Beliefnet Who's Who:The Most Influential Black Spiritual Leaders
Beliefnet's guide to the most prominent and powerful African-American religious leadership.
BY: Halimah Abdullah
In African-American communities, religious leaders have historically occupied a powerful position: Gurus. Advocates. Stewards. Preachers. Whether inspiring their congregations to stand up against social injustice or urging a focus on God-centered family values, African-American religious leaders are a crucial component of a rich and diverse spiritual landscape. In honor of Black History Month, Beliefnet has compiled a list of some of the nation’s most influential African-American spiritual leaders. While by no means comprehensive, the list represents some of today’s most prominent--and controversial--spiritual figures, as well as those whose lifelong efforts have earned them a place in history, and up-and-coming figures of note.
This pastor of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and president of SUNY College at Old Westbury has been a prominent voice in headlining social issues for over 15 years. At times considered a firebrand for his outspoken criticism of New York civil institutions, Butts has managed to balance his dual roles as a pastor and a social activist. Perennially included in lists of likely mayoral candidates, he has focused his energies on a laundry list of social concerns: racism, education, images of women and minorities in the media, and, most of all, care for the poor. Butts helped establish the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has overseen new and improved affordable housing.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell is pastor of one of the nation’s largest Methodist congregations, the 15,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. Caldwell’s position as President George W. Bush's friend and spiritual advisor has been marked with some controversy—his somewhat less than religiously inclusive benediction during the 2001 inauguration drew sharp criticism. Still, as a leader with direct access to the president in matters religious, Caldwell is seen as a powerful national religious figure.
A Good and Faithful Confidence-Keeper
As founder and pastor of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, the Rev. Johnnie Colemon is a leader in the growing prosperity-gospel movement. Dubbed by followers “the first lady of New Thought” (the belief that your mind creates your reality), her message incorporates teachings designed to help people change their lives through thought, behavior, and their relationship to God.
Christ Universal Temple
Talk About New Thought
Best-known for preaching the "prosperity gospel," whereby material success accompanies spiritual well-being, Dr. Creflo A. Dollar leads a media empire that includes a 25,000-member megachurch, television broadcasts, and a magazine. In addition, Dollar's World Changers Church International, which is based in metropolitan Atlanta, boasts over 60 programs that offer social services, including training people for the workforce and helping them get out of debt, in diverse communities worldwide. In 1986, he began his church with a membership of only eight. Dollar's lavish lifestyle, which includes a multi-million dollar apartment in Manhattan, has evoked strong criticism. For his followers, however, it serves as inspiration that his theology of prosperity is effective.
Creflo Dollar Ministries
Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s career as a galvanizing orator and controversial religious and political figure brought him to national attention. He earned notoriety for anti-Semitic comments, but in recent years moved from the NOI’s early black separatist message to the unifying themes of the Million Man March. He has also embraced a more mainstream version of Islam--a shift that has brought him support from American Muslim leader W.D. Muhammad. In 2000 the two announced a reconciliation to strengthen the black community.
Nation of Islam
Farrakhan Urges Blacks to Shun Bush Plan
Is Louis Farrakhan Going Mainstream?
The Rev. Floyd Flake’s message of self-help and community responsibility is perhaps best exemplified by the success of Allen A.M.E. Church, a more than 25,000-member congregation in Jamaica, Queens. Flake, a former U.S. congressman, has been instrumental in netting government grants to revitalize his church's neighborhood and build affordable housing. As president of Wilberforce College, historically the first black Christian college in the nation, he has also used his political savvy to help pull the school out of debt.
The Greater Allen Cathedral of New York
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. is Senior Minister of the famed Riverside Church in New York City, a prominent liberal, interdenominational congregation. Forbes spoke out in favor of the election of John Kerry during the last presidential campaign and addressed the Democratic National Convention in July 2004. Forbes’ message of social justice, exemplified in such efforts as a 1998 rally on Capitol Hill to call for an end to poverty and racism, has helped secure his position as one of the nation’s foremost liberal religious thinkers.
The Moral Urgency of Electing John Kerry
The Riverside Church
The first African American to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Gregory took the lead in reforming church policies in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandals. Though he is no longer president of the organization, Gregory made headlines as a religious leader willing to take the hard line in considering sex abuse a crime and calling for the ouster of predatory priests. Gregory, who is now Atlanta’s archbishop, has worked to help restore public confidence in the church.
A Good Guy
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Archdiocese of Atlanta
An ordained Baptist minister, political activist, and acolyte of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson established himself nationally and internationally as a champion for human rights. Over the course of his career he has advocated for civil rights, organized boycotts, mounted failed presidential bids, served as President Bill Clinton’s spiritual adviser, and negotiated the release of hostages, all the while serving as head of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Bishop T.D. Jakes’s electrifying blend of gospel and tell-it-like-it-is sermonizing resonates with a national and international following. In just over five years, Jakes transformed his ministry from a storefront operation to the Potter’s House, a more than 30,000-member Dallas-based congregation that is one of the largest churches in the nation. He is a best-selling author, a conference and crusade speaker, a Grammy and Dove-nominated music artist, an entrepreneur, and a filmmaker. With a new biography in print and a recent PBS appearance, he is reaching broader audiences with his message of God-inspired self-empowerment.
Serving His Generation
The Potter's Touch
King, the youngest daughter of the slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was thrust into the national spotlight in February 2006 when she poignantly eulogized her mother, Coretta Scott King. King has built a career around many of the values that her parents lived for, and as an ordained elder at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, she has also followed her father into the ministry. A lawyer with a degree from Emory University, King worked at one time as a law clerk in a juvenile detention center. Her family's trademark organizing and activism skills are apparent in her own work--as when she fought to close a pornography shop that was opening near a high school--and in the many nonviolent conflict resolution workshops she has led and lectures she has delivered. Her 1996 book "Hard Questions, Heart Answers
," landed her on talk shows from Oprah to BET.
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church
The Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie shattered “the stained glass ceiling” when she became the first female African Methodist Episcopal bishop in 2000. She comes from a family of firsts—her family founded a Baltimore-based black newspaper and her grandmother was a founding member of Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly African-American sorority started at Howard University. But McKenzie has created her own modern-day legacy through her work as a nationally renowned clergywoman, a social advocate who has done extensive work in southern Africa, a former journalist, and an author.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church