Bankole: Detroit pastors as insiders, not agitators

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

A media advisory Mike Duggan’s campaign sent out last week was telling. One hundred ministers, according to the advisory, were endorsing the mayor for a second term.

On April 3, dozens of the ministers stood behind Duggan at a podium to announce their support of his re-election bid before the cameras.

I kept wondering where Detroit would be today if 100 ministers had come out in earlier situations when the city was trying to tackle problems. As the ministers themselves said, they represent thousands of Detroiters.

The image of that many ministers standing to make a statement about the mayor stuck with me because we’ve rarely seen that multitude of religious leaders publicly declaring support for any particular cause.

Detroit has plenty of issues begging for the attention of these ministers. Abject poverty that has sentenced 60 percent of Detroit children to an uncertain future; high-cost auto insurance that is forcing people to move out of the city; numerous crises in the Detroit Public Schools that compels parents to seek other school districts, and the vexing question of crime: These are all issues that could use the backing of the ministers like what the mayor received. After all, these ministers are stakeholders in this city, and they reminded us of that as they endorsed the mayor.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an imbalance in what the city’s ministers will stand up for, and what they won’t. That is nothing short of a disparity in priorities regarding the future of Detroit. There should be an almost singular mandate on the part of the ministers that the entrenched issues affecting Detroit should not be left to politicians alone to address.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s the ministers’ right to let the world know who they favor in office. But when innocent babies are murdered in this city and only a handful of ministers speak out about it, something is wrong with that picture. It questions whether church leaders are truly concerned about the moral decay in our society. It also raises the question of whether some religious leaders prefer to be insiders — only concerned about their connection to political power and accessing it for personal benefit rather than to serve as agitators demanding change and holding officials accountable.

Every black church or pastor for the most part shows an admiration for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the work he did. The irony is that one of the most stinging critiques ever rendered about the church came from King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written April 16, 1963.

In that letter, King challenged the clergy to be concerned not only about preaching personal salvation to their members on Sundays, but also to speak boldly about the socioeconomic challenges cities like Detroit are facing.

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent-and often even vocal-sanction of things as they are,” King wrote. “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.”

Challenging today’s pastors to become engaged in the civic life of Detroit is in line with this city’s deep religious tradition. The examples set by such religious leaders as the late Rev. Nicholas Hood Sr. of Plymouth United Church of Christ and the Rev. Frederick G. Sampson II of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church are worth noting. Both men demonstrated with enormous power the intersection of religion and social change.

It is plausible to say that in Detroit there are very few ministers who speak out on social issues. We know who they are without listing them.

But last Monday we realized that there could be more speaking out and challenging our elected leaders to create a better Detroit, especially for the children that are the future.

Twitter: @bankieT

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.