Claps, cheers, and passionate speeches echoed in a Harlem church on Thursday evening as a new coalition of African-American religious leaders sought to re-establish themselves as advocates for the city’s black community.
Representatives from 17 black churches gathered at Mount Neboh Baptist Church on 114th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to express concerns about gentrification, a lack of affordable housing, and falling standards of education and nutrition in their neighborhoods.
Calling themselves Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, the reverends stuck to broad critiques of social problems facing New York without getting into many specifics of what they hope to do.
“Everything that happened, happened under the watch of our elected officials,” said Rev. Johnnie Green of Mount Neboh Baptist Church, one of the group’s founding members. “We’re not against anyone—we’ll work with anyone to mobilize pastors around the city and the state to impact the way policies and decisions are made.”
Thursday was the group’s first meeting, which was advertised as a forum intended to “speak out about the deplorable conditions of our community and the injustice against our people.” The role of black churches as advocates for the public and catalysts for change was a theme repeated throughout the night.
“The last 20 years the church has strayed” from its role of advocating for its members, Larry English, former Community Board 9 chair and legal counsel for the group, said. “To see these pastors step back up and say that they’re reclaiming that mission is a transformative act.”
Green said he and other reverends founded the organization after they saw members suffering from high rents, gang violence, unemployment, and abuse by public officials. The group’s leaders are looking to partner with businesses and community groups to push their concerns to the forefront of government agendas.
Education and youth empowerment were some of the many themes of the evening, with speakers talking about the need for greater youth involvement in churches—though middle-aged adults filled most of the church hall.
“You’ve got to get the kids in here,” Rev. Vernon Williams, an anti-gang-violence advocate, said. “Only they can change us.”
Changing individuals’ behavior was another message of the speakers.
Deputy Inspector Ruel R. Stephenson said of engaging youth, “One of the best ways you can effect change is change from within.”
Rev. Patrick Young, another founding member of the group, said, “We’ve got to start mobilizing communities to not be victims, to be victors, to be helpers, and lifters.”
Many attendees seemed anxious to get home after the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, which featured jazz music interludes between the speakers. But they said they were hopeful that the group could make a positive impact, especially in the upcoming city elections.
“The meeting was needed because the church is a powerful force in the community, and it’s a chance for the church to understand we have been ignored,” Linda Guillebeaux of Harlem said. “We need to demand a piece of the pie, not just the crumbs.”
“It encouraged everybody to think about who they wanted to vote for and be more smart about their decisions within the community,” Maya Clark, another attendee, said.
The group first came to prominence after a New York Daily News article profiled them as a group of pastors rallying against Rev. Al Sharpton. At Thursday’s meeting, however, Sharpton was not mentioned at all, and Young was quoted in an article in Public Life saying that the Daily News’ report was “far from the truth.”
The topic for the next meeting? More specific solutions.
“We all came together and that was the greatest accomplishment,” Rev. Kenneth Freeman of the New Greater Jerusalem Baptist Church in Brooklyn, said. “The next thing is how to get some of these issues solved.”