Chicago -- A decade ago, when evangelicals made advocacy on Sudan a centerpiece of their campaign against religious persecution, many African-American churches were reluctant to join in.

Today, however, black churches are increasingly at the forefront of the grass-roots momentum to end what the United States calls "genocide" in Sudan's western Darfur province.

"What we've been able to do is to mobilize our numbers and to say that we're willing ... to lay our bodies on the line," the Rev. Sean McMillan of Chicago's Shekinah Chapel told the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly."

With preaching, protests and poetry, the churches hope to make Sudan an issue 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 too soon. The United Nations has called Sudan the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

In the 20-year war between the Arab Muslim north and the predominantly black Christian and animist south, an estimated 2 million people were killed. Famine, rape, abduction and slavery all became weapons in the conflict.

Last week (Aug. 18), United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Security Council that even as a fragile peace appears to tenuously hold in the south, the war in Darfur, which erupted in February 2003, is destroying that region. "While the rate of casualties from fighting has declined in recent months, the damage to the social and economic fabric in Darfur and the longer-term costs of this conflict are steadily becoming clearer," Annan said 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 estimated 180,000 people have died since the fighting began.

Sudan was first raised in many Americans' religious consciousnesses a decade ago as part of the evangelical-led grass-roots fight against persecution. A number of evangelical organizations had active medical and other mission ministries in southern Sudan that came under assault by government troops.

"While it (Sudan) was a high priority among conservative evangelicals, it originally was just not on the radar screen of many black leaders," said University of Oklahoma professor Allen Hertzke, author of "Freeing God's Children," a book about faith-based advocacy for human rights.

"The black churches were drawn into the struggle eventually," Hertzke added, "primarily because of the concern about slavery and the awareness that Africans were being abducted into slavery -- thousands of them -- by this regime in (the Sudanese capital) Khartoum."

Among those playing key roles in energizing black churches on the issue were radio talk show host Joe Madison and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a Washington, D.C. pastor and veteran of the civil rights movement. Madison got involved, he said, because he initially couldn't believe the allegations about slavery. In April 2001, the two men traveled to southern Sudan.

"I literally broke down in tears in the middle of this barren area under a mahogany tree," Madison recalled. "As an African-American, seeing these Africans in this condition, there was just no way I was going to allow this to happen and not use whatever resources I had to change it."

After their return, Madison and Fauntroy began a high-profile advocacy and civil disobedience campaign, including getting arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy.

Madison said Fauntroy stressed the importance of building a broad-based coalition that set aside political differences. Fauntroy kept telling Madison, "there's a moral center here, Joe. We've got to find that moral center and work at it."

"I just didn't know how difficult it was to find it," Madison said with a laugh. "But we did."

Madison said there were a number of reasons for the initial black reluctance to get involved, including a lack of knowledge about the issue and "disconnect between evangelical, conservative, Republican-oriented ministries and, in essence, the black church."

In addition, some black leaders felt it was more important to focus on the many challenges facing the black community at home. Chicago Lutheran pastor McMillan also noted the complex feelings many African-Americans have about Africa. "We know we are rooted in Africa, but our sensibilities, our cultural and moral sensibilities, tend not to drive us to appeal for their liberation in 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. Many African-American politicians, civil rights leaders and actors, including Danny Glover, are now on board and have made Sudan a priority issue. They've launched a national divestment campaign similar to those against South Africa during the apartheid era.

"The grass-roots energy on Darfur is now coming more from the black churches in many respects than from the white evangelical churches which were 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 of their focus and energy have been siphoned off to other issues such as gay marriage and judicial nominees.

"The diversion of evangelical energies to other issues has in fact opened the way for the black churches to fill that void in grass-roots momentum," Hertzke said.

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