Theology Thursdays: The Legacy Of Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman)
During the 1960s, many religious leaders, led by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, sharply criticized the methods and advances claimed by the civil rights movement. By far the most vocal Christian minister advocating a more radical approach to obtaining civil rights was Albert Cleage, Jr.
Albert Cleage was born in Indianapolis in 1911 and grew up in Detroit. He received his B.A. from Wayne State in 1942 and his Bachelor of Divinity from Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1943. Cleage was ordained in the Congregational Church in 1943.
After a brief-and disappointing-term as pastor at an integrated church in San Francisco, Cleage returned to Detroit in 1951 and served at St. Marks United Presbyterian mission. He soon clashed with white Presbyterian leaders over issues of how he should lead his black congregation. In 1953, Cleage and a group of followers left to form the Central Congregation Church. They were committed to ministering to the downtrodden, and offered several programs for the community's poor.
Throughout the 1960s, Cleage was active in issues of education and black political leadership. By the late 1960s, his vision of Christianity had radicalized alongside the disappointments of the civil rights movement and rise of Black Power. He launched the Black Christian National Movement in 1967, which called for black churches to reinterpret Jesus' teachings to suit the social, economic, and political needs of black people. That Easter, Cleage unveiled an 18-foot painting of a Black Madonna, and renamed Central Congregational the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
In 1968, following a year of racial unrest in Detroit, Cleage published The Black Messiah, which detailed his vision of Jesus as a black revolutionary leader. In 1972, he published his second book, Black Christian Nationalism, and inaugurated the Black Christian Nationalist Movement as a separate denomination. The name was later changed to the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC), and Cleage changed his own name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, meaning "liberator, holy man, savior of the nation" in Swahili. The PAOCC includes churches in Atlanta, GA, and Houston, TX, several cultural centers, bookstores, community service centers, and a working farm.
Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman died on February 20, 2000. The PAOCC continues his mission to uplift and liberate the Pan African world community through the teachings of Jesus, the Black Messiah.
Cleage's father was a pioneering black physician, and their social class gave them access to Detroit's black aristocracy. But even as a boy, Cleage was affected by Detroit's labor and civil rights struggles and gravitated toward issues of social justice.
AN INTERRACIAL FELLOWSHIP FAILED
Cleage was ordained in the Congregational Church in 1943, and became interim pastor at the newly-organized, integrated San Francisco Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. One of the founders of the Fellowship Church was black theologian Howard Thurman. Cleage was originally committed to interracial fellowship, but when he saw the social inequality among the congregation, especially the Japanese-American members who had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed in interment camps, he grew critical. He called the church a "contrived, artificial affair" that did not address racial inequalities of power and property.
AN INDEPENDENT DENOMINATION
In 1951, Cleage returned to Detroit to serve at St. Mark's United Presbyterian mission, whose founders included his father and uncle. Despite initially feeling at home at St. Marks, Cleage quickly came into conflict with the rigid Presbyterian hierarchy. He resented that white leaders in the suburbs could tell him how to run his black inner-city congregation, and in 1953 he led "a group of dissidents out of the church." In this respect, Cleage was a decade ahead of black Presbyterians and Congregationalists who would later demand freedom to make changes to suit the needs of their congregations.
BLACK ARTS CONFERENCE
Stokely Carmichael called for black power in the summer of 1966, the same year Cleage held the First Annual Black Arts Conference at Central Congregational, the church Cleage founded after leaving St. Mark's. The conference was his answer to the Nation of Islam's call for blacks to "find beauty in their own identity and culture."
THE SHRINE OF THE BLACK MADONNA
On Easter of 1967, Cleage unveiled an 18-foot painting of a Black Madonna, and renamed Central Congregational as the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
At the same time, he launched a Black Christian National Movement, which called for black churches to reinterpret Jesus' teachings. Believing that Christianity previously had been used to keep black people down, Cleage challenged black churches to embrace Jesus as "a revolutionary black leader, a Zealot, seeking to lead a Black Nation to freedom." Central to this belief was resurrecting the "historical black Messiah." Cleage wanted to "dehonkify" Jesus for black Christians.
THE BLACK MESSIAH
In 1968, Cleage published The Black Messiah, which included several sermons and articles published in his weekly column, "Message to the Black Nation," in the Michigan Chronicle. He also spread his views through participation in the Inter-Religious Foundation for Community Organization and the National Black Economic Development Conference.
The Pan African Orthodox Christian ChurchIn 1972, Cleage inaugurated the Black Christian Nationalist Movement as a separate denomination. The name was later changed to the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC). In 1975, a Southern Region of the PAOCC was established in Atlanta, GA, followed by the Southwest Region in Houston, TX, in 1977. The PAOCC's mission, which still continues after Cleage's death, is to uplift, empower, and liberate the Pan African world community and to "bring the Black Church back to its historic roots-The African origins of Christianity and the original teachings of Jesus, the Black Messiah."
This information was first presented by PBS.
Thursday, July 26, 2007