Black Pastors and Christians Divided Over Working With White House on Prison Reform

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 01: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump hosts a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House on August 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras – Pool/Getty Images)

At the beginning of August, Donald Trump convened a gathering of pastors at the White House. While many of the president’s loudest supporters have been Christian leaders, these were not the predominantly white male group that make up his informal faith advisory council.

Instead, at the table was a group of African American pastors invited to discuss criminal justice reform. At the president’s right-hand side was South Carolina pastor John Gray, who opened the meeting with a prayer.

“God, we thank you for an opportunity to speak about the hearts of those who sometimes cannot fight for themselves,” the Relentless Church pastor prayed. “We thank you for this moment to be able to share our hearts with the president. Dr. King said, ‘We cannot influence a table that we are not seated at,’ so we pray that this conversation will be fruitful and productive and honoring of the best traditions of this nation.”

Conservative media quickly praised Gray’s action; Fox 10 Phoenix described footage of the moment as “POWERFUL PRAYER.” But few in Gray’s community responded as positively.

Days after the meeting, a black ministers coalition issued an open letter expressing “heartbreak” about Gray and the other pastors’ dialogue with an “amoral” leader.

“We need not remind you of the posture of the Prince of Peace, our Savior from the streets, when He stood before Herod and Pilate,” stated the letter, signed by more than 50 pastors. “He didn’t even pray for them.”

Gray is a trusted voice in some evangelical circles and hosts a popular TV show on the OWN Channel. He’s largely kept a distance from politics—and later said his wife and others urged him not to go to the White House.

“They are using you as a prop,” CNN host Don Lemon later told Gray to his face.

Gray responded to the charge the same way he has now done dozens of times. “Sitting at a table is neither affirming, endorsing, agreeing or aligning,” he said.

Gray has also pointed out that a criminal justice reform bill—ostensibly, the reason for the White House pastors meeting—may yet make it through Congress due to their combined efforts.

But his trip to the White House and its subsequent fallout reveal a deficit of good faith when issues of race and polarized politics intersect—even among brothers and sisters in Christ.

When at the White House…

Christian speaker and educator Jemar Tisby has long sought to enlighten white evangelicals on the troubling history of racism in America—particularly in the church. He serves as president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, a resource for leaders and churches on race, culture, and justice issues.

Christians looking for advice on how to act when summoned by the powerful should look to Martin Luther King Jr.’s behavior, said Tisby.

“When King took a seat at the table in order to influence it, he did so by speaking truth to power,” said Tisby, who is currently completing his PhD in history at the University of Mississippi. “The most effective civil rights activists have always used their influence to challenge those who held political power.”

The words and actions of those at the White House meeting seemed too obliging to some observers.

Among those present at the meeting were three longtime backers of Trump including Alveda King, a pro-life activist and niece of the late civil rights icon, Darrell Scott, the pastor of New Spirit Revival Center in Ohio, and Maryland minister Harry Jackson.

“You can’t be a prophet to the culture while you’re standing outside of the room,” Jackson said in an interview later. “The greatest civil rights issue of our generation [is] the overcriminalization of minorities. What are we, the church, going to advocate for?”

But many fellow black faith leaders who watched the meeting saw more deference than defiance.

“The role of the prophet is never to comfort the king but to challenge the leader,” said Jamal Bryant of Empowerment AME Temple in Baltimore in a Facebook video. “Preachers, when you went around that table, after you stopped Uncle Tomming … [all] you just had was a photo-op.”

Tisby agreed that the pleasantries the leaders exchanged with Trump seemed to displace substantive talk.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Josh M. Shepherd