On a typical Sunday, "if we have 500 people in the congregation, and if we have 100 men, that's a lot," said Helen Aikens, a parishioner from a large African Methodist Episcopal congregation in New York City.
Surveying the emptying conference room, which had been filled largely with women only a few moments before, she shook her head from side to side and said, "It's a sad situation."
Aikens was still reflecting on an emotion-charged workshop at the 17th Biennial Lay Convention of the AME Church where more than 100 participants had grappled with a growing and difficult problem: fewer black men are going to church, and the solutions seem as elusive as the problem is acute.
"I think many times men have vanished because the pastor has put women into leadership roles because they'll go along with whatever the pastor says," said Angelo Dawson, a convention member from Norwalk, Conn., during the session at the Washington Hilton here this week. "I'll stand behind it," he said angrily. "I don't care whether they agree with it or not because it's true."
"Most black men like to be in some kind of position of authority," another young man suggested gently. "They like to, say, get on the board of trustees, but if the pastor doesn't agree with you he'll get you off. There should be some kind of cohesiveness between the pastor and the institution."
At the root of the problem of diminishing male participation in the AME and other black churches, said workshop leader Lawrence E. Gary, a political science professor at Howard University, is the dwindling number of black men -- particularly black men suitable for marriage and family life -- relative to black women.
The imbalance exists nationwide, said Gary, himself a member of St. Paul AME church in Upper Northwest D.C., and is placing new demands upon the church to increase its involvement in family life, because families are the foundation of church activities.
"There's this image that things are getting better all the time, but I think it's worse now for the black guy to make it than when I was coming up," said Gary, 42, and the father of three children. "I want the parishioners to know what is happening to black men because the church has to be responsive to it," by increasing outreach and counseling activities.
Other conferees suggested that churches develop more recreation and youth activities to reach men early. Some also suggested curtailing what they called female dominance of many church activities.
The workshop, entitled "The Black Male: A Vanishing Parishioner," was only one of several dozen offerings for convention participants, but it was filled with an overflow crowd that needed little convincing about the need for concern.
"There's a shortage of black men in this country, and that's real. There are 700,000 more women than men in the black community, and the male-female ratio gets worse as they get older," said Gary, author of a forthcoming book on the social, health and educational status of black men.
He buttressed his presentation with some of his findings:
There are 96.1 black men for every 100 black women in the 14-24 age group, and only 84 black men for every 100 black women in the 25-44 age group -- the main marriage ages.
Since 1940, black men have been marrying less frequently than ever before, and less frequently than their white male counterparts. In 1940, he said, 33 percent of both white and black men aged 14 and older were single, but by 1975, 38 percent of black men in that category were single compared to 28 percent of white men.
While their educations and incomes may be climbing overall, black men continue to have educational and health problems that make many of them less desirable as marriage partners, Gary said. Without those family ties, he said, the men are less likely to participate in community affairs, including the church.
White congregations do not seem to be having similar problems with male participation.
For example, Ed Sullivan, director of research for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic statistical research group, cited statistics from a 1980 study showing virtually no difference between the rates of participation between Catholic men and women.
As part of the study, pastors identified for researchers the number of women and men involved in church activities. "The estimates for men were comparable for the estimates for women," Sullivan said. "I was a little surprised."
And James Dawkins, director of education for the Mount Vernon Baptist Association, said, "I have no statistics, but in the churches I have visited this year I can definitely say it is not a problem. There's a healthy ratio of male to female."
Black churches have long been accustomed to lower levels of male participation, said Jackie Wilson, director of the Washington Archdiocese's Secretariat for Black Catholics. But the AME conferees expressed growing alarm at the trend and resolved to combat it.
Their attitude was perhaps best expressed by Gary, who said, "If you're serious about the black family, and that involves the black male as well as the black female . . . we've got to have the family and the church working together."