Tom Joyner and Tavis Smiley, conference co-hosts.

DETROIT (–Prominent Black clergy from across the country convened to address “The State of the Black Union” told a national audience Feb. 8, in voices loud and strong, that President Bush is wrong and “war is not the answer.”

“This war is unjust,” said Dr. James H. Cone, the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systemic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. “You cannot save life by killing. We have no grounds for preemptive strikes against Iraq.”

“If it’s wrong to kill American citizens, it’s wrong to kill Iraqi citizens. Just because we want oil or the world to bow to our value system does not justify war. There is no way to get peace through war. Violence breeds violence,” he declared.


That theme resonated throughout Detroit’s Cobo Hall with nearly 8,000 in attendance and was a wake-up call to America from Black pastors who spoke via a live C-SPAN television broadcast.

Rev. Carolyn Knight makes a point as (L-R) Dr. Cornell West, Rev. William Shaw and Rev. Fredrick Haynes applaud.

“We’re only hearing one side of this war in the media,” said Dr. Charles G. Adams, pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church. “What they’re telling us doesn’t hold water, it doesn’t make sense. Iraq has not attacked us. We’ve been misled by the media.

“It is insanity, injustice and indecency to start a war in Iraq when we haven’t finished in Afghanistan, we haven’t cleaned up drugs in America and now we want to attack postage stamp-sized Iraq.”

This gathering of Black clergy was the first time ministers of this magnitude have come together to discuss the broad problems of Black America and the church. It was the first time their united opposition against the war has been heard by more than just their congregations.

“The Black point of view about the war is generally not heard in the media,” explained activist/radio commentator Tavis Smiley, the conference convener. “The Black church’s perspective on the war has not been heard. Everybody does not agree with this war.”

With the continuing decrease in Black journalists and the limited roles played by those that are in the industry, major media coverage of the impending war with Iraq generally gives viewers the perspectives of White men, panelists noted.

“We’ve spoken out clearly opposing the war,” said Dr. William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA. “How is that voice heard? It’s not heard. Our major challenge is to be heard. How do we get the media to hear us when the media speaks negatively about the Black church.”

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the 117th elected and consecrated Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, agreed: “Preachers have been treated as comical buffoons. It’s a joke the way the media portrays us. Preachers who make an error get more attention than the one who does something good.”

“We cannot say that we are against terrorism in other countries when terrorism exists right here in America,” said author/lecturer Rev. Marcia Louise Dyson. “The church must speak up and say these things.”

Presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton told the audience that President Bush should listen to the Black church. “The reason there is a Black church is because we were rejected. We have an inherited obligation to speak out for the rejected. To say the war is wrong and wicked is our job as bearers of the truth,” he said.

The clergy also brought a different perspective on whether this war is designed to liberate the people of Iraq.

“We have to understand this war in the face of world globalization. This war is not about Iraq. This war is about who will control the oil if we are to remain a superpower,” said Rev. Dr. Floyd Flake, former congressman and now president of Wilberforce University and senior pastor of Greater Allen AME Cathedral in New York.

In this climate of war, the Black church, called the only independent voice in the Black community by Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, senior pastor emeritus of Concord Baptist Church, is a vital source for voices of protest.

“We have to speak truth to power,” said Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, founder of the Empowerment Temple AME. “We need prophets who say to Bush, ‘You are wrong.’ It’s up to the preachers to stand up to injustice anywhere to protest injustice everywhere.”

Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. posed a challenge to the American government. “If being a good American means ignoring the value of life, then we have a problem. If being a good American means we can flex our muscles to say, [America] can do whatever and ignore the sensibilities of men like Nelson Mandela, then we have a problem.”

Don’t make Black Christians chose between dishonoring our country or honoring our Lord, he said.

Gender justice

While the war captivated the two-panel conversation, so did the issue of gender justice.

Mr. Smiley asked Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, what’s wrong with the Black church?

“We have failed to relate the historical legacy of the Black church to the issue of gender. The question of how we treat women in the church is a major problem. Black women have been the backbone of the church. We have to give justice to our women.”

On any given Sunday, 25 million Black people attend 65,000 Black churches across the country, according to Bishop Noel Jones, pastor of Greater Bethany Community Church in Los Angeles, Ca. Sixty to eighty percent of them, depending upon where the church is, are women, he said.

