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Rude Awakening on Racism Gave Minister New Mission

Religion: High-profile preacher burned some bridges--and built others--with unflinching TV sermons on issue.

July 25, 1999|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

He is arguably the nation's most influential African American televangelist, but for many years, says Pastor Frederick K.C. Price of Crenshaw Christian Center, a lot of blacks "thought I was white."

Price, whose Vermont Avenue church is the nation's biggest religious sanctuary, with more than 10,000 seats, eschews the traditional black church's "emotionalism." He prefers opera to gospel music. He was not frequently seen feeding the poor or working in the trenches of the inner city like so many black ministers.

And the flashy faith teacher was long the darling of white evangelical "prosperity preachers," who proclaim that faith in the Holy Spirit can bring concrete blessings of health, wealth and success.

"I thought I didn't need to deal with black and white," Price, a trim 67-year-old with steely eyes and blunt speech, said in an interview. "I dealt with faith and I dealt with the spiritual principles of the word of God."

Then everything changed--and the man who was long regarded as a "religious Uncle Tom" is now furiously attacking racism and reaching out to African Americans with a flurry of new initiatives.

The turnabout began after racism came, searingly and painfully, to look Fred Price straight in the eye. It came from an unlikely quarter: a sermon by the son of his longtime spiritual mentor.

The traumatic event prompted Price to carry out what he calls an "assignment from God": a discomfiting, exhaustively detailed televised series of weekly sermons on "Race, Religion and Racism" that he has broadcast to 10 foreign countries and a national audience of 15 million.

With its uncompromising tone, the series--which ends this month after 76 consecutive weeks--has toppled lifelong friendships and professional associations between Price and his white evangelical associates, as well as some of his black charismatic colleagues.

Most conspicuously, however, the series has dramatically reshaped Price's image in the African American community of being uninterested and isolated behind the high white walls and security gates of the Crenshaw Christian Center. Until the series, Price had never addressed the problem of race relations in his 25-year ministry.

"There was a sense that Price was a religious Uncle Tom . . . capitalizing on white evangelical America's need for a representative black face," said Robert Franklin, president of the Atlanta-based Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of six African American seminaries.

"For him to break the silence on the reality of racism, even within the evangelical camp, is a gesture of courage and is rooted in deep, deep personal pain," Franklin said.

Price himself puts the matter bluntly. "I could have kept quiet about it; in essence I was the house nigger," he declared early in the series. "I had to respond. And because I responded they put me back in the field."

It began with an audiotape. In 1992, a group of black ministers gave him a recording of a controversial sermon on race. Price recognized the voice of the pastor giving it: Kenneth Hagin Jr.

Disappointed by Mentor's Son

Price had long regarded the senior Hagin as a seminal influence in showing him the power of faith teachings. He had opened his home and heart to the family and had, by his own estimates, contributed nearly $1 million to the Oklahoma-based Hagin ministry.

But the younger Hagin--a nationally known minister, a man of God, a presumed believer in the one body of Christ--had been caught on tape telling his congregation that he did not believe in race-mixing and had taught his daughter from her kindergarten years that she was not to date blacks.

Price was dumbstruck. Devastated.

He thought: "My gosh, I've been standing next to you all these years and didn't know you had a gun to my head."

After Hagin Jr. failed to recant his remarks, apologizing only for hurt feelings, Price launched a boycott--throwing out Hagin materials from his church bookstore, cutting off financial support and even removing the father's name from one of his buildings. Those actions prompted half of the African American ministers on the executive board of one of Price's organizations to resign in protest.

(Price never publicly identified the pastor on the tape, which he aired in 1997, but Hagin acknowledged it was him. Hagin declined to comment, but a spokesman said the remarks were misconstrued and "we love everybody.")

But there was more to do. Price heard God telling him to present an in-depth teaching on religion and race. He didn't want the controversy, didn't need the hassle. But Price said he couldn't not heed the call, believing God chose him because he's established, influential, unbeholden to anyone and--at least until the series began--connected with the evangelical community's white power brokers.

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