To Forgive, Divine
When the Reverend Eugene Rivers III took the podium in the ballroom of the Fairmont Copley Plaza during a small, private affair, hell was no doubt still toasty and all the pigs in the vicinity earthbound. Even so, what happened in the next few minutes was every bit as improbable in some circles as the underworld freezing over or swine taking flight. A fixture in Boston's black community, Rivers had been invited to speak about another fixture in Boston's black community — the Reverend Charles Stith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania who was being honored for his work on African issues.
For those in the audience who knew of the long and thorny history between Stith and Rivers, which culminated in a public screaming match on a city sidewalk just five years ago, the decision seemed tantamount to asking the lion to speak up for Daniel. Even Jeffrey Robbins, president of the international affairs organization WorldBoston, which arranged the tribute, was worried. “Right before he went on, Gene alluded to the fact that he was going to say something special,” Robbins says, “at which point, I kind of clenched up.”
Others no doubt followed suit when Rivers stepped to the podium to begin his address. “I consider myself part of a group of young, righteous upstarts who . . . led a movement of shrill and important protest against the forces that held us down,” he boomed. “I would not consider Charles a part of that group.” Silverware stopped clinking, and half-emptied wine glasses were gingerly lowered to tables. “Back then, we thought of him as a sellout,” he continued, “and we mocked him and his elegant wardrobe.”
One member of the audience professes to having suddenly felt goose bumps as he waited for the other shoe to drop. When it did, however, it wasn't the shoe anyone was expecting. “As much as it pains me to say it, Charles,” said Rivers. “You were right.”
By the time he was done with the 20-minute speech, Rivers had complimented not only the older pastor's wardrobe, but also his “vision” for being able to work from within to change the system. When Rivers came down to give his former adversary a bear hug, the crowd rose to its feet, cheering. It had been privy to an emotional reunion of two of Boston's biggest rivals. Even if no one in the audience was really sure why.
Few people at that dinner, in fact, knew that the pro-cess of reconciliation had begun weeks before, when, at the urging of a celebrity pastor from Los Angeles, Rivers had called Stith's new African institute at Boston University to ask Stith for help on his latest pet issue: addressing the pandemic of AIDS in Africa. Which might explain why now, sitting in Stith's office in one of BU's elegant, high-ceilinged row houses beside the Charles River, the two men can't gush enough about each other. “At the end of the day, Ambassador Stith has brilliantly leveraged the work that he's done to operate at another level of the game,” says Rivers. No, says Stith, it was Rivers who “utilized some of his capital to raise this issue [AIDS in Africa] to another level.”
As Stith talks, Rivers adds a chorus of “right, right”s and “oh, yeah”s as if he's sitting in a pew. “Look at what is emerging now that Rivers has finally decided to behave,” continues Rivers, who has a penchant for speaking about himself in the third person. “Because I really was the antagonist. I got into it with almost everyone known to man.”
As with everything else Rivers says today, Stith agrees. “It's a pretty long list.”
Rivers dismisses those feuds now with three words: “It didn't matter.” For emphasis, he repeats “it didn't matter” a dozen times in the next few minutes. Rivers is a street preacher who talks off the cuff and from the gut. As he reclines on a cushy white couch, he can barely keep still — he's alternately thumbing through a magazine and resting on his ear like a modern-day John at the Last Supper.
By contrast, Stith sits in a chair, barely moving during a two-hour interview. His feet rest under a table loaded with the Africana encyclopedia and a book about cigars. As he speaks, his language is packed with rhetorical questions and digressive clauses. “As Christians, by definition you can never close the option of reconciling with somebody,” he explains. “Whatever issues we have had, or do have, or will have in the future relative to each other, the reality is, it pales, absolutely pales to the stuff we've dedicated ourselves to.”
That “stuff,” for both of them, is clearly worth more than their past ideological differences. Now they have not only joined forces but also made an unlikely peace with a former common enemy: the Republican Party.
It remains to be seen if and how this will benefit either themselves or the children they've chosen as the beneficiaries of their new crusade. “A media ploy,” one black leader calls it. “It's all right to be Republican,” says another, “as long as we can count on them to speak for some interest beyond Charlie Stith or Gene Rivers.”
