Three historic black denominations on Wednesday unveiled a new national plan aimed at keeping their young males out of prison and in school and church.
The churches are calling it the Male Investment Plan and have pledged to fund it annually with $10 million.
"Together we can do this!" Senior Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church told some 5,000 people in Columbia, S.C., according to The State newspaper.
For the first time in more than 45 years, the AME Church, the AME Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church have united in a collaborative effort to address what they consider the "plight" of African American males.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, outlined some of the grim statistics on blacks and imprisonment and called it the biggest crisis for the African Community since slavery.
She shocked the crowd when she said more African Americans are in the American correctional system than were enslaved in 1850, as reported by The State.
"A black boy, if he is born today, has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a black girl, a one in 18 chance. This is a disastrous figure," Edelman said, according to CNN. "Our prisons are filled with black fathers and black mothers, and we have got to turn it around, and we have got to break this cycle."
Hundreds of thousands of black children, she noted, are trapped in a "cradle to prison pipeline."
Edelman was addressing members of the three black Methodist denominations and other guests during the March 1-3 event called the Great Gathering at the Carolina Coliseum.
Coming out of the event, the Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell, pastor of Grace AME Zion Church in Raleigh, N.C., and chairman of the gathering, told The Christian Post that African Americans may witness the social ills in their community on a daily basis but when they realize that it is not just their community being "bombarded by ... the same degradation" then they gain a "whole different understanding of the magnitude of it all."
Powell has deemed the Great Gathering a success, saying that it exceeded everyone's expectations.
"It went exceptionally well," Powell commented Thursday. "It was a kairos moment and God was in the midst."
"The numbers were great, the spirit was phenomenal and we came out with a consensus around a concrete course of action. We're pleased with fact we have a plan in place. The challenge is execution but we're confident we will do that well."
While black churches have consistently addressed such social ills, which also include poverty and low academic achievement, Senior Bishop George W.C. Walker, Sr. of the AME Zion Church noted earlier that they have come together to renew their commitment.
The Male Investment Plan is designed for black males ages 5 to 25 and will address their needs, specifically in the area of the economy, education, health and spiritual enrichment. Churches will conduct "Saturday Academies," where participants will be partnered with mentors and attend various workshops that focus on: reading skills, high school retention, job preparation, prison prevention, self esteem, family counseling, and biblical principles concerning male leadership, among other topics. Periodic tours of local colleges will be included during the program.
The goal is "to dramatically change the lives of our participants by exposing them to the awesome gifts given them by God."
The initiative will be phased in over time in 13 regions across the country, beginning with the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area (May 2010).
Bishop Warren Brown, AME Zion Chair of Bishops, said Wednesday, "We are going to leave this place united and committed, and I know it's going to be a success because all of you here are going to do your part to make it work."
President Barack Obama also sent a video message of encouragement.
"As members of the black Methodist community, you know the challenges we face as Americans and you know the challenges the African American community faces in particular," he said. "You also know that through unwavering determination and steadfast faith each of us can rise above them (struggles) and help our brothers and sisters do the same.
"In the face of overwhelming odds you've always known that together we have the power to build a better world for the next generation. This historic meeting is the next chapter in that incredible legacy and I promise you that my administration will continue to work ... to address the serious challenges that confront us."
The three Methodist denominations have a combined membership of more than 5 million. They will partner with local, regional and national organizations to get the programs running and spread the word through local churches, the media and the Web.
After an "appropriate period of time," Powell said the churches will likely gather again to evaluate progress. They will also have to come together in the future to see if they're going to "take serious the move of the spirit of God among us" – the move being the agreement made by the leadership of the three denominations to work together as the black Methodist coalition.