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Charlotte pastor in the running for president of America's largest black religious organization

(Courtesy: ROBERT LAHSER - 2008 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO) (Courtesy: ROBERT LAHSER - 2008 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO)
CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) -

His campaign to become the next president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. has all the trappings of a run for political office: slogans, nonstop travel and speech-making, even a running mate.

But ask the Rev. Clifford Jones Sr. of Charlotte – one of five candidates – why he is running to lead the country's largest African-American religious organization, and he answers with a depth and passion far above the superficial stuff of most campaigning.

If elected Thursday in New Orleans, where the National Baptist Convention will hold its 134th annual gathering, the senior minister of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church said he will promote an evangelism that is "Christocentric" and "holistic."

Translation: He wants this denomination of 7 million-plus members and 33,000 churches to be more active in social and economic issues, not just in the "isolated soul winning" that looks to save souls, one at a time, for heaven.

"That's the easy thing," said Jones. "A relationship with Christ should involve the transformation of one's life (now) .… That means a ‘yes' to become change agents for the poor and the powerless."

It can also involve pushing for jobs, education and health care, Jones said, and casting a spotlight on disparities of wealth, pockets of racial prejudice and a diminished respect for human life.

"The role of the church is to understand what has happened in our culture," he said.

In engaging the here and now, he said, the National Baptist Convention would be building on what its "founding mothers and fathers" accomplished.

Birthed in 1880, less than 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation signaled the end of slavery, the convention started by building schools and colleges, encouraging entrepreneurs, and promoting solidarity among this newly free minority group.

"We led the charge," said Jones, who turns 71 Monday. "Preachers were the first (African-Americans) to serve in government – both Congress and local offices, and the African-American Baptist church was always in the forefront of human rights – and not just civil rights."

Barnstorming the country

Jones and the four other presidential contenders are seeking to succeed the Rev. Julius Scruggs of Huntsville, Ala., who is not running again after serving two five-year terms.

The other candidates come from Florida, Connecticut, Texas and Mississippi.

Jones, born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, has been senior minister at Friendship – one of Charlotte's megachurches, with 8,600 members – since 1983.

Over the years, he has pastored some of Charlotte's highest-profile political leaders, including former mayors – and still Friendship members – Harvey Gantt and Anthony Foxx.

A year ago, when Charlotte hosted the National Baptist Convention's annual gathering, Jones became the last candidate to announce he was running.

Since then, he's barnstormed the country, meeting with black Baptists and preaching in their pulpits. A sampling of where he's been: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, New York, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Newark and Washington, D.C.

"I believe the Lord has prepared me for it," Jones said of the top post. And he sounds bullish about his prospects.

"To some, I'm too liberal; to others, I'm too conservative," he said. "I trust Providence – God and the people will speak. And once they speak, I will serve."

Jones has a running mate: The Rev. Larry West, pastor of Mount Airy Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., is now chairman of the National Baptist Convention's board of directors.

Like his rivals in the race, Jones also has a campaign website ( www.cjonesfornbcusainc.com) and a slogan: "Progressive-Practical-Principled . . ..When we know better, we do better. Our people deserve the best."

And, for the record, all expenses are being paid with campaign contributions, not church funds, said Carolyn Mints, Jones' campaign coordinator.

Repairing damaged image

For the last decade and a half, being president of the National Baptist Convention has been mostly about recovering an image tarnished by the Rev. Henry Lyons.

As president in the 1990s, Lyons was mostly interested in money and the luxury items it could buy. In 1999, the Florida-based Lyons was sent to prison for racketeering and grand theft. He was accused of using church money to buy a $135,000 Mercedes and to put a deposit on a $925,0000 estate in Charlotte.

Lyons was succeeded by the Rev. William Shaw of Philadelphia, who stressed integrity during his two terms (1999-2009). He donated his $100,000 salary to educational institutions.

At last year's gathering in Charlotte, current president Scruggs said the convention was working to put the Lyons scandal behind it and rebuild a giving level that was damaged by all the bad publicity.

Jones, in speaking about his vision if elected, focuses less on internal issues and more on reaching out – to the world and to a changing America.

He wants to stress global missions. And at a time when the country is debating issues raised by the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., Jones wants the National Baptist Convention to help bring a moral dimension to such discussions.

"Life is a gift from God," he said. "But there seems to be a breakdown in our ... understanding for the sanctity of the image of God in all of us. We see each other as victims and victimizers .… Christians have to talk about it."

When the 20,000 or so National Baptists convene in New Orleans next week, Jones will be in the limelight from the beginning.

As the host pastor of the 133rd annual session, he will deliver the opening sermon at this year's 134th.

It's a tradition.

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