Rude Awakening on Racism Gave Minister New Mission

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

He is arguably the nation's most influential African American televangelist, but for many years, says Pastor Frederick K.C. Price of Crenshaw Christian Center, a lot of blacks "thought I was white."

Price, whose Vermont Avenue church is the nation's biggest religious sanctuary, with more than 10,000 seats, eschews the traditional black church's "emotionalism." He prefers opera to gospel music. He was not frequently seen feeding the poor or working in the trenches of the inner city like so many black ministers.

And the flashy faith teacher was long the darling of white evangelical "prosperity preachers," who proclaim that faith in the Holy Spirit can bring concrete blessings of health, wealth and success.

"I thought I didn't need to deal with black and white," Price, a trim 67-year-old with steely eyes and blunt speech, said in an interview. "I dealt with faith and I dealt with the spiritual principles of the word of God."

Then everything changed--and the man who was long regarded as a "religious Uncle Tom" is now furiously attacking racism and reaching out to African Americans with a flurry of new initiatives.

The turnabout began after racism came, searingly and painfully, to look Fred Price straight in the eye. It came from an unlikely quarter: a sermon by the son of his longtime spiritual mentor.

The traumatic event prompted Price to carry out what he calls an "assignment from God": a discomfiting, exhaustively detailed televised series of weekly sermons on "Race, Religion and Racism" that he has broadcast to 10 foreign countries and a national audience of 15 million.

With its uncompromising tone, the series--which ends this month after 76 consecutive weeks--has toppled lifelong friendships and professional associations between Price and his white evangelical associates, as well as some of his black charismatic colleagues.

Most conspicuously, however, the series has dramatically reshaped Price's image in the African American community of being uninterested and isolated behind the high white walls and security gates of the Crenshaw Christian Center. Until the series, Price had never addressed the problem of race relations in his 25-year ministry.

"There was a sense that Price was a religious Uncle Tom . . . capitalizing on white evangelical America's need for a representative black face," said Robert Franklin, president of the Atlanta-based Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of six African American seminaries.

"For him to break the silence on the reality of racism, even within the evangelical camp, is a gesture of courage and is rooted in deep, deep personal pain," Franklin said.

Price himself puts the matter bluntly. "I could have kept quiet about it; in essence I was the house nigger," he declared early in the series. "I had to respond. And because I responded they put me back in the field."

It began with an audiotape. In 1992, a group of black ministers gave him a recording of a controversial sermon on race. Price recognized the voice of the pastor giving it: Kenneth Hagin Jr.

Disappointed by Mentor's Son

Price had long regarded the senior Hagin as a seminal influence in showing him the power of faith teachings. He had opened his home and heart to the family and had, by his own estimates, contributed nearly $1 million to the Oklahoma-based Hagin ministry.

But the younger Hagin--a nationally known minister, a man of God, a presumed believer in the one body of Christ--had been caught on tape telling his congregation that he did not believe in race-mixing and had taught his daughter from her kindergarten years that she was not to date blacks.

Price was dumbstruck. Devastated.

He thought: "My gosh, I've been standing next to you all these years and didn't know you had a gun to my head."

After Hagin Jr. failed to recant his remarks, apologizing only for hurt feelings, Price launched a boycott--throwing out Hagin materials from his church bookstore, cutting off financial support and even removing the father's name from one of his buildings. Those actions prompted half of the African American ministers on the executive board of one of Price's organizations to resign in protest.

(Price never publicly identified the pastor on the tape, which he aired in 1997, but Hagin acknowledged it was him. Hagin declined to comment, but a spokesman said the remarks were misconstrued and "we love everybody.")

But there was more to do. Price heard God telling him to present an in-depth teaching on religion and race. He didn't want the controversy, didn't need the hassle. But Price said he couldn't not heed the call, believing God chose him because he's established, influential, unbeholden to anyone and--at least until the series began--connected with the evangelical community's white power brokers.

More than three years in the making, drawing on hundreds of books and articles, the series has unflinchingly scrutinized racist practices of numerous faiths. It has examined the support Christian churches gave to slavery and church documents banning the sale of buildings to "Negroes." It has included teachings of the Nation of Islam declaring God as black and the devil as white--and of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which until 1978 denied the priesthood to blacks.

In the series, Price is both meticulous scholar, citing footnotes from century-old tomes on race one moment, and a passionate, pained black man the next.

"Yes, I'm angry; I'm mad as hell," he said during one sermon. "It's holy righteous indignation."

The broadcast sermons have provoked a deluge of letters and calls, and an apology from the publishers of the Dake Annotated Reference Bible for commentary, since revised, that was seen as supporting segregation. The controversy has spilled outside the evangelical world as well, with Muslims complaining earlier this year that Price had misrepresented their faith.

