Revitalized activist role is urged for black church

Symposium marks 150th Union Baptist anniversary

October 06, 2002|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fearing that the black church has lost its way, speakers praised the church yesterday for its historic successes, criticized it for becoming complacent and exhorted congregations to keep fighting for political and social change.

Many of yesterday's speakers, who attended a two-day symposium at historic Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, lamented what they say is an increased focus on emotional worship services that include music and celebration and the related decline of social activism.

"I don't want to waste my time hollering and shouting when I don't have anything to holler and shout about," said Homer Favor, a retired Morgan State economics professor who served on one panel.

Others addressing the group included former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode and UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III.

Goode, who is now a Baptist minister - he jokingly called himself a "reformed politician" - reminded the audience of the prominent role of the black church and the obligations that is must fulfill.

"For many communities, the black church is the only institution of any import left. The black church is needed now more than ever."

He encouraged the audience to make use of the federal "faith-based" initiative program, which offers money to religious groups to set up social programs. Goode started one such program, to help children of imprisoned parents.

"In a community that has so many needs," he said, "we need the churches to come to the forefront."

The symposium, which was part of Union Baptist's 150th birthday celebration, drew about 80 participants.

Normally, William Brown would have taken advantage of the gorgeous weather to head to the golf course. Instead, he chose to spend the day sitting inside.

"You have to understand the history of the black church, what the church has given to the community for 150 years," said Brown, 62. "I feel compelled to be here."

For more than a century, Union Baptist, which was founded in 1852, has been a center of the black church and of the civil rights movement in Baltimore. Under its current pastor, the Rev. Vernon Dobson, the church has continued to fight for social reform.

Invoking the spirit of Union pastor and reformer Harvey Johnson, who led the church in the late 19th century, several speakers said the black church must take the lead in social action.

"The black church is disengaged," Dobson argued. "My theory is that it has become more interested in success than in community."

The symposium was the brainchild of Richard McKinney, a retired Morgan State University philosophy professor who has been a Union Baptist member since 1952.

Two years ago, McKinney began thinking about how best to commemorate Union Baptist's 150th birthday. He decided to use the event as a way to examine the changing role of the black church in the black community and in the United States.

"We're very worried about the direction it's going," he said.

"There are some charismatic men who have used their skills to build huge congregations. That draws attention away from the basic mission of the black church to raise the level of hope of individual members. We have moved away from the focus on political and social change."

McKinney, who is 96 but looks a quarter-century younger, said the symposium had succeeded far beyond his expectations.

"Hopefully this will get people to see the issues and the problems, and what may be some of the solutions."

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