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Churches Must Address Issues of the Day,
Ground People in Faith, Forum Leaders Say

October 16, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- When it comes to Christian education -- whether in church school classes or from the pulpit -- churches must tackle issues of the day and offer their members a thorough grounding in the Bible and in their faith tradition's heritage.

Those were messages heard repeatedly during an Oct. 16 forum in New York City, held in conjunction with the Oct. 16-18 annual meeting of the National Council of Churches’ Committee on Black Congregational Ministries.

The committee works to help NCC member communions and others bring an Africentric perspective to their work of resourcing congregations, especially those of African descent. It holds forums with local congregational Christian education leaders in conjunction with its annual meetings to listen to their needs and consider how the committee can better help meet those needs.

At the Oct. 16 forum, Dr. Ernestine Galloway of New York Theological Seminary and The Riverside Church said, "We can't shy away from issues of the day -- sexism, racism, sexual preference. If we don't talk about it in church, people will only get a view that we don't appreciate."

She also emphasized the importance of faith development, especially in this day and age when "people are becoming less attached to their denomination and don’t see the difference one from the other" and when "many people who join churches do so to engage in social action. They don’t know in whose name they act!

"People need to become acquainted with the Bible as the Word of God, their faith and its history," Dr. Galloway said. "We are talking about becoming a Christian and how you live your life."

The Rev. Violet Dease, Assistant Minister for Christian Education and Social Ministries at Abyssinian Baptist Church, agreed, saying, "If you've saved a soul but not followed up to give that person some education, you've only teased them," she said. "That sells the Gospel short."

Some new church members "don’t know what salvation is, how to get it or what the benefits are," she continued. They want to join Abyssinian Baptist Church "but they don’t understand Baptist polity - what’s significant about being a Baptist? If you don’t teach people what it is to be a steward, they won’t get involved in programs, they won’t understand God’s love was poured out without measure, they won’t know their rights, their privileges and their responsibilities."

The Rev. Alberta Ware, Director of Church and Community Mobilization for The Balm in Gilead, Inc., pressed churches to become centers of HIV/AIDS education and testing and of compassion and care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

She said pastors often claim, "We don’t have HIV/AIDS in our church." The Rev. Ware said she replies, "You have HIV/AIDS in your church. It may be what you say in church that keeps them from letting you know." She challenges them to include HIV/AIDS infected and affected people in their Sunday morning prayers.

Time after time, she said, these pastors report that affected members have approached them to say, "Thank you for saying the prayer. I am worried about .... "

"These pastors come back to me and say, ‘I didn’t know,’" the Rev. Ware said.

Panelists pressed Christian educators to be open and nonjudgmental especially with children and adolescents. While the Rev. Ware was director of the youth department at Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, she said, she would tell teens, "I’m shockproof. And I’m not judging you."

"Be open, say and discuss anything," she urged Christian educators. "You can’t tell a teen to ‘just say no.’ I talk (with them) about how the choices you make today affect the rest of your life."

The Rev. Dease added, "Don’t just talk to the kids in your church but also to those playing out in the street. Build a relationship. Talk about everything." She urged the same sort of courage when building a Christian education program. If the senior minister asserts "youth are the priority" but there is no budget for a youth program, say, "Show me the money. Churches find budget lines for Women’s Day, Men’s Day, trips, anniversaries - the budget reflects where that church’s priority is," the Rev. Dease said.

The Committee on Black Congregational Ministries’ five-year goals include sponsoring a study trip to Africa, helping congregations and seminaries acknowledge and affirm the broad spectrum of Christian education in African- American congregations, and conducting Christian education events in each city where it meets that include data gathering and networking.

The National Council of Churches, founded in 1950, is the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s 36 Protestant, African American, Episcopal and Orthodox member denominations comprise 50 million adherents in 140,000 local congregations across the United States.

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