Friday, May 15, 2009

“At one time, preachers were very powerful in this town as far as getting respect from elected officials like the [D.C.] Council,” said the Rev. Henry Gaston, president of the Missionary Baptist Ministers’ Conference of D.C. & Vicinity. “Today, however, it is as though they think we’re asleep, but we will let them know we are fully alert.”

Last week, Mr. Gaston was among more than 200 ministers of varied denominations who joined Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church of Bowie in rallies at Freedom Plaza and the John A. Wilson Building. The preachers gathered to voice their objections to the council’s decision May 5 to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.

The D.C. Council voted 12-1 to pass the measure, joining a growing number of states to loosen restrictions on same-sex unions. Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, was the lone dissenter.

Mr. Gaston and the ministers conference plan to continue to express their disappointment with the council’s action, which he predicted would lead to a push for same-sex marriage in the District.

“Everyone who agrees with us should come out and join us,” he said.

Mr. Gaston, 58, pastor of the Johnson Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, was elected last year to head the conference. The organization dates back to 1885 and consists of a local body of more than 600 Christian clergy. He was installed Jan. 12 as the organization’s 47th president.

The conference was organized, according to its mission, to “promote the interest of the Redeemer’s Kingdom, to secure peace and prosperity of local churches, the welfare and harmony of the members to promote the cause of Christian Education and Missionary Causes; to stimulate an interest in all denominational enterprises; and to advance the Kingdom of Christ, for mutual intercourse, for social, intellectual, moral and spiritual improvements.”

Conference members have included J.L.S. Hollman, E.L. Harrison and Ernest Gibson, who contributed to national models for community development projects and preaching clinics.

The conference has donated to the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, the Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home and the local Humanity Fest. It also has provided scholarships, particularly to historically black colleges and universities.

Mr. Gaston’s predecessor, the Rev. James Coleman, pastor of the All Nations Baptist Church, said the voice of the church must respond to the changing trends of the social and moral order and the politics of the day.

“The ministers conference is compelled to speak with a loud voice of social justice for all people. This has been the goal of each succeeding administration of the conference. Our sincere interest is for positive outcomes for citizens of the District of Columbia residents,” Mr. Coleman said,

“The political environment in the District of Columbia in recent years has not been exactly favorable to churches,” he said. “Several churches have been forced to move out of the District of Columbia due to the escalating commercial construction, zoning and parking issues, primarily.”

Mr. Coleman said Mr. Gaston is doing an outstanding job.

Among Mr. Gaston’s goals as the conference president is unifying Baptist preachers in the area.

“I would like to see that the ministers conference continue to become strong again, and when issues come up in our town we will not be the last to know. We will be respected as spiritual leaders here in the District of Columbia. We do have congregations and we also have a presence,” he said.

Mr. Gaston has been a D.C. resident since he was 5, in 1955, when his family relocated from Chester, S.C. He graduated from Anacostia Senior High School in 1968, and then the Washington Baptist Seminary. He was installed as pastor of the Johnson Memorial Baptist Church in September 1983.

Mr. Gaston is president of the Baptist Educational Congress of D.C. and Vicinity, a member of the D.C. affiliate of the National Black Leadership Commission on HIV and AIDS, and chairman of the board of directors for the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership. He is also former president of the Washington Baptist Seminary Alumni Association and a former trustee of the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association.

Mr. Gaston married Duann Baker Smith in 2001. They have four children.

“I’m delighted to have been installed as president in a year when America has made history by electing its first African-American president. It is a great honor and privilege to have pastors and preachers elect me as their leader,” Mr. Gaston said.

• Lyndia Grant is a religious writer living in the District.

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