July 5 2006 12:00 AM
Coming together: The Rev. Columbus Clayton, head of the Pastors Conference of Greater Lansing, listens to Bishop David Maxwell at a roundtable strategy session held Friday at Trinity AME Church on Lansing’s southwest side. (

To the casual observer, the significance of groups led by the Revs.
Melvin T. Jones and Columbus Clayton joining forces last Thursday at
Trinity AME Church would be lost.

There they were, two of the most prominent leaders within Lansing's black community, representing two distinct pastors' organizations, throwing the support of some 40 pastors behind the candidacy of Diana Rouse in the 68th District House race.

Clayton heads the Pastors Conference of Greater Lansing, the original pastors' organization in Lansing, which represented the black church community's unified voice until its leader, the Rev. Joseph Graves, Sr., died in 1994.{mosimage}

Jones, meanwhile, is the co-founder of one of the spin-off organizations, the Clergy Forum, formerly known as the Pastors Alliance of Greater Lansing.

Together, the two groups came under the banner of Pastors United. For the most part, the designation isn't seen outside of the third Monday in January when the Rev. Michael Murphy, a Democratic state representative from Lansing, and Pastors United come together to host a series of panel discussions, concerts and activities to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

But this was a special occasion. The two groups put aside whatever differences they may have had to present a unified front in support of a political candidate they believe would benefit the Lansing community. “This is our candidate,” Clayton announced at a Thursday press conference.

“Our” in this case refers to Jones, Clayton, Clergy Forum co-founder Bishop David Maxwell and the roughly 40 pastors that belong to their respective groups. They're positions that wield significant pull in Lansing's black community. Political candidates wanting to make inroads with Lansing's African American voters must go through the churches, and Jones and Clayton are the two biggest gatekeepers.

The pastors' relative absence in last year's Lansing City Council races, in which three African-American candidates lost in the general election, is noteworthy. While Maxwell made a point to mention Thursday that Rouse was being endorsed because of her credentials, not her skin color, it's clear that the pastors see a need to make their voices heard in the 2006 election. They also want to make the statement that for as much unity as they will show in this primary election, any dissent that may come about among pastors is not only OK, but healthy.

One potential dissenter is the Rev. Lester Stone of Friendship Baptist Church, the leader of a smaller splinter group of pastors known as the Black Pastors Conference. Stone is well known for standing up against alleged injustices within the Lansing Police Department, in particular helping the family of a man who died in Lansing's jail win a $12 million settlement. Stone also ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2001 against Geneva Smith.

Stone hasn't been hesitant when it comes to making political endorsements. If he opts not to go with Rouse, a hearings officer for the Lansing School District, it would mark the fourth significant race in the last five years where the five main players within the black churches weren't on the same page when it came to a local political race.

And that is OK, the pastors say. Why wouldn't it be?

“I think that the perception that black pastors ought to be of one opinion is quite racist,” Jones says. “It's as if we're going back to the old caricature that we all look alike. I see it basically as a human factor and a difference of opinion, especially in city races.”

While the African American community may benefit politically by presenting a unified front during political races or community events (like the aftermath of Eaton County Sgt. Jeff Lutz's make-believe gun battle with black man earlier this year), there is a human factor at play, Jones and other pastors say.

Not all black churches, like the different sects of Christianity, agree on everything. That came into play in 2002 when Jones and seven other pastors broke from the Pastors Conference and endorsed state Rep. Paul DeWeese, a Republican, against state Rep. Virg Bernero, a Democrat, in the 23rd District state Senate race.{mosimage}

A year later, Stone, Clayton and Jones supported the candidacy of Lansing Mayor Tony Benavides while Maxwell, a co-founder of the Clergy Forum, and 19 other pastors endorsed Bernero. In 2005, Stone and Murphy supported Benavides' re-election bid, but this time Jones went with Maxwell and supported Bernero.

The pastors are quick to point out they've endorsed a common presidential candidate since at least the days of Jimmy Carter, and the chances are that they'll come together to support Gov. Jennifer Granholm's re-election, just as they came together in February to support then-Rep. Gretchen Whitmer's successful state Senate bid.

