Over Eighteen years ago, the Riverside Church in the City of New York called its first African American to be the senior pastor. In 2007, The Reverend Doctor James A. Forbes Jr. resigned that position. The calling of Dr. Forbes, and his ministry for eighteen years challenged a congregation to look at issues of social justice and how a congregation views itself and its Christian image. In 2008, America called Barack Obama, the first man of color to be president of the United States of America. The experience of both men are similar in many ways, both were instruments of needed change in America. Both challenged America in ways that cause discomfort to its core values and revealed some hidden truths. Forbes revealed the major problems with Christianity and Christian teachings. Obama opened up the soul of America and her core principles of social justice in a country used as an example in a world struggling to find its better angels. Both men were successful in that each pulled back the curtain of a problematic belief system, a belief system founded on the incorrect thought that the greatness of America’s most powerful church and powerful nation was determined by the number of Anglo Saxons in seats of power. The call to making America great again should not mean making America “white” again.

Riverside, The Outside and the Inside

In a seminary paper written by a member of the church years ago, it is possible to see some of the problems in traditional Christianity, and suggest some reasons why the religion is in decline in Europe and America. Powerful men from powerful positions experience what is wrong with American Christianity and start the conversation on the future of the world’s largest religion. Riverside Church is still a great church, and the work of God is still carried on its major operations. Riverside Church is fortunate to be large enough and have the physical and financial resources separate and apart from congregational issues. Riverside is like America the Country, the people may have conflicts and issues of concern, the Country however is guided by a spiritual mission to do the right thing as set down by the Founding Fathers of the Republic. America, the country is fine, as is Riverside the Church, now if we can just get the people and the country on the same page, and the congregation and the Church on the same page.


Riverside is known for its reputation of “speaking truth to power.” The church frequently calls on the president and the government of the United States of America to reconsider foreign policy decisions, and to take a passive and non-aggressive approach to world conflicts.


On the outside, the church is working out its Christian mission to go out into the world and help humankind. Inside, there are issues relating to race, power and justice. Expensive professionals are hired to handle issues relating to conflict resolution. Members put up resolutions before the church addressing issues of how to remove other members from the church.


The significance of these problems relate to pastors of other congregations in that it addresses the problem of how can a congregation make a contribution to the world if they themselves are in conflict?


Does the church of Jesus Christ really accept people as made in the image and likeness of God, or is the church just a social club with exclusions for certain people and certain groups of people?


Did the church really understand what calling a Black minister to a white church would involve? How much blackness were the members prepared to accept? Over the past eighteen years, as older members began to die off, their numbers were being replace by a new and different group of Christians. Young members began to come into the church, but they were more black, brown and Asian, than Anglo/Saxon. What appeared to be more upsetting was the fact that the newer younger members were better educated and had skills and talents, which benefited the church significantly.[1]

Riverside continued to march in peace demonstrations, the prison ministry was active and serving the needs of an oppressed population. The food pantry provided weekly supplies of food for needy families. The shower project provided an opportunity for the homeless to have a shower and receive clean clothes each week. The church has even served as a sanctuary for individuals who believe they need protection from someone or something.


What We Say?


“ In witnessing to God’s call for justice and human dignity, the Mission and social Justice Commission of The Riverside Church seeks to celebrate diversity, build inclusiveness, and ensure equity for God’s people locally, nationally and internationally. The Commission facilitates the planning and implementation of activities available to every member of the Church and community through worship, reflection, education, service and action. Toward these ends, the Commission is responsible for the benevolence, service and social justice ministries of the Church.”


These words say clearly what the social justice ministry of the church is all about.

