Black clergy look for ways to stem the spread of urban poverty. They says middle-class exodus could result in permanent underclass

The black middle class has been fleeing the inner city, leaving behind a ghetto of have-nots, and black church officials are trying to do something about it. ``We can save our black communities only if we are willing to act in our own behalf,'' says the Rev. T.J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, La., president of the National Baptist Convention of the USA Inc., the largest black church denomination in the United States.

His message is echoed by the Rev. J.Alfred Smith of Oakland, Calif., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, considered the activist wing among black Baptists.

Machinery for action may come into being as the result of a late-October conference of 200 churchmen, women, and lay workers at Harvard University Divinity School. Participants proposed that a clerical task force be formed to prepare a plan to halt a creeping growth of an underclass in many black communities.

Black churches cannot stand idly by while poverty spreads around them, many at the conference said.

The Harvard Divinity School and its black alumni are examining the problems of the disadvantaged, says Harvard Prof. Preston N. Williams. He says that throughout America black churches are beginning to conduct activities for the surrounding community.

But they are not instant solutions, says William Julius Wilson, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.

``The historical legacy of racism is not the only cause of the growth of the underclass in American cities,'' says Dr. Wilson, author of a new book, ``The Truly Disadvantaged: Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy.''

In spite of federal programs to fight poverty, he says, the new underclass has not only become isolated from the resources and channels necessary to escape poverty, it has also grown.

The strong missionary tradition of the black church is not enough to minister to the needs of the 1980s, says the Rev. Dr. Jemison, who is also a Baptist minister in Baton Rouge.

``Afro-American churches face grave responsibilities today,'' he says. ``Although we have black mayors, congressmen, and public officials, the black church must deal directly with homeless and displaced people, make room for the street people, and not wait for the government to take care of everything.''

Various activities designed to resolve the plight of the new underclass were discussed at the meeting. For instance:

The Shiloh Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., operates a full-service family life center that employs a full-time staff and offers its facilities to the public. These range from the usual counseling and child-care services to a restaurant and catering service.

The Allen Temple Baptist Church of Oakland, Calif., operates a community outreach program that ranges from workshops on AIDS to a 12,000-person citywide march against drugs.

The time has come for women to be welcomed to the pulpit as pastors and preachers, says Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders, an ethics professor at the Howard University Divinity School in Washington, D.C.

Churches can conduct clinics to help reduce violence and suicide, a growing danger to inner city communities, says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health. Churches can maintain ongoing programs on welfare and other programs to help the poor help themselves, says Mary Jo Bane, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Upgrading decaying urban communities will not be easy, Dr. Wilson says. During the past decade, he says, the middle class has deserted the inner cities as have businesses and public-service agencies. Meanwhile, the number of poverty-level families living in ghetto communities has multiplied, even as the total population of these areas has decreased, he says.

``The lack of the presence of a steady, middle class ... leaves an unstable community structure, with few residents who can serve as role models to young people,'' the professor says.

He would like to see a return of industry that offers jobs and of middle-class residents to offer a successful role model to youths and a revival of personal interest in the success of the community, to reduce lethargy and create a long-range view of progress.

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