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

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

The three House Republican leaders had come out on a chilly Washington morning to laud Ray's newest project, the National Center for Faith Based Initiative. For Ray, the message of the event could not have been clearer: He had found three high-ranking white Republicans to lend their names to a black pastor whose goal is nothing short of eliminating poverty in black America.

The subtext of the event was a little more subtle: If Ray could score this kind of endorsement, maybe he was on to something. For the 44-year-old preacher, it was mission accomplished.

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

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

If Ray has his way, rank-and-file blacks will think twice about how they spend their money, put more focus on investing and venture online en 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 of government money.

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

Instead, Ray plans to enlist the deep pockets of Wall Street and corporate America. He's been courting financial services giant Prudential to help get his center off the ground. His message is rather simple: Businesses that refuse to take us seriously may find themselves losing a valuable constituency--the $533 billion-a-year buying power of African-Americans.

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

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

The strategy has caught the attention of politicians--especially Republicans--who are looking to broaden their appeal to African-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 of faith-based institutions in solving society's ills.

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

Ray, a flamboyant preacher with an eye on the bottom line, has already found success when it comes to making and accumulating money. In 1990, he left his Notre Dame law degree and six-figure salary behind to enter the ministry. He founded his church and partially self-financed the construction of its 45-acre campus in a troubled West Palm Beach neighborhood.

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

So what makes Ray's proposal different from programs already running in 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 work and eliminate ones that don't.

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

Ray said he started the center because large, independent churches like his do not have a resource for economic development efforts. Denominational efforts do not include churches like his and have been largely unsuccessful, he said.

"The National Center for Faith Based Initiative is the only singularly focused entity addressing economic empowerment as a natural corollary to what we're already preaching from our pulpits," he said. "We will be stressing our faith, our family, our finances and our future."

The proposed center won't focus solely on revitalizing deteriorating neighborhoods, however. Ray is also eager to get money into the wallets of African-Americans through online investing, business planning, life insurance and cyber-shopping.

So far, Ray has recruited nine other church heavyweights to help him launch the center. When the final board is selected, each of the 12 "governors" will oversee a regional "embassy" that will coordinate economic development, urban planning and social services around the country.

Among Ray's supporters are the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic congressman from Queens, N.Y., who is the de facto dean of faith-based economic empowerment; Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Potter's House in Dallas and an economic whirlwind in his own right; and Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of the 20,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles.

"The extensive sphere of influence that these institutions collectively manifest is awesome and unparalleled," Flake wrote in a letter of support for the center.

The next task is for Ray to secure $500,000 in start-up funds, build a state-of-the-art headquarters on his church's property and translate all the flow charts, "paradigms" and "modalities" talk into a plan of action. If Ray can convince Prudential and other deep financial pockets to help, he hopes to begin construction within the next year.

If Ray can pull people together and focus them on a single goal, the results could be amazing, said Bishop Eddie Long, one of Ray's governors and pastor of the 22,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.

"We have been separated in the church for so long that we didn't need to worry about the separation between church and state," Long said. "But now we've erased that separation."

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