COLUMBIA, S.C. – Black church leaders said today that the “great gathering” of the three Black Methodist churches will not be a futile exercise based merely on talk, but will result in a firm plan of action to address Black concerns.
“ will release a concrete, cogent, crisp plan of action for the eradication of some of the ills you’ve heard mentioned, particularly, as it relates to African-American males,” event Chairman Rev. Staccato Powell responded to the AFRO. “When you leave here you’re going to see a diminution of incarceration of African-American young people, you’re going to see a rise in the population of African-American males in institutions of higher learning .”
Princeton University professor Cornel West told the AFRO that other such forums tend to be rich in rhetoric and poor in results because of their origins.
“I think this will be different because most of the conferences like this… by academicians and it’s hard for academicians to generate any kind of action or motion because they spend much of their time in research,” he said. “But when you get churches with millions of members focusing in then you’ve got a closer relation to what’s going on in the community and on the street.”
And on the street, church leaders and other speakers said, Black males are becoming an endangered species, their numbers whittled away by violence, drugs, incarceration and other social ills.
“We have been called to go down to Egypt once again and tell pharaoh to let my people go we recognize a new kind of bondage,” said the Rt. Rev. George W.C. Walker Sr., senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination, comparing the prison-industrial complex to the biblical story of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery. “We are tired of the carnage we see on our streets. We’re tired of seeing our young men and women arrested and hauled off to prison where they are warehoused in prisons that only a certain people benefit from.”
The plight of African-American males today is similar to the civil rights movement, which drew the three churches—African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal—together 45 years ago in a similar gathering, Powell added.
“We have heard the call of God to heal and empower our community and we’re answering that call,” he said, adding that his passion is generated by a personal stake.
“I’ve got skin in this,” he told the AFRO. “I fight every day to save my sons from being incarcerated; I’m trying to save them from early graves. So, this is not just an empirical issue for me; this is real.”
AME Senior Bishop John Bryant said the churches chose to focus on African-American males because their troubles affect the entire community.
“When the male is out of position our families are in trouble. When the male is out of position our children—male and female—are in trouble. When the male is in trouble this very society is in trouble. So we are on a kingdom-building agenda that has national and international importance,” he said.
Several academicians, advocates, government officials and others addressed the conference, defining the problems and offering solutions.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, cited a number of social barometers—teen pregnancy rates, single-parent households, birth weight, prenatal care, poverty, access to health care, school dropout rate, violent deaths, likelihood of incarceration and more—in which Blacks fare most negatively.
“Our job in this meeting and after is to change the odds,” she said. “And the Black church has to be the locomotive—not the caboose—in the new movement to save our children.”
The longtime youth advocate said solutions must address the continuum of Black lives from before birth and onward. She urged the churches to join organizations like hers in at least one campaign a year and lobby Congress to pass legislation that “puts babies before bankers,” such as health care reform, funding of childhood learning and other education programs. She said churches should open their doors and provide alternative programs such as freedom schools, where youth can be nurtured for success and also find a safe haven. Additionally, churches need to use their influence to groom better parents.
“What in the world is wrong with our children? Well, the adults are what’s wrong,” said Edelman, saying too many Black parents are not setting the right examples nor teaching their children good values. “We need to relearn the fabric of family and community and it must start in the church.”
Professor West said the root of Black male problems and their solutions are psycho-spiritual and economic.
“One of the reasons Black brothers are in the situation they’re in is because America’s power structure has never, ever loved poor Black brothers. In fact it hated them for a long time, now it’s lukewarm,” he said. The Black church can serve a main role in helping Black men experience a renaissance of self-respect and self-trust, by letting them know they’re worth fighting for, he added.
“Just letting folk know you care ,” he said.
In terms of dollars and cents, West said, unemployment is a major source of what he called “a national emergency.” Government leaders must be prodded to create “a culture of job access” through education, job training and then the availability of jobs and, in the face of his unwillingness to entertain targeted programs for African Americans, President Obama must be pressured to do more, too.
“We have to put pressure on Brother Obama Black people ‘targeted’ him and put him in office,” West told the AFRO. “There’s a corporate agenda that he responds to very well, there’s an investment banker agenda he responds to very well, there’s a Catholic agenda he responds to very well, there’s a Jewish agenda he responds to very well… Well, Black people have an agenda too.”
But in order to achieve that agenda, “we’ve got to fight for it,” the public intellectual added. “We have to generate the will—that is crucial. It’s lying dormant, but it’s there.”