The Black Church Joins Occupy

No surprise here. The Civil Rights Movement was about Justice, including economic justice.

African American pastors express support for Occupy movement

As the country observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant was outside the District headquarters of the Federal Reserve, protesting.

Instead of lingering at an MLK memorial prayer breakfast with the Rev. Al Sharpton and other icons of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Delman Coates also made his way to the protest, which included churchgoers, students and people from the Occupy Wall Streetmovement.

And rather than reminiscing about old speeches and discussing King’s legacy, the Rev. Graylan S. Hagler used his airtime on WPFW, a public radio station, to note the similarities between the Occupy movement and those who camped in “Resurrection City,” in the shadows of the Washington Monument, after King was slain.

growing number of African American pastors in the Washington area are embracing the Occupy movement. In December, leaders of Occupy D.C. left their encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza to worship at Empowerment Temple, Bryant’s church in Baltimore. Hagler has held services on Freedom Plaza. Others donate food and clothing to protesters. And Bryant, who ministers to many in the Maryland suburbs, co-founded Occupy the Dream with former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis Muhammad.

The pastors’ pleas for economic justice sound a lot like King’s.

“This is the continuation of the [civil rights] movement. It was the economic movement that King was killed for,” said Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast Washington.

Coates, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, echoed Hagler’s sentiments.

“When Dr. King was killed, he was . . .fighting for the rights of sanitation workers,” he said. “It is critically important that we relate our faith to issues of economic justice and systemic inequality.”

Some critics say the focus of the Occupy movement, which by design does not have leaders, is unclear. But Bryant, who observed the movement from a distance before deciding he wanted to be part of it, was adamant that Occupy the Dream has a defined agenda.

“Number one, we are asking for more Pell grants so that our young people might be able to compete and go to colleges and universities,’’ he said. “Number two, we are asking for an immediate freezing on foreclosures.” The group is also seeking billions of dollars “from Wall Street for economic development and for job training.”

Beginning in February, Bryant plans to launch a campaign to urge people to pull their money out of their banks and to move it to a minority-owned financial institution.

Bryant, 40, a former national youth director for the NAACP, said his involvement in Occupy the Dream feels like a “coming home” to his civil rights roots.

“I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has held the legacy of Dr. King and has brought the church back into accountability,” Bryant said. “Dr. King would be here today. He wouldn’t be at a breakfast; he wouldn’t be at a mall. He would be here with us.”

But some pastors hesitate to throw their support behind Occupy.

The Rev. William Bennett, pastor of Good Success Christian Church and Ministries in Northeast and a founding member of the Washington Interfath Network, hasn’t joined. But, he said, “I understand what they are fighting for.”

“We have not had an economic time like this since the Great Depression, and it does call for some actions,” Bennett said. “But what I have observed . . . is that there are not clear goals and objectives. The Occupy movement does seem to be organized with a goal to create chaos. The civil rights movement was organized with a clear list of demands.”

The Rev. Joe Watkins, pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, said churches should stick to their primary mission.

“The role of the church is to lead people to Christ and to tell them the good news and to live the good news,” Watkins said. “The young people part of the Occupy movement are just as precious as anybody. But the primary focus of the church is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (more)

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