But as Price's relations have chilled with some of the white evangelicals he once called friends, they have blossomed with the black community. Although his church has quietly supported some charitable programs for years--such as donating $1.2 million since 1991 to a homeless center--Price has largely focused his attention on teaching his flocks how to use faith to help themselves. The pastor said his "rude awakening" about race, however, made him acutely aware of a need to "relate to my black brothers and sisters in an overt way."

More Involvement in Black Community

Now the center annually sponsors "Change Bank Day" to encourage people to use black-owned banks, and quarterly mixers for black businesspeople to network. Last year, the Crenshaw Center became the first black-owned organization ever to pony up the more than $20,000 required for a major sponsorship to the Black Business Expo, said Muhammad Nassardeen of the Recycling Black Dollars business organization. (The church is the second-largest black employer in Los Angeles after the United Health Plan, with nearly 300 employees, he said.)

Twice a week, 50 youths who run the risk of ruined lives through gangs, drugs and crime are, instead, learning about computers, job training, anger management and conflict resolution at the church.

"It's a very bold level of involvement for a church. . . . They are putting their money where their mouth is," said Khalid Shah of the sponsoring organization, Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace Foundation.

And every Friday, hundreds of needy are filled with bread for both body and soul.

On one recent morning, volunteers hustled the crowd of mostly women and children into the church auditorium for an hour of faith teachings. "Por favor! Please, I beg you!" bellowed Stuart Guy, a bilingual volunteer, as a throng of new believers surged forward to accept his call to Christ. "Move, Holy Spirit! I depend on you to move all hearts!"

After the teaching, the crowds were given a Spanish or English Bible, clothes, toys and two weeks worth of food--six bags bulging with cans of stew, beans and tuna, fruit and vegetables, pasta and rice, cookies and milk. The program costs $20,000 a week. Since it began in late April, the church has fed more than 3,000 people. Two-thirds of them are Latino--and that, Price and his wife say, is part of the point.

"The gospel of Jesus Christ is for all races," said Betty Price, who brainstormed the program.

Price's overtly activist stance has overjoyed those who have long labored for social justice. He is a powerful ally with a formidable faith. Price is famous for believing his way out of self-hatred born of being black in then-segregated Santa Monica.

He has believed his way from a $750,000 church in 1973 to a $24-million church complex today, from a $4,000 Toyota Corolla to a $120,000 Rolls-Royce, past all his illnesses and the cancer of his wife.

With Fred Price on your side, there's no telling how far you can go, supporters say.

"Praise God! We need all the allies we can get," said the Rev. Cecil L. Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church. "They are a mega-church with mega-possibilities."

Compared to the sting of near-silence from Price's white evangelical cohorts--not even one phone call to say they're praying for him, he said--the bear hug from the black community has touched him.

"Many of the denominational black ministers that couldn't even stomach me in the past, wouldn't even cross the street to shake my hand in the past, have just rallied behind me," Price said. "I've been accepted in a lot of places where before I couldn't have bought my way in. It's amazing. I mean absolutely amazing."

Price's "prosperity teachings" still raise some eyebrows. He has caused concern among some African Americans, for instance, for influencing a rapidly growing number of up-and-coming black preachers to focus on self-enrichment rather than the traditional social gospel, Franklin said.

Many Embrace His Change of Heart

But Price's powerful new activism has changed many minds. "Traditional black clergy are thrilled that he has finally awakened to these social issues," Franklin said.

Whether Price's series, and forthcoming book, will help nudge the church forward is unknown.

Christian churches have witnessed dramatic gestures of racial reconciliation in recent years. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, apologized for its past support of slavery and recently pledged to recruit more black members. An all-white Pentecostal association disbanded and formed a racially mixed group in 1994. Racially distinct churches are merging and, in May, Pasadena-area pastors held a conference on racial reconciliation.

"Racism is a major problem in our society," said Stephen Strang, the Charisma magazine publisher who came out strong and early with an editorial in support of Price. "My personal opinion is that the charismatic segment of the church is further down the road than others, with more integrated churches, voluntary associations, churches accepting blacks as leaders."

But people like Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ see the glass as half-empty. He was active in forming the integrated Pentecostal group but said his interest has waned since members have shown no intent to tackle political action or other initiatives to alleviate racism.

People like Murray question the paucity of black leadership in largely white churches and the icons of Christ, Mary and the saints that paint a white portrait of divinity.

Price wants to know why, decades after the civil rights revolution, most Baptists and Methodists and evangelicals still worship in racially separate denominations.

But Price figures he's done his work for now. "My job is not to solve the problems," he said. "My job was to sound the alarm."

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