Game Plan (Part Three)

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: August 4, 2008

“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me

But the pulpit doesn’t care about thee;

Bless me and mine with CASH favorably…

‘Cause I’m a R-E-V-E-R-E-N-D.”

(Sung to the tune of 50 Cent’s “P-I-M-P”

PHILADELPHIA – With apologies to “Fitty,” there has always been an assumption that in terms of what it offers to the Black community, the church has always been the bedrock for a foundation built on hope. Is that an assumption? Hell, you can treat that notion as — well, gospel.

Whether for affirmation of being alive and thankful or bringing a lost soul’s emotional scales back to balance, the Black church was the retaining wall which repelled the relentless tide of reality, racism and white supremacy; offering its parishioners the promise that with God’s help, things will be better come the dawn.

But prior to the mid-term elections of 2006, the actions of a Philadelphia-based religious organization trumpeted the truth of cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy — and he is us.”

The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity held elections for office, as some organizations do, with perquisites on top of prestige including power and influence over thousands seeking guidance in spiritual as well as real world situations.

However, a prior election provided the impetus for a match to be set to this pair of gasoline drawers, according to Rev. Robert Shine, a senior member and former president of Black Clergy.

“Prior to the last presidential election, we were asked to not be as vociferous as we could’ve been in speaking on voting at the polls. This was for the express purpose of helping George W. Bush get re-elected.”

While there were no specifics on who did this ‘asking’, the desired result was attained.

After Bush’s re-election, a new catch phrase slid in under the radar of the war in Iraq and concerns of national security — “Faith-based initiatives.”

Forever Buying Influence = Faith-Based Initiatives

“The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations, and neither should America.”

President George W. Bush uttered those words as part of his establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in January of 2001.

His goal was to link ways of participation of faith-based organizations to federally funded social services, leading up to what would be referred to as the “faith-based initiative.”

The House of Representatives passed the Community Solutions Act, which had bi-partisan support (J.C. Watts, R-OK and Tony Hall D-OH as co-sponsors), sought to provide tax incentives for charitable contributions by individuals and businesses.

When it stalled in the Senate, the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act (a/k/a the CARE Act) was created in 2002 with help from Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Rick Santorum (R-PA) to attempt to amend the Internal Revenue Code to offer tax incentives as a way of encouraging charitable giving and providing monetary support.

The CARE Act triggered debate over the kind of church-state partnerships it would facilitate, and the Senate failed to reach a consensus on CARE before Congress adjourned that year.

In September of 2002, the White House vowed to pursue its initiatives through federal agencies, regardless of the outcome of legislative matters.

On December 12, Bush implemented an executive order, highlighting equal protection of the laws for faith-based community organizations. This order implied charitable choice principles through administrative regulations rather than straight legislation.

So from that edict, social services providers can’t discriminate against beneficiaries of services based on faith, but are allowed to discriminate in hiring and placing members on their organizations’ respective boards.

However, they are not allowed to use federal contract or grant monies to fund “inherently religious” activity, and separate “in time or location” services funded by direct government aid from “inherently religious activities”, with all quoted statements subject to interpretation.

In addition to all this, religious organizations can compete for government funding to provide public services without having to abandon their independence, autonomy or religious character. They can also display icons, scripture and religious art in their facilities and can retain religious terms in their name and mission statement.

In spite of the executive order, the CARE Act was revisited in the 2003 session of Congress, and on April 9, the Senate, in a 95-5 vote, passed a modified version (CARE Act S476). To help the bill pass muster, the co-sponsors agreed to eliminate language that would have allowed faith-based organizations to maintain their religious character while receiving funds from federal programs.

Because of this, organizations under this banner can legally apply for federal money while dancing around the church-state interpretation in facilitating this goal.

The Vote

In November of 2005, Black Clergy voted for a new president, choosing from two candidates — the Rev. James Moore and the Rev. Steven Avinger.

According to Rev. Shine, two schools of thought emanating from the election were a feeling that should Avinger ascend to the Presidency, some felt a future infused with government monies for programs would create some long-term benefits, while electing Moore would, in Shine’s opinion, point the church back into a direction he felt they should’ve never strayed from.

By a vote of 62-50, Moore won the election — and that’s where the problems started…

A challenge to the recent election of Rev. James Moore over Rev. Steven Avinger as the group’s next president hung over the association like the sword of Damocles. Bishop Ernest C. Morris, the group’s outgoing president, and Rev. Avinger became part of a splinter faction which contested the outcome.

