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The Nation | THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Cites Scripture, Appeals for 'Works of Compassion'

March 29, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — John F. Kerry delivered an emotional appeal for national unity at an African American church here Sunday, saying that random violence, hunger and joblessness required all Americans to be "doers of the word and not hearers only."

The overtly spiritual appeal at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church by Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, brought shouts of approval from a congregation of about 350.

But a spokesman for President Bush, Steve Schmidt, said Kerry's comments were "beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and a sad exploitation of scripture for political attack." Kerry never mentioned Bush by name and targeted his call for more compassion and spiritual resolve only at "our present national leadership."

In advance of a two-day California campaign swing that begins today in Sacramento, Kerry abandoned his standard speech and recent focus on job creation. The Massachusetts senator referred several times to scripture in saying all Americans needed to do more to benefit the public good.

The declaration came in front of a 102-year-old congregation on St. Louis' north side that has a long record of political and civil rights activism.

"He hit the right notes. He's talking the talk about what's going on in the country," said Sylvia Donato-Moore, a registered nurse, as Kerry's motorcade prepared to pull away from the white-columned, red brick church. "He was short and to the point. He got to the core of the issues."

African Americans have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in recent presidential elections. Kerry hopes to continue that trend, particularly in Missouri, a state that has picked every president but one in the last century. (In 1956, the Show-Me state went for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

Kerry's speech was notable for its brevity, at just 16 minutes -- less than half the length of his typical campaign speech.

"The scriptures say, 'What does it profit my brethren if some say he has faith but does not have works?' " Kerry said, roughly quoting James 2:14. "When we look at what's happening in America today, where are the works of compassion? Because it's also written, 'Be doers of the word and not hearers only.' "

Kerry urged the audience not to be "summoned to selfishness [or] called to comfort," but to respond to ills they see all around them -- like a recent drive-by shooting of two 15-year-olds in a St. Louis neighborhood.

A fine example of this public spiritedness, he said, came 50 years ago in Topeka, Kan., when a couple named Darlene and Oliver Brown got fed up with their daughter walking a mile to catch a bus to a segregated elementary school. The Browns "turned their daughter and they turned their nation in a new direction."

The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that resulted from the family's protest ended legalized segregation. The Browns, Kerry said, had listened to "the ancient proverb that has guided all of us.... 'When you pray, move your feet.' "

Kerry said that lesson could be applied to improve schools, healthcare centers and the general ills of poor neighborhoods.

Again without naming Bush, Kerry said the administration had delivered a more divisive message.

He said he had learned during his service in the Navy that Americans from all walks of life can work together. And as he has many times on the campaign trail, he referred to a Vietnam War comrade to make his point.

The Massachusetts senator pointed to Bobby McRath, a deacon and member of the church choir, saying the two had not seen each other since their days 30 years ago serving together in the Mekong Delta.

"We came from different places, we came from different walks of life, we came from different backgrounds," Kerry said of McRath and other veterans. "But we never looked at each other and asked about any of those things. We were just brothers and sisters fighting the same fight and praying to the same God."

McRath pronounced the speech "excellent, just beautiful."

Kerry closed by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for equality and unity.

"We will join hands and hearts, and we will join in prayer," he said, "and together ... we shall overcome."

Kerry is set to host a town hall meeting today with students at a job training center in Sacramento. In the evening, he is scheduled to attend a San Francisco fundraiser hosted by state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

On Tuesday, Kerry is scheduled to hold a rally at UC San Diego to talk about rising gas prices, with his West Coast swing ending that night at a Beverly Hills fundraiser.

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