Is there a ghetto in your church that is inhabited by a lower-middle class, or terminally poor group of parishioners? Are there members of your church who have remained poor over the years while giving hard-earned dollars and service to the church, as your church and pastor have continued to prosper financially over the same period? What has your church done about this permanent underclass? What is your church doing about the citizens of the ghetto in your church? Who wants to criticize a church or a minister, but don't we need to look a little closer at what is going on in the back rooms of our churches, if not right in our faces?
We were all recently moved in the aftermath of the Katrina Hurricane, when we watched from the comforts of our living rooms the devastation of the hurricane that had just passed through the Gulf Coast Region? And weren't we all proud to see The President and other government officials and celebrities standing in tow with many clerics, all of them promising that they were going to do something to help those who had suffered loss and displacement.
And weren't we equally shocked to see the living embodiment of the term ghetto, any section of a city in which many members of some minority group live, or to which they are restricted as by economic pressure or social discrimination [New World Dictionary], centered in the midst of the devastation. The President even commented, I am sure for the consumption of the foreign press and to deflect any responsibility away from himself or his administration, on the reason for the conditions of these poor and neglected people that we saw on our television sets. He attributed their condition to the legacy of racial discrimination in that region that had prevented them from rising from the ashes of economic despair. But what had President Bush or his Administration done to change this so called legacy during his tenure? What have his policies done to contribute to or change their conditions?
And not only President Bush and his administration, what have the churches done to lift up similar citizens who have been caught up in this vicious cycle, within their congregations or communities? I do not ask this question facetiously. We have all recently witnessed the growing trend of mega-churches in our countries. Many of these churches are being run by some oligarchy of family members or friends. While these churches continue to prosper financially, along with those who sit at the top of the structure (many of the officials commanding and demanding the compensations of CEO and board members of secular organizations), at the same time those lower-class groups within the church corporation, continue to languish year after year in poverty, if not just above the poverty-line. I call this latter group the ghetto in the church.
And many smaller churches are not excluded. For example, years ago I attended a church that claimed a membership of around 200 (100 more than the national average for churches at the time). The Pastor retained 100% of the tithes for himself. Not only that, all offerings raised on the 3rd Sundays were his. In addition to tithes and offerings, there was an annual weekly Appreciation Week set aside for this pastor. During this week, for those of you who are not familiar, a church service was held for 8 days. Each night churches were invited to come in and attend. But not only to attend, but to bring special financial offerings for this Pastor (This pastor and congregation would do the same for these visiting pastors and their congregations whenever their Appreciation Weekly financial fund-raising services were held].
The primary emphasis for this week was to raise money. Each auxiliary in the church would have been working to raise the assessment that they were prescribed, usually by of all people, the Pastor who would receive all of the proceeds. I even attended an appreciation week for a local church in the San Francisco Bay Area where the incumbent pastor contributed $1,000 to his own offering the first day of his appreciation. For each successive night, the offering was to exceed the previous night's offering. So during this week, astronomical amounts of monies were raised for Pastors in churches like this small-sized church. Combine this with the weekly tithes, third Sunday offerings et al, and you can see that a Pastor like this was extracting 6-figures from the church in the early 70's. How much do they take in now? For we have hundreds of millionaire pastors in our country as of this writing. I learned this during a conference for pastor's that I attended in Hunt Valley, near Baltimore Maryland a few years ago.
Back in the 70's, I noticed a pattern; what were these (501)C3 churches really up to? How did these ministers manage to maintain their tax-exemption status. Some were stretching their constitutional freedoms to the max. For while these preachers maintained that their goals were to save souls, they were actually building empires or feifdoms for themselves. How, by maintaining enclaves of members, usually made up of those from the underclass, who provided them with lifestyles of the rich and famous?
In one church I attended, a group of members who were on a fixed income and received government subsidies commented on the pastor, who would whisk by them after church in one of his Mercedes as they beat the path, by feet, to and from his church. They remarked that he was kind and always, "waived when he passed by". Although he always had a few extra seats in the car, he never stopped to offer them a ride. In fact it appeared that he was trying to escape the ghetto section where the church was located, and get back to the hills and his suburban upscale dwelling. How could one get that much wealth from such a small church? And isn't it illegal, those of you in the legal profession for organizations under 501(c3), i.e., for the proceeds to inure to the benefit of those in the church? In other words, you cannot raise tax exempt money for the sole purpose of it ending up in certain member's pockets. Then, how is this still going on in many churches?
The goals of this church and its purpose seemed to be to keep the Pastor and his wife living well and to tear down old barns and build bigger ones. This seems to be the primary and secondary purposes of too many churches today, where you have upper-middle class Pastors and Board members thriving as they continue constructing larger facilities or adding on to existing facilities, year after year I might add, while many in their churches who work together to provide the tax-free wealth of the church, continue their existence in the ghettos of the church.
This phenomenon takes place in every city of America, not only New Orleans. It probably goes on in the church that you attend. When will the church help to lift those in its church out of poverty? Is our only goal to make the fat minister fatter? Why did Evangelist Billy Graham always try, as it has been reported, to keep his income in line with those that he preached to, in deference to what we experience with most ministers today. Many black ministers who once criticized Reverend Ike, are putting Reverend Ike to shame. They have no shame about the income disparities between the pulpit and Board and the rank and file members. They tell the congregants that God wants us to prosper. But who is really prospering?
How many new buildings, luxury cars, exorbitant salaries, retirement plans, airplanes, Armani suits and other accoutrement will today's clergy extract from those in the ghettos of your churches while maintaining their jet-set lifestyles? It is time for a new accounting. The American Capitalist Church is out of control. This is not the spirit of Christ operating, rather much like the economic system that many of these come out of, this is the spirit of greed operating at the expense of others. Wasn't it Hegel who cited the reason for man's inhumanity to man as the result of "...ownership of property and the pursuit of power through class struggle". Why do ghettos continue to exist in the USA, and why do ghettos continue to exist in our American churches, I ask you? Who holds the deeds, and who holds the power in your church? Is there a class in your church that is doing much better than the rest? How do they fare in comparison with the remainder of the congregation? How many luxury cars, airplanes, extravagant homes and other accoutrement have they gone through at the expense of the church, while a class of members remain constantly and chronically poor. The next time you ask for prayer, will you be required to give the minister a seed offering before he will even pray for you?
Peace & Grace