Bedford-Stuyvesant

Daughter of prominent civil rights pastor says the church must re-commit to social gospel

July 26, 2016 By Francesca Norsen Tate Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Jennifer Jones Austin in the pulpit her father held for 43 years. Eagle photos by Francesca N. Tate

The institutional church, which has largely embraced the prosperity gospels, must return to its original social justice commitment, says Jennifer Jones Austin.

Jones Austin, daughter of renowned social justice preacher Rev. William Augustus Jones Jr., was the guest speaker at her home congregation, Bethany Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where her father was senior pastor for 43 years.

Jones Austin addressed Bethany Baptist Church as part of its Core Values Sermon Series Church highlighting social justice, sacrifice, creativity and diversity.

Using the gospel passage of Matthew 25:3, she said, “The church at large has turned away from the spiritual and social justice ministry, and towards the prosperity ministry.”

Recounting a nightmare which she dubbed “more reality than dream,” she told of a church in the center of an impoverished neighborhood, where a homeless man lay on the steps to the sanctuary. A sleek luxury car pulls up, and the pastor and his family get out. The pastor widens the gates, and steps over the homeless man to get inside. After the service concludes and the church doors are locked, needy people approach the church but nobody helps them. The pastor and his family enter their luxury car and drive home.

“That is not a dream. It is reality. It is our reality,” Jones Austin said.

“But how can this be? The church — the black church in particular — is the pillar of the community,” she continued. “They have led the nation in securing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. How can it be that today, right in the front steps of our churches, the homeless sleep? And right down the corner, children are being gunned down, both by the police and by other children?”

Jones Austin, citing contrasts in classroom and education caliber in the school system, said, “How is it that black girls in New York City are disciplined in schools 10 times the rate of white girls? And 19 percent of our black girls are sexually assaulted and trafficked?

“How is it that one in three black men — compared to one in 17 white men — will be incarcerated during his life? Black men, black women, black Americans make up only 13 percent of the national population, but 40 percent of the prison population — with approximately 1 million African-Americans currently behind bars.

“Nearly 2 million African-American people have been deprived of the right to vote. How is it? Why are we in communities of color worse off than we were 50 years ago?

“Because of my upbringing, my critiques of the church are high — very high,” Jones Austin added. “My expectations of faith are high. I can’t help it. I am the daughter of the late Dr. William Augustus Jones Jr. — the freest man I’ve ever known. Dad was free because his faith was in Jesus Christ. He said ‘No!’ to the lies that were told about his people. He stood up to the government leaders at City Hall and the White House. And he stood up for the young man who needed a character reference in court, the mother who didn’t have enough for her children and for herself, the homeless man who was only seeking a hot meal…That’s how he lived.”

The social gospel ministry, Jones Austin explained, holds “that a society is responsible for the needs of its members. Redemption and salvation have to be more than personal. It also had to be communal.”

She called on the wider church to return to a social justice ministry.

Dr. Jones worked closely with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a mentor to Rev. Dr. Al Sharpton when the latter was a teenager and helped the “Boy Preacher,” as he called him, to become one of the most visible ministers in the country.

Likewise, his daughter has dedicated her life to the mission of eradicating poverty and has more than 20 years of leadership experience working for the advancement of underserved children, individuals and families. She is the CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), a prominent anti-poverty, policy and advocacy organization with 200-member human services agencies.

Previously, as senior vice president of United Way of New York City, Jones Austin led and achieved community level and systems improvements in education, financial stability and health for low-income individuals and families. She was appointed New York City’s first family services coordinator by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and was responsible for leading several early education and juvenile justice, child welfare, health and domestic violence survivor initiatives.