Today, however, black churches are increasingly at the forefront of thegrass-roots momentum to end what the United States calls "genocide" inSudan's western Darfur province.
"What we've been able to do is to mobilize our numbers and to say thatwe're willing ... to lay our bodies on the line," the Rev. Sean McMillan ofChicago's Shekinah Chapel told the PBS program "Religion & EthicsNewsWeekly."
With preaching, protests and poetry, the churches hope to make Sudan anissue on par with the anti-apartheid activism that mobilized the U.S.religious community in the 1980s.
The increased activism on the part of black churches comes none toosoon. The United Nations has called Sudan the world's worst humanitariancrisis.
In the 20-year war between the Arab Muslim north and the predominantlyblack Christian and animist south, an estimated 2 million people werekilled. Famine, rape, abduction and slavery all became weapons in theconflict.
Last week (Aug. 18), United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan toldthe Security Council that even as a fragile peace appears to tenuously holdin the south, the war in Darfur, which erupted in February 2003, isdestroying that region. "While the rate of casualties from fighting has declined in recentmonths, the damage to the social and economic fabric in Darfur and thelonger-term costs of this conflict are steadily becoming clearer," Annansaid in a statement.
He said some 3.2 million people were in need of assistance in Darfur,and there are some 1.9 million internally displaced people. An estimated180,000 people have died since the fighting began.
Sudan was first raised in many Americans' religious consciousnesses adecade ago as part of the evangelical-led grass-roots fight againstpersecution. A number of evangelical organizations had active medical andother mission ministries in southern Sudan that came under assault bygovernment troops.
"While it (Sudan) was a high priority among conservative evangelicals,it originally was just not on the radar screen of many black leaders," saidUniversity of Oklahoma professor Allen Hertzke, author of "Freeing God'sChildren," a book about faith-based advocacy for human rights.
"The black churches were drawn into the struggle eventually," Hertzkeadded, "primarily because of the concern about slavery and the awarenessthat Africans were being abducted into slavery -- thousands of them -- bythis regime in (the Sudanese capital) Khartoum."
Among those playing key roles in energizing black churches on the issuewere radio talk show host Joe Madison and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, aWashington, D.C. pastor and veteran of the civil rights movement. Madisongot involved, he said, because he initially couldn't believe the allegationsabout slavery. In April 2001, the two men traveled to southern Sudan.
"I literally broke down in tears in the middle of this barren area undera mahogany tree," Madison recalled. "As an African-American, seeing theseAfricans in this condition, there was just no way I was going to allow thisto happen and not use whatever resources I had to change it."
After their return, Madison and Fauntroy began a high-profile advocacyand civil disobedience campaign, including getting arrested in front of theSudanese embassy.
Madison said Fauntroy stressed the importance of building a broad-basedcoalition that set aside political differences. Fauntroy kept tellingMadison, "there's a moral center here, Joe. We've got to find that moralcenter and work at it."
"I just didn't know how difficult it was to find it," Madison said witha laugh. "But we did."
Madison said there were a number of reasons for the initial blackreluctance to get involved, including a lack of knowledge about the issueand "disconnect between evangelical, conservative, Republican-orientedministries and, in essence, the black church."
In addition, some black leaders felt it was more important to focus onthe many challenges facing the black community at home. Chicago Lutheranpastor McMillan also noted the complex feelings many African-Americans haveabout Africa. "We know we are rooted in Africa, but our sensibilities, our culturaland moral sensibilities, tend not to drive us to appeal for their liberationin the same way that we have been driven to appeal for our own," he said.
But the issue is now gaining momentum in the black community. ManyAfrican-American politicians, civil rights leaders and actors, includingDanny Glover, are now on board and have made Sudan a priority issue. They'velaunched a national divestment campaign similar to those against SouthAfrica during the apartheid era.
"The grass-roots energy on Darfur is now coming more from the blackchurches in many respects than from the white evangelical churches whichwere so heavily invested in southern Sudan that they haven't, in some cases,shifted course," Hertzke said.
Evangelicals are involved in the Darfur issue, he said, but some oftheir focus and energy have been siphoned off to other issues such as gaymarriage and judicial nominees.
"The diversion of evangelical energies to other issues has in factopened the way for the black churches to fill that void in grass-rootsmomentum," Hertzke said.