By Hazel Trice Edney and Hamil Harris
As America prepares to return to the polls for mid-term elections amidst racial tensions, continued economic inequities and a President that appears to embrace racism and shun truth, thousands of Black church leaders and parishioners answered a “Call to Conscience/Day of Action” last week, intended to send a message to the White House and beyond.
“Racism is not dead in America. As a matter of fact, it’s not even sick. It doesn’t even have a cold,” said Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, chair of the Conference of National Black Churches, preaching at a worship service the night before a mass rally in Lafayette Park across from the White House Sept. 6. “We live in one of the most racist times in the history of this country. In spite of the fact that we’ve come through slavery. There’s nothing good about slavery. But slavery provided a forum wherein our oppressors were visible and we could see them. They were touchable. What makes the difficulties of this time is our oppressors are invisible.”
The worship service, intended to stir up those planning to attend the rally, was held at Reid Temple AME Church.
“Tomorrow at Lafayette Park, we not only want the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – who is living in the house that Black hands built – we not only want him to see us we want him to hear us,” Bishop Reginald T. Jackson told the congregation. Jackson, president of the Council of AME Bishops, is the visionary who called the “Day of Action”.
The high-spirited two-day event drew hundreds to a day-long issues symposium before the worship service that drew more than a thousand. After the rally the next day, bishops and church leaders traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with senators and representatives. The activities recalled a 1960s type movement, an awakening of sorts.
“There’s one thing that’s worse than slavery. That’s to adjust to it. A slave should be maladjusted,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the worship service. “It was hard to wake us up until Trump came along. Trump is nothing but a wake-up call.”
Richardson, the keynote speaker at the worship service, agreed that Trump is only temporary. But he warned, “He speaks for the oppressors. He speaks for the haters. We need to be aware of the nature of our battle. We will eliminate 45. But there’ll be some young aspiring 45s. They will be inspired by his conduct who’ll want to grow up and be like him. We must watch for those who are on the horizon who must come this way.”
Franklyn pointed out that African-Americans are statistically worse off than any other racial group in every social category in America. He then paralleled the current pains of Black people to those suffered by the Children of Israel in the Book of Jeremiah as they suffered an economic crisis.
“The spring harvest has past and the summer has ended and though we have planted, there has been no harvest,” he paraphrased the Prophet Jeremiah. “When you do not plant, it is unreasonable to expect a harvest, but when you plant you ought to expect a harvest. We, African-Americans, have planted. We didn’t just show up here and volunteer. We have been planting,” he said citing how Black people led in building America through fighting in wars and even building the White House and U. S. Capitol buildings.
“Seems like the harvest has come but we didn’t get any of the harvest. It was enough harvest for everybody, but the harvest was inequitably distributed. The folk who got the harvest, took the harvest and passed it on to their children,” he said to the applauding and shouting congregation. “We as pastors, we must focus on what our people are going through. I don’t mean the members of our churches. I mean the collective African-American people!”
The next day, Lafayette Square was filled with prayers, songs of praise and calls for social Justice Sept. 6 as the Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church hosted a rally across from the White House to persuade President Trump to change his political ways.
The event featured leaders of the AME church and other national church leaders – young and old. They made it clear that they are organizing a massive get out to vote campaign that they hope will oust Republicans in Congress who simply have rubber stamped the President’s efforts to turn back the Civil Rights clock in many areas.
“We are here today because our cause is right, we are here today because we are sending a message, we are here today because we want to let this country know we ain’t going [to] let nobody turn us around,” said Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram, prelate of the 1st Episcopal District who opened the rally with prayer and statement of purpose. “We are here today because we have gone through so much, we have prayed too long, we have walked too far.”
Ingram came to the District with a bus load of congregants because he represents churches in Bermuda and much of the Northeastern United States including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Ingram was among more than a dozen speakers to address the more than 1,000 congregants gathered in Lafayette Park. Speakers included veterans of the Civil Rights movement such as Rainbow/PUSH president/CEO Rev. Jesse Jackson; Bishop Reginald Jackson, president of the Bishops’ Council of the AME Church, who issued and led the call; and Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in New York and former general secretary of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
Other speakers included Bishop E. Anne Henning-Byfield of the 16th Episcopal AME District; Rev. Stephen Green, pastor of Heard AME Church in Roselle, N.J.; Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore; radio talk show host and civil rights leader Barbara Arnwine, and poet and Morgan State University Professor Sheri Booker.
Bishop Reginald Jackson told the demonstrators that even though President Trump recently met with a small group of Black pastors he really hasn’t heard from the heart of Black America. “President Trump has heard from the professional prophets but now he is going to hear from God’s prophets,” he said.
Rev. Jesse Jackson said that the best way to even the political playing field with Trump is at the ballot box. “November 6th, that’s our date and destiny: Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts; Ben Jealous, Maryland; Stacey Abrams, Georgia, Andrew Gillum, Florida; Mike Espy, Mississippi,” he said, pointing out major races around the nation with key African-American candidates.
During a press conference held at the Metropolitan AME Church in Downtown DC, Bishop Reginald Jackson and other church leaders talked about the importance of the election and how they plan to organize get out to vote rallies in local churches across the country.
“It is so important that the body of Christ, particularly the Black church, operates with some level of moral authority,” said Rev. Jamal Bryant, Pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. “In the face of depravity and corruption of morality in the White House we have got to speak truth to power, we can not be silent in the church.”
Dr. Jonathan Weaver, Pastor of Greater Mount Nebo AME Church, said “the event was keeping with the spirit and the legacy of the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen, who spoke out against injustice, spoke out against racism. That was 220 years ago and here we are in 2018 having to have voices spoken loudly against racism, sexism, ageism and the nefarious policies of this current administration.”
During a press conference after the rally the Bishops talked about formulating a nationwide campaign to get out the vote. Bryant said that they had received a call from the White House in which Jared Kushner wanted to speak and set up a future meeting. But Bishop Reginald Jackson said the church is interested in real progress – not “photo ops”.