Now, the group’s primary mission, one of advocacy for the Black community, had been swept away in a deluge of acrimony, recrimination and an inordinate pre-occupation with who’s right and who’s wrong without providing proof.

Rev. Shine called the challenge to the election “bogus.”

“It is Bishop Morris’ people that agreed to nullify the vote,” said Shine. “The by-laws say any member can attend a meeting, and that the entire body should be there in questionable matters.

“They met without the body, and they kept me out.”

Shine said the only persons invited to the meeting were several members of the nominating committee and the candidates — president-elect the Rev. James Moore and the challenger, the Rev. Steven Avinger (Rev. Moore, however, was in Atlanta when the meeting was held).

On the day of the meeting, Philadelphia police were stationed outside the building, with separate security on the inside. Shine believed this was to insure only selected persons could have access to the proceedings. “How could he do that in a closed meeting, excluding members like myself?”

A push by 22 ministers who were registered to vote just prior to the election was what set Shine off — initially. “They (reverends) came out of nowhere—and most of them were not ordained. Soon after these people were registered, Morris closed the meeting and declared there would be no further registration.”

The delayed reaction to the election results was moreover exacerbated by a faxed copy of a letter from Bishop Morris, addressed to the Black Clergy body.

In it, Morris informed everyone that an agreement was reached to nullify the results of the election on November 29th — with an understanding a re-election would be held at another time.

To that end, Dr. Janice Hollis (former spokesperson for Black Clergy during Morris’ tenure) suggested the by-laws were hardly written in stone. “By-laws,” mused Hollis, “can change from administration to administration.”

As to the challenge itself, Hollis said the results would be turned over to an independent organization to decide the validity of the election.

Shine said his faction tried to meet with Morris to resolve the differences, but the attempt was rebuffed on advice from Morris’ attorney.

Reproving the other side for what he called an attempt to “close off any further talks in order to renegotiate the outcome of the election,” Shine said, “Bishop Morris is trying to decertify the outcome of the election, which means a further split in the organization.

“We’re being accused of violating the by-laws by the Bishop,” continued Shine, which was the total opposite of what was said by Hollis, who suggested there were no by-laws.

Shine stated he would push for his faction to press on and install the President-elect, in spite of the concerns over who was eligible to vote.

“There’s no basis for qualifying a disgruntled loser (Avinger) who said, ‘I don’t mind losing the election, but you’re not gonna shit in my face doing it.’”

In the face of all this, Shine remained hopeful the controversy would not have a lasting effect on the community. “In 23 years of this organization, we’ve never had anything of this magnitude happen before.

“But it illustrates the importance of returning Black Clergy to its former focus, which is one of advocacy. “Reverend Moore’s election,” said Shine, “means restoring the organization to its former status as a formidable social rights and civil rights advocate.”

The Money

As vital as the Black Clergy is to its constituents and the community as a whole, there is a real and palpable murkiness attendant to the whole ordeal. The voices that were so vociferous at the outset of the controversy had suddenly become conspicuously mute.

The by-laws, which each side has so explicitly invoked as germane to its respective position, are nowhere to be found as of this writing. Repeated requests to various members of the warring factions of Black Clergy for a copy were made, but none have been forthcoming.

What was left for the public and parishioners of over 400 member churches to reconcile is an endless and monotonous loop of innuendo and accusation from two factions bent on the utter debasement of the other side; and an organization trapped by its own intramural squabbles.

As a January 1, 2006 confirmation date steadily approached, a weakened Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity teetered tenuously without leadership, direction and consensus.

What predicated this break is money — lots of it — at least four million dollars, already received–with the promise of another four million if Sen. Rick Santorum is re-elected in 2006. The initial four million was allegedly donated to Black Clergy as part of the “faith-based initiatives” program created by President Bush.

The money was electronically transferred to a Black Clergy account, with Pennsylvania senior Sen. Arlen Specter as conduit for the transaction. How do we know this?

Rev. Shine and other representatives of Black Clergy revealed this in an interview.

But the money did not reach all 400 of the Clergy-affiliated houses of worship. Of the programs connected with the funding, only a handful of churches have been able to take advantage of the windfall; the reason being they were the only ones “equipped” to handle it.

Five Black Clergy members — Rev. Steven Avinger, Bishop Ernest C. Morris, Bishop Ben Peterson, Rev. Thomas Ritter and Elder Ben Fisher — splintered from the body and apparently established a separate bank account in the name of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity (it was eventually discovered upon further investigation that two separate accounts existed).

Documents revealed the new faction endeavored to coerce the old guard into closing one of the Black Clergy accounts. Rev. Albert Davis, the official Black Clergy treasurer, stated he could not, in clear conscience acquiesce to such a demand without the formal consent of the body.

