Trying to inspire clerical activism

Minister: The new president of a city ministerial alliance says young pastors need to build up their communities.

April 16, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

The new head of Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance says one of his top priorities is recruiting young pastors to the faith-based lobbying group to reverse what he sees as a decline in clerical activism.

The Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue, said that some younger pastors today are more focused on developing their churches and preaching prosperity than ministering to the broader urban community and addressing its many ills.

"We build up kingdoms unto ourselves and for the benefit of our congregations, only we don't do much in the way of building up community as we once did during the civil rights era," said Calhoun, 54, who took over as president of the alliance in late January. "Many younger, newer clergy, you won't see them fighting at City Hall for welfare mothers or the schools."

The alliance is a predominantly black, city-based federation of clergy who advocate for the urban poor on crime, education, housing and food.

Calhoun, who served as the group's president in the 1990s, takes over from the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East Baltimore, who led the group for three years.

The alliance came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, and became engaged in electoral politics in the 1970s. It founded the Maryland Food Committee. It also gave birth to Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the faith-based community organization known as BUILD.

But the flight of the black middle class from the city to the suburbs -- and a shift away from public activism by a new generation of preachers -- has presented the alliance with new challenges over the past 15 years, leaders say.

The organization, which counts 280 religious leaders as members, usually draws just 25 to 30 for monthly meetings, with an average age of 50 to 60.

"To some extent, its influence has declined, but I don't think it's to the point that it can't be repaired," said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church on Greenmount Avenue who served two terms as president of the group.

Calhoun says he wants to engage younger preachers and instill a greater sense of traditional Christian service through one-on-one talks, recruitment and mentoring.

"The elder preacher in years gone by served as a mentor to younger preachers," said Calhoun. "We don't see much of that anymore. I think the older preacher and the younger preacher need to listen to the experiences of each other."

One of his other main priorities, Calhoun said, is raising money for a national monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall in Washington.

Under Perkins' leadership, the alliance pressed for adoption of the Thornton Commission's recommendations for a new education aid formula designed to bridge the gap between rich and poor jurisdictions.

The group also battled against legalization of slot machines and a proposed 8 percent city energy tax on nonprofits.

Perkins, 50, was often outspoken and aggressive, describing casinos as "predators" and accusing any member of the city delegation who voted for them of "selling us out."

Of his successor, Perkins said: "Calhoun is also aggressive, but he's not confrontational."

Some alliance members expect Calhoun to be more collaborative, increasing contacts with other faiths, including Jews and Muslims, and involving more clergy in the alliance's agenda-setting process.

"I think Reverend Calhoun is seeking to reach out to women pastors in the city because sometimes they can be forgotten and they do so much good work," said the Rev. Sylvester Peterka, a Roman Catholic priest and one of the alliance's two vice presidents.

Calhoun was raised in Frankfort, Ky., and has served as pastor of Trinity Baptist for three decades. He holds a doctorate of ministry degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Philathia Reese-Calhoun, who works in volunteer administration, and has one son, William Jr., who works in the mayor's office.

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