment of positive family values and their failure to put God first.

Farrakhan said Oct. 16, a Monday, should be treated as a holy day in which all blacks--male and female, whether they attend the march or not--should stay away from work or school, fast if possible, and refrain from making purchases to demonstrate black America's economic importance. He has urged black entertainers and athletes not to perform or compete that day and school officials to give black students the day off.

In Washington, Mayor Marion Barry, who is black, has said he will not work that day. And local public school officials will allow teachers, staff and students to take the day off.

"We're closing down on that day," Farrakhan said at the Howard University "sacred ceremony of declaration."

"When [white Americans] look up and don't see us they'll know something's going on. We are absenting ourselves for one day from a racist system. . . . White folk will get a message, a message from God from the children of slaves."

The Final Call, the Nation of Islam's newspaper, has been touting the Million Man March for nearly a year. But it was not until the Rev. Benjamin Chavis--whose relationship with Farrakhan contributed to Chavis' recent ouster as executive director of the NAACP--joined the effort that support for the march began to spread beyond the relatively narrow confines of the Nation of Islam.

Chavis, a United Church of Christ minister, has traveled the nation to meet with black church leaders, political and cultural figures, gaining what he has characterized as wide support for the march.

That support does not translate, black leaders say, to unequivocal support for Farrakhan's agenda, but springs from their concern for the future of the black family in America.

Black America "is like a house on fire," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a United Methodist minister. "The crisis is that great. Here's someone I often disagree with, someone I may not even like. But if the guy says let's put water on the fire, I'm going to help. The message obscures the messenger."

Rick Nix, a black Roman Catholic diocesan official in Saginaw, Mich., who is helping to organize march participation among black Catholics, said: "It's time for African American men to come to the forefront to correct what is happening in our communities.

"We support the march's purpose wholeheartedly. It is bigger than any one person and absolutely vital to our people."

Others, however, say they cannot overlook the march's exclusion of women (although some are scheduled to be among the speakers Oct. 16); Farrakhan's racially centered brand of Islam, or the Nation of Islam's refusal to participate in 1960s civil rights marches.

Some also note Farrakhan's past dismissal of Christianity as a religion imposed on African American slaves by whites and his derision of black church officials as ineffective leaders.

"We have almost no common ground with the Nation of Islam," said Lyons of the National Baptist Convention. "The preaching of hate--we do not hold with that."

"To participate," said Progressive Baptist leader Smith, "would give an erroneous message to the world that Mr. Farrakhan is a bona fide leader of black people. I don't want to be part of that."

But even opponents of the march cautioned against interpreting any lack of support among blacks as a lack of concern for the plight of African Americans.

Said the Rev. John Chaplin, vice president of the National Baptist Convention: "No one should be narrow enough to see Oct. 16 as a testing ground for concern about black America."

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