WASHINGTON -- Olivia Burroughs is a grandmotherly 71, born in Virginia. She is proud, self-assured and direct.
When she saw her pastor on the street one day last fall, she marched right up to him and asked, "What are we voting for next Tuesday? I don't understand all this stuff."
"Don't worry," replied the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy. "I'll explain it on Sunday."
"This stuff" was a ballot initiative to hold assault-gun manufacturers liable for damage the weapons cause, and Mr. Fauntroy was one of the 125 members of Washington's Interdenominational Ministers Alliance behind it.
With a huge get-out-the-vote effort by the district's black churches, and a 12 percent voter turnout overall, the initiative passed by a large margin.
Mrs. Burroughs has been a member of Mr. Fauntroy's New Bethel Baptist Church for 25 years. She is a nurse's aide in its first aid unit, a teacher in its Saturday church school, a helper in its kitchen and a strong voice in its gospel choir. She also lives in its non-profit housing development for people with low or moderate incomes.
And she is typical of the black church's voters, many of whom are women and middle-aged or older. She's a registered Democrat, and she always votes.
Politics has been at the heart of the black church ever since the era of slavery, when itinerant preacher-politicians risked their lives to organize "invisible" churches at secret meetings on Southern plantations.
The 200-year tradition has continued. The top civil rights leaders in the 1960s were ministers, and some of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s lieutenants became elected officials, among them the Rev. Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, and the Rev. John Lewis, now Representative Lewis, D-Ga.
Today, another of those lieutenants, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, is an example that the black church's role as an incubator of politicians is stronger than ever.
However, the base of the relationship is not the clergy but the congregations. They form a large, active voting bloc that gives political candidates "immediate weekly access" to more than 20 million people, according to the Right Rev. John Hurst Adams, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the founding chairman of the Congress of National Black Churches.
Most of that number come from the two largest denominations -- the 13.5 million Baptists and the 3.6 million-member A.M.E. Church, who together constitute more than half the country's black population of 31 million.
At the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, "Politics is in the system," says Larry Little, an engineer who has been a member for 13 years. "It's part of our A.M.E. Church tradition."
Mr. Little, a church trustee, is a past president of the church's Henry McNeil Turner Society, which sponsors political discussions and forums, among other activities -- he describes it as Bethel's "political arm." And he was Maryland state coordinator of Mr. Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, as well as a Jackson delegate to that year's Democratic National Convention.
High voting rate
About 8,000 Baltimoreans are members of the church on Druid Hill Avenue. So many of them regularly attend Sunday services that its pastor, the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, holds two services in the morning and another in the evening. Mr. Reid, stepbrother of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, was also a Jackson convention delegate, and Mr. Jackson preached a sermon at the church recently.
But the numbers are only part of the church's electoral power. A University of Michigan study of the 1988 presidential election found a voter registration rate of 80 percent among blacks of voting age who were regular churchgoers, compared with a two-thirds rate among the general population. Among registered voters, 70 percent of black churchgoers voted, compared with 59 percent of the general electorate.
Most of these votes -- about 90 percent -- go to Democrats.
Now, with another decisive year in American politics approaching, the nation's black church -- the oldest, largest, wealthiest and most influential private institution in the black community -- is again flexing its political muscle:
* In New Orleans, black ministers led a voter-turnout drive against the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign of former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, a Republican. Despite winning 55 percent of the white vote, Mr. Duke was swamped when black voters turned out in record numbers to give 96 percent of their support to his Democratic opponent.
* In Pennsylvania, Sen. Harris Wofford, a Democrat, cited Philadelphia's black vote as a decisive factor in his improbable win over former U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh. Mr. Wofford courted that vote assiduously, attending services at a black church every Sunday of the campaign. The last such visit was to a rally at the Bright Hope Baptist Church, where the pastor over a flock of 6,500 is also no stranger to politics -- the Rev. William H. Gray III, who recently resigned from Congress after becoming the first black majority whip.