WASHINGTON (RNS)--It was a scene Bishop Harold Calvin Ray had dreamedabout for months. Like some sort of Old Testament prophecy that hadfinally come true, Ray was basking in the glow of the moment--hismoment.

Standing to his right was House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Next tohim was Rep. Tom DeLay, the Republican whip. And pushing his way throughthe crowd to the podium was House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The three House Republican leaders had come out on a chillyWashington morning to laud Ray's newest project, the National Center forFaith Based Initiative. For Ray, the message of the event could not havebeen clearer: He had found three high-ranking white Republicans to lendtheir names to a black pastor whose goal is nothing short of eliminatingpoverty in black America.

The subtext of the event was a little more subtle: If Ray couldscore this kind of endorsement, maybe he was on to something. For the44-year-old preacher, it was mission accomplished.

Ray, pastor of the 4,000-member Redemptive Life Fellowship in WestPalm Beach, Fla., launched the center in December and has signed on nineof the most influential black pastors in the country. Together they havea combined television viewership of 80 million people a week and haveleadership ties to more than 50,000 black churches in the United States.

The center's main objective is to overhaul the way black Americathinks about money. Its vehicle is the church, often thelongest-standing, most reliable institution in the black community.

If Ray has his way, rank-and-file blacks will think twice about howthey spend their money, put more focus on investing and venture onlineen masse to flex their collective financial might.

And in perhaps the most ironic aspect of Ray's Capitol Hill debut,the former lawyer-turned-pastor plans to do it all without a dime ofgovernment money.

"We are not looking to bootstrap another generation with governmentdependency," Ray said at his press conference. "We want to disavow anddissolve any notions of government dependency."

Instead, Ray plans to enlist the deep pockets of Wall Street andcorporate America. He's been courting financial services giantPrudential to help get his center off the ground. His message is rathersimple: Businesses that refuse to take us seriously may find themselveslosing a valuable constituency--the $533 billion-a-year buying powerof African-Americans.

It's a strategy that has caught the attention of a new breed ofblack ministers. Black clergy have always advocated economic empowermentfor their flocks, but led by people like Ray, they are tapping unlikelysources that are largely non-governmental and historically have hadlittle connection to the black community. We will take help wherever wecan find it, they say, and if we have to break the patterns of the pastto do it, so be it.

That financial independence goes hand-in-hand with a philosophythat says the only people who are going to transform black Americaare black Americans themselves. Without turning to government, blackchurches are increasingly setting up business-savvy corporations tohandle job training, education, family services and drug rehabilitation.

The strategy has caught the attention of politicians--especiallyRepublicans--who are looking to broaden their appeal toAfrican-American voters. Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore--the apparent Republicaan and Democratic November presidential candidates--have touted proposals to enlist the help offaith-based institutions in solving society's ills.

"One of the things we've found is that the people who have stayedthere, the people who have gone through hard times, the people who arerooted in these communities, are the people in these institutions thatcan best reach out to these communities," Hastert said. "We need to openthe door to faith-based institutions."

Ray, a flamboyant preacher with an eye on the bottom line, hasalready found success when it comes to making and accumulating money. In1990, he left his Notre Dame law degree and six-figure salary behind toenter the ministry. He founded his church and partially self-financedthe construction of its 45-acre campus in a troubled West Palm Beachneighborhood.

Several years ago, he launched the Kingdom Dominion Network, analliance of about 300 independent Pentecostal churches, of which he isbishop. His church offices are nothing short of sumptuous and hisacorn-size amethyst and diamond bishop's ring testifies to his affinityfor the finer things in life.

So what makes Ray's proposal different from programs already runningin hundreds of churches around the country? Ray says with his center,thousands of churches will be working in "synergy" with one another,sharing information and know-how and working to copy programs that workand eliminate ones that don't.

"This is exactly the solution to so many of our problems," saidDeLay.