The organizations' split on the more contested local races, however, speaks to a difference of opinion, not rapture within the black community. Pastors resent the insinuation that there's significant political division among the 50 to 100 pastors who preach to mostly African-American congregations (big and small) in Lansing.

“We're not the same,” says Maxwell, vice president of the Clergy Forum. “We are diverse in all three disciplines — philosophically, politically and theologically — and it's expressed in the differences of the support from various political initiatives and candidates.

“The idea that there is a fracture is not something that has been generated by the African American community,” Maxwell says, “but something that is engineered by the connotations of the press each time there is a political race where we don't present ourselves in lockstep."

Life after graves

Several years ago, Lansing looked to one organization to gauge the political winds of the African American spiritual community. The Rev. Joseph Graves Sr. led the Pastors Conference of Greater Lansing as the minister of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. His activism within the civil rights and political arenas earned him the respect of then-Lansing Mayor David Hollister, who would ask for his advice.

When Graves died in 1994, no clear line of succession had been established at the Pastors Conference. Sources indicate that Jones, as vice president, felt the designation would fall to him, but Clayton was picked instead.

On top of this leadership issue came the difference of personal philosophies among Jones, Clayton and Stone. Jones, arguably more conservative in his political beliefs than his fellow pastors, split off with Maxwell to form the Clergy Forum, a group of pastors that meets every Tuesday to discuss issues of general importance in a format designed to encourage pastors to speak their mind. The core group consists of around a dozen pastors, but its numbers have been known to swell to 25.

Jones also had led an organization known as the Inner Cities Pastors Alliance, a group of pastors, white and black, that preached at churches in downtown Lansing. Initially an all-white conglomeration, Jones nosed his way in after he moved to the area from Cincinnati and eventually ascended to the presidency.

A third group

In 1996, questions of racial impropriety and police brutality surfaced regarding the Lansing Police Department when Edward Swans, a black man, died inside Lansing's jail. When the city found no evidence of wrongdoing, Stone stepped to the forefront as the face of an outraged black community. He organized what was known at the time as “March for Justice.”

Stone eventually became a prominent voice among African-American church leaders, regularly opining on perceived instances of excessive force, such as the police reaction to the 1998 disturbances at MSU. Stone splintered off from the Pastors Conference, creating a group known as the Black Pastors Conference, although its actual membership list is unknown. Stone declined to comment for this story.

But just because the perception of a unified black community existed during Graves' tenure doesn't mean everybody who preached in front of predominantly black audiences subscribed to Graves philosophical, theological or political vision, Jones says.

“The Pastors Conference, as it was under Dr. Graves, was not really a majority black pastors' opinion,” he says. “The group historically has been quite small. It was basically the voice most heard, but in my experience with the Pastors Conference under Dr. Graves, there was never more than eight to 10 pastors involved in that group. It was never a majority, frankly, of the black pastors in Lansing.”{mosimage}

Even now, the differing groups have their own individual nuances that raise eyebrows from time to time. For example, Jones invited Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos to share his vision for Lansing with any pastor who wanted to listen to him. About 25 clergy showed up. Gov. Jennifer Granholm will be given an audience, too, and it's likely that the black pastors ultimately will support Granholm's re-election bid.

But Jones says he felt it was important for the ministers to hear the cases of both political candidates, without prejudice, so they can make the most educated choice after hearing the issues directly from the mouths of the candidates themselves.

“I'm hoping to make the right judgment, not just because of the 'white' or the 'black' issues,” he says. “I just don't go with the flow.”

According to one pastor, a lack of real discussion about the different political candidates led to the first initial split among pastors in the 2003 Bernero-Benavides mayoral race. When the endorsement meeting among the black pastors turned into a “this-is-what-we're-going-to-do-and-we're-going-to-back-Benavides-meeting,” some pastors were turned off and started talking to Bernero on their own.

Maxwell, now the head of a faith-based office in City Hall, declined to talk about the endorsement split when interviewed, but it's documented that Maxwell of Eliezer Temple Apostolic Church, the Rev. Robert Nicholson of Grace Tabernacle Baptist Church, the Rev. Levi McClendon of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Pastor Ronnie Calhoun of Purpose Outreach Minister and some 15 others ultimately supported Bernero in his first run. About an equal number supported Benavides.

