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Long-divided black Baptists try to unite around common agenda

NASHVILLE -- Four black Baptist groups whose churches were a training ground for prominent civil rights leaders, but split in part over how that fight should be waged, said yesterday that they were embarking on a new era of cooperation meant to put the concerns of their community atop the national agenda.

The National Baptist Convention USA, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America hope to reclaim their historic role as leaders for broad social change. Among their top issues will be education, healthcare, jobs, and foreign policy.

''We believe, and the numbers show it, that we have the power in terms of black registered voters across the country to make an impact," said the Rev. Stephen J. Thurston of Chicago, president of the National Baptist Convention of America.

He made the comments at the end of the denominations' joint weeklong meeting, their first in at least 90 years. Together, they represent about 15 million Baptists nationwide, the conventions' presidents said.

The groups' initial split occurred in 1915, over control of a publishing house. A similar schism over governance issues developed in 1988.

But the most well-known break was in 1961, when a fight over the presidency of the National Baptist Convention USA led the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters to form the Progressive Baptists. Opposition to King's strategy of civil disobedience and mass protest were a key factor in that split.

The groups say little of consequence now divides them, other than the independent denominational structures each has created that would make full reunification difficult.

They are now positioning themselves collectively as an antidote, not only for blacks, but for all Americans, to what they call the narrow moral focus of President Bush and his religious supporters.

Like white evangelicals, black Baptists generally oppose abortion and consider homosexuality immoral. In the presidential race, Republicans made common cause with some black leaders over blocking gay marriage, hoping the issue would chip away at the overwhelming black support for Democrats.

But the Baptist presidents said they would not highlight either issue now because the topics are divisive and not a priority for their members, who face pressing ills such as poverty and discrimination.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, in a keynote speech, asked the audience whether their churches had fielded requests to perform same-sex weddings. When there was no visible response among the thousands packed into the cavernous hotel ballroom, he wheeled around the podium and shouted, ''Then how did that get in the middle of our agenda?" People cheered.

The groups' separation from Bush was underscored Tuesday, when the president invited a more sympathetic group of black pastors to the White House to discuss Social Security. Speakers at the Nashville gathering noted the White House event and suggested that Bush was being misled about what matters to blacks.

Even before Bush was elected in 2000, the conventions' influence had waned. Many Baptist leaders turned inward when the civil rights movement ended, focusing on congregation-building and local issues, said the Rev. Robert Franklin, a professor of social ethics at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.

The National Baptist Convention USA has faced its own internal problems. Its former president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, was convicted in 1999 of using his position to steal about $4 million, which he spent on homes, jewelry, and his mistress.

In a sermon this week, the Rev. Major Lewis Jemison of Oklahoma City, president of the Progressive National Baptists, acknowledged the denominations' lower profile, saying ''the church must come out of hiding." He added: ''We must get actively involved. . . . We must once again become that redemptive change agent."

Despite past troubles and the current political climate, historically black churches continue to represent the majority of black Protestants and remain at the center of black life. The four denominations plan to use that influence in their new campaign.

In their joint statement yesterday, the conventions' presidents outlined some of their positions. They oppose the war in Iraq, school vouchers, and the privatization of prisons. They also urge an increase in the minimum wage and more aid to Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

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