Boston pastor who may head Operation PUSH has `open' pulpit

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) is in the market for a new leader, and he may be the Rev. Charles R. Stith of Boston.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has offered Mr. Stith a new job -- president of Operation PUSH, an organization Mr. Jackson founded in 1971 in Chicago after working several years with Operation Breadbasket for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. formed Operation Breadbasket as an economic wing of SCLC in the mid 1960s and named Jackson to run it.

A Harvard-trained minister from St. Louis, Mr. Stith has been pastor of the Union United Methodist Church, one of the oldest and most influential black churches in New England, since 1977.

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He also works with local civil rights and human rights organizations.

Stith often opens his pulpit to speakers who are not members of the clergy. His congregation is as likely to hear US Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, former US Rep. John Anderson (R) of Illinois, former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, or Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta in the pulpit as it is to hear a visiting Methodist minister or bishop.

Stith worked with the local Rainbow Coalition to help black state Rep. Melvin H. King in his 1983 bid for mayor of Boston. And the minister supported the Rainbow Coalition of New England in behalf of Jesse Jackson's 1984 Democratic Party primary campaign for president.

On the possibility of his becoming the leader of PUSH, Stith says, ``I can hardly believe that such a job has been offered to me. I can't say I'll accept the offer at this time. I'll have to talk it over with my wife.''

Mrs. Stith, the former Deborah Prothow, is a physician active in community health care. The couple has two children. They have lived in Boston for 10 years.

Stith has never been a member of Operation PUSH, he points out, and thus would be assuming the presidency as an outsider coming into an established organization. But ``outreach to people is my mission as a Christian minister,'' he says.

His current outreach effort centers around a growing national project to ``revive the traditional unity and friendship between blacks and Jews,'' Stith explains. ``Recently, our relationships have been strained, but I don't think our unity of purpose in achieving human rights and civil rights for peoples around the world has ever been strained.''

In Boston he has worked closely with Leonard Zakim, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rth, to foster continued friendship between Jews and blacks, long allies in the civil rights struggle in the United States.

Mr. Stith and Mr. Zakim led a pilgrimage of American blacks and Jews to Israel last September. The travelers met Israeli officials at all levels during their tour. They also met with ``the people'' in towns and villages.

Last year Stith visited the troubled Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., after an American Nazi group announced a march through a Jewish community.

Even before what some have called ``black-Jewish crisis'' became a highly visible issue during last year's presidential primaries, Stith's Union Methodist congregation was involved in a series of Seder (exchange services) between Jews and Christians for four years.

``Attendance at these interdenominational services increased each year,'' says Stith. ``This project grew by word of mouth because of the sincerity of the effort to focus on our broader agenda -- to confirm the necessity for our two groups to maintain good relations and common interests with each other.''

National attention to Jewish-black relations followed an alleged ``off the record'' anti-Jewish statement attributed to Jesse Jackson and various statements by Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Muslim leader of the Nation of Islam.

``Jesse is not anti-Jewish,'' says Stith, a close friend of Jackson through the years.

``The black-Jewish alliance is growing in cities around the nation,'' says Mr. Zakim. ``This alliance has worked, can work, and will work.''

Last November Stith was honored at the ADL national convention in Denver.

Jackson, currently on a ``peace tour'' that has included meetings with religious leaders in other nations, has been on leave of absence as president of PUSH since 1983, when he decided to run for president.

``I'll announce my decision on PUSH very soon,'' says Stith. ``I can certainly say that PUSH offers a greater and broader constituency for work in peace and good will than does a pastorate at an individual church, even one as active as Union United Methodist has been throughout the years.''

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