By K. A. Slayton, Sr.
Most are familiar with the phrase made popular by former House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, “all politics is local,” and whether we agree with this notion or not, time has proven this observation to be accurate.
Still, indigenous support is always paramount to winning local office. But when it comes to garnering the support of the local Black preacher, you’ve got to have some authenticating markers to that community of faith.
Black Pastor support can vary in terms of church size and social activity in the public square. A pastor who almost never engages in the local political scene but has a church membership that exceeds 3,000 members will have considerable influence. On the other hand, a pastor who is known for fighting for the rights of citizens and is visible in local media and government discussions may be just as influential even if he or she only has a membership of less than 200.
When it comes to the local support of pastors, size does matter. While the community associations may be considered the gate keepers of the community, the local Black pastor is still understood as the voice of the community. And all too often it is that voice who informs many of the gate keepers, considering that most community leaders are older, female and generally homeowners. These leaders find their way several times a month to someone’s church where they can be influenced by the preaching or direct appeal of a local pastor.
Of the multiple issues facing the African American community, I am convinced many of the solutions could be facilitated by a powerful and thought-provoking faith ministry. Black folk are doing church. But what is the church doing for Black folks?
Many of the issues in communities surrounding Black churches have changed considerably. In urban communities that have been gentrified, churches are finding themselves at the center of debates over parking and decibel levels. The faces have changed and, in those where it has not, the properties have taken a tremendous hit. The average congregant is one who commutes into the city for worship. The departure of native residents has created in many areas an electoral void.
Still, during each election cycle candidates will scramble to make the necessary inroads to the Black faith community. As races heat up you will see Black clergy who are rarely involved in the public square take public positions and being seen with candidates that have shown little to no regard for their communities in the past. They will relish in the opportunity to be invited to sit at the table, even if there is no menu from which they will be able to select.
By now most have seen the video or photos of a meeting that took place recently at the White House, between the president and a group of primarily African American clergy. On its face what could be wrong with that? Who wouldn’t take a meeting with the President?
The White House described the participants in the meeting as “inner city pastors” who were invited to discuss “prison reform.” The clergy in the room came from places such as Cleveland, Washington, DC, Arkansas, Chicago and Detroit; all cities that have a significant number of Black folks. All cities with a disproportionate number of incarcerated people of color. All cities with families that have been impacted by the prison industrial complex in America.
Then there is an overwhelming number of us who have chosen to describe the gathering as nothing more than a photo opportunity for the administration. Obviously, a goal was to promote the idea that the president was concerned about people of color, concerned about the issue of mass incarceration, concerned about the Black church and interested in addressing the school to prison pipeline that has been wreaking havoc on the African American community for decades. This may be difficult for him to convey considering his body of tweets and policies that would paint a different picture.
But, instead of pointing out the need to address the long overdue issues of tainted water in Flint or discussing the separation of children from their families on the border, these faith leaders went with a different game plan. What was revealed was a poor attempt at open dialogue that morphed into a praise session of the President. These men and women, who represent the Christian faith, were presented the perfect occasion to address a major concern in the African American community.
This was the right occasion to talk about a range of important issues impacting recidivism and the school to prison pipeline. This was the ideal occasion to discuss, not just prison reform, but sentencing reform, which would ultimately deal with the issue of mandatory sentencing and its disproportionate impact on people of color. Other issues should have included education, probation and parole. Certainly, the matter of cash bail bonds should have been an issue on the table. Then there’s the issue of the socioeconomic conditions of the communities in which poor children of color live. And let’s not forget the over policing of Black communities. Sadly, with all the issues in need of immediate discussion around the issue of prison reform, here’s what a few clergy chose to speak to the president instead:
“Thank you for taking a stand for those that are disenfranchised.” (De Jesus – Chicago)
“Thank you for your heart for all people” and “Thank you for being compassionate and caring about all people.” (Moody – Birmingham, Al)
“We’re grateful for your heart toward the urban community” (Searcy – Montgomery, Al)
You are “the most pro-black President that we’ve had in our lifetime” (Scott – Cleveland)
“You’re a man of your word” and you “have an ear to hear from God, this country is in great hands.” (Freeman – Maryland)
“We really don’t need Black power when we have some green power working” (Jackson – DC/Maryland)
It is true that the people are watching and all too often what they see is rather hypocritical. The church has a responsibility to be the top salesman for Christianity. Unfortunately, our church leaders have forgotten the number one key to successful sales and that is “Know Thy Product.” How can you preach faith and that God loves justice and you fail to speak truth to power? How can you preach respect for community, when you fail to do it yourself? And how can you preach political and social justice when you’ve endorsed policies and persons that make life for those in your community more difficult.
All politics is local, so I’m not surprised by the actions of clergy on the national stage, neither will I be surprised when a similar group of local Black pastors in the state of Maryland stand behind the Hogan campaign. My only hope is that they will be savvy enough to get some answers and commitments for the communities they represent.
It doesn’t matter if you, as a Black preacher, have a seat at the table. And the Black community in this local Maryland state-wide race should not be distracted about where Black clergy stand, but about where they stand.
Dr. Kevin A. Slayton, Sr., M.Div. is the senior pastor of New Waverly United Methodist Church in Baltimore. He is also pursuing a doctoral degree from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York.