Has Obama ignored black pastors?


By Adelle Banks WASHINGTON (Religion News Service) - When President Obama was elected, some black pastors, fresh from a campaign that featured extensive outreach to their churches, expected meetings with the president, or at least to be enlisted as informal advisers.

For better or worse, those expectations have largely fallen flat.

“I think he doesn’t avail himself as fully as he could of the input of black religious thinkers, and this is not a judgment upon his regard for us,” said Obery Hendricks, a professor at New York Theological Seminary.

“I’m not sure why that is.”

The Rev. James Forbes, the former senior pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, said the White House is doing a delicate dance in the aftermath of Obama’s ties—and public breakup—with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, whose fiery sermons nearly derailed his campaign.

“It has to be a consideration: How does the first black president position himself in the public eye in regards to blacks?” said Forbes, who has neither been invited nor sought access to the Obama White House. “I think his handlers would assume that they want to make him as color-blind as he can possibly be.”

Black religious leaders say they’re not asking Obama to help them; they want to help Obama. Some get calls and e-mails updating them on policy issues, including messages from Joshua DuBois, a black, former Pentecostal pastor who directs the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Still, some want more.

“That’s not the president,” said the Rev. Amos Brown of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, of DuBois, describing the phone calls as “for-your-information sessions.”

The White House declined to comment.

Hendricks noted “glimmers” of a change when the president unexpectedly “got on the line to thank us,” during a conference call with DuBois on March 21, after Obama’s health care reform package cleared the House.

The Rev. Gerald Durley, senior pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, said he and other clergy would like to sit down with the president—and not staffers like DuBois—to discuss topics like unemployment, foreclosures and green jobs.

“I just want to certainly have that opportunity to give the kind of input to him personally rather than the advisers,” said Durley, chair of the Regional Council of Churches in Atlanta.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of Atlanta’s First Iconium Baptist Church, attended a White House meeting with dozens of black clergy last September, but left disappointed that it was “more informational than interactive.” The real loser in all this, he said, is Obama.

“Why haven’t we been engaged to counter the activities of the Tea Party and the birthers? Why haven’t we been engaged even now to prepare for immigration reform legislation?” asked McDonald, founder of African American Ministers in Action, a subsidiary of People for the American Way. “One thing that you cannot do is ignore the clergy, whether you’re the first black president or not.”

The complaints, however, may be rooted in unrealistic expectations, generational differences or levels of political maturity, observers say. Some black clergy, including those who served on an advisory panel for DuBois’ faith-based office, say they’ve had no problem getting their voices heard at the White House.

The Rev. Otis Moss Jr., who just ended his one-year term on the council, said he has talked to Obama directly, but also knows from experience in previous administrations that connections to senior staff can be just as, if not more, significant.

“It is at that level that you get things accomplished that you may not get accomplished in a 15-minute audience with the president because ... he is dealing with national and global issues that impact all of us,” said Moss, a retired Cleveland pastor whose son is now pastor of Obama’s former Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ.

Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who also just finished her term as an adviser, said the council was a “major step forward” for blacks being included in communication with the White House.

What’s more, she said, it’s simply not “humanly possible” for Obama to meet with everyone.

“Is the president apprised of our concerns? I believe so,” she said. “Is he moving decidedly on a course to respond to the issues that are near and dear to us? I believe he is. Is he ignoring us? No. Is he keeping us out of the loop? No.”