‘Old lions’ take pride in their social activism
As they retired from South Los Angeles pulpits, civil rights-era ministers known as the “old lions” took with them a kind of social justice-oriented “Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other” Christianity that has been quietly fading in African American churches.
Theirs was neither the popular “prosperity gospel,” which preaches that God will reward the faithful with material riches, nor the soul-saving ministry of televangelists and mega-churches dedicated to preparing people for Judgment Day.
It was a faith rooted in the hard work, civic engagement and political activism of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was nurtured in the struggles against segregation and police brutality.
It was no accident, some suggested, that a few high-profile, less experienced ministers who took their places became entangled in financial and personal scandals, or started preaching breezy gospel messages.
But don’t count the old lions out. They now shepherd a USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture summer program called Passing the Mantle. Now in its fourth year, it recruits and trains 35 ministers each year to serve with social gospels that advocate political activism.
Its seasoned teachers and mentors are led by the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, 80, retired pastor of First AME Church, one of the oldest, largest and most prominent African American churches in Los Angeles.
Leaning forward in his office chair to make his points, Murray smiled and said, “My generation of ministers does not tire easily.
“Our concern is that many of the gospels being preached today are designed for the ear, not the human condition,” he said. “Our goal is to share our knowledge and experience to help the next generation of African American church leaders confront today’s challenges.”
Among those challenges are drugs, gangs, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases and a substantial demographic shift: In 1990, Latinos and African Americans each constituted 47% of the area’s population; today Latinos outnumber blacks 2 to 1.
“Preaching salvation and praising the Lord -- that’s easy,” said Najuma Smith-Pollard, senior pastor at St. James AME Church and a graduate of Passing the Mantle’s inaugural class of 2006. “Dealing with teenage prostitution, drug addiction, chronic unemployment, domestic violence -- that’s serious work.
“Pastor Murray says you can’t just preach salvation,” added Smith-Pollard, who co-founded Project Destiny, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping troubled women get back on track. “People still have to eat.”
The nine-day program’s curriculum includes an overview of the role of the African American church in America and lessons in developing neighborhood improvement projects, building coalitions, eliciting help from elected officials and navigating the court system.
Participants are required to develop a project to implement in their own congregations. Some graduates, for example, went on to work with local schools to create new guidelines for punishing difficult students.
This year’s applicants include Curtis Monroe Jr., senior pastor at Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church, who for years has wanted to build a youth center on a vacant lot near his church in one of South Los Angeles’ most hard-pressed neighborhoods.
“I believe this program will give me the practical information I’ll need to effectively bid on the land when the time comes,” Monroe said, “then contact the right people -- from Los Angeles City Hall on down -- to build our youth center and establish after-school programs open to the entire neighborhood.”
That won’t be easy, even with expert advice, suggested J. Gordon Melton, author of “A Will to Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism.” “For people who do not live in South Los Angeles, these are not flashy issues,” Melton said. “For those who do live there, they involve thankless, frustrating, often boring work, and countless hours in the offices of bureaucrats, begging for government assistance and charitable moneys.”
That kind of talk perks up Mark E. Whitlock II.
“Rather than curse the darkness, we light a candle with the firsthand experience of men and women of wisdom and integrity,” said Whitlock, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine and director of community initiatives at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“These people are living models of success,” he said, “and it is with a sense of urgency that we turn to them again for help in righting the wrongs in our community, and some of those wrongs include clergy who are not confronting the social issues in their own neighborhoods.”
Smith-Pollard could not agree more. In an interview at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles, where she volunteers on weekends, she said, “Pastor Murray likes to say, ‘See the people.’
“He means pay attention to the world around you, and how you can lend a hand to make it better,” she said. “It’s a message I now include in all my ministries.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.