Passing the Mantle

DEBORAH POTTER, guest anchor: In Los Angeles, a group of inner-city clergy, many of them inspired by veterans of the civil rights movement, are taking their ministries out of the pulpit and into the streets. Instead of only preaching to save souls, they are returning to activism: confronting homelessness, unemployment, and violence. Lucky Severson reports.

Speaker at Bryant Temple AME Church service: It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to draw a line saying “this far and no farther.”

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This is the Bryant Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central Los Angeles. The music will move you, but this is not a celebration. It’s a service dedicated to bringing an end to the needless deaths of all the boys who will never become men.

REV. EUGENE WILLIAMS (CEO and National Director, Regional Congregations and Neighborhood Organizations Training Center, speaking at service): Our young people have been dying in the streets day and night where we have hidden our light under a bushel.

SEVERSON: How many kids have been killed, say, in the last year?

REV. WILLIAMS: About a hundred.

SEVERSON: Pastor Eugene Williams managed to survive his inner-city childhood, but the odds are worse today. He says it’s partly because too many African-American churches have lost their way.

REV. WILLIAMS: And so we’ve gone from a period of ministers like Dr Cecil Murray and Dr. J. Alfred Smith, who taught that it was important to love your neighbor as yourself, to a place where ministers believed that it was important that the community love them.

SEVERSON: So that’s why Williams and other activist preachers started a program called Passing the Mantle, now in its fourth year at the University of Southern California.  It’s a nine-day course where pastors, now known as the Old Lions, teach younger pastors, African American and Latino, how to get civically engaged in the real-life drama of inner city Los Angeles.

(to Rev. Cecil Murray): Did you ever think that you would be called an Old Lion?

REV. CECIL “CHIP” MURRAY (Professor of Christian Ethics, USC School of Religion and Former Pastor, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, Calif.): Bless the Lord, I knew I’d be called old, but not a lion.

SEVERSON: Cecil “Chip” Murray retired at 75 as the pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, which was the largest AME church in the country. He could preach hellfire and brimstone, but he was more concerned about social issues like homelessness, jobs, violence, and hunger.

: We must not only have life after death, but we must have life after birth, even as with the founder of Christianity. He would preach personal salvation, but he would also preach social salvation. He would reach out.  I have come that you may have life, not I have come to take you to heaven.

SEVERSON: Pastor Mark Whitlock is a co-director of Passing the Mantle. He says because of Rev. Murray he turned his life around, so he knows a pastor can make a difference, even with kids society deems beyond hope.

REV. MARK WHITLOCK (Director of Community Initiatives, USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and Pastor, Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, Irvine, Calif.): I would probably be one of those people you would be afraid of in the community, yeah, sold some product that were illegal and did some things that I’m not very proud of.

SEVERSON: Now, as pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, he sees how much more difficult it is today for inner-city kids to break free of their environment. He was once one of those kids. The need for black churches to get involved, he says, is urgent.

REV. WHITLOCK: It’s immediate, and you look at the challenge of gang violence, the number of African Americans, Latinos that are locked up in this country, over a million, the absence of African Americans graduating, particularly African American men graduating from high schools and even elementary schools, the attention is necessary now, and it’s an immediate need to change.

REV. MURRAY: To say we are here to save souls and that’s all—you can’t save souls in isolation. It’s a totality of heart, soul, mind, strength, family, environment. It is essentially your environment.

SEVERSON: Pastor Murray earned his reputation as an Old Lion as a leader of the civil rights movement in California from the very beginning. Despite his quiet, humble demeanor, he has won many battles and concessions from the city and state, including one that the police would no longer hold suspects in choke-holds.

Pastor J. Alfred Smith is another Old Lion who led the civil rights movement in northern California. He is senior pastor emeritus of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland.

REV. J. ALFRED SMITH (Pastor Emeritus, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, Calif.): The church was the civil rights movement because the church understood the meaning of “go down, Moses, and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.” The church understood the meaning of saying “we shall overcome.”

SEVERSON: And after they led the struggle against segregation and police brutality and eventually forced Congress to pass civil rights legislation, it was black pastors who calmed the fury of the LA race riots in 1992. Then things changed. Many black churches began focusing less on social justice issues and more on saving souls and preaching the gospel of prosperity, which teaches that the faithful will be rewarded with material blessings.

