If Floyd H. Flake had faced a choice between running for Congress and keeping his pastorate, he says the decision would have been easy: he would not have run for office. As it turned out, the Methodist clergyman was elected last November to the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet he continues to pastor the 4,000-member Allen A.M.E. Church in Jamaica, New York. A Democrat, Flake represents a community in Queens. He spoke with CHRISTIANITY TODAY about his legislative goals and the challenge of combining ministry with elective office.
When you decided to run for office, did you plan to keep your pastorate?
Absolutely. The church members supported my congressional campaign in large measure because they knew my commitment was to remain there. Clearly, if it had been a choice between Congress or the pulpit, I would not have run.
Why did you run for Congress?
Former U.S. Rep. Joseph Addabbo (D-N.Y.) had served the district for 26 years. During the last couple of terms, the district turned predominantly. When Addabbo died, the community wanted to elect a different kind of leader. So a number of clergy and community leaders met with me. My wife and I had to do a lot of serious praying to determine if this was the leading of the Lord. We resolved that if it was his will it would happen; and if not, it wouldn’t.
Obviously the Lord was with us, because after a special election in June 1986 to fill Addabbo’s seat, we had to go through a court test. [Flake lost the special election and challenged the outcome in court because his name was omitted from absentee ballots. He lost in court, but the case rallied supporters.] People galvanized around my candidacy, and ministers got their people involved. By the time of the primary in September, we had a large organization that was built primarily around the church. We would not have had that if it had not been for the court procedure. The Lord was testing our faith and hope—all the things I preach about.
Do your priorities as a congressman relate to the programs your church is pursuing?
My church runs six programs: an apartment complex; a 487-student school; rehabilitated stores; a women’s resource center for victims of abuse; a feeding program for 200 senior citizens; and a home-care program for senior citizens. In Congress, I serve on committees concerned with small business and urban affairs. I feel it is important to make the kinds of things my church is doing happen on a much larger scale. Urban America, which has become predominantly, is experiencing deterioration and blight that is similar to what I inherited in my district.
How did your church initiate its community-development programs?
We use two concepts that are tied together: the biblical concept of tithing and the American corporate concept of buying stock in major corporations. They both say the same thing: If the people will put their small contributions together, it will create a reservoir capable of meeting most of the needs of the people.
We began to educate people about tithing, so that in a ten-year period we went from $250,000 a year to $1.5 million a year in offerings. Approximately one-third of that money goes back into the community. We buy land, abandoned buildings, and homes that are boarded up. We started our own construction and rehabilitation company to repair the homes. Then we go to the state mortgage agency, which makes low-interest loans available to couples who could not otherwise afford homes.
We rehabilitate businesses as well. We are fixing up a building that used to house a gambling operation. The result is that people are able to work and worship in a safe environment, because the churches own all the land and the drug dealing has been removed.
How do you view the political agenda being pursued by many white evangelical Christians?
The church views it with some degree of concern. The posturing of white evangelicals, for the most part, is so one-dimensional. It does not leave enough freedom to address the basic human needs and concerns that the church has traditionally addressed, including the poor, people who are victims of social injustice, and people who have suffered as a result of inadequate education. The fundamentalist approach to politics limits itself, and it almost takes a line that is status quo. I see it as more of a support system for the conservative element that currently runs the government than a system that tries to advocate for the common good of all the people of God.
One of the problems facing urban America is teen pregnancy. How should that problem be addressed, and what is your position on abortion?
I believe the point of conception is the beginning of life. I base my position on the biblical concept of the Lord as Creator. We must believe that which he creates—at whatever stage, whether we can see it or not—is his creation. We don’t have the right to determine that that life should not live.
Regarding teen pregnancy, there is no question that the social and environmental issues have to be addressed. There is boredom and apathy on the part of teenagers, because in many parts of our community education is not taking place. Teenagers look for options, and they are attracted to the feeling of manhood and womanhood that derives from having made a baby. The young man brags about having made a baby; the young lady has a number of babies, and she feels she is a woman now. It is a sad spiritual state. And that spiritual state is in large measure affected by environmental and social conditions in which they live.
Did you feel any conflict between your call to ordained ministry and your decision to run for Congress?
No. The first congressman was Hiram R. Revels (elected in 1870), a preacher from my own denomination. For us the distance between the sacred and the profane is shorter than that distance is in white America, because most of the leadership in the community has come from the church. We grow up with the feeling that if there is going to be positive involvement in the political process, for the most part the leadership has to come from the church. When Martin Luther King, Jr., organized preachers, that was the initial impetus in the whole movement.
Will you continue to preach on Sunday mornings?
I intend on doing that every Sunday. All this other stuff is good, but preaching is what I really love doing.
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