A life-size image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. greets everyone who walks into Gospel Rescue Ministries. On an adjacent wall of the downtown shelter and drug treatment center is a painting of President Obama with other African American icons.
In between the murals are a cross and a door leading to a chapel that was filled one day this week with “homeless, helpless and hopeless” men listening to a pastor who began her life in the arms of a 15-year-old single mother. She is now a minister who practices daily many of the principles that King preached.
“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.
“We can march; we can boycott; and we can protest. But until people’s hearts are changed, nothing happens,” Walker said. “Preaching is what is going to give people hope in these tough times. It is the preaching of the Gospel that gives people hope.”
The Rev. James Coleman, pastor of All Souls Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, noted that some of King’s activist pursuits drew heavy criticism from fellow black pastors during the final years of his life.
“Many ministers were afraid of allowing King to speak in their pulpits’’ because some thought King was a troublemaker, he said.
The Rev. Nathaniel Thomas, pastor of the Forestville Redeemer Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, noted that King was widely criticized for opposing the Vietnam War. In addition, the civil rights movement “became so unpopular” because people feared for their safety and thought King’s approach was too radical. The rift was so deep that the National Baptist Convention split into two groups.
In the 1960s, black churches were more than the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Congregations built education wings onto their sanctuaries. When there was a need, the church was there to help.
Today, a growing number of churches have sanctuaries that double as venues for Christian entertainment. Services such as soup kitchens are offered by fewer congregations.
Thomas Hart, producer of a newly updated documentary film about King, “The Making of a Holiday,” said the role of the church has shifted dramatically.
“Many churches today are focused on entertainment instead of engagement,” he said. “They are not engaging the authorities.”
Frederick Ware, an associate professor of theology at Howard University, comes down somewhere in the middle.
“The church serves many functions,” he said. “Given the increasing divide between rich and poor, there is a lot of frustration and people want change, so some look with nostalgia back at the 1960s.”
Ware added that while some criticize pastors who preach the “prosperity gospel,” many also focus on social ministry. “If churches are putting on jazz shows and sponsoring luxury cruises, they are only doing something that is being neglected,” he said.
As King’s birthday is celebrated as a national holiday Monday, some ministers and others caution against oversimplifying the civil rights leader and his legacy.
“In celebrating the holiday, a lot of people have lost a sense of King as a full, rounded person,” both preacher and proud protester, Ware said.