Among those historians who have made it their business to inspect the tainted archives of Western imperialism, it is widely believed that the first slave ship to return with human cargo from Africa was christened the Jesus Christ. Whether apocryphal or not, the notion that a Christ delivered the first boatload of slaves only underscores the cruel paradox of black Christianity: God loved all his children, yet he condemned a portion of them to servitude.
A weighty contradiction, and not one meditated upon by those shackled Africans sold as chattel to wealthy Southern squires. Instead, Christianity became a gospel of hope conferred upon the slaves -- the sweetly sung promise of Heaven dangled like a lifeline to those chin-deep in degradation. While slave owners forbade virtually all other forms of family or communal bonding, they generally permitted, even encouraged, Christianity, on the theory that it might mitigate the Negro's native barbarism.
Church ranked as the slave's first and only social institution, an undeclared agency charged with providing schooling, prayers for the sick, even decent burials. Within this fragile rubric, the preacher assumed civil and political leadership, in addition to providing spiritual guidance. He was revered as a nearly free man among slaves.
Yet he remained entrenched in a state of existential absurdity; his job, in essence, was to sublimate the rage of his flock into hope. There were exceptions -- most notably Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher who led the most successful slave revolt in history. But generally black pastors were afforded their status precisely because they so effectively tranquilized the masses.
Religion remained at the center of black life after Emancipation. As the humilation of economic serfdom replaced slavery, the Church remained both refuge and pacifier. Only after World War II did black clergy begin to envision a credo that galvanized rather than inhibited protest. The seminal figure in this "social gospel" movement emerged during the 1950s. "Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them," wrote a young Atlanta Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., "is a dry as dust religion."
King's efforts to enlist black worshippers in the cause of racial justice and his ability to woo moderate whites with a message of Christian fellowship forged an alliance that predicated the civil rights movement. His assassination, in 1968, assured him commemoration as a national hero, and helped inspire the rise of preachers such as Jesse Jackson, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and NAACP president Benjamin Hooks.
But the psychic wounds King set out to heal have festered in South Florida. Desegregation came late (1964) to the area, and the economic opportunity required to raise up the black population has not come at all. While a steady flow of Cubans, South Americans, and Caribbean blacks has poured into Miami and up the ladder of success, the bleak ghettos from which the reverends Victor Curry and Richard Dunn draw followers have rotted. Black political leaders, conscious of the compromises required to win votes in a Balkanized city, have failed to deliver a message of empowerment to Dade's ghettos. Likewise, the traditional church, mired as it is in liturgy, has failed to address the growing alienation of young blacks, especially men.
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Dunn and Curry emerged five years ago on the cutting edge -- some would say the fault line -- of what is known as the "new movement." In contrast to the "old mainline" pastors, they sought to restore a focus on social justice, and founded ministries based on need rather than doctrine, support groups that catered to drug addicts, the homeless, AIDS victims, and singles. They preached a populist, inclusionary brand of Christianity that invoked the expressive worship of tent revivals, and they delivered sermons peppered with self-help aphorisms and social commentary. Like King, they led peaceful protests that often startled Miami's governmental powers.
Their more recent forays into mainstream politics are a natural outgrowth of the influence that history has built into the role of a black preacher. Just as the late revs. Theodore Gibson and Edward Graham served on city and county commissions during the Seventies, Curry (and very likely Dunn) will shortly launch campaigns for the county commission. "I have no doubt that Dunn and Curry will both become major political players in this town if they so choose," says County Commissioner Art Teele. "The only person standing between them and destiny is themselves."
But to fellow clergy, this entry into the secular world -- a move Martin Luther King himself very consciously shunned -- brings with it untenable compromises. Politics, some insist, will only diminish Dunn and Curry by stripping them of the outsider status that has stoked their followers. "God calls you to preach the message, not to run for office," scolds pastor Jarius Dunn, Richard Dunn's grandfather. "He's gonna end up counting votes when he should be counting blessings. The milk wasn't from around Richard's mouth with the gospel and he was on the city zoning board. But I swear to you, he won't last if he goes downtown. Whoever he's working for downtown gonna die someday. If he works for the Master, he'll always have a job."
Forays into politics are a natural outgrowth of the influence that history has built into the role of a black preacher.