WASHINGTON – For the first time in nearly 50 years, three historic black denominations will join hands to confront some of the social ills plaguing African American communities.
"If ever there was a time that we needed to be together, it is this time," Senior Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said Friday at the announcement of the coalition.
"There is a lot of pain in the country; there is a lot of pain in our community," he said. "We want to put our heads together and our hearts together to see what we can do to try to ease that kind of pain."
The AME Church has united with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church to take initiative on such issues as unemployment, education, healthcare and the high incarceration rate among African Americans.
Those are some of the same issues that were addressed in 1964 when the three denominations came together in Atlanta. But they're coming together on a larger scale next month and anticipating far-reaching impact.
For the African American church, dealing with social issues is one of its priorities.
"We believe that Jesus espoused the social Gospel," Senior Bishop George W.C. Walker, Sr. of the AME Zion Church told The Christian Post. "Everywhere he went, all he did ... social activity was involved."
The three black Methodist denominations – which currently have a combined membership of more than 5 million – were birthed "from a brand of social justice," Walker noted, alluding to the black community's protest against slavery and the racial discrimination that was present in white Methodist churches.
And they have always been sensitive to social ills and justice since the denominations' births in the 19th century, he added.
"[We] now feel it is time, past time that we should bring again the three denominations together to address the atrocities and the plight of our people," he said.
The timing of the coalition is particularly apt as the country tries to recover from an economic downturn and as President Obama tries to push measures on job creation and healthcare reform.
For the general population it may be a downturn, but for the African American community it's a depression, Bryant of AME Church noted.
The Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell, pastor of Grace AME Zion Church in Raleigh, N.C., said they support Obama on his agenda and stand in solidarity with him in his efforts to create more jobs and make healthcare affordable and accessible. The coalition has invited Obama to address their upcoming mass gathering in Columbia, S.C. They have yet to receive confirmation from the White House.
The March 1-3 event, called the "Great Gathering," will signal what Powell described as the "new church." It will be a new church not in terms of organic structure, he clarified, but in way where the church is more transparent and proactive.
"Those we serve are demanding a return on investment (of their time, talents and treasures)," Powell said. "The demand they're making is that they see some impact which indicates transformation that takes place in our communities."
"No longer are we trying to hide the fact that we do have problems," he added. "We're not trying to pull the covers over any issues anymore. We're going to be transparent but more importantly, we're going to be transformative."
The coalition is seeking to make an impact particularly among African American males. Poverty, a low high school graduation rate, and a high incarceration and crime rate have the church leaders concerned.
"The African American male is noticeably absent in the church. He is also absent in the home," Walker of AME Zion Church stated. "If we can find answers to what is happening with the black male in this country, these solutions will have a positive impact on black family life in this nation."
Though there are local programs throughout the country aimed at helping black youth, the coalition laments that there has not been a nationwide effort created and implemented by "one of the most influential and powerful segments of the African American community, the Church."
Developing such initiatives is one of the major goals of the Great Gathering, which is expecting up to 12,000 attendees.
The three black denominations don't know exactly what to expect next month but they note that the gathering in itself has true historic implications for the African American community.
"I think that if we can accomplish that goal of just coming together and talking, the potentials are far-reaching," the Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr., pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church in Washington, D.C., commented. "Anything that comes out of that is going to be positive."