Ahead of Detroit conference, Progressive Baptists say message is on point

Ahead of Detroit conference, Progressive Baptists say message is on point

August 5, 2013

By Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

Thousands of African-American Christians from across the U.S. will be in Detroit this week for the annual national gathering of a denomination that long has fought for civil rights and justice.

The seven-day conference of the Progressive National Baptist Convention comes at a pivotal moment for Detroit, a majority black city that is under an emergency manager and in bankruptcy.

Founded in 1961 to support the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, the Progressive National Baptist Convention was the spiritual home of civil rights activists. Today, its leaders say the group’s message of social justice is still vital, citing the Trayvon Martin case, attacks on the Voting Rights Act and the use of emergency managers in black-majority Michigan cities as big issues for many African Americans.

“The message of Progressive Baptists is more relevant than ever,” said the Rev. Kenneth Flowers, pastor of Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit and president of the convention’s Michigan chapter.

“Dr. King was a Progressive Baptist. If Dr. King were alive today, he would be speaking out for the Voting Rights Act and against the Stand Your Ground laws, as well as the emergency manager situation.”

The denomination’s president is expected to release a statement during the conference about the bankruptcy of Detroit, whose population is 84% African American. Many Progressive Baptist leaders are concerned that the bankruptcy process could end up hurting the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Up to 7,000 people are planning to attend the conference, which will feature talks by President Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a nationally known rabbi and civil rights leaders who worked with King. On Monday, pastors plan to stand on the corner of Schaefer and McNichols in Detroit to preach for an end to black-on-black crime.

Gospel music also will be a part of the conference, which strives to be “a wedding of social justice issues with spirituality,” said the Rev. James Perkins, pastor of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit and first vice president of the denomination.

Representatives from about 2,500 churches in the U.S., England, Cuba and the Bahamas are expected to attend. There are 42 churches in metro Detroit within the denomination, which has an estimated 1 million-2.5 million members worldwide.

The Progressive National Baptist Convention was formed after mainstream African-American Baptist organizations were reluctant to support the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s a myth that the civil rights movement was popular among African Americans, Progressive Baptists say.

That history applies today: Even though Progressive Baptists are smaller in number compared with other denominations and not as popular, they have an important role to play in fighting for justice, their leaders say. In Michigan, for example, Progressive Baptists have expressed concern about democratic rights and pensions being threatened under emergency managers.

“There is a concern that the generations that benefited from the civil rights achievements have not been as vigilant in terms of guarding those rights as the previous generations,” Perkins said. “Some are slipping back into the ideology that the church should not be involved in politics. But we believe the Bible definitely has a social gospel emphasis. That’s a core identity of who we are and represent.”

Flowers agreed, saying, “Jesus dealt with the political, economic and social concerns of the day. Jesus was a social revolutionary. He was a social activist.”

Anthea Butler, associate professor and chair of the graduate program in the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s timely that the conference is being held in Detroit.

“Detroit is kind of a microcosm of what’s happening to a lot of African Americans” across the U.S., with economic challenges and attacks on their rights, Butler said.

Progressive Baptists are “trying to do the cutting-edge work in social justice,” which makes them different from other Baptist organizations, Butler said.