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Pastor to empower blacks won't need government help

Pastor with a plan to empower blacks says he won't need government help

01/22/2000

By Kevin Eckstrom / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It was around 1990 when Harold Calvin Ray had a revelation that he says was nothing short of divine. He found himself - a successful black attorney - avoiding driving through troubled black neighborhoods.

Surely, he thought, there was something wrong with this picture.

Soon he sensed God speaking to him, telling him it was time to "stop making a living and start giving life." That meant leaving his six-figure salary and his Notre Dame law degree and stepping out on faith into whatever God was calling him to.

Now, 10 years after entering the ministry and starting his own church, he says he has finally discovered God's plan for his life, and it has a lot to do with those neighborhoods he was once leery of.

"I'm called to make sure everyone can drive through that neighborhood and that that neighborhood is worthy of being driven through," said Mr. Ray, who is now Bishop Ray, leader and founder of the Kingdom Dominion Church Fellowship, a network of about 300 independent Pentecostal churches in the United States.

But Bishop Ray's vision extends well beyond the troubled neighborhoods that surround his church's sprawling 40-acre campus. Bishop Ray is spearheading plans for the National Center for Faith Based Initiative, an information clearinghouse and economic network that he says will transform black America.

What Bishop Ray is proposing is a one-stop center for more than 50,000 nondenominational black churches to consolidate resources and financial know-how into an economic force to be reckoned with. His head swimming with ideas and flow charts, Bishop Ray wants to offer everything from life insurance to accounting services to online investments that will "create, accumulate, allocate and preserve" wealth among blacks.

Perhaps most important, the 44-year-old preacher says he's willing - and able - to build his center without a dime of government money. Instead, Bishop Ray wants to tap the deep - and mostly white - pockets of corporate America.

"We are radically committed to absolving any notions of government dependency," said Bishop Ray, pastor of the 4,000-member Redemptive Life Fellowship. "We're well beyond the days where we're worrying about a 5 o'clock deadline for some $200,000 government grant.

"Although," he concedes, "we'll take it if we can get it."

In many ways, Bishop Ray typifies a new breed of black minister - savvy business-wise and politically flexible, with an eye on results and the bottom line. These ministers are as passionate about getting money into people's pocketbooks as they are about getting souls into heaven.

They've turned their sights from political gains to an economic revolution. Now that we have won the right to sit on the bus, they might say, let's buy the bus company.

Bishop Ray has been courting a financial services giant, Prudential, for help in building his center. Prudential hasn't committed any resources yet - Bishop Ray is looking for at least $5 million in seed money - but it picked up a $70,000 tab for the center's lavish debut, including a fleet of limousines and accommodations at the posh Breakers resort in Palm Beach.

John Scicutella, a Prudential executive vice president, called Bishop Ray's plan "impressive."

"They certainly believe in what they're doing and feel they can get something done nationally," he said.

Indeed, the glossy folders outlining Bishop Ray's vision reveal an ambitious plan to re-engineer the way black America thinks about money, and, he hopes, the way the people with money think about black America:

The center would be overseen by a board of 12 governors, who manage 12 regional embassies across the country. The founding eight governors are from the some of the nation's largest black churches and have a combined television viewership of 80 million each week. Through their individual leadership posts, the eight have ties to 50,000 black churches.

They include Bishop Carlton Pearson of Higher Dimensions International Church in Tulsa, Okla.; Bishop Gilbert Patterson of Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tenn.; Bishop Mack Timberlake or Christian Faith Center in Creedmoor, N.C.; and Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.

Each embassy would recruit a regional staff of economists, accountants and political analysts to oversee economic development within each region and funnel resources into local communities and churches.

Bishop Ray plans to launch several other organizations, including the National Faith-Based Law Center and the National Faith-Based Tax and Accounting Center, to give churches a single source for their business and legal needs.

In perhaps his most ambitious plan, Bishop Ray wants to launch a series of Web sites to entice black Americans to invest, shop, get legal and financial planning services, make travel reservations and simply chat online.

Despite the racial gap on the Internet - white Web surfers outnumber black Internet users by as much as eight to one, according to one Vanderbilt University study - Bishop Ray is confident that he can persuade black America to venture online en masse.

"Even if they don't have it, they know they gotta get it," Bishop Ray said.

Making it a group effort

Certainly, Bishop Ray has done his homework and has been successful in recruiting black-church heavyweights to share his vision.

Still, there is some question about whether a man who talks in "synergies" and "paradigms" can translate the flow charts into something that will benefit rank-and-file black Americans.

"It's hard to get any new business off the ground, and the bigger it is, the more complicated it is. So I guess only time will tell," said Stephen Strang, president and CEO and Strang Communications, which publishes Charisma magazine. "But Bishop Ray is extremely smart and very sophisticated, and if anyone has the chance to make it happen, it's him."

Supporters praise Bishop Ray for choosing a broad array of committed people.

"With the type of people who are being invited to join, it's critical to understand that this will be a very credible organization," said the Rev. Floyd Flake, who has signed on as one of the governors.

Mr. Flake, a former six-term Democratic congressman, has been waging an economic war to save the neighborhoods surrounding his 10,000-member church in Queens, N.Y. So far, his church has spawned 11 nonprofit corporations and funneled more than $25 million into community programs, making the church the second-largest employer in Queens.

There are others - in politics, religion and academia - who say that little, if anything, can be done by black churches without an equal focus on political empowerment.

"All the churches working in concert cannot do it," said the Rev. Calvin Butts, a politically well-connected leader in the troubled National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc. and pastor of Harlem's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church. "There has to be mass government intervention. They need to pump more money into the cities. I It's going to take a new Marshall Plan like they had when they rebuilt Europe."

Still, many blacks say economics is the new battlefront.

While black Americans have made modest strides in terms of education, income and home ownership, they still lag behind their white neighbors. The black rate of unemployment is double that of whites, and the median income of black families, at $28,602, lags far behind that of white families, at $46,754, according to 1997 figures from the National Urban League.

"Economics was certainly given some short shrift by us over the years," said Dr. Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League. "Politics isn't irrelevant, but it's not the be-all and end-all by any stretch of the imagination."

Bishop Ray, of course, is not the first or the only black cleric to have ambitious plans for economic empowerment. But he said his are different because "a dearth of unity and purpose-driven leadership has meant little cooperation among churches."

Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House in Dallas has made economic development a big priority.

The Metroplex Economic Develop Corp., a nonprofit agency that The Potter's House launched in 1998, is busy lining up corporate support for Project 2000. Project plans call for a private school, retirement center, multipurpose building and performing arts center to be built over the next 10 years. The organization focuses heavily on job training, mentoring and developing new businesses in the southern sector of the city.

Bishop Jakes says he is too busy with his own ministry to consider signing on with Bishop Ray's project. But those who have signed on say a national approach is the next step.

"There is tremendous unharnessed and unchanneled economic power in the black community," said Bishop Charles E. Blake, one of Bishop Ray's governors and leader of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles. "The church must take a national approach rather than focusing on individual communities. We join hands now, and that will give us leverage."

Kevin Eckstrom is a writer based in Stuart, Fla.

©1999 The Dallas Morning News

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