2016-06-30
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.

Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III
Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III 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.
Website: The Abyssinian Baptist Church

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell
Rev. Kirbyjon CaldwellThe 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.
Interview: A Good and Faithful Confidence-Keeper
Website: Kingdom Builders

The Rev. Johnnie Colemon
Rev. ColemonAs 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.
Website: Christ Universal Temple
Discussion: Talk About New Thought

Dr. Creflo A. Dollar
Dr. Creflo A. Dollar 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.
Website: Creflo Dollar Ministries

Minister Louis Farrakhan
FarrakhanNation 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.
Website: Nation of Islam
Article: Farrakhan Urges Blacks to Shun Bush Plan
Article: Is Louis Farrakhan Going Mainstream?

The Rev. Floyd Flake
Rev. Floyd FlakeThe 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.
Website: The Greater Allen Cathedral of New York

The Rev. James Forbes, Jr.
James ForbesThe 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.
Article: The Moral Urgency of Electing John Kerry 
Website: The Riverside Church

Archbishop Wilton Gregory
Bishop Wilton GregoryThe 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.
Article: A Good Guy
Website: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
More: Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Rev. Jesse Jackson
Jesse JacksonAn 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.
Website: RainbowPUSH Coalition

Bishop T.D. Jakes
TD JakesBishop 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.
Interview: Serving His Generation
Beliefnet: Jakes' Columns
Website: The Potter's Touch

Elder Bernice King
Elder Bernice King 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.
Website: New Birth Missionary Baptist Church

The Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie
Vashti M. McKenzieThe 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.
Website: The African Methodist Episcopal Church

The Rev. Otis Moss III
Rev. MossThe Yale-educated minister’s style of preaching and his dedication to changing the lives of youth is causing quite a buzz among the ministerial set. Newsweek magazine dubbed the minister “one of God’s foot soldiers.” Moss serves as pastor of the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. In 2005, the magazine The African American Pulpit named him one of the "Twenty to Watch" ministers under forty. Moss recently announced that he will leave Tabernacle in May 2006 to become an associate pastor at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, under the leadership of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Website: Tabernacle Baptist Church

Imam Warith Deen Muhammad
MuhammadThe son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad’s religious journey to a more orthodox form of Islam helped shape the nation’s modern religious landscape and altered how millions of African Americans practice Islam. Though he announced his retirement as head of the Chicago-based American Society of Muslims in 2003, he remains the group’s spiritual leader.
Article: The Most Important Muslim You've Never Heard of
Article: A Tribute to W.D. Muhammad
Article: An Imam Speaks out on the Impact of Muhammad's Resignation

Bishop Gilbert Earl Patterson
PattersonFor the past five years, Bishop G. E. Patterson has managed to balance his duties as presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, popular televangelist, and pastor of the Memphis-based Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ. In his television and radio broadcasts as well as in regular sermons, he urges people to “be healed, be delivered, and be set free.”
Website: Temple of Deliverence C. O. G. I. C.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers
Rev. RiversThe Rev. Eugene Rivers restored a former crack house in Boston to its Victorian-era glory and opened its doors wide to the city’s troubled youth. His blend of boot-strapping preaching meets street-savvy-sermonizing has helped him connect not only with young people, but also with the White House. He is co-chairman of the National Ten Point Leadership, which helps churches fight gang violence, and is a strong supporter of faith-based initiatives.
Interview: The Race Card
Website: National Ten Point Leadership

Rev. Run
Rev. RunThe Rev. Joseph “Run” Simmons is the Run half of Run-DMC rap fame, as well as the younger brother of hip-hip mogul Russell Simmons. This rapper-turned-Pentecostal preacher has penned a memoir and is often mentioned by the hip-hop glitterati as a go-to person for spiritual guidance.
Article: Walking With Fame and God
Excerpt: Run's Rules: How to Keep Your Life on the Right Track
Website: Rev. Run

The Rev. Al Sharpton
Al SharptonWhether he’s raising awareness of racial and social injustice or running for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Rev. Al Sharpton is one of the nation’s most complex and controversial African-American leaders. Known in his youth as a preaching prodigy with a flair for showmanship, Sharpton is now taken seriously as an influential community and political leader. His high-profile efforts include protesting U.S. naval bombing exercises on Vieques, P.R., calling for nonviolent protest in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting, and joining forces with PETA to boycott Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The Rev. William J. Shaw
Rev. ShawAs president of the problem-plagued National Baptist Convention, the Rev. William Shaw has his work cut out for him. However, he is determined to change the organization’s image in the wake of the late 1990s embezzlement scandal of its former president. If his own 43-year history as pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia is any indication, the forecast looks promising. He even turned down the $100,000-a-year presidential salary, insisting that the money be used to endow a scholarship fund instead.
Website: National Baptist Convention

The Rev. William G. Sinkford
Sinkford The Rev. William G. Sinkford is the first African American to head the Unitarian Universalist Association, a largely white, liberal denomination. This Boston-based minister has been a particularly vocal proponent of legalizing gay marriage, a position in keeping with his organization’s historical support of same-sex couples and their families.
Website: Unitarian Universalist Association

The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor
Gardner TaylorRev. Gardner C. Taylor is Senior Pastor Emeritus of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn and a nationally renowned preacher. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 2000. Taylor, a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is considered a consummate preacher by his peers and has long been admired for his civil rights advocacy and message of God-centered social responsibility.

The Rev. Conrad Tillard
Rev. TillardUntil a few years ago, the Rev. Conrad Tillard was known as Minister Conrad Muhammad, the outspoken national youth minister for the Nation of Islam. Known as "the Hip-Hop Minister," he worked for social justice for disempowered urban youth. Now, following his reversion to the Christianity of his birth, Tillard is finding new ways to minister to what he calls "the hip-hop generation" from his new religious perspective. He currently serves as project director for New Yorkers for the Gulf Coast, which is chaired by Abyssinian Baptist Church's pastor, Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III.
Article: The Consummate Prodigal Son

Iyanla Vanzant
Iyanla VanzantIyanla Vanzant’s mix of woman-centered empowerment and spiritual focus has struck a deep chord with an ever increasing legion of followers. A survivor of childhood and spousal abuse, this former welfare mother is now a best-selling author, a nationally recognized inspirational speaker, a televison personality, and an ordained minister. Vanzant is founder of Inner Visions Spiritual Life Maintenance Network in Silver Spring, MD, and was a life coach on NBC’s “Starting Over”--a reality show that helped women change their lives.
Interview: Communicating With the Divine
Excerpt: My Prayer Journey
Prayers: Selections From Iyanla's Prayer Journal
Website: Inner Visions

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Rev. WrightThe Rev. Jeremiah Wright is pastor of the more than 10,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, whose motto is "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” Wright is particularly outspoken on such subjects as AIDS in the African-American community.
Website: Trinity United Church of Christ