REV. MURRAY: I would just admonish those who preach prosperity to remember that the one who founded the Christian church had one pair of shoes.

REV. WHITLOCK: We believe Christ came to set the captives free, to bring sight to the blind, to clothe the naked, to find housing for those who are looking for housing. That’s the work of the church. We must return back to the values that made the black church a true success.

REV. WILLIAMS (speaking at Bryant Temple AME Church service): And we came by here to tell you young people that we’re sorry. We’re sorry because we left you to fend for yourselves.

SEVERSON: Outside the chapel at the special healing service, there was an empty casket. No one needed to ask why. They all know someone.

Woman praying at service: Bring, Heavenly Father, what only you can give…

SEVERSON: A few days earlier, someone dumped the body of a young man who had been shot in the head just a few hundred yards from the church.

REV. WHITLOCK: It’s wonderful labels that we’ve given our children—gang members, Crips, Bloods. I’m sorry. Those are our sons, those are our daughters, those are our cousins, those are our nieces. So we must not be afraid of our own, and if they’re doing wrong, they’re doing wrong.  Selling drugs is wrong. Doing crime is wrong.  Not going to school is wrong.  So the church must speak to the moral—take a moral position on it, but after we take a moral position then we must wrap our arms around them and love them back to a place where they feel safe in the church.

SEVERSON: Most parents in South Central LA are as caring and loving as parents everywhere, but with far greater obstacles. There are few jobs, few public parks to get the kids off the streets, poor schools, and not enough role models. There are now twice as many Latinos as African Americans, but people of all races are starting to realize they’re in this together.

: If under the skin all people are kin, if all human beings have an area that can be approached, then we need to find what that area is and go to it, because the problems are not going to fix themselves.

SEVERSON: There are some signs of progress. Inner city pastors have managed to wrangle some new affordable housing. Some of the estimated 40,000 gang members have been persuaded to try to go straight. Pastors are getting more involved. And there’s one more change on the front lines: A majority of those asking to receive the mantle are women.

Woman pastor speaking to group: …that we have to make the difference. That’s what I learned today.

REV. WILLIAMS: People are dying in the streets. We’re saying that people are engaging in risky behavior. So you’ve got to come out behind your stained glass windows and come out here and help people, because if you don’t, all of those problems are going to end up, and they are ending up, on your doorstep.

SEVERSON: They’ve heard promises of help before, promises often not kept. Now it’s the most trusted men and women in the neighborhood who are offering hope.

REV. WILLIAMS (speaking at Bryant Temple AME Church service): If we lock arms, if we continue to move and work together, we will improve the communities where we live, work, and worship. I came by here to tell you to stand on your feet, because we gonna be more better. Let’s give God some praise….

SEVERSON: So far, the Old Lions have passed the mantle to about 400 younger pastors who seem determined to do what authorities have been unable to do without them.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in South Central Los Angeles.

  • Vera Alice Bagneris

    Mo’ Better!

  • Gloria Mitchell, D.Min.

    This is a great article and a great beginning for Christians who want to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

  • Rev Robbie

    This is ministry at its highest calling. If you love me, feed my sheep!

  • Kendall Henderson

    I wish there was someway that this article could be included in a mandatory course for all Pastors in all Metropolitan Congregations (Los Angeles)We have moved away from ministry and replaced it with theivery and me, me, me. The torch needs to be passed but some of our Pastors have no idea how to even hold a torch. Pray Church Pray

  • Dina R. Andrews

    Great piece. Excellent mission and work.

  • Donna Roberts

    Wow. Umm…I guess I too have some work to do. I am guiltyof not wanting to really be bothered with young people who have gone astray. I have tried to avoid them, and not reach out to them, I have stood by in judgement and have not extended the love of Christ becasue it has been way to uncomfortable. Lord, forgive me. I must do better.

  • Howard Reed

    I thank God for Brothers that are not afraid. I grew up on the streets of Chicago and I know that every step a young brother or sister take in the wrong direction could be their last. I am not afraid to help turn some lives around. The only experience I have is 15 years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol and a love for Christ and humanity. How can I help? Put me to work.

