Theology Thursdays: Clergy Coalition Gears For Test Of Pulpit Power by Jake Wagman
In 2001, the head of the Clergy Coalition crossed racial lines to help Francis Slay secure his first term as mayor. Six years later, the group's members are looking to undo the favor.
The coalition, a collection of about 60 African-American preachers, has emerged as a key adversary to the mayor.
Galvanized by the ouster of Fire Chief Sherman George — the only African-American ever to lead the department — they are planning a rally today, where the preachers are expected to join other black leaders in calling for Slay's removal.
The push comes as members of the coalition — firmly schooled in the activist tradition of African-American ministers — are becoming more political, stumping for stem cell research and even running for office.
But the fight against Slay promises to test the coalition's true clout.
Slay is a well-funded incumbent popular with his base. A move against the mayor could easily backfire, energizing Slay's supporters and motivating campaign donors.
If nothing else, the clergy risk alienating themselves from City Hall.
Even so, clergy leaders say they have the moral responsibility to lead the charge — and, they add, perhaps enough pulpit power to beat the odds.
"Gideon defeated an army of tens of thousands with an army of 300," said the Rev. Douglas Parham, president of the Clergy Coalition, referring to the Old Testament soldier who defeated the Midianites. "We are probably viewed as a gnat on the shoulder that can be flicked away — but you have to do what is right, because it is right."
The Clergy Coalition formed in the mid 1980s. One of their first public acts was coming to the defense of another African-American official, city schools Superintendent Jerome Jones, who was under fire for expenses he billed to the district. Since then, the group has rallied and held protests on issues of importance to the black community, from police oversight to cuts in Medicaid.
Members are careful to note that when taking a political stance, they act as individuals — not as a group, and not necessarily as representatives of their congregations.
Federal laws restrict tax-exempt organizations such as churches and the coalition from engaging in most political activity.
That doesn't mean, though, the pastors avoid a fight. They just chose their battlegrounds wisely.
For instance, the pastors had been meeting at New Northside Baptist Church to discuss their reaction to George's demotion.
As those talks became political, the group moved the conversation to the Gateway Classic building near downtown.
It was there on Oct. 11 that George announced he was leaving the fire department, and that the mayor's office was to blame. Many clergy members were on hand to hear the announcement.
George retired after being demoted for his refusal to end a hold on department promotions.
"With the Sherman George situation, the mayor has done a wicked thing," Parham said. "He has utterly disrespected and disregarded the entire black community, and a great portion of the white community."
Parham and others are planning to gather outside City Hall at 3 p.m. today, and are expected to announce plans to force the mayor out of office before his term ends in 2009.
They hope to trigger a recall vote against the mayor, a formidable political challenge that would require more than 40,000 signatures, taken from at least 18 of the city's 28 wards.
The mayor declined to address the possibility of a recall, saying he did not want to speculate on what the preachers might announce today. The mayor did say that he views the fire department — where the issue of promotions has exposed a deep racial wound — as a potential opportunity to ease tension across St. Louis.
"If we can progress in an adequate way with the racial division within the department," Slay said, "there is no telling what we can do citywide."
A RELATIONSHIP SOURS
Black clergy leaders have not always been at odds with Slay.
Six years ago, the Rev. Earl E. Nance Jr., then head of the Clergy Coalition, endorsed Slay over incumbent Clarence Harmon and former mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., both of whom are African-American.
Some black clergy continue to support Slay — the George controversy notwithstanding.
"We have mixed emotions about Mayor Slay," said the Rev. Sammie Jones. "Many of us are supporters of the mayor. But at the same time, this particular situation has caused quite a bit of tension."
Jones credits Slay with economic victories, such as generating jobs and attracting home builders to the city.
Yet Jones says Slay had drawn the ire of African-Americans before the fire department controversy.
"Sherman was the pimple that burst," Jones said.
Slay has fielded one racially tinged controversy after another during his administration, from his role in shaping a new ward map that eliminated an African-American aldermanic seat to his involvement in hiring a New York firm that made deep cuts in the city's schools.
Jones believes that Slay is a savvy enough politician to know that, without healing the racial scars, he will not be able to fulfill his ambitious agenda of bringing people and businesses back to the city.
"The city of St. Louis has to come to grip with its racial sickness if it's going to be the city Francis Slay wants it to be," Jones said.
The Rev. James T. Morris, whose large frame matches his stature in the community, is taking the influence of the clergy a step further than most ministers — Morris recently announced he will be running for state representative next year.
Campaigning, though, is not new to the pastor of Lane Tabernacle Church — he was one of several black preachers who came out in favor of the stem cell initiative last year, providing a key counterbalance to the ardent opposition of the Archdiocese.
The measure passed statewide, and fared especially well on the city's north side.
"Our congregations look to us for leadership," Morris said. "And I certainly understand those pastors who are calling for the recall of Mayor Slay because many of our constituents want that."
His congregation, Morris said, is split down the middle. But Morris believes the entire city is in turmoil over the fire chief's ouster.
"I wonder what the community would be saying if the mayor was African-American and the chief white," he said.
Still, Morris cautions that a recall could be counterproductive, leading to further division in the city.
But that doesn't mean he doubts the potency of his colleagues in the cloth.
"The pastors," Morris said, "are a force to be reckoned with."
Jake Wagman can be reached at: email@example.com
Editor's Note: This article was first published on October 21st in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Thursday, November 1, 2007