WASHINGTON--African-American clergy questioned flag-waving faith and grappled with ministering to the newly unemployed at a conference here addressing the changes in religious and civic life wrought by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

``I want to see if the black church can do what it did in the civil rights movement and that is protect the integrity of the faith,'' Bishop John Hurst Adams, founder and chairman emeritus of the Congress of National Black Churches, sponsor of the conference, said during the Dec. 4 meeting.

``This shot-gun wedding between patriotism and Christianity is very disturbing to me.''

As black church leaders from the Washington metropolitan area and across the country gathered to determine their roles after the terrorist attacks, they discussed the challenges of helping their congregants, some of whom were direct victims of the attacks and others who have lost jobs in the aftermath. But they also grappled with how to deal with new kinds of terrorism after feeling they long have been the victims of racism.

``African-American people themselves have been terrorized,'' said Bishop Cecil Bishop, chairman of the congress' board of directors. ``We as a people have been terrorized--the killings, lynchings, hangings years back.''

He said such terrorism has continued with modern-day examples, such as brutality of New York police officers against black men and the dragging death of an African-American man at the hands of white supremacists in Texas.

Bishop said African-American clergy need to help national leaders understand that there are many groups to be concerned about in the days after Sept. 11.

``We deal with it by trying to say to people, `Look, don't let all of your concern be about people who happen to be in this country--who look like others outside of this country--who are terrorized and let all of your concern run that way when you have neighbors who have been terrorized,''' he said.

``My God, I've been mistreated for the way I look all of my life.''

In a panel discussion, a minister from Dallas said young people in his area don't understand why police officers they link to brutality are now considered heroes. Another clergyman said he was disturbed by the lack of black faces among the firefighters hailed as heroes in the media.

In a keynote speech, the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York, challenged listeners to think about what kind of blessing they may be seeking when they sing ``God Bless America.''

He said he hopes God will bless America with ``the spirit of prophetic patriotism.''

``If you're going to be a prophetic patriot, you will hold America to the values of freedom, justice, compassion, equality, respect for all, patience and care for the needy, a world in which everyone counts, a world in which there's enough for all, peace in our hearts and peace between nations,'' he said.

Forbes said this is a faith-based perspective that the country's leaders need to hear at a time when we're ``looking for revenge'' and ``our pride is on the line.''

The Rev. Lewis M. Anthony, senior pastor of Washington's Metropolitan Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, said churches may have to give up some of their traditional fund-raisers and projects to help those who are now out of work.

``People who were well-off before have been downsized, outsourced and crossed out ... so do we need to have anniversaries when the people are hurting?'' he asked, referring to the tradition of marking congregations' and pastors' anniversaries with large celebrations.

While some clergy sought to separate patriotism from ministry, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James E. Walker, an Army chaplain who handles personnel matters at the Pentagon, took a different view.

``It is not the chaplains' agenda or the chief of chaplains of the army's agenda to prove how patriotic we are,'' he said. ``Our patriotism is seen in the type of ministry that we do, bringing soldiers to God and God to soldiers, prophetically letting them know that God cares and that God is with them.''

He said some of the justice issues mentioned by Forbes also need to be faced within the military ranks.

``We are experiencing them right in the armed forces,'' he said. ``We have soldiers and family members who need education, who need better housing, who need their GED,'' said Walker, who is endorsed by the predominantly black National Baptist Convention of America.

Clergy also spoke critically of some political responses to terrorism, including policies they fear could trample over the civil liberties of African-Americans.

``I want some help on determining who is the more dangerous to American democracy--the external terrorists like (Osama) bin Laden or the internal terrorists like John Ashcroft,'' said Adams, comparing the Islamic terrorist to the U.S. attorney general.

Several speakers urged more advocacy, on both the political and social fronts, to make a difference after the attacks.

Melody Scales, a staffer from the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., spoke of debate on Capitol Hill concerning an economic stimulus package. While CNBC Executive Director Sullivan Robinson was one of 20 religious leaders to urge President Bush to give a high priority to the needs of low-income people during discussions on reviving the economy, often the voice of African-American churches does not reach political leaders.

``We don't hear enough from African-American organizations and we don't hear enough from the black churches,'' Scales said.

The Rev. Earl Trent Jr., senior pastor of Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, said the events of Sept. 11 challenge black churches to attempt to respond as a community rather than as individual congregations.

``We are enormously fractured,'' he said. ``We act as Lone Rangers and yet the problems that we face now really push us toward a collectivity that is simply not there.''

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad