“Does being in an alley please God? Does using drugs please God?” Pastor Ellis Hodges admonished the men. “We can focus so much on our addiction [that] we don’t focus enough on pleasing God.”
Michael Jackson nodded in agreement. Jackson, 52, addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol, is in his third stint at the downtown shelter, at which people attend worship services daily.
“The images on the wall motivate me. Dr. King never saw a black president. I never thought I would see one,” Jackson said.
“God raised you up so that you could help somebody else,” Hodges told residents of the shelter. “That is Dr. King’s dream right there.”
More than 50 years after Southern black pastors played a crucial leadership role in the civil rights movement, and amid tough economic times that just won’t go away, pastors such as Hodges are sharpening their message of helping “the least of these,” reflecting King’s dual emphasis on preaching the Gospel and fighting to right racial and economic wrongs.
“If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority,” King wrote in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” after he was arrested for taking part in a nonviolent protest.
Gospel Rescue shares King’s goal of lifting up the needy, and also the civil rights leader’s activist approach. Founded in 1906 as “the Gospel Mission,” the ministry at first offered services only to men. Over the years, the program has expanded to offer food, shelter, counseling and work programs for men and women.
“We don’t celebrate and work with the poor one season out of the year,” Hodges said. “We live it, breathe it, participate in it and support those in poverty every single day.”
The Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria is one of many that embraces the activist role, sending young people to North Carolina last summer to glean corn and potatoes for families in need.
“The real strength of King was in his service and his advocacy,” said youth minister Dustin B. Sullivan. “We are trying to make this real and relevant to this generation that Dr. King’s spirit is within them.”
But some question such an emphasis on activism, saying the church is much more than a pulpit for social activism. Others say political stances can be divisive.
The Rev. Patrick J. Walker, pastor of the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, and president of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington and Vicinity,said that although churches are known for helping people in need, one of the most important things King did was to appeal to people’s hearts.