This was integral to establishing a separate 501 © (3) status for a second non-profit entity.

The aforementioned members moreover engaged upon a philosophy that, according to Rev. Robert Shine, was antithetical to the ground Black Clergy had traditionally trod upon. “They took us away from a position of advocacy to further their own agenda,” according to Shine.

Which brings us back to the money; the faction led by Revs. Morris and Avinger implied the issue is jobs–and contend the four million is being used for a work-study program. Because of the contention that they “brought home the bacon,” Morris, when asked about what condition he left Black Clergy in after the recent election, replied he had “taken the organization to a higher level.”

Morris’ comments notwithstanding, an election to solidify the new direction in which Black Clergy was being steered was held on November 17th, with the splinter faction entrusting Rev. Avinger to maintain the covenant established by the current administration. The old guard countered by selecting Rev. James Moore, a candidate in tune with the traditional philosophy.

Noting the silence by the Clergy with regard to recent issues such as John Roberts’ ascension to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice and the growing opposition to the war in Iraq, the old guard felt confident their voice had been restored.

While the results seemed to speak to a clear mandate, the methodology behind the voting process and who was eligible to vote came into question. The Morris-Avinger faction stated clergy which weren’t eligible to vote had bum-rushed the election–while the old guard accused the new faction of attempting to stack the deck by registering clergy that were non-ordained — in violation of the yet-to-be-released by-laws.

Which brings us back again to the money.

Avinger’s inability to ascend to the presidency severely compromised the organization’s chances to acquire the additional four million promised — with the codicil Santorum survives his election and retains his Senate seat.

In the midst of these quid pro quos, representatives for Sen. Santorum have said on record that no such axis between he and Sen. Specter existed. Santorum further denied there was any plea or agreement to support him in the next election.

Santorum also stated he was “a friend of the Black people” when asked about the infighting among Black Clergy.

Sen. Specter’s office was also contacted; and a representative for Sen. Specter, in reply to whether he and Santorum were in cahoots, would not comment.

Sen. Specter would later release a statement in which he stated, “Job training for minorities is one of the most serious problems faced by our region today. In my judgment, the training program proposed by Black Clergy of Philadelphia was worthy of financial support.”

While money and politics have compromised the efficacy — and reputation — of the Black Clergy, parishioners and constituents that could benefit from the organization’s mission of advocacy are being sacrificed upon the altar of “faith-based initiatives.”

“There will be disputes in any organization,” said Rev. Steven Avinger, pastor of Greater St. Matthews Baptist Church, who lost to Rev. Moore in the election. “We’re a group of pastors who come together to do the work of the clergy.”

With reference to that current administration’s position on issues germane to the Black community, Avinger said, “when leadership changes, philosophies change. It doesn’t affect the work we do: feeding people and housing people.”

An incensed Avinger rebuked the accusations of the other faction — and of the alleged influence peddling. “For individuals who had no idea of the process to make accusations is inexcusable.

“They don’t have the grant, they don’t understand the process. The federal government has not and will not just issue a check for $4 million. The money can only be invoiced under very specific terms.”

Avinger further implies the money is going where it should. “The bulk of those dollars are going to training. It seems strange an organization that talks about civil rights gets an opportunity to train people in high-tech jobs — I don’t understand the objection.

“We shouldn’t make the programs the sacrificial lamb; and people who don’t understand the process need to shut up,” he said.

Challenges to the outcome of the election, according to Avinger were made for one specific reason. “It (challenge) wasn’t because of money — or even the outcome,” said Avinger. “There were individuals that were not eligible to vote participating in the election.”

In spite of the results, Avinger believes Black Clergy will remain unaffected.

“Black Clergy will go on,” said Avinger. “This is not the first time an organization has had a dispute and it won’t be the last. What is important is that it’s an important time for Black Clergy and the community. We have to keep up with the times.”

And it did. Almost as quickly as the heat built up, everything cooled. A press conference, days later had both sides kissing and making up as Moore’s election was validated.

At the November mid-term elections of 2006, Rick Santorum lost his senate seat in a resounding defeat to Democrat Bob Casey.

So for all the drama laid before the black parishioners of Philadelphia, the question sits in the back of inquiring minds like an empty collection plate: was the effort to reveal this rift because of a clash of ideals within the most important cultural link to Black people, or was it because someone fucked with the money that everyone was supposed to get?

Everybody knows when it comes to dough that “Preachin’ ain’t easy.”

Next: Bush, sports, steroids and the 2:00 warning.