Some of the programs, which address these issues, are:[2]

  • Global Justice and Peace
  • Maranatha
  • The Million Man March
  • The Prison Ministry
  • Sojourners: A Ministry with Detained Immigrants
  • Riverside African Fellowship
  • Riverside HIV/AIDS Ministry
  • Anti-Death Task Force
  • Latinos/as @ Riverside
  • Overcoming Violence? Empowerment for Peace
  • South African Support Group
  • Coalition Against the Violence Imitative. Seeks an end to the funding and practice of all racist medical research and experimentation, especially that which targets so called “minority” populations and children.
  • Upper Manhattan Together (UMT). A Consortium of Harlem churches initiating progressive justice to the purpose of empowering the citizens of Harlem.
  • The Sharing Fund. Allocates 10% of the Every Member Canvas (annual congregation pledge) to grass roots projects locally, nationally, and internationally.
  • The Densford Fund. Distributes small grants to projects, which further Native American appreciation, education and concerns.
  • Handgun Litigation Project. Riverside acts as a fiscal agent for this program, which successfully litigated against the top handgun manufactures, and distributors for negligence in the distribution of illegal firearms, which accounts for more than 90% of gun-related deaths in the United States each year.


It is possible to see from the list that the Church has some exciting social justice programs relating to the needs of society. Each one of these programs comes under the supervision of one of the ten staff ministers in the Church. Each staff minister has an assigned budget to assist the programs in activities. Members of the Church, many of whom are professionals, give of their gifts and talents in voluntary service to the Church. The participation in one or more of these programs is considered witnessing to your faith.


  • What We Do?


Members become involved in these meaningful activities and sometimes miss some of the events, which are taking place in the Church. They may have missed the fact that the turnover in ministers in the Church seems to be high. It had

Appeared difficult for talented individuals to stay in staff positions. Careful attention might have suggested that during the reign of Dr. Forbes, very few sermons were preached by any of the several ministers on staff.


It was during a congregation meeting, that as a member, suggestions of congregation discontent could be heard. The heavy involvement with youth ministry, and the reluctance to participate in the gossip environment, delayed awareness that “something was wrong” in the Church.


What is the Color of Social Justice?


It was clear that during the past five years, the Black presence in the Church had increased significantly. Members from two of the largest United Methodist churches in Harlem[3] had transferred their membership to the Riverside Church. Dr. Forbes was also instrumental in membership of the Maranatha group. The Church was taking a decidedly more Afro-centric approach to its programs and activities. Silent meeting were held, where discussions on the directions and focus of the Church were expressed. Funding for programs with Afro-centric focus were reduced.[4] There were even questions of the compensation paid to the senior pastor. Questions concerning the management of the multi million-dollar budget resulted in one court case.


None of these issues relates to social justice and peace, but it does address the question of which the social justice is for, and how close do we want the people who express concern and passion for to be to us? Congregation members were will to help organizations, which were involved in international activities, however, sending money to help Africa, and having Africans worshipping with you calls for two different belief and spiritual systems.


The Church is caught up in these discussions. The discussions center around who we are as Christians, and are we really willing to consider someone who is different from ourselves our brother? The thought of calling another African American to be senior pastor frightens some members and excite others. The two groups do not share views with each other. Whom ever is called will be assigned the responsibility of bring the Church together focused on its missions.




Social Justice is more about who we are as individuals. We cannot help or save the world if we are not just. The question of who will be selected to be the next senior minister of the Riverside Church is being discussed throughout the nation and some parts of the world. The individual who is selected, must not only be able to speak truth to power, but must also be able to heal the social injustice, which is taking place in the hearts and minds of the individuals responsible for the management of one of the largest social justice ministries in the country.

[1] It is clear that talented men and women of color were being placed in positions of power. These individuals of color, were in position to involve themselves in the management of Multi million dollar portfolios

[2] http://www.theriversidechny.org/getinvolve/?socialjustice&print=1   2/16/2008

[3] St. Marks United Methodist Church and Salem United Methodist Church, were both in the process of changing pastors, many elected to join with Riverside Church

[4] Youth Ministry, not only lost two ministers and directors, the budget for the program was significantly cut. The ministry and its programs tended to center around social emotional growth programs, rather than social justice issues or spiritual formation. The staff and you young people attending had become almost one hundred percent Afro-American. This issue was addressed on several occasions, however, it was not considered important.

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