The power of the black church was demonstrated again this weekend when Shiloh Baptist Church snipped a bright red ribbon to open a new six-level $5.5 million Family Life Center, a complex pushing skyward in the heart of the inner city.
Among the hundreds participating in the ceremony opening the new complex were several church members who individually had contributed $100,000, $30,000 and $20,000. Such contributions, and the cost of this structure, belie the notion that there's no history or pattern of philanthrophy in the black community. The black American church is the biggest recipient of black philanthrophy in the world. Yet, too often in the past, that wealth was not returned to ease the earthly lot of the churches' memberships. The policy of some preachers seemed to be to ride by in Cadillacs and wave at worshipers struggling by on foot.
That's changed a lot in recent years, as black churches have begun to turn their wealth toward meeting the needs of people. Churches such as the United House of Prayer at 6th and M streets NW, for example, have built low-rent housing and retirement homes. The House of Prayer even serves daily low-cost meals at its cafeteria. Bishop Walter (Sweet Daddy) McCollough also sees that some $70,000 in scholarships is handed out annually to members and nonmembers.
But it was another pressing need that disturbed the Rev. Henry C. Gregory of Shiloh. He looked at the spiraling divorce rate, increasinq child abuse, people living together without commitment, the lonely single adults, the widespread alienation. "Radical domestic disintegration," he called it. His answer: The family life center.
Though a number of churches have started such centers, Shiloh's is thought to be the largest, most expensive and comprehensive complex any black church has built to date in America.
It is the realization of Gregory's dream, and a tribute to his own spirit. And if Saturday's crowd is any indication, there's little doubt there'll be nuclear families, "roommates," "households," college students and teen-agers from foster homes enriching their minds, boosting their spirits and getting physically fit. With its gym, bowling alley, jacuzzi, meeting rooms and banquet hall, roof garden and restaurants, if offers resources to some inner-city dwellers to cope with stress -- resources that some suburbanites take for granted. The problem goes beyond the current faddishness of fitness: In the case of black men, the lack of physical fitness programs and the presence of bad health habits contribute to making theirs the highest death rate in the country.
A conference focusing on the problems of families, featuring some of the country's foremost leaders, activists and scholars, officially opened the center. So, as the courtly, soft-spoken Rev. Gregory says, the 5,000-member Shiloh has come a long way since it started in a stable on L Street with 21 members more than a hundred years ago.
But the power and progress of black Baptists is still marred in America by continuing discrimination against women seeking ordination as members. The area churches affiliated with the Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C. and Vicinity have a powerful, if unofficial, ban against women becoming part of the clergy.
Even as recently as five years ago at Shiloh a woman quit the church after she had mentioned to one of the ministers that she wanted to be ordained, and been dismissed with a chuckle. Although the minister later said he was being facetious and might consider ordination, his offhand remark underscored the reality that a black woman has virtually no chance to become a minister at a black Baptist church in this area. And just three months ago, a minister who defied the ban and helped to ordain a woman at Zion Baptist Church subsequently was ostracized by his fellow ministers. "It's . . . a club," The Rev. J. Terry Wingate said bitterly.
Shiloh's center is a step forward; the ban against women ministers is a foot in the outmoded past. The family life center is visionary; the ban against women is reactionary. The center symbollizes moral vigor; the ban signifies the absence of moral fiber.
Shiloh's $100,000 contributor happened to be a woman. Lucky for her that her dedication didn't extend to wanting to serve the Baptist church by ministering with her life as well as with her money.