“Why does this struggle continue?” asked Bishop McKenzie. “Women without confirmation or ordination started churches and prayer groups. Women are the unsung heroes of church.

“Let’s go back to how Jesus treated women. He talked to women as if they had minds, hearts and souls. He talked to women when men wouldn’t. Women are still taking care of the body of Christ,” she said.

Rev. Carolyn Ann Knight explained that gender injustice in the church is just as terroristic as war. “We have to preach to a world at war. We have injustice in our community that we have to deal with,” she said. “There is tokenism in the church. Women must be taken seriously in their role in the church.”

In some churches, Black women can be found as pastors, bishops and senior ministers and their ascent in the church is only limited by their skill and ability. However, in other churches a woman’s place is relegated and delegated by a man’s interpretation of the Bible.

“We need to take a look at how this book is interpreted. Jesus preached the gospel and he didn’t wear women’s clothes unless he was a cross dresser,” said Bishop Carlton Pearson of the AZUSA Interdenominational Fellowship of Christian Churches.

Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Grant told the audience that most women don’t prosper in the church even though the bulk of the churches are filled with women.

“Is religion good for Black women’s health,” she asked? “What does it do to women when their womanhood is not affirmed? Are we really helping the basic needs of women as they believe themselves to be second-class Christians?”

Rev. Marcia Dyson challenged Black women to serve each other better. “We are our own worst enemies sometimes. Men don’t always hold us back, we hold ourselves back. Sisters, we have to love each other better. Unless we rise up, the men won’t rise.”

Where are the men?

The fact that women are in the church but the men, especially young Black men, are not coming, was a topic of discussion.

“Many of our children are rushing to other faith traditions because they don’t see the discipline of Christ’s word in what we do,” said Bishop McKenzie.

Many churches don’t know how to address this problem of fleeting men, she said.

“We have to meet people where they are,” said Rev. Michael Eric Dyson. “This is a generation that has been deprived of their fathers. Father deprivation creates these problems. We need churches to devote more of their budgets to helping young Black men.”

The men are in the streets and the clergy are in the churches. What should the church do?

“The Nation of Islam has taught us through the works of Minister Farrakhan that we have to take it to the streets. We are responsible for our brothers and for cleaning up our community,” said Rev. Marcia Dyson, wife of Michael Dyson.

This “State of the Black Union” conference was Mr. Smiley’s fourth effort. The theme was “The Black Church: Relevant, Repressive or Reborn.” Panelists expressed gratitude for being convened because the church is a sacred part of the Black community and is often approached with a hands-off attitude.

Mr. Smiley met the challenge with a no-holds- barred attitude. Every issue was relevant, none were repressed and the church emerged reborn in the eyes of many in the audience.

“I know there are folks in the Black church whose televisions blew up and ministers who had strokes at what they heard,” said Rev. Barbara Allison Simpson, who stayed for the daylong presentation.

“This program told the truth about the Black church and issues that people don’t want to talk about, like the harems pastors have, AIDS and the sexual abuse that women endure in the church that is silenced. For this to be discussed on worldwide TV is unheard of,” she said.

Much of what was said that day may never be heard again. Clergy don’t usually get together like that outside of their denominations; several ministers encouraged more gatherings like this one.

“We have to forget our denominations and pool our resources together. We have to spend time studying and delivering the word. We have to make this thing work for all,” said Bishop Jones.

The morning panel moderated by Mr. Smiley was co-hosted by radio broadcaster and activist Tom Joyner. The panel included Reverends James H. Cone, Michael E. Dyson, James Forbes Jr., Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Jacquelyn Grant, Noel Jones, Barbara L. King, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Paul Morton, Eugene Rivers III, Gardner C. Taylor, Marvin Winans and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

The afternoon panel was moderated by attorney/TV anchor Raymond Brown and included Reverends Charles G. Adams, Jamal-Harrison Bryant, Iva Carruthers, Johnnie Colemon, Marcia Louise Dyson, Cain Hope Felder, Floyd H. Flake, Frederick D. Haynes, Carolyn Ann Knight, Carlton Pearson, Al Sharpton, William J. Shaw and Cornel West.