When we remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we think of his soaring rhetoric and specific goals for the African-American community: the right to use public accommodations, to vote, and to live in any neighborhood, for instance.
Today the quest for the right to vote has been replaced by the need to motivate people to register and vote. The push to integrate schools has been replaced by the need to motivate Black students to strive for academic excellence. The struggle for equal housing opportunities has become a struggle to ensure that Blacks learn how to live financially responsible lives and recover from the foreclosure crisis.
Whereas King’s goals were primarily about changing laws and influencing wider public opinion, these current goals are primarily about individual responsibility.
Unfortunately, that distinction seems to have been missed by the recently revived Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC). Relaunched last month after a few dormant years, the CNBC comprises nine of the largest Black denominations, made up of as many as 30 million individuals and more than 50,000 congregations. Led by the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, the conference says that it speaks with a “unified voice” on health, education, public policy, social justice and economic empowerment.
Since churches have long been the bedrock of the Black community, producing not only many of its most prominent leaders but also providing aid to those in need, one might have had high hopes for the CNBC. But then came its first major pronouncement: “Based on our prophetic responsibility to speak to those in power on behalf of the poor, underserved, and vulnerable, we find it utterly shameful that those who insisted that the deficit be reduced now celebrate billions of dollars being added to the deficit as tax cuts for the wealthy,” wrote Richardson.
That’s the best they can do? With all of the problems plaguing the Black community, are tax cuts (including for wealthy Blacks, I might add) really the issue that needs the CNBC’s full attention? Clergy certainly have a responsibility to speak out on important social issues, and tax policy may be one. But the CNBC’s familiar preoccupation with weighing in on matters primarily political, while remaining silent on matters within its ecclesiastical reach, makes it hard to consider the group distinct from the many other civil rights gatherings that do much talking but solve few problems.
As a pastor of a church that has a few thousand members, I would love to hear that the CNBC is challenging its membership to recruit 500,000 families to take in our country’s half-million foster children. (My church’s Harvest of Hope program has recruited 365 families to become foster parents to 700 foster children and adoptive parents to 225 children.) I would love to hear that the CNBC is instituting a financial-education program at each of its churches. I would love to hear that it is encouraging academic achievement by guaranteeing resources and mentors for every Black student.
None of these problems will be solved by government policies alone. They need the attention of our churches and other community organizations.
When King announced on the eve of his assassination that he had seen the “Promised Land,” he could not have imagined the levels of violence, school drop-outs, drug addiction and child abandonment that have become normal in Black America. To get to the Promised Land, we will need to rebuild the infrastructure of the Black family, the neighborhood and the church.
The question remains: Who will do this work?
Soaries is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J.