Former NCC leader Sterling Cary says racism persists
From "Philip Jenks" <email@example.com>
Date Tue, 1 Jul 2008 12:47:15 -0400
Former NCC President and civil rights leader says racism persists in U.S. and 'cannot be glossed over'
New York, July 1, 2008 - The Rev. Dr. Sterling Cary, a retired United
Church of Christ minister who was president of the National Council of
Churches (NCC) from 1972 to 1975, recently looked back on his years as
an ecumenical and civil rights leader, and ahead to the future of
ecumenism and American society.
He expressed a fear that the rhetoric of the current presidential
campaign may obscure the racism that continues in the United States. And
he called for a recommitment of the churches to their denominations and
their ecumenical involvements.
Cary was interviewed as a part of a historical Web series, Ecumenical
Moments (see http://www.ncccusa.org/centennial/centennialmoment1.html),
commemorating the 100th anniversary of the NCC and the Federal Council
of Churches. The interview appears below.
New York, July 1, 2008 - W. Sterling Cary was no stranger to controversy when he was elected the first African American President of the National Council of Churches in 1972. He had been an active civil rights leader for years, and in 1966 he was a signatory of a statement on race published by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen in the New YorkTimes.
White church members tended to be frightened by the statement, which many regarded as radical and threatening. "In the American mind, 'black' and 'power' did not go together," Cary said recently in an interview with National Public Radio.
"We as church men recognized the need to become engaged in efforts to empower people," Cary told NPR. "We felt it important to say that the will of God was that people be engaged in this struggle against the powers and principalities that were oppressing them. Racial injustice is a legacy of the slave period and continues until this day." Looking back, the venerable United Church of Christ clergyman said the response to the statement was "polite" but did not lead to a movement to change society.
Contacted this summer at his home in the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor, Ill., Cary warned that 42 years later, racial problems persist in the United States. He expressed the fear that the potential nomination of an African American for president might obscure that fact. Citing the media uproar over statements by Barack Obama's pastor, Cary said, "People are quick to condemn Jeremiah Wright, but you have to recognize that the history he is talking about is still with us. My greatest concern about the current presidential campaign is that the rhetoric gives people the impression that they can ignore the past and celebrate the future, but there are a lot of serious problems that cannot be glossed over - and this is especially pronounced in terms of race."
Despite important advances in four decades, the statement Cary made when he was installed as NCC president in December 1972 would be true today: "Empowerment today is limited to the placement of certain individuals in executive positions. That isn't empowerment."
Cary, who turns 81 this year, looks back his three-year presidential term with clear-eyed realism.
"It was a tense period when I was president," he says today. "We had Vietnam, we had tensions over Gay, Lesbian and transgendered people." Arguments on the floor of the NCC Governing Board were intense and often angry.
But one of his satisfactions, Cary said, is that his presiding style seemed to encourage more civil debate. "There was a tendency for our discussions to turn into dissentions ... but we created a climate where we could give everyone a hearing - we created an arena in which we could express our differences. Everyone had a say."
Another challenge faced by Cary's generation of leaders, including Claire Randall, the NCC's first woman general secretary, was the tendency of church people to turn their backs on national church bodies and channel their financial support to local judicatories and congregations.
"There has always been a tension between the national and local parts of the body," he said. "We need to resell and promote the need for a national body. How do you emphasize the need for the total body rather than just a part of it?"
Cary noted the staff and program cutbacks in the NCC and its member communions that are caused by a diversion of contributions. "What frightens me most is that it's even more pronounced now, this emphasis on the local excluding national bodies. The UCC is certainly going through that stage. I'm not sure if you cut back so drastically that you can rebuild."
Cary, who was ordained a Baptist and served Presbyterian and UCC congregations, was executive of the UCC Metropolitan New York Conference when he was elected NCC president. He was later executive of the UCC Conference in Chicago, from which he retired.
Whenever he consents to media interviews these days, he is invariably introduced as one of the signers of "the black church manifesto." He also invariably explains that it was intended as a loving and reconciling document.
"The love that we know has been made known by Christ," he told the NPR interviewer. "Not to allow freedom is a sin against God."
NCC News Contact: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCNews@ncccusa.org