National Baptists gather for 5-day N.Y.C. meeting Self-empowerment for blacks the focus

September 07, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- The nation's largest black religious organization is gathering in New York City this week, filling the halls of Madison Square Garden with song and sermon and proclaiming a message of self-empowerment that its leaders hope will filter throughout black America.

Up to 50,000 members of the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc., are expected to attend the 113th annual gathering, which starts today and is to last five days.

National Baptist officials expect the meeting to be one of the biggest in the group's history. By comparison, the Democratic National Convention last year drew 20,000 participants.

The convention comes in the midst of a continuing transition for the National Baptists, who in the past few years have evolved from a conservative group whose leadership once disagreed with the tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a more progressive organization that opposed the Persian Gulf War and actively sought to address social ills plaguing blacks.

This is the first time since 1935 that the National Baptists have convened in New York City, and organization officials said reasons for the choice ranged from the pragmatic to the spiritual.

One major factor was Mayor David Dinkins, whom the organization is supporting in his bid for a second term, and whose presence made the city and its bureaucracy less daunting, said the convention chairman, Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson. He is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

"We feel he knows us, he'd be sensitive to our concerns," Dr. Richardson said. "His leadership was crucial, symbolically and literally."

By bringing their membership and message to the media center of the nation, Dr. Richardson said, the organization hoped to put the country on notice that its 8.5 million members are a force to be reckoned with.

"It's time the largest black organization has a large presence," Dr. Richardson said. "So we come to New York hoping the message of the gospel will have a better airing than if we had not come here."

The organization, first organized in 1880, has more than 33,000 churches and is the third-largest Protestant denomination in the nation. Its officials say it is the largest black organization in the world.

During general sessions, informal gatherings and official meetings, convention organizers say the assembly will provide an opportunity for ministers to share advice on how they and their congregations are addressing such issues as drug addiction, homelessness and AIDS.

The group's leadership hopes to re-emphasize its message that political and economic self-empowerment are critical to the survival of blacks.

"The next frontier for black people is economic empowerment, and the black church must make economic empowerment its agenda," Dr. Richardson said.

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