Just like the gay, labor and women's rights movements, Maxwell says the black community realizes there is power in unity.

“There are going to be times when there are philosophical differences, but most of the time, we're on the same page,” Maxwell says. “When you look at it factually, there has been only two elections that have occurred in the last few years where the pastors have not been in sync: DeWeese vs. Bernero and Bernero vs. Benavides. It doesn't reflect a pattern. It reflects just two occasions where there was not a unified front.”

In fact, Clayton suggests that the black pastors are more united now than at any point in the last 12 years since Graves' death. While the pastors represent different sectors of the black community, all are dedicated to the single goal of doing what's best for their community.

Even though it appears that they're on opposite sides of the political fence, that's not necessarily the case. Republicans and Democrats live in the same house and eat from the same table. The same is true for the black pastors, Clayton said. When King was alive, he too was not seen as the one person who spoke for all black people.

“There is never going to be a time where there's going to be a single spokesman for the black community, just as there's never going to be a time when there's a single spokesman for the white community,” Clayton says.{mosimage}

Political ground zero

Black churches take a much different role in the lives of their parishioners than churches made up of mostly white worshippers. For example, while the Roman Catholic Church may be more overtly political on the Washington and Lansing lobbying scene with anti-abortion and gay marriage issues, the message inside the church is rarely political in nature.

Murphy, senior pastor at St. Stephen's Community Church, notes that black churches historically have been a place of refuge and comfort for people who had been hurt. It gave the opportunity for a custodian to be a deacon or the chairman or a church committee.

People who didn't feel comfortable sharing their views — political or otherwise — felt comfortable doing so in the confines of the Lord.

As a result, black churches became vehicles in the Jim Crow law fights and segregation, expressing political views — not through the established political apparatus, but rather via its members at the community level.

“That's our meeting place,” Clayton says. “What better place to get the message out? It's the only major place where we could all come together and feel free to discuss our opinions without fear of reprisal, the only place of freedom that we could gather.”

“Look at the civil rights movement,” Murphy says. “They met at church before they went to march. That's the mission of the black church and it continues to this date. … to be their voice.”

For this reason, congregations tended to follow the pastors that best shared their views on religion and of life. Within Christianity, whites tend to gravitate toward a defined denomination, depending on family history or life changes or shifting personal beliefs.

Maybe more than any other culture, Maxwell says, there's a “mitosis syndrome” in black churches, where congregations split off from one another and form different communities with differing viewpoints or differing means of religious expression. More so than white churches, black churches tend to evolve around individual pastors.

“We're singleness in purpose, but not singleness in expression of purpose,” Maxwell says. “We want to save souls. We want to lift the name of the Lord. We're different groups that form to advance the same purpose.”

In 2006, the support of the African-American churches will be particularly critical in the Democratic primary for the 68th District House seat, where six candidates are trying to cut the biggest slice of a pie no bigger than 6,000 votes large. The divided field means a scenario could be drawn up where nearly any of the candidates could win, which makes the support of a united black community even more valuable.{mosimage}

But even with last Thursday's announcement, with the Pastors Conference and the Clergy Forum pledging their support for Rouse, will the entire black community be behind Rouse? Not likely.

Besides Stone, the most notable figure missing from Thursday's announcement was Murphy, who says he intends to stay out of the primary endorsement business for now. While most of his brethren are backing Rouse, one of Murphy's parishioners at St. Stephen's Community Church, Chris Lewless, who is white, is among the field looking to succeed him at the Capitol.

Be it this political race or others, if black pastors, clergy or parishioners end up breaking away from the pack to go in another direction, that's OK, Murphy says.

“I've always been of the mind that the African American clergy has been of independent voice, to challenge institutions and situations that may not be right.” Murphy says.

“My hope is that pastors don't become beholden to one particular politician or public figure, but keep that independence and that autonomy,” he adds. “It's about our people. It's about making sure our people who need a voice, have a voice and that we stand with them and help them.”