KING FOLLOWERS MOURN
LOSS OF ACTIVISM
By Errin Haines
Associated Press Writer
Fri, Apr. 04 2008 06:53
ATLANTA (AP) - A generation ago, the Rev. Timothy McDonald founded First
Iconium Baptist Church
in east Atlanta to fight for the destitute and the victims
Often with little
help from other churches, First Iconium leaders have fought to ensure Atlanta's
only public hospital stays open, agitated for decent housing and worked to improve the juvenile justice system.
"We are concerned
about public policy and how that impacts people's lives," McDonald said. "Why was Jesus crucified? Because he identified with
the poor. Because he had the courage to speak out against the government of his day."
But four decades
after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., black pastors who try to follow King's example by fighting against
war, racism and poverty consider themselves a minority within a minority.
"You can almost
count them on one hand," McDonald said.
After a pause,
McDonald counted about four or five such pastors in Atlanta,
compared to at least a dozen when he founded First Iconium. Many have since died or retired, and he said they have not been
The iconic images
of marches and protests led by black preachers during the 1950s and 1960s have left some to wonder where King's would-be successors
and followers are today.
But Kamasi Hill,
a doctoral candidate in 20th century American religion at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., said activist black churches have long been
"I don't want
to minimize the work some folks have made towards the struggle, but it still was the minority," Hill said. "That's not a critique
of the black church; that's how any social movement is. The vast majority of folks don't fight for their own liberation."
churches that embrace a social justice gospel are those espousing prosperity, reinforcing the rise of the black middle class.
In Atlanta, two such churches have grown to mega-status: New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia,
and World Changers Church International in College Park, which
both boast auditorium-style sanctuaries and claim memberships in the tens of thousands.
Though the churches
are involved in their respective communities, such activities are less publicized than reports of their pastors' personal
wealth and their message of economic empowerment and enrichment through faith.
The Rev. Raphael
Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist
Church — where King preached from 1960 until his death —
said prosperity preachers sometimes lay false claim to the idea that they are the heirs to the civil rights movement.
"Dr. King fought
so that we would have access to a better life, but the sharp line of departure is that they don't focus on the kinds of systemic
and social justice issues that impact people's ability to have a better life," Warnock said. "Their focus is on personal prosperity
rather than collective struggle."
of translating faith into action has lately burst onto the presidential campaign. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's
former minister, has been criticized for inflammatory remarks about everything from race relations to the Sept. 11 terror
of social justice survives in King's pulpit. In the nearly three years since Warnock has come to Ebenezer, he has transported
hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees to New Orleans to vote in local elections, fought to free an imprisoned teen who received
a harsh jail sentence for having sex with another teenager and spoke out against the Iraq war.
preaches to a mostly middle class congregation and who was born one year after King's assassination, said he can do no less.
"I don't know
how you could be the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist
Church and stand in Martin Luther King Jr.'s pulpit and not speak out against the
Iraq war," Warnock said. "Part of the
reason why black congregants expect their ministers to speak boldly to these issues is because they have made us the freest
people in America."
made the danger of such a gospel personal to the members of Ebenezer. But Warnock said he hardly expects some of his congregants
to be able to take controversial public stands.
"I don't expect
the middle manager at IBM to say what I'm saying," Warnock said. "His approach, out of necessity, would have to be different
the social justice wing of the black church has had to push back against the Western ideal of rugged individualism and personal
fulfillment that fosters a self-help gospel centered around personal gain.
"It is a misstatement
of black history to create this grand narrative that says everybody in the black church has been engaged in the work of social
transformation," he said.
"But it has
been a prominent theme in black church history and it, more than anything else, is what made the black church distinctive
and unique among the American churches."