  • Shirley Martin

    This is what I am talking about strong black men grounded and rooted in the word of GOD. taking a stand again the violence in the street and we must make yourself available for this action that is going on in the street some are our own children, cousin, brother or sister. Thank God for strong ministers. so count me in

  • Dorothy Mallery

    It’s great to be a part of the PTM Program taught at USC under Rev. Murray, Rev. Whitlock, Rev. Williams and others. I’ve learned so much and it’s not over yet. We attended this event at Bryant Temple, Pastor Clyde Odem Jr. Yes we need more of this in our city, men standing up for what is right and educating the people around us and moving the church forward. “Stand up Black man! Stand up for what is right.”

  • Rev. Carolyn Wilkins

    Superb work by PBS for capturing the essence of the PTM Program. I am privileged and honored to be a member of this program and accept my responsibility to hold a broader vision for our youth and our community. In gratitude to Rev. Dr. Murray, Rev. Whitlock, Rev. Williams, Rev. Dr. Smith, Rev. Najuma and the other brilliant leaders of PTM.

  • Jessica Crenshaw

    What an excellent program with excellent leadership. As a long time community activist, it is encouraging to know that I am not marching by myself. Praise God for Dr. Murray, Rev. Whitlock and the others that aren’t afraid to step up to the plate.

  • Evang.Yvonne Johnson

    I’m apart of this year PTM program. My life has already change by being at the service Bryant Temple,and being educated on the movement to stop the crime. Brother and Sister we can’t be afraid anymore thank God for Rev. Murray and Pastor Whitlock and Rev. Williams who is saying to the church wake up and speak out against the crime in our community. We need to say to ourselves what can I do to help my community to bring about a change.

  • Rev. Barry H. Spencer

    I am serving as a Pastor in Lawton Ok. What can I do to make a difference in my community

  • John Jackson

    Yes the time is now if any are truely interested in comunity healing comunity building empowermet efforts contact me I help get you started

  • Darrell Glover

    Great! Broadcasting our situation into the households and ears of the recipients of these social ill’s is essential in assembling support.

  • REv. Robin Walker

    Pastor J. Alfred Smith, Sr. had been my pastor for over 20 years. I thank God that he is not just a talker of the but a walker of the word. I have seen how he led Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. tobecome a beacon of light in a dark community.

  • Dr Velma Union

    I believe the mantle should be passed and as a former mentor in the program, I am still mentoring some of the ministers that I connected with in the program the first two years. May God continue to bless the organizers, alumni and the funders of PTM

  • Vicky Carodine

    I am truely proud of all the “Lions” for delivering what the Bible commands of us … to teach the younger ones … there is so much work to do and what these gentlemen have experienced is foundational for the work ahead… If there is anything I can do, feel free to contact me…Thanks

  • oakeretha Hatcher

    With all praises to God. I would like to thank you Dr, Murray for all that you taught my family. You gave us so much to hold on to. I continue to share your teaching with my children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren now (smile). May God be with you. You are a Lion. Love you A former member.

  • Rev. E.C. Dowdy

    this is awesome, I am elated to see us as pastors take a stand for righteousness. that includes redeeming our youth, they are our future. As a new pastor I had to stop and exhale!!!!

  • Beth Gartrell Ross

    USC and the PTM staff has effectively Passed the Mantle to a new generation of leaders. The greatest among them is a servant. Thank you for choosing us PTM Scholars to lead and to serve. Dear Rev. “Chip” Murray, and Rev. Mark Whitlock, Rev. Eugene Williams, Rev. Frank Jackson, and Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, may we only have a double portion of your anointing.

  • Darren Meade

    I never had the pleasure of hearing or knowing whom Rev. Murray ‘the old lion’ is, but I am blessed to know him now. If I can ever help serve, please let me know. When I was homeless and living in the streets, I found the most kindness in the African American community (Oakland) I was a young white man.

    Love & Gratitude,

  • Rosalynd Divinity

    What an honor to be part of such a dynamic program at USC. Eternally greatful to Rev. Murray, Rev. Whitlock, Rev. Williams, Rev. Jackson, and Rev. Pollard. You have each challenged and charged me to revisit my concepts of “ministry” and to pick up the mantle and become an agent of social change.

  • Charles Allen-Anderson

    Until African American pastors, ministers, lay leaders and the black middle class start living the life they “preach” about, they do not have the right to lead or call themselves pillows of our community. Black American would be better served without the current civic and clergy leadership.