Saturday, March 5, 2011

From pulpit to politics: Pastors join merger fight

Dr. Maxie Dunnam, interim senior minister of Christ United Methodist Church, says the schools merger fight is a civil rights issue. More than 20 other pastors and ministers, such as Dr. James Netters, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., met at Metropolitan Baptist Church on March 4 to support the YES for School Unity campaign. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
   Activist pastors who support political campaigns or take positions on controversial issues don't always preach sermons on saving souls. Sometimes they preach about social issues and admonish their parishioners, for example, to resist the lure of crime, drugs, gangs, violence, and teen pregnancy.
   Dozens of pastors have taken a position in the ongoing controversy over the charter surrender of Memphis City Schools and the March 8 referendum that asks voters to decide if administrative control of MCS should be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education.
   It's not unusual for pastors to step away from the pulpit to support a cause and use their influence to convince others to do the same. Such is the case with Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. Noel Hutchinson, pastor of First Baptist Church Lauderdale.
   Montgomery and Hutchinson differ in their position on the schools merger. Montgomery and a cadre of pastors, including those with the Baptist Ministerial Association, oppose the merger, choosing instead to fix what ails MCS and to negotiate with Shelby County Schools.
   "My position is this: What we should do is not surrender the charter. We will not be accomplishing unity or lowering taxes," said Montgomery, who believes the issue has created a bigger problem. "This issue has heavily divided the community - blacks against whites, blacks against blacks, and whites against whites."
   Hutchinson and his group of pastors pledged to support the "YES for Unity" campaign. "After researching and looking at the detrimental effects of Shelby County getting special school district status and what that would do to Memphis City Schools, I decided to support the merger," said Hutchinson, adding, "If funding is cut from MCS, it would be tough to maintain MCS."
   When Hutchinson called a press conference on Feb. 18 to announce his support for the merger, a contingent of 20 pastors attended. Ten others were going to attend, he said, but couldn't make it.
   A diverse group of pastors, both black and white from various denominations, also gathered Friday morning (March 4) at Metropolitan Baptist Church "to raise our voice" in support of the merger, said Hutchinson.
   Dr. Stacy Spencer, pastor of New Directions Christian Church, said a separate but equal doctrine that had been the status quo for public education in the 1950's, "didn't work then and will never work."
   Two stalwarts in ministry -- Dr. James Netters, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, and Dr. Maxie Dunnam, former pastor of Christ United Methodist Church and currently the interim senior minister -- equated the brouhaha over the schools merger with the civil rights movement.
   "Like my good friend Rev. Netters said, this is a civil rights issue," Dunnam declared.  
    Whether the referendum passes of not, the likelihood of the merger debate returning to the forefront is expected, and ministers and pastors most certainly will continue to stand in the gap for those deemed voiceless and in need of spiritual intervention.
   Dr. Frank Thomas, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, said the schools issue is that germane that, no matter what happens after the March 8 vote, the group of assembled pastors would continue to push for a unified school district and stay the course after Election Day.  

The gospel of politics...

   The pulpit has often served as a soapbox, or "bully pulpit," since the epoch of organized religion. And lately, that soapbox -- whether it is in the church or on the street corner -- has been an effective tool for merging the tenets of the gospel with modern-day, social activism.
   Some pastors, for example, believe it's their responsibility and civic duty to engage in political and social issues. "Every preacher is not necessarily called when it comes to politics and social issues," said Hutchinson. "[But] after March 8, churches are going to have to stand up. If churches don't stand up, who will?"
   Montgomery said the pulpit should be used not only for the purpose of preaching the gospel, "but also for sharing information with parishioners that impact their lives." He said every pastor has a "theological and moral" responsibility to tend the spiritual needs of their parishioners as well as their "physical and material" needs.
   "This can be verified in the Book of James," said Montgomery, quoting from the passage that says, in part, "Faith without works is dead.'"
   Hutchinson also referenced Scripture, quoting from Jeremiah 29:7, which says, in part, to "seek the peace of the city." He deduced from the Scripture that pastors would do well to be well-researched, well-read and take a stand on social issues that are important to the community.
   Although the merger issue is receiving bipartisan support, just as much as those who are against it, "it's still not political," Hutchinson said.
  So, should pastors step out of one domain into another and still exegete Scripture without compromise or conflict?
   The social gospel that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached more than 40 years ago is evident today in the activism of pastors who are either "for" or "against" merging MCS and SCS. Several pastors on both sides have quoted Dr. King to validate their position.

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