There used to be a time when Black churches, as vibrant cornerstones of social activism, served as places where congregants, civic leaders and others would gather to discuss issues and concerns of importance to their neighborhoods and communities.
Led by a similar narrative under the banner of the nonprofit Black Methodist United, more than 50 bishops and other clergy from the African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches convened Oct. 4 at the National Press Club in D.C., where they discussed plans for reducing chronic unemployment numbers, revitalization of blighted housing and defunct businesses and the shuttering of churches in the Black community.
“The issues that confront our people will not go unaddressed,” said Bishop McKinley Young, presiding prelate of the 3rd Episcopal District AME Church, and one of four panel members who led the group’s hourlong discussion.
“We chose to bring our meeting to the nation’s capital because it’s the seat of power, so that those [at the helm] will unmistakably recognize that we have resolved in ourselves to collectively project our voices in a way that lifts concerns of employment, education, housing and all of the issues that confront our people,” Young said, alluding to the Trump administration.
As the discussion proceeded, lead panelist Bishop Staccato Powell of the Western Episcopal District AMEZ Church focused on Black unemployment, citing the need for more successful youth employment initiatives in inner-city communities such as the Project One program that launched in 1985 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Powell, who worked with the late Baptist minister and civil rights leader Leon Sullivan and Louisville’s Opportunities Industrialization Center to bring the program to fruition, said it began by embracing the private sector and targeting idle youth.
In urging BMU members to replicate similar programs in their respective communities, Powell said Project One remains relevant, having placed more than 31,000 youth in meaningful summer jobs.
He added that while businesses should start early getting youth as young as 13 involved in job training programs, businesses such as Toyota, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other noted fast-food establishments are steadily helping to make a difference in impoverished communities.
“I’m convinced that, like we have Sunday School, like we have the Christian Youth Fellowships, and other youth programs, we also need more jobs and educational strategies in place, because they can make a difference [regarding economic stability and viability] in our communities,” Powell said.
In addition to help from the successful Columbus, Ohio-based Black-owned and operated K.B.K. Enterprises, the religious leaders also aim to invigorate time-worn communities through development of affordable housing and retail shops that will provide jobs for residents of those areas.
K.B.K. Vice President Mary Tucker said that as one of the largest minority development firms in the country, the organization has excelled in job training and the creation of blue-collar employment and reentry programs.
“We believe in partnering with church groups to create viable communities and jobs and to uplift education and homeownership,” Tucker said. “We believe in changing lives and building sustainable communities by helping [reduce] unemployment and underemployment with job training, restoring blighted properties, providing economic development and creating viable communities.”
Tucker added that K.B.K.’s partnership with BMU will start next spring in the western episcopal district of the country before eventually rolling out across the nation.
With financial resources aimed at the resurgence of communities expected to stem from tax credits, grants and other nonprofit coffers, Tucker said K.B.K. expects to deliver on close to $1 billion in development projects nationwide.
To that end, BMU also lends focuses to the trend to them progression of gentrification projects in Black neighborhoods that have buttressed the sale of numerous historic churches.
According to Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the southeast D.C.-based Washington Informer newspaper, at least 30 Black churches in the city and throughout the country have recently shuttered their doors and sold their properties.
Barnes asked if the organization’s initiative might signal other churches “to put the skids” on their plans to sell and relocate to nearby suburbs.
“Absolutely,” said Powell, adding that BMU encourages Black congregations to hold to their properties.
“They’re tremendous assets. If your property is underperforming or in a declining state, we can help you in ways that you can’t even imagine,” he said, noting that churches in blighted communities most likely already have an abundance of resources around them.
“We don’t have to desert [our churches] and flee the inner city,” Powell said. “As a matter of fact, those who want our properties, want us to leave the inner city. But it’s to our advantage to hold on to what we have. Keep your churches and let us help develop them in ways that make them and your communities attractive.
“We want to stay plugged in,” he said. “We don’t want to just come to Washington the seat of perceived power to have our discussions and then go back home and have nothing happen. We want to make sure we’ve generated a sufficient buzz to make things happen.”