COLUMBIA, S. C. -- A crisis is knocking down the walls that have divided three Christian denominations for decades. Young black men have been disappearing from the pews of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Now their leaders are sounding the alarm to call them home.
"These are tough times and what better way to address these times than with what we are doing here. I believe that we see the strength of the three denominations and the possibilities of what we can do," George Walker, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church senior bishop, told CBN News.
Bishop Walker was a seminary student in Atlanta when the three denominations last met in 1965. Walker, Bishop William Graves of the CME Church and Bishop John Bryant of the AME Church first began talking about the Great Gathering over lunch at Founders Inn in Virginia Beach, Va. in 2008.
"We decided that this is enough talk, and in the name of Jesus, let's make this thing happen. And here we are by God's grace," said Bryant, reflecting on that first conversation.
The Great Gathering
March 1, 2010. More than 7,000 members from the three denominations met together in Columbia, S.C. for "The Great Gathering," a three day emergency summit to focus on young black men.
"We see the decay, the desperation in our membership," said Milton Williams, who pastors the Walls Memorial AME Zion Church in Charlotte, N.C.
Women in Williams' congregation often outnumber men five to one.
"Many of us can count the stories of men who are in jail," Williams said. "Men whose wives are coming to church with the children and their husbands are locked up or sent away, grandmothers whose children are in prison or are in centers or in juvenile camp. So we see this, and it challenges us in so many ways."
The sheer numbers facing Williams and other church leaders are also challenging. Studies show less than 50 percent of black male teenagers graduate from high school. Nearly 60 percent of young offenders in adult prisons are African American. And homicide is the leading cause of death for 15 to 34-year-old black men.
Dr. Cornel West, himself a Harvard graduate and a professor at Princeton, jumpstarted the gathering with a tough message for pastors.
"We have got to remind our young brothers that they come from a great people who have forged a great struggle with great style for a great cause and it has much to do with that blood at the cross," West told the crowd of men and women.
"Too much of what we see in the practice of black churches has been a form of sleep walking when it comes to not just black men, but poor people in general," he added.
Still, West called the meeting a black church "renaissance." This rebirth was kindled with prayer, praise, and strategy to tackle the tough issues.
The U.S. government also delivered a strong show of support for "The Great Gathering." President Obama addressed the crowd in a video message, saying, "You know these struggles. You see them every day. You know that through unwavering determination and steadfast faith, each of us can rise above it."
Joshua DuBois, who directs of the White House Faith Office, followed the president's address with a personal message for his fellow black Methodists.
"The president has not taken his eye off how we can work to strengthen families," DuBois said. "He has proposed a new father and marriage innovation fund that would support local efforts around these issues. And we will continue to work with these organizations to have an impact."
Male Investment Plan
The end result of the gathering produced a "Male Investment Plan." The plan includes a mentoring program, Saturday academies for young men at black Methodist churches in nearly 50 cities, and a plan to pay for it all.
"We are going to be asking one million of our members to give at least $10 annually, so we can start a $10 million fund and then hire professional African American leaders and other staff persons who may be of other races who can work on significant African American problems and address it," Bishop Henry Williamson of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church explained to CBN News.
The plan excites conference members, like Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator who was first elected to the State House when he was just 22-years-old. Pinckney did not have a personal relationship with his own father until he graduated from high school.
"Even those of us who may come from homes where there are no fathers," Pinckney said. "I think there are always father figures, man figures around -- even if it means ministers and uncles and cousins and a community of people playing a part."
And this community of black churches is also armed with the power of the Holy Spirit.