Wright stuff: Soap suds and salvation

carwash signAs I mentioned the other day, I haven't been seeing a lot of mainstream coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., that spends much ink on the religion side of this story. Politics continue to rule the day (surprise, surprise). However, Newsweek recently published a feature that did attempt to shine a bit of light on a younger generation of African-American pastors whose approach to faith and ministry is different than that offered by Barack Obama's famous spiritual guide. The radical message of this little piece by Allison Samuels -- offered as a sidebar to other Obama coverage -- is that some black pastors are actually mixing in some ministry with their political activism. Gosh, you think?

Here is the opening:

A few blocks away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the congregation that Martin Luther King Jr. once led, sits the neighborhood carwash. It's a rough place where junkies and drug dealers hang out. To an African-American minister who came of age in the civil-rights movement, the blighted scene might have made for a powerful sermon on race and inequality in America, culminating in a call to protest and demand change from an uncaring government. But 38-year-old Raphael Warnock, who is now Ebenezer's senior pastor, saw those young black men destroying their lives at the carwash and had a different idea. Railing at the problem from the pulpit, he says, wasn't enough. So last year he asked his flock to join him in holding a weekly Bible study at the carwash.

"In many ways, I see my mission the same way I think Dr. King did, helping the poor and helpless find their way and not be forgotten by the powers that be," says Warnock. "I just think our ways of attacking many of those same issues have changed. Protests and marches have their place, but there is also a certain amount of action we have to take today to see a change.''

Warnock is part of a new generation of up-and-coming black ministers who are reaching out to young African-Americans, many of whom view the church as an anachronism, and have fallen away from it. Once vital community centers, black churches are often filled with older women on Sunday mornings, not families or young singles. Younger African-Americans, men in particular, say the church, rooted in the struggles and rhetoric of the past, does not speak their language, or speak to their needs. "The black male has all but disappeared from the church, and that wasn't the case during previous generations," says Warnock.

Warnock and his peers are out to change that.

The message of this story is that this younger generation is staying true to the Civil Rights Era agenda, but is not limited to it in terms of style. They respect their elders (and those quoted think Wright is getting a raw deal in the press), but they are moving on. They quote hip hop lyrics, instead of black liberation theologians?

But there are huge ghosts in this story, starting with the fact that the demographics of the black churches -- at least those covered in this story -- resemble the aging and feminine stats of the world of white oldline Protestantism. The status of black men in the church -- in the pews, as opposed to the pulpits -- is a major news story and closely linked to the breakdown of the black family (think Daniel Patrick Moynihan research), which may be the biggest story in modern urban life.

But I still have a question, after reading this: Where are the black Pentecostals? Where are the black Southern Baptists and the conservatives in the Church of God in Christ? Where are the leaders of black super churches (other than Trinity United Church of Christ, the rare mainline megachurch) and the multiracial megachurches? In other words, where is the other half of the theological spectrum in the modern black church?

When will we hear from these voices?

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