Prayer, Politics Mix Uneasily; Ministers Take Opposite Sides at Supreme Court Protests

The Washington Post/December 7, 2000
By Hamil R. Harris

They came from Fort Washington, from Fredericksburg and the District to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court last week. But although ministers representing different religions clashed sharply over the disputed presidential election, some also hoped that the power of prayer could heal the nation's divisions.

"Whether members of the faith community are conservative or liberal in their political views, prayer is the answer for every problem in life," said Rocky Tryman, choir director for the New Life Seventh Day Adventist Church in Gaithersburg. Tryman led an ecumenical prayer outside the court.

"We are not out here with a clenched fist demanding rights; we are here in brokenness calling on God," said the Rev. Pat Mahoney, a Fredericksburg minister and leader of the Christian Defense Coalition.

But beyond the common ground of prayer, the ministers were as sharply separated by politics and race as any other Americans.

"This is a particularly divisive time, and we know the court itself is terribly divided," said Robert Schenck, of Manassas, who is president of the 6,000-member National Clergy Council, a predominantly white evangelical group.

"My greatest sorrow coming away from the experience of the Supreme Court was looking at the crowd," Schenck said. "On the left side was a predominantly black group, and on the right was an overwhelmingly white crowd, and they were shouting at each other."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights activists staked out one part of the court grounds while Mahoney and Christian conservatives rallied and prayed in another area nearby.

As Jackson led demonstrators Friday in singing "We Shall Overcome," protesters held Bush-Cheney signs in the background and chanted, "It's over, it's over."

"It is not only important to be here, but it is necessary that we be here today," said the Rev. C.H. Johnson, pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Washington. "We must demand that each and every person have their vote counted; it is the very underpinning of our country."

Johnson marched around the court with the Rev. Al Sharpton, former D.C. Delegate Walter L. Fauntroy, WOL-AM radio host Joe Madison and several hundred demonstrators who chanted, "Count all the votes. Let all the votes count."

On the eve of the Supreme Court proceeding, the Rev. Wendel Oldham and a choir from the District's Israel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church occupied one part of the sidewalk, while a group of white ministers from Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland held Bibles and prayed separately.

Mahoney, the leader of the Christian Defense League, said the Supreme Court protest showed that "there is still a great racial divide between black churches and white churches in this country," and he laid the blame at the feet of prominent black church leaders.

Jackson said he was not fanning racial flames by protesting and that those who call him a troublemaker place him in good company. "They said that about Jesus; they attacked him; they attacked Martin Luther King," he said. Immediately after the arguments before the court last Friday, Southern Baptist, Nation of Islam and Unification Church ministers held an ecumenical press conference.

"There has to be more dialogue; there has to be more coming together. The soul of our nation is at stake," said the Rev. Dan Perkins, of Virginia Beach and a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian coalition. "If we don't come together, no matter who is in the White House, we have to agree that God is still on the throne."

Nation of Islam leader Benjamin Chavous Muhammad said there is strength in diversity. "We are Christian, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats; we believe that we have to rise above partisan politics and put God first," Muhammad said.

The Rev. Michael Jenkins, pastor and president of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more commonly known as the Unification Church, said, "Even though we may have a particular preference ourselves, we have come to rise above our political differences as pastors and religious leaders."

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