Mfume reaches out to religious leaders

Census participation, voting crucial to cause, NAACP leader says

February 02, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Religious leaders can best advance the cause of civil rights by encouraging their congregations to vote in this year's elections and to participate in the census, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume told a smattering of national church representatives yesterday.

Several dozen ministers and rabbis gathered in Baltimore for a two-day National Religious Leaders Summit called to reaffirm ties between churches and synagogues, the African-American community and the Baltimore-based civil rights organization. Mfume called the first such summit in October 1997, to re-establish a relationship between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and religious leaders that had been waning.

The relationship is of paramount importance to the NAACP because churches have historically been the social center of the African-American community and, by extension, the civil rights movement.

Churches have provided African-American leadership, offered educational opportunities and served as the bread basket when families had nothing to eat, the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie, pastor of Baltimore's Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, told summit participants at the NAACP's North Baltimore headquarters.

`The rallying point'

"The faith community is the community center. It is the rallying point," she said. "The faith community provided the foot soldiers in the civil rights movement."

So if the NAACP wants to address the issues advocated by Mfume -- voter registration and education, census participation, opposition to the Confederate flag and fighting hate groups -- "you have to come to the core of our community, which is the faith-based institutions," McKenzie said.

In the years since Mfume took up his church initiative, contacts have expanded and NAACP membership has grown. Many of the nearly 50,000 people who marched last month in Columbia, S.C., to demand the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse were organized at churches. And congregations have been active in fund raising for the NAACP, Mfume said.

Mfume credited churches with helping him to put the NAACP on steady financial footing after he inherited a $3.2 million deficit when he took over its leadership in 1996.

"The faith communities have helped us to broaden our membership and to do that in a way that has accelerated the process of people coming home to the NAACP," Mfume said.

Key initiatives

Participation in the census, as well as voter registration and education, are key NAACP initiatives this year. Because the African-American community has been undercounted in past censuses, the community has not received all the government resources and services it needs.

"We want you to help us to spark in people a desire to want to make a difference," he said.

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