- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

I'd come late, ostensibly to avoid the prayer part of the mayor's annual Prayer Breakfast. Neither the gifted vocals of Virginia Williams, the mayor's mother, nor the predictable greetings from politicos and bureaucrats offered sufficient motivation to rise and get to the Washington Hilton by eight in the morning. I had chosen to take a pass. Besides, it was the Rev. Floyd Flake I wanted to hear, and he wasn't talking until after the others had prayed.

A former congressman from New York, Mr. Flake has built his Allen AME Church in Jamaica-Queens into a $27 million conglomerate, including commercial and residential holdings and a 500-student school. He has been spreading the self-help gospel through his book "The Way of the Bootstrapper: Nine Action Steps for Achieving Your Dreams." He gained my attention and respect when he stepped outside the boundaries that constrict African-American leaders, if not the people they reportedly represent; poll after poll has indicated the average black American supports choice in education. In some ways, Mr. Flake's advocacy for vouchers and charter schools wasn't risky business, except that he was still a member of the Congressional Black Caucus when he first articulated his views. He has since retired and spends much of his time on various national boards while advocating a deeper, more sustained involvement of faith-based organizations in the reclamation, restoration and revival of urban centers.

"He is an extraordinary member of the cloth," D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis would say later in her formal introduction of him at the Faith Based Conference on Economic Development and Neighborhood Revitalization. "He has done for his community what many governments have been unable to do."

I had anticipated that with Mr. Flake at the podium, "The white man done us wrong" hymn would not be sung. There wouldn't be pontificating about the ills of government. He would force the audience of predominantly African-American clergy, nonprofit leaders, civic activists and bureaucrats to look to themselves for answers to challenges in their communities. He would remind them of the hard road walked by blacks not even one generation removed from slavery as they simultaneously built homes, businesses and whole communities.

"How is it that with so little they could do so much? Too many of us are waiting for something to happen for us …" he would continue, reminding his audience that before there was a New York Stock Exchange or a Nasdaq, "there was tithing." Then, to really set everyone straight, he would chastise: "Stop talking about our greatness. Greatness is the history you are willing to make in the time you are living."

But I can't hear any of this because prayer is an hour behind schedule. To kill time, I head downstairs to the cafe for a quieter, lighter meal. Thirty minutes later, I'm back. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Alvin Jackson, who came from Memphis, Tenn., two years ago to serve as pastor of National City Christian Church, is being introduced. What to do next?

I concede defeat and remain in the huge International Ball Room. Before long I am captive of Mr. Jackson's sermon: "Have you ever imagined how tedious and tasteless life would be without a song? The song greets each morning, it visits each evening … it sanctifies cities, it mitigates violence, it claims the anxieties of frustrated people. It strengthens weak hands. It braces knocking knees. It raises defeated and depressed spirits," he says, with a cadence that later would be replicated by Mr. Flake.

Then, he recites a poem: "There's a song inside of me, I can hardly wait to see what it is that I have to say or the music that I will play. It's been so long in coming. First the thought, then some humming. But before I find my key, something stifles it in me. What keeps my song from being sung?

"If the place where we stand is alienating space, denying our worth, demanding self-contempt as a condition for inclusion, requiring work which pays little and means even less. In that context, freedom to sing your song is hard to come by. Sometimes relationships get in the way of our song … churches and schools, colleges and universities can become places of song abuse. Governments and systems have been known to take class action against emerging melodies of hope … When songs are not sung, trouble abounds spiritual, mental and physical disease…" he adds, noting those who lived or are living desperate lives Paul Robeson, imprisoned black males, the homeless and children in the District.

"I look around this morning and what I see are not just faces, but I see songs … Here we are in the nation's capital the capital of the free world. What a song of justice and equality, of love, peace and hope we can sing." At the completion, the crowd jumps to its feet. I am almost ready to say, "Amen," and shout a couple of "have mercies." We are all nourished. Then, I go to hear Mr. Flake.

By morning's end, I cannot contain my enthusiasm. I want to bottle the messages of Messrs. Flake and Jackson, deliver them each morning at each front door, the way milk and juice were once left. I am convinced that if people could just hear these sermons, they could be galvanized to restore and protect their neighborhoods, become a critical panel in the community activist quilt, march up to the Capitol and demand their congressional voting rights.

Suddenly, I stop and smile at myself. Wasn't I the one who wanted to take a pass? What is that saying about God, babies and … ?

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