Do many black churches cripple rather than champion black progress? While such a notion might be abhorrent to the 15 million black American churchgoers, it's one question being asked as blacks reexamine their institutions in the wake of underclass family disintegration.
"To say that the black church is the most powerful instrument in our community is an indictment," said the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Anacostia's Union Temple Baptist Church. "It is powerful, but it certainly should have done more to make blacks feel powerful and courageous rather than increasing their self-doubt and making them feel they don't need to succeed."
Contending that many black churches overemphasize the hereafter and view God primarily as an external force, Wilson says the result is that many black churchgoers have a marred self-image and are too complacent to solve economic and social problems that plague them.
"The churches don't just tell people they're sinners," he said, "they tell them that they're miserable sinners . . . . Even many of the songs don't encourage and give positive affirmation," Wilson continued. "Instead of making people feel they don't deserve to succeed, the churches should teach them what they can become."
Adding that black ministers most often concentrate on building edifices rather than living up to their responsibilities to the masses they lead, he quipped: "While they should be teaching life-giving pride, we too often find only elder ego trips and foolish fellowship."
Not surprisingly, Wilson's criticisms and his activities (he once raffled off a new Mercedes to raise funds) are controversial among other ministers, who shun him and criticize his outspokenness. Moreover, there are clearly many exceptions to Wilson's blanket indictment.
Wilson said he models his ministry "after Jesus, who took people without a positive sense of selfhood and empowered them spiritually. I help them recognize that God's power is internal as well as external; I teach them that they have the authority to use that power to build better lives," he said.
The results of this philosophy are quite tangible: The church has swelled from 30 to more than 1,000 members during Wilson's 12-year pastorate. Moreover, in the last five years alone, it has developed $5 million in rental housing in Anacostia, with assistance from the federal and local governments.
Because Wilson contends that the church must be involved in people's political, intellectual and economic lives as well as their spiritual lives, Union Temple offers workshops on topics from managing money to acquiring property. "I can't count the number of our members who, as a result of our ventures and teaching, have become homeowners themselves," said Wilson.
The important thing about Wilson's work is that it is taking place in the poorest and most deprived communities. His church forms a nexus of members, neighborhood people and volunteers that works with Anacostia youngsters to restore what has been denied them -- a positive self-image based on a knowledge of their history, an economic base that gives them pride and dignity.
"We have to reach back into our own culture," said Wilson. "We must become those 'aunts' and 'uncles' who were not really relatives at all but helped us in our own youth, taking responsibility for spending quality time with us on a one-to-one basis."
Under the mantle of a youth program called Orita (Swahili for crossroads), Wilson's church focuses on the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of youth development from infancy to age 18. The program includes "Manhood" and "Womanhood" training and a "Rite of Passage" when youngsters become 18. According to Wilson, "We don't determine that each kid will go to college and graduate, but we try to equip them with survival skills so they can earn a living."
Wilson invites interested persons to help give Anacostia youths support and encouragement, noting that Union Temple is open daily from early morning to late at night. "We could use many Washingtonians and whatever volunteer skills they have," he said. "We are even willing to develop curriculums around their particular specialty for our young people."
The son and grandson of preachers and a graduate of the Howard University School of Religion, Wilson said: "With our proliferation of churches, we need to be giving the message to men on corners that they don't have to be where they are. If black people believe that God is powerful, there is a gross contradiction between that and the condition of many of us. We ministers must teach our people to translate that belief into viable concrete action."