Group's new leader has a different style

Ministerial alliance names president from city's east side

January 28, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, vested in a bright red ministerial robe, ascended the pulpit at East Baltimore's St. Paul Community Baptist Church and peered intently at the mostly young mourners at the funeral of another victim of urban violence.

"When I got word about what had happened to Tony, when I read the account of what happened, my heart was vexed because of this spirit of madness that is wreaking havoc in our community," said Perkins in a steadily rising cadence as he eulogized Robert Anthony Bland, 37, shot six times the first week of the year.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "I was not there, and I don't know why what happened, happened. But I pray that the day will come when we as African-Americans will stop killing ourselves!"

Perkins will focus on this violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the city this past decade and the social conditions that cause it - as well as city school funding, rampant drug addiction and inequities in the state's juvenile justice system - as he assumes the presidency of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the city's predominantly African-American clergy group.

History of accomplishment

Perkins, 47, a native Philadelphian who has led St. Paul Community Baptist Church for 21 years, succeeds the highly visible and occasionally pugnacious Bishop Douglas I. Miles, who completed his term.

He takes the helm of an organization with a proud history of more than a half-century of accomplishment.

The Alliance led the fight against racism in Baltimore, organizing demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s calling for the desegregation of schools, amusement parks, movie theaters, restaurants and other public places.

It founded the Maryland Food Committee, which is now part of the Center for Poverty Solutions. It gave birth to Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the faith-based community organization, and more recently pushed for the creation of the Child First Authority, which creates havens for inner-city youths.

Politicians sought the Alliance's endorsement, and the fortunate recipients could count on ministers supporting them in sermons the Sunday before election and mobilizing congregations on their behalf.

But many observers sense that its influence in recent years may have waned as the Alliance's work has been taken up by a handful of highly visible leaders with diminishing participation by rank-and-file ministers. Only a fraction of the more than 200 ministers on its membership rolls are active.

Change in style

The transition in the Alliance presidency from Miles to Perkins is accompanied by a change in leadership style.

Miles was an outspoken watchdog of government and politicians, often a caustic critic and never shy about stirring debate.

During the last mayoral campaign, he criticized Martin O'Malley as an "opportunist" who saw a chance to win the election because he thought two black candidates would split the black vote.

Perkins, however, is a little more soft-spoken. "I really don't like confrontation," Perkins said. "But let me be very clear. If pressed, I will do that, and I will do that very effectively."

Said Miles of Perkins: "I think he'll be more low key, and at least initially, more conciliatory in his approach, charting his own path and own course" for the Alliance. "But he'll be standing in the tradition of the Alliance with a deep commitment to social issues, especially as they affect poor people."

Geographic shift

Almost as significant as a change in style with the new president is a shift in geography.

Perkins also will be the first Alliance president from the heart of East Baltimore.

Miles' Koinonia Baptist Church on Greenmount Avenue is on the edge of the east side, but he made his name in town as pastor of Brown's Memorial Baptist Church in Pimlico.

The Alliance has until now been led mostly by West Baltimore ministers, who were perceived as having more influence because they led larger and more important churches, with wealthier, better-educated and more influential congregations than those on the east side.

Historically, the most prominent congregations have been onthe west side: Bethel AME, Sharp Street United Methodist, Union Baptist, Douglas Memorial Community Church, New Shiloh Baptist and New Psalmist Baptist. Even today, the ministers considered the most influential community leaders preach in West Baltimore: the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., the Rev. Walter S. Thomas.

"I think it's very significant, his being from the east side," said the Rev. Melvin Tuggle, pastor of Garden of Prayer Baptist Church and a founding member of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, a coalition of about 120 east-side churches.

"One of the reasons CURE was born was the east side didn't feel it had political sway or ministerial respect," said Tuggle.

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