Black Churches Expanding Their Roles in Community

December 24, 2000

Source: Los Angeles Times

n December 24, 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported, in an editorial, that African American churches are quickly becoming centers of community renewal. Their work goes beyond charity to the use of sophisticated financing as a means to improve real property and attract mainstream businesses. Black churches are revitalizing poorer neighborhoods for three reasons: first, they often confront urgent needs, since poverty, homelessness and unemployment are at crisis levels in these areas. Second, black churches have been an institution in which black people, historically, take care of their own. Efforts at economic development are not new for them. Third, an increasing number of African American religious leaders recognize that "economic parity is essential to the evolution of the black freedom movement."

L.A.'s black churches are involved in economic development, but they face the challenge of the development of political power. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church and West Angeles Church of God in Christ are L.A.'s two most powerful black churches. AME, pastored by Rev. Cecil L. Murray has 17,000 members and West Angeles, led by Bishop Charles E. Blake, has 19,000 members. They both run a number of nonprofit organizations as part of their ministries. Despite their large-scale community projects, these churches are not known as forces for political change. Without political power, economic power can be in danger. Moral protest and resistance, however, have always been crucial in the black churches. In this tradition, Rev. James Lawson of Holman United Methodist Church has become the center of attention for his support of immigrant workers. The late Rev. Clayton Russell of Peoples' Independent Church of Christ and others like him organized meetings to change policy on issues such as police brutality and the Vietnam War.

The Congress of National Black Churches, representing 65,000 historically black churches with a membership of 19 million, develops public policies beneficial to African Americans. One thousand community developers lobby Congress for help in low-income neighborhoods. "Developing political clout may become more important than ever when President-elect George W. Bush takes office. It's possible that Housing and Urban Development budgets, federal incentives for private investment and tax supports currently available to community developers will be curtailed. In their place may emerge Republican-favored programs such as 'charitable choice,' an obscure section of welfare reform that allows the federal government to funnel funds directly to houses of worship, rather than their nonsectarian, nonprofit affiliates. It permits religious contractors to discriminate in hiring on grounds of faith, and emphasizes not real-estate development and business creation, but conventional social services such as soup kitchens, detox centers, job training and counseling, all with a religious flavor. During his six years as governor of Texas, Bush aggressively implemented charitable choice."

There are also some that are skeptical about church-based economic development. Cornel West warns of "market Christianity." The relationship between money and spirit is symbolized by the fictional Elmer Gantry and the real-life Rev. Ike, figures who preach to those who want to "get yours here and now." The Harvard Divinity School holds a Summer Leadership Institute in which clergy, lay leaders and community developers take courses on ethics and remember that economic-development work does not undermine the church's central mission. These lessons are important to remember as churches are expanding their roles in the community. The 2000 Guide to Religious Community Development Investment Funds reports that $900 million have been invested in low-income neighborhoods by religious organizations alone.