By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Alfed Street Baptist Church pastor Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley spoke of his immense pride at winning a 2016 NAACP Chairman’s Image Award earlier this month, but said there are still plenty of challenges ahead in race relations and the church’s work.
Wesley was one of eight individuals or groups to be honored with the award on February 5 in Los Angeles. The award is given annually to those who have used their platforms to be agents for change. Wesley was elected pastor of the historic church in 2008.
“The only thing I can really say is it makes you feel unworthy,” Wesley said in an interview this month. “…A reporter asked me when I left Los Angeles what I planned on doing with my award, and my response was, ‘Going back to Alexandria and earning the right to have it.’ It makes me realize there’s still a lot more work to do, and I don’t want to be an unworthy recipient.”
The fourth-generation pastor rose to national prominence in 2013 when his sermon, entitled “When the Verdict Hurts,” was acknowledged in Time magazine’s July 29 cover story “After Trayvon” as one of the best preached in the country. It came after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, citing the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law.
That sermon along with two others — “A Rizpah Response” and “Tell Your Own Story” — will be archived in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture’s faith-based collection. Wesley also led community protest marches after a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in connection with the death of Eric Garner. He said the United States must have more conversations around race relations and inequality.
“I think that the only way we begin to heal things is to acknowledge that, to give opportunities for honest and open dialogue and uncover it,” Wesley said. “Nothing that’s covered will ever heal. I’m looking for [political] candidates who want to address gun violence, who want to address poverty, who want to address the Black Lives Matter campaign.”
Wesley cited the breakdown in relationships between the police and the community around the country and a justice system that he said disproportionately imprisons minorities over whites for the same crimes as just some of the issues that need to be addressed. He also said racism and racial stereotyping must be confronted head-on by bringing people of different backgrounds together.
“I think the more you interact with people different from you, and find out that you all are kind of the same, the more you’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt,” Wesley said. “The more we interact with people who are different and learn from each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, I think those walls of pre-determined prejudice are lowered. It helps people to become more loving and accepting and that’s really what the world needs.”
Wesley also said he sees a role for Black Lives Matter, an international activist movement that campaigns against violence toward black people and has challenged politicians to tackle issues of inequality. Wesley also said reforming the country’s gun laws could be of great benefit to minorities.
“One of the things is it’s important to channel the anger and to positive movement,” he said. “We don’t want a Baltimore eruption; that’s counterproductive to the movement. Beyond that, I think that I can’t remove from the conversation the need for gun reform. I think that’s one of the most critical issues for me in this upcoming election that we need to change gun laws.
“I’m really concerned about people who don’t want to change gun laws, because this isn’t just a police shooting black people issue. It’s black men killing young black men.”
Wesley emphasized the work of Alfred Street Baptist Church in helping the community. As well as providing food at Thanksgiving, presents at Christmas and other programs for the needy, the church recently sponsored a college festival where high school students had the chance to learn about college and explore their options. At that event, more than $2.1 million was awarded in scholarships to students, as well as on-site admission for many. There are also numerous other programs that service youth, from providing meals to space to watch movies during school vacations.
With four worship services and four bible study classes each week, the church’s congregation has continued to grow, and it is exploring an expansion that would see its footprint expand to a full city block. It would mean more space for worship and other programs, but also the demolition of the 22 townhomes that share the block on South Alfred Street.
That plan has brought opposition from some neighbors, who sent the church a letter on February 8 saying that the proposed expanded church “does not belong” in the neighborhood. In a sermon delivered on February 14, Wesley said the church will do all it can, even at its own expense, to help displaced residents.
He said in that same sermon that residents in the townhomes slated for demolition came and spoke in support of the plan at a recent meeting, and added that the church has great ambitions for the future.
“We’re still in the early developmental phases of it, but the reality is we want to do more,” Wesley said. “We want to service more, we want to administer to more people, we want our congregation to have the space it needs for ministries and the work we do inside and outside the church walls.”