African American pastors express support for Occupy movement

January 20, 2012

As the nation observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant was outside the Federal Reserve’s headquarters in the District, protesting.

And at the public radio station WPFW (89.3 FM), the Rev. Graylan S. Hagler used his airtime Monday to note the similarities between the Occupy Wall Street movement and those who camped in “Resurrection City,” in the shadows of the Washington Monument, after King was slain.

A growing number of African American pastors in the Washington area, including the Rev. Carroll A. Baltimore Sr., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, have embraced the Occupy movement. In December, leaders of Occupy D.C. left their encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza to worship at Empowerment Temple, Bryant’s church in Baltimore. Hagler has held services on Freedom Plaza. Others bring food and clothing to the protesters. And Bryant, who ministers to many in the Maryland suburbs, co-founded Occupy the Dream with former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis.

The pastors’ pleas for economic justice sound a lot like King’s.

“This is the continuation of the [civil rights] movement. It was the economic movement that King was killed for,” said Hagler, of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast Washington.

The Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, echoed that sentiment, although he said he has “ongoing concerns” about Occupy’s tactics and goals.

“When Dr. King was killed, he was . . . fighting for the rights of sanitation workers,” Coates said. “It is critically important that we relate our faith to issues of economic justice and systemic inequality.”

Some critics say the focus of the Occupy movement, which by design does not have leaders, is unclear. But Bryant, who observed the movement from a distance before deciding he wanted to be part of it, was adamant that Occupy the Dream has a defined agenda.

“Number one, we are asking for more Pell grants so that our young people might be able to compete and go to colleges and universities,” he said. “Number two, we are asking for an immediate freezing on foreclosures.” The group is also seeking billions of dollars “from Wall Street for economic development and for job training.”

Beginning in February, Bryant plans to launch a campaign to urge people to bank only at minority-owned financial institutions.

Bryant, 40, a former national youth director for the NAACP, said his involvement in Occupy the Dream feels like he’s “coming home” to his civil rights roots.

“I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has held the legacy of Dr. King and has brought the church back into accountability,” Bryant said. “Dr. King would be here today. He wouldn’t be at a breakfast; he wouldn’t be at a mall. He would be here with us.”

But some pastors hesitate to throw their support behind Occupy.

The Rev. William Bennett, pastor of Good Success Christian Church and Ministries in Northeast and a founding member of the Washington Interfaith Network, hasn’t joined. But, he added, “I understand what they are fighting for.

“We have not had an economic time like this since the Great Depression, and it does call for some actions,” Bennett said. “But what I have observed . . . is that there are not clear goals and objectives. The Occupy movement does seem to be organized with a goal to create chaos. The civil rights movement was organized with a clear list of demands.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, co-founder of the National Action Network, said that his group and Occupy share key concerns but that “we stress nonviolence, and we’re church-based. . . . There’s some overlap, but I think they have their own way of doing things.”

The Rev. Joe Watkins, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, said that churches should stick to their primary mission.

“The role of the church is to lead people to Christ and to tell them the good news and to live the good news,” Watkins said. “The young people part of the Occupy movement are just as precious as anybody. But the primary focus of the church is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Jonathan Weaver, founder of the Collective Banking Group, which urges banks to increase lending to minorities and faith-based institutions, said the debate over priorities and protests should not be “either this or that.” Weaver, a Harvard MBA who is pastor of Greater Mount Nebo AME in Bowie, said the issues raised by Occupy are similar to his group’s.

“It wasn’t with placards, but we changed the way that financial institutions were relating to the broader public,” he said. “After we started to take money out of the banks, they sat down and became real partners with us.”

Weaver said he thinks that Occupy is “a good thing.”

“Overall, people have reached a level of complacency, and that concerns me,” Weaver said. “There is a growing sentiment that much more needs to be done well beyond worshiping on Sunday morning and getting people engaged.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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