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Black Clergy Pass the Mantle of Social Consciousness

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Times Staff Writer

More than 40 years after black clergy took leading roles in the civil rights movement, black ministers from across Los Angeles are gathering at USC this summer to ponder what role they should play in their community today.

“The African American church finds itself at a crossroads of relevance and irrelevance,” the Rev. Eugene Williams, director of a black clergy training program, told the ministers.

He said the black church is in transition after the deaths or retirements of many prominent ministers, while black communities are falling apart.

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Williams was addressing participants in his newly launched Passing the Mantle program, an eight-week course spread out over the summer that trains black clergy in church leadership strategies, community organizing and economic development. Besides classroom training, the students are coached by senior clergy, participate in workshops and apply what they learn at their church services. Those who graduate will receive $1,000 when the course ends.

The program, which accepted nearly 40 students, is sponsored by USC’s Center of Religion and Civic Culture and headed by Williams, 46, and the Rev. Mark Whitlock, 52. Williams is director of the Regional Congregations and Neighborhood Organizations Training Center in Los Angeles, which provides nondenominational training to African American clergy and lay leaders. Whitlock is pastor of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine.

Among the key points being debated is the “prosperity gospel,” a doctrine that teaches that health and material riches are promised to believers in Christ. The doctrine was popularized by a white preacher, the late Kenneth Hagin, in the 1960s and has been spreading among both black and white churches.

But some black clerics complain that preachers of the prosperity gospel have failed to speak out on issues affecting their community -- such as the federal government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina or to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

In the civil rights era, black leaders confronted the government, “which was, is and always will be racist. But now, they’re trying to cooperate with the government,” the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said to applause at a recent lecture at USC’s library.

Wright, pastor of a church in Chicago, singled out high-profile black preachers Bishop T.D. Jakes (who has advised President Bush), the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar and Bishop Charles Blake. “They don’t have anything to do with black people,” he said angrily.

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No one rose to defend the preachers.

Through their highly rated television shows and best-selling books, Jakes and Dollar are among the successful new leaders of the prosperity gospel who have helped restore the movement after a wave of scandals disgracing televangelists in the 1980s nearly overwhelmed it.

Earlier this month, Jakes wrote a commentary for CNN that urged members of the black clergy to leave their political views out of the pulpit: “Though the black community was served well by ministers who doubled as political leaders in an era when the pulpit was often our only podium, today the African American community is no longer limited to the pulpit as our primary lecture post.”

Jakes added, “I respect each minister’s views and recognize his right to tout them, but it is dangerous to try to force all members of any group to align themselves with anyone’s viewpoints, including my own.”

The directors of the USC program counter with studies that show black megachurches, which tend to favor the prosperity gospel over traditional teachings, dominate urban areas but struggle to attract the black poor who live in those neighborhoods.

“The church has prospered,” said Whitlock, “but neighborhoods surrounding them have not. The churches must go beyond the walls.”

There are programs similar to USC’s nationwide, including Harvard’s Summer Leadership Institute, which was a model for Passing the Mantle. But the West Coast program adds a mentor component, which will continue after the course ends.

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“I haven’t seen a mentoring program like this ever,” said Whitlock, a founding board member of Harvard’s leadership program.

The mentors are a collection of civil rights leaders, antiwar activists and prominent local ministers. Among the best known is the Rev. James Lawson, 77, who worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and runs the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded during the civil rights struggle.

Many of the students said the opportunity to learn from the mentors compelled them to join the program.

“They’re reaching back to help us,” said the Rev. Keith Peete, 42, an assistant to the pastor of First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.

“I think it’s great. I think the whole idea is great.”

“I am a daughter of the civil rights movement,” said Rev. Raedora Stewart, 46, associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in South Los Angeles and one of several female students. “I never saw myself as anything but a mantle-bearer.”

During one of the program’s first panel sessions that covered a wide range of topics, similarities and differences between some of the mentors quickly emerged. They agreed that the image of Jesus Christ had been exploited by American culture. They criticized churches supporting the Bush administration and its policies.

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But Lawson sparred with the Rev. Velma Union, pastor of the Lord’s Church in Hyde Park, more than once. The most notable exchange came when Union, 57, commented that many black children have lost friends to violence. Lawson interpreted that as a stereotype and took exception.

“It is not the majority,” he snapped. “That tag is a direct connection with how racism has affected this nation, especially the white mind. We have been the most responsible people for 400 years.”

“I was only referring to children in my neighborhood,” said Union, whose son was fatally shot in 1997 in an unsolved homicide. After the panel discussion, she said the argument partly reflected the condescending attitude that black churches historically have had toward female leaders.

But Union, the only female mentor in the program, added that the attitude toward women doesn’t bother her. “I’m opening the doors for some women to come behind,” she said.

After attending a few sessions, one student, the Rev. Oliver E. Buie, pastor of Grace Community Church in Mid-City, said the program has broadened his perspective and shown him how social consciousness has declined in the black church since the 1960s.

“We’re in the communities,” the 47-year-old pastor said, “but we’re not a part of them as we once were.”

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