In many urban neighborhoods where African American churches have deep roots, obdurate problems such as homelessness, drug addiction, gang violence and educational underachievement have only grown more acute since the economic downturn that began in 2008. Local, state and federal government programs that address these issues have been among the first to feel the effects of belt-tightening measures. And over the past four decades, the black church— which had developed successful strategies and networks to support civic engagement during the civil rights era—has largely turned inward as successive waves of immigrants have altered the demographic landscape of their communities. Trends such as the “prosperity gospel” have also encouraged this insularity by allowing pastors and parishioners to see redemption and salvation as personal matters rather than social imperatives.
The goal of the Passing the Mantle (PTM) Clergy and Lay Leadership Institute, now in its fifth year, is to help African American churches reclaim the activist legacy of the 1960s and become agents of positive social change in their communities. Specifically, PTM is designed to equip pastors, clergy, faith-based nonprofit leaders and church board members for better mission conceptualization, civic engagement modeling, strategic planning and partnership building with the public and private sector. The program creates a learning environment with leading practitioners, politicians and professors with expertise in areas related to civic engagement and community development.
A network of 200 PTM alumni now supports sustainable social change in the communities served by their congregations. PTM’s course architecture also provides a basic template for training programs that can be customized to address the particular needs of faith-based organizations beyond the black church.
Nick Street is a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.