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Ministers Test Candidates' Faith-Based Agenda at Mayoral Forum

Denise Rolark-Barnes | 6/16/2010, 11:30 a.m.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has not graced a mid-day Monday meeting of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of D.C. and Vicinity in four years.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray, on the other hand, has met with the group regularly. Still neither of the D.C. mayoral candidates, or Leo Alexander, another leading democratic mayoral hopeful, has won the confidence or support of the pastors who represent more than 200 churches, large and small, in the District and surrounding areas.

Reverend George Gilbert, Sr., pastor of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Northeast, heads the Conference's Civic and Social Action Committee. On Mon., June 14, Fenty returned, along with Gray and Alexander, for a two-hour forum on faith-based issues at Trinidad Baptist Church on Benning Road, Northeast.

"We are friends," Gilbert said, "and we want to have a polite discussion where you all can feel comfortable." He then began to grill the candidates on a broad range of issues including education, crime, housing and economic development, health care, taxes and jobs.

The forum also touched on the controversial marriage equality bill passed by the council in March. Area ministers actively protested against the bill and called for a referendum to give District's voters the chance to decide on its passage. But the vitriolic protests made on the steps of the Wilson Building were completely absent from the forum.

Nearly 100 pastors who filled the sanctuary came to listen with hopes of hearing a message from the three candidates around which they could mobilize their congregations and to get out the vote for the upcoming September 14 primary. They listened intently for an inclusive faith-based agenda that would revive the historic role churches have played politically, socially, economically and spiritually in the District.

Reverend Gilbert began by asking about the city's parking policies that have "strangled the life out of churches," he said. Aggressive parking enforcement, initiated under Mayor Anthony Williams' administration, continues to result in high fines and cars being towed away in neighborhoods that are not friendly towards churches.

Gray agreed to improve access of worshippers to churches in the District and to open a dialogue between churches and the community. He promised to reestablish an Office of Religious Affairs and to hold an annual religious prayer breakfast.

Fenty said a compassionate police department has reduced the animosity between the churches and the police department that occurred four years ago.

"You talk about compassion," Gilbert asked Fenty, "but it's a reality that every Sunday there are tow trucks sitting outside of churches, not only to ticket them but to tow those cars away. These are $75 tickets on a Sunday. Do you call that compassion?"

There is still work to do, Fenty said, but at least the animosity between the churches and the community has dissipated.
But Alexander struck a chord with the ministers when he blamed Fenty and Gray for allowing gentrification to force Metropolitan Baptist Church out of its 12th and R Streets location in Northwest to Prince George's County.

"That should have never happened here in Washington, D.C. and Metropolitan, a cornerstone in that community for more than a century, was essentially forced out by gentrification. This philosophy of running people out and this lack of compassion must end," Alexander said. "There's nothing wrong with gentrification as long as we don't lose the fabric of our city. And that's what's happening, and that's why I'm running."

Rev. Gilbert also asked the candidates about their personal views on faith.

Gray said he is a Christian and that he attends about 48 religious services a year. "I typically go to St. Mary's Catholic Church, at 10th and G Streets, N.W. I like to consider that my faith is strong and everything I have done has been influenced by my faith and my commitment to serve human needs."
Alexander acknowledged his pastor, Reverend Keith Byrd of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Northwest, and commended him for providing his family with great preaching and a great choir.

Fenty said his parents raised him to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. "I spent two years in Catholic school and my upbringing dealt with how we should live our lives by following some of those teachings," including giving back to the community, public service and looking back at those who are most needy.

Rev. James Coleman, pastor of All Nations Baptist Church in Northwest called the forum instructive. He wanted to hear more about plans to elect an Attorney General for the District and about gentrification.

"There is a religious spirit that is missing in the city and the clergy have been silenced," Rev. Coleman said. "The city administrator has got to do a better job in understanding that churches count. We make a difference."

"It is helpful for us as church leaders to engage in this kind of dialogue" with elected officials, Walker said, who believes there has been a systematic culture of alienating African American churches in the District.

"Those of us who have been here all of our lives know, for example, that the development in Shaw was done through a partnership. Federal dollars, African American church dollars and city dollars built Gibson Plaza, Immaculate Conception Towers and McCullough Towers. We are not even invited to be a part of those kinds of developments now. This is not just about same-sex marriage. We're talking about relationships."

"We are key stakeholders and we will be involved in this campaign," Walker said. "We still have influence at the polls."