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By Rev. Mark Whitlock, PastorChrist Our Redeemer A.M.E. ChurchThe USC Passing the Mantle Clergy and Lay Leadership Institute (PTM) is committed to training Black church leaders to change governmental policies and the neighborhood ethos within Southern California. The economic and social problems facing communities of color are complex and deeply rooted in racism, apathetic governmental representation, and a lack of understanding of the political process by clergy and lay leaders.Black Church pews have become resting repositories for people in pain. People are suffering from the pain of social injustice, prosperity preaching, decaying communities of color, and an absence of preachers speaking truth to power. Has the Black Church pivoted into irrelevancy?Eddie S. Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, created a fire storm within the Black Church community with his article, "The Black Church Is Dead." The article challenged the relevancy and rationale for a Black Church in post Civil Rights era. The Passing the Mantle staff, led by Dr. Donald Miller, Rev. Dr. Cecil L. Murray, Rev. Eugene Williams, and Rev. Mark Whitlock doesn't think the Black Church is dead.The Black Church is the most important institution in the African American community. Beginning in the 1760s and 1770s, African Americans began establishing their own houses of worship, and in 1787 the first major denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), was formed.Black Churches have played key roles in activism over the last two hundred years with the Civil Rights era marking their apex of organizational civic involvement. Today, the Black Church continues to be one of the prime generators of social capital for the African American community, serving as a major source of political, moral and spiritual leadership in urban centers throughout the United States.African American churches face a crucial moment in their shared history as the era of clergy with firsthand experience from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s comes to an end. Many seasoned veterans are retiring and an urgent need exists for them to share the lessons of their storied careers with a new generation of leaders. Some of these skills have to do with managing a well-run organization; other skills relate to political analysis and mobilization, understanding changes in the economic, social and cultural environment, and assessing opportunities associated with foundation and government funding.While the many of the challenges of the Civil Rights era have not gone away, contemporary African-American church leaders face numerous complex economic and social problems. The urban neighborhoods where historically African American congregations have been located have experienced a dramatic demographic shift over the past thirty years. Many of these congregations are surrounded by largely Hispanic neighborhoods and their congregants often drive in from great distances only on Sundays. The vanishing social safety net and the recent economic downturn have disproportionately impacted African Americans, especially in urban communities, and their faith-based institutions struggle to fill unmet spiritual and material needs.Therefore, faith-based civic engagement professionals must address issues related to gang violence, prison reform, government policies, health, criminal justice, and social services. This more complex environment demands that clergy and lay leaders develop new approaches, greater expertise, and improved institutional operations. The Passing the Mantle Clergy and Lay Leadership Institute (PTM) addresses these challenges through a learning program for enhancing leadership and building the institutions needed to tackle emerging civic issues. (See next week's issue for Part 2 of Passing the Mantle to the Joshua Generation)