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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Charles Blake

This Voucher Advocate Defies Leaders But Not His Flock

October 01, 2000|Edward J. Boyer | Edward J. Boyer is a Times staff writer

When he was first introduced to West Angeles Church of God in Christ's 50 members in 1969, Charles E. Blake faced a hostile congregation. Some in the congregation did not want a new pastor appointed by then-Bishop S.M. Crouch; several members refused to take their seats. Blake responded by asking everyone to stand, and his eloquence and passion eventually won the congregation over.

Since then, Blake has been the force behind West Angeles' growth to 18,000 members. His congregation has become a mega-church, and Blake, now a bishop, expects to begin holding services in a new 5,000-seat, $60-million cathedral early next year.

Blake, 60, belongs to a generation of black pastors across the country whose managerial savvy has turned their congregations into engines of economic development in African American communities. Blake has become as much a CEO as he is spiritual leader. West Angeles has more than 80 social-outreach ministries: a performing-arts center, bookstore and counseling center among them. The church's 245-student West Angeles Christian Academy is a K-8 private elementary and middle school where students routinely perform above grade level in reading and math.

An activist pastor on social issues, Blake has entered the debate over school vouchers by supporting Proposition 38, the initiative on the November ballot that would give California parents $4,000 a child to send their children to the private school of their choice. A coalition of more than 50 prominent black pastors, including Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and William S. Epps of Second Baptist Church, oppose the measure.

Nevertheless, Blake is convinced that vouchers offer an opportunity to dramatically improve education in poor neighborhoods.

A native of Arkansas, Blake grew up in San Diego, where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy at what is now United States International University. He later received master's and doctorate degrees in divinity from Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center and the California Graduate School of Theology, respectively. He and his wife of 31 years, Mae, have three children and two grandchildren. He was interviewed in his office at the church on Crenshaw Boulevard.

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Question: What prompted you to endorse Proposition 38?

Answer: One of the major things that impacted me was that the poor people struggling to pay the $250 or $300 monthly tuition for their kids to attend our school are also paying taxes. And a goodly portion of their taxes are being used for education. To me, that was a fundamental injustice that they were much less able to bear than were the wealthy.

Q: Does it concern you that by endorsing school vouchers, you may be seen by some in the black community as embracing an idea associated with political conservatives?

A: There are those who still feel it is a betrayal of our community to join with conservatives and others in supporting this issue. I have gone the liberal line for many, many years. Despite having a private school [at West Angeles] for more than 20 years, I have clearly stated that we needed to avoid vouchers, and any kind of privatization of education, because poor communities would be jeopardized if the wealthy were permitted to take their children out of the public school system and use those dollars to support private schools.

Of course, I knew all about the fact that in the early '60s, the whole school-choice thing was a strong segregationist rally cry. I just didn't want to be associated with anything that they were associated with.

Q: What do you plan to do to support Proposition 38?

A: I'm not going on the road for this. I want to be very careful not to appear to have bought the whole conservative bill of goods, even to have renounced the liberal economic and political issues about which I am concerned. But I do think that we need to serve notice on both liberals and conservatives that blacks, especially many blacks who are within the church, are inclined to be morally conservative, even theologically conservative, but socially and economically liberal.

Q: You have a lot of public schoolteachers in your congregation, and many of them have their children enrolled in private schools.

A: That point really needs to be made. It's amazing that as soon as the public school teachers can afford to, they send their children to private schools.

Q: Many other congregations may also include a fair number of public schoolteachers whose children attend private school, yet many prominent black ministers and elected officials oppose Proposition 38.

A: All of us are entitled to our own points of view. Those ministers and I will work together on many other issues.

Q: Those ministers, like virtually all black elected officials, oppose vouchers despite a poll conducted last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies showing that 60% of African Americans, 76% of those between ages 26 and 35, support vouchers. How do you account for that?

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