CHARLOTTE — Members of America’s oldest and largest black Baptist organization are in Charlotte this week, began streaming into town Sunday for a week of music, preaching and service.
The meeting, expected to draw up to 20,000 delegates, is the first time the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. has held its annual session in Charlotte.
The Nashville-based denomination’s president, the Rev. Julius Scruggs, spoke Sunday morning at Charlotte’s Friendship Missionary Baptist, the local host church.
Though he never used the term “prosperity gospel,” he thundered against this controversial teaching that God will reward signs of faith with wealth, health and happiness. It’s a theology that has enriched some high-profile preachers – white and black – and has wooed many away from churches with the more traditional Christian message that love and justice, not money, matter most to God.
He made his case with the biblical story of Job, who remained firm in faith even as he lost family, wealth and health. Scruggs asked the packed houses at the 9:30 a.m. service whether they worshipped God “because he’s some kind of cosmic Santa Claus” or “because you love him … and because he’s so faithful and forgiving.”
The National Baptist Convention USA had its own run-in with a money-centric preacher in the 1990s: The Rev. Henry Lyons, then president of the denomination, was sent to prison in 1999 for racketeering and grand theft. The Florida-based Lyons was accused of using church money to buy a $135,000 Mercedes and put a deposit on a $925,000 estate in Charlotte.
Lyons was succeeded by the Rev. William Shaw of Philadelphia, who preached at the 11:30 a.m. Sunday service at Friendship Missionary Baptist. During his two terms (1999-2009), Shaw stressed accountability and integrity. He donated his $100,000 salary to educational institutions.
In an interview Sunday, Scruggs said the denomination’s leaders and its 7 million members are working to put the Lyons scandal behind them.
“We are still recovering our image,” said Scruggs, 71, who pastors First Missionary Baptist in Huntsville, Ala. “It damaged the giving level of our convention and even split some of the churches who were giving. We’re in the rebuilding stage at this point.”
Scruggs also elaborated on his attack on the prosperity gospel, telling the Observer that it represents “a watering down of the Gospel. The Lord does want people to prosper – in spirit, in mind and in body. He wants all of us to be whole. But when we put our weight too heavily upon material prosperity, we have imbalanced the Gospel.”
The Baptist leader, who does not plan to run for another term next year, acknowledged that some of the denomination’s 33,000 churches may be losing members to churches that link religion to getting financial rewards.
“It’s going to be difficult because, when people are making money off things, there’s always the temptation to continue to make money,” he said. “But I think they are in the process of weakening Christians. There are so many Christians who are biblically illiterate. So when they come into a church and hear pastors preach the prosperity gospel, they buy it fully when there’s only partial truth to it.”
A year to the week after Democrats held their national convention here, the Baptists’ decision to meet in the city is fresh proof that “Charlotte is a convention city now,” said the Rev. Clifford Jones Sr., who pastors Friendship Missionary Baptist. “This is a thriving community that is mission-oriented. We are about making a difference in the quality of the lives of people.”
Endorsing ‘Moral Mondays’
The National Baptist Convention traces its beginnings to the 1880s. Its annual sessions, such as this week’s in Charlotte, tend to be less about passing resolutions and more about meetings, preaching and music. State Baptist groups will sponsor 32 breakfasts and lunches at 12 Charlotte hotels.
Last year, meeting in Atlanta, the denomination did hold news conferences and pass resolutions condemning efforts in many state legislatures to enact laws requiring photo IDs to vote, limiting early voting and other measures.
Now meeting in North Carolina, whose Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the country’s most restrictive voter laws this year, delegates will hear Scruggs resurrect the “voter suppression” issue during his address Thursday.
In the interview, Scruggs also endorsed the “Moral Monday” protests organized by the state NAACP. Demonstrators have opposed the voter law and other measures approved by the legislature.
“I think it’s very moral,” Scruggs said of the protests, which have drawn the support of many left-leaning clergy in the state. “I think Jesus would have been speaking.”
But Scruggs’ denomination is more conservative than at least some of the protesters. It has passed a resolution opposing same-sex marriage.
The National Baptist Convention also made it clear, though, that even though it disagreed with President Barack Obama on that issue, it sided with the president on many more.
Scruggs, for example, called congressional Republicans trying to defund Obama’s health care plan “basically selfish in their approach. They have good insurance. They ought to want other people to have what they have.”
Monday’s opening day including a day of service and musical performances from local youth and adults.
About 45 young people got up early in the morning to help distribute bags of food to the hungry, said the Rev. Trevor Beauford, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church’s children, youth and singles minister. Other people worked on a Habitat for Humanity project, while others volunteered at a health fair, among other projects.
“It’s been a great day,” Beauford said. “I’m super-duper proud of my middle-schoolers and high-schoolers who got up so early on their day off from school.”
He estimated between 500 and 800 people attended the youth musical performances at Friendship Monday afternoon.
At the church, many young people sang; other local youths played instruments and some acted out a play. Many of the performing youths were a part of the local organization, Inspire the Fire.
“I love ’em,” said Marian Hockenhull, the convention’s national director of the young people’s department, of Flint, Mich. “I love the way they sang; it was beautiful. ...This is local talent.”