Apartheid in South Africa was the main topic of discussion among the more than 300 black political and religious leaders and lay persons who gathered at Howard University this week for a four-day conference on increasing the social and political influence of the black church.

The conference, entitled "National and International Priorities of the Black Church," was sponsored by the Black Theology in the Americas project with the Congress of National Black Churches and the Howard University Divinity School.

The theology project is part of the larger Theology in The Americas project founded in 1976 to foster cross-cultural dialogue among theologians, ministers and laity.

"We aspire to examine and clarify our call and cause as black Christians given the adverse circumstances which have beset our people," said Cain H. Felder, conference organizer and associate professor of New Testament language and literature at Howard University.

"Ultimately, our efforts are aimed at a theological and political renewal in the black church and the broader religious community," Felder added.

A major focus of the conference was the role of the black church in the struggle against the apartheid policies of South Africa.

At a seminar entitled "The Black Church's International Agenda and Political Issues," former South African journalist Dumasani Kumalo recalled his memories of apartheid while growing up in a segregated homeland, or bantustan.

"There were 10 children in my family and in 10 years of marriage, my father had only spent 10 months living with us at home . . . . A black man in South Africa is not allowed to live with his family during most of the year; the rest of the time he must find work in the cities.

"I can't believe that we are asking the government of South Africa for our freedom and they are telling us no, because it is for our own good," he said.

"They have started to take down the signs over the black and white water fountains to show us that they are making progress, but just removing the signs from the fountains is not enough -- there is more to it than that."

The conference also featured Gayraud S. Wilmore of the New York Theological Seminary and author of "Black Religion and Black Radicalism," regarded as the definitive history on the black church and black liberation theology.

Wilmore called for black colleges and universities to increase their emphasis on the importance of the black church.

"I was talking to a theology student at a prestigious divinity school and I asked her what message her fellow classmates would be taking to their congregations. She told me that they don't think they need black studies anymore because they are getting ready to enter a world that transcends all that. It really worried me, because it's not true," he said