The recent spotlight on black church burnings and racial reconcilation notwithstanding, African-American religious leaders are refocusing on improving relations with one another.
Many of the 5,200 ministry leaders who attended a Hampton (Va.) University gathering in June devoted their efforts at bridge building across the doctrinal chasms between eight historically African-American denominations with a combined membership of 26 million.
"I am concerned that the black church is very fragmented," said conference president Jesse Battle, who organized the event. "The fragmentation [of denominations] has denied us the ability to have a leader within the black community. We have to forget our individual ambitions and programs and think in terms of the whole."
"This is the most opportune time in the history of the world," echoed Bishop Samuel Green of the Church of God in Christ. "We're headed toward unity in the black church, where all our denominations will eventually come together, forget about our doctrinal differences, and work as one for the benefit of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
While a spirit of unity did mark the week-long conference, the meeting itself suggested that doctrinal differences among denominations will not be resolved easily. Denominations represented were African Methodist Episcopal (AME); African Methodist Episcopal Zion; Christian Methodist Episcopal; Church of God in Christ; National Baptist Convention, American; National Baptist Convention, USA; Pentecostal Assemblies of the World; and Progressive National Baptist Convention.
ECONOMIC REPRESSION? In opening statements, the leaders collectively described an African-American community filled with hopelessness and despair and a church in need of radical realignment.
"If we keep going the way we are going, and keep doing what we are doing, we are headed for crisis," said Bishop Nathaniel Linsey of the 1.2 million-member AME Zion church. "Our people are legion, and they are crying out for help. God is in need of Moseses to go down to Egypt and liberate his people."
But debate swirled around what form that liberation should take and around the mission of the church itself. Some leaders, such as Bennett Smith of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, argued that the church's primary purpose is to be an instrument of economic liberation for African Americans.
Smith urged listeners not to fall into the same trap as New Testament believers who thought Jesus would return during their lifetimes. "We have our people walking around saying he's soon to come, and we're preparing to go home to be with the Lord and not being good stewards of our economic development," he said. "We must use our resources in order to set our people free." To thunderous applause, Smith advocated removal of African-American money from Caucasian-controlled banks, which he chided for denying loans and mortgages to black customers.
CHURCH LIMITATIONS: Bishop Thomas Weeks of the 1 million-member Pentecostal Assemblies of the World questioned such thinking. "The church only does what the church can do," Weeks said. "The church can make loans, but the banks do that. The church can build houses, but the builders do that. The church's primary focus ought to be the saving of souls."
Reflecting two distinct visions of the mission of the black church, little common ground was established between the traditions more interested in redeeming society and those more interested in redeeming individual souls.
But that is to be expected, according to Roscoe Cooper of the National Baptist Convention USA, the largest black denomination—and fourth largest overall—with 8.2 million members. He emphasized that the black church is no monolith. "Sometimes I think we talk about it as if it were one entity," Cooper said. "There has never been unity in the sense of uniformity within the black churches.
"The challenge that faces us as African-American Christians is to take seriously the fact that we are not just African, and we are not just American, but that we are African-American Christians," Cooper said. "And our challenge is to be constantly struggling to discern—from the study of the Scripture, through prayer, through analysis of our cultural situation—what is required of us to be faithful, and to muster up the faith to do what it is to do what the Lord would have us do."
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