New York megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard has accused black pastors who recently met with President Donald Trump of helping to create a "diversion" for the "narcissistic" commander-in-chief. He also questioned the "fruit" of the meeting.
Bernard, who was initially involved in the informal White House evangelical advisory council before dropping out last year, appeared recently on The Breakfast Club and gave his thoughts on the Aug. 1 White House roundtable discussion between Trump and a group of about 20 black Christian leaders focusing on prison reform and job growth in inner cities.
"Here is the reality though: because we have principles that guide us, if the motives are pure, the effect will be pure. The effect wasn't pure," he argued.
Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland pastor who has been very active with his engagement with the Trump administration, was among the participants of the Aug. 1 meeting. Disagreeing with Bernard's assessment, he noted that this was not the first time black pastors have visited the White House to discuss prison reform.
"I respectfully disagree with my friend Dr. Bernard. It's precisely because of those in that room, and those in similar meetings over the last couple of months, that we are on the brink of the first significant reform of our criminal justice system in 30 years," Jackson, the international presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, told The Christian Post.
"By God's grace, we are well on our way to undoing the harmful legislation instituted during the Clinton administration which has led to the mass incarceration of too many of our young people for too long. This is simply one of many such examples of progress we have made."
The roundtable featured politically diverse figures including South Carolina megachurch pastor John Gray, who previously served at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, and Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor well-known for his staunch support of Trump who stated at the meeting that Trump may be one of the most "pro-black" presidents ever.
Bernard, pastor of the 40,000-member Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, believes the meeting was an attempt at diverting attention away from the first anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right white nationalist rally, where one counter protester was killed last August.
"I know some of the individuals who were there. It was disappointing really because I knew what it was about. It was about diversion," he said.
"Coming up on the first anniversary of Charlottesville, we need diversion to take attention away from that," the 65-year-old pastor said. "They successfully did because the backlash that came against those ministers for even meeting with the president, it filled social media and took a little bit of the 24-hour news cycle."
The Aug. 1 meeting, which did create somewhat of a media firestorm at the time with a number of other black pastors speaking out against it, was held 10 days before the first anniversary of the Aug. 11-12 Charlottesville rally.
The Unite the Right rally and counter protest that took place last weekend in Washington, D.C., separately drew wide media coverage.
Bernard made headlines last year when he announced that he would no longer engage with the Trump administration because of his disgust with the president's comments following the 2017 Charlottesville rally in protest of a confederate statue. He later claimed that the informal Trump evangelical advisory committee was nothing more than a "photo-op."
Bernard was asked about the fact that Gray has defended his participation in the prison reform meeting by saying that he felt called by God to attend even though he had an initial hesitation to go because of his opposition to some of the president's policies and actions.
"That shuts me down. When somebody told me that God spoke to them, what can I say? Am I going to say, 'You didn't hear from God.' I can't say that. I can only judge," Bernard answered.
The New York pastor claimed that the meeting created "greater confusion" and "great conflict within the broader society."
"When you go in there and say, 'I am not the president's boy. I am not anyone's boy.' Or 'I went there for this particular reason,' OK, let's judge the fruit of that. What was the outcome of that?" Bernard asked. "I don't want to hurt John Gray, I want him to be successful. He is a young emerging leader and I want to see these individuals continue the legacy. But at the same time, we have got to be conscious of the weight of the decisions that we make even if it's taking a picture."
He added that the meeting resulted in many questioning why Gray and the others would even meet with the thrice married real estate mogul and reality star given the president's past questionable comments and moral character flaws.
The Christian Post reached out to Relentless Church in Greenville for comment from Gray. A response is pending.
Gray recently took to Instagram to respond to a fellow pastor who voiced opposition to his involvement in the meeting by comparing the meeting with Trump to Jesus' meetings with tax collectors and lepers.
On the same day as the pastors' roundtable, Trump is reported to have voiced openness to a plan in the U.S. Senate to include mandatory minimum sentencing reform measures in a House-passed bipartisan prison reform bill that Jackson and others say could be the first real substantial standalone justice reform bill passed into law in decades.
Prior to that, the White House had not indicated that the president would be willing to sign a prison reform bill that includes sentencing reform measures for nonviolent offenders, measures that many feel won't be supported by some Republican senators.
"Having [Trump] hear from those pastors and know that he would have the ability to impact some of their communities I am sure was in the front of his mind going into the meeting with Sen. [Chuck] Grassley and other [Republican senators] who wanted to see a broader approach to justice reform," Heather Rice-Minus of the evangelical prison advocacy group and ministry Prison Fellowship previously told CP.
In an interview Wednesday, Southern California megachurch pastor and evangelist Greg Laurie, who has himself traveled to Washington, D.C., to engage with the Trump administration, defended pastors who offer their advice to the president and the administration.
"I think we need to take the president's name out of it and just reframe the question. Should we as pastors meet with the sitting president of the United States regardless if we voted for him or not?" Laurie asked. "I would say the answer is absolutely, yes."
Laurie cited biblical examples, such as Daniel serving in the court of kings like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius.
"Were those godly men? Not at all. Nebuchadnezzar came to faith later in his life but this was not a godly man. But Daniel was there to provide counsel and advice to the king," Laurie said.
"Also, you have Joseph with the Pharaoh, you have Nehemiah with King Artaxerxes. There is a long biblical history of trying to influence leaders such as Apostle Paul before Roman governors like Felix and others. So I think isolating ourselves and saying I will not have any contact with a person because of things in their life that maybe I don't agree with is not a good position. I think we should be salt and light wherever we can and I know many Christian leaders do convey their concerns to the president about many issues but they would rather influence him privately."
Laurie also stressed that whenever someone receives an invitation to the White House, they should go and try to be the "influence in a place where so much power resides."