Charles Stith moved from Atlanta to attend Harvard Divinity School in 1975 and after graduation took the pulpit of a Methodist congregation in the South End. It wasn't long before his was one of the most audible black voices in Boston, championing unsexy issues like voter registration and affirmative action. He became known for dressing well and dining at the Four Seasons, where, from a corner table, he traded favors with power brokers. By the time he left his pulpit in 1994, some younger ministers considered him as much a part of the establishment as his friend the mayor, Ray Flynn.
Enter the Reverend Eugene Rivers III, equal parts mouth, ego, and ambition. While Stith was matriculating at Harvard, Rivers was serving time for stealing a book from the Harvard Coop. (He enrolled at Harvard two years after Stith left but never graduated.) By the mid '80s, Rivers lived in the heart of Dorchester, working to reform drug dealers and gangbangers. One of them thanked him by shooting at his home. Along the way, he demanded more resources from the white elite, exhorting his own community not to compromise an inch.
After a brutal attack on a young man at a Mattapan funeral, Rivers and other younger ministers founded the Ten Point Coalition to deal with youth violence. Stith, he said at the time, blew cigar smoke in his face when he tried to talk to him about gang violence — a charge Stith dismissed then as “an outright lie.” It was only the beginning of the friction between them. Unlike other black leaders, Rivers wasn't afraid to criticize his own. He referred to the established black churches as “the major crime families,” and the black elite as the “niggerati — a bunch of slick, greasy niggers with no juice.” He publicly criticized candidates for office, calling for Bruce Bolling to withdraw from the mayoral race in 1993 and demanding state Senator Dianne Wilkerson apologize after she pleaded guilty to federal tax charges in 1997. Stith stood behind Wilkerson. “We as a community cannot shoot our wounded,” he said at the time.
But Rivers was on his way up, cultivating the new mayor, Tom Menino, even as Stith lost influence when Flynn left town. When the city's homicide rate dropped from 153 to 31 between 1990 and 1999, Rivers was only too willing to fill the role of hero, offering his Ten Point Coalition as a model for church-police relations. His face graced the cover of Newsweek in June 1998, with a story headlined “Savior of the Streets.”
It was another cover line on another magazine — this one — that brought the simmering Stith-Rivers feud to a boil. Boston magazine's April 1998 issue didn't seem immediately offensive. Its image of a white woman lounging in the sun on a white lounge chair seemed befitting of Ladies' Home Journal — except for the headline below her, teasing a laudatory profile of Harvard Afro-American Studies head Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Head Negro in Charge,” it read, a derogatory phrase sometimes abbreviated “HNIC,” which is used by some blacks to mean an Uncle Tom.
The uproar was immediate. The Urban League and the Boston chapter of the NAACP threatened an advertising boycott. Stith and other black leaders showed up at the magazine's offices for a meeting only to find Rivers already there, set to argue that the controversy had no relevance to the real problems of black youth. “Go back to Tanzania,” Rivers shouted at Stith, a reference to Stith's ambassadorial appointment. The delegation left. Rivers followed. “Charles, why are we playing the race card?” he shouted on the sidewalk as the cameras rolled. “Why do you feel the need to defend them?” Stith fired back, effectively accusing Rivers of being the Uncle Tom. Later, Rivers returned the insult: “What Reverend Stith is concerned with, in fact, is that he was not treated as the HNIC on this topic.”
Five years later, with Stith in the room, Rivers says he now regrets the incident, though stops short of saying he was wrong. He shouldn't have gotten involved at all, he says, because he was already above it. “I didn't recognize how my public role had changed. There was no reason for me to be having schoolyard back-alley fights and creating what I call goofy copy for the papers. There was a bigger game.”
Both ministers' roles, in fact, were changing rapidly. Stith was indeed going to Tanzania, appointed ambassador by then-President Bill Clinton, who he had met at a house party on Cape Cod. On his way home from vacation, a month before he was to leave, he got the news that the embassy in Dar es Salaam had been bombed by Al Qaeda; his first official act was to lay a wreath at the foot of the wreckage of his own office.
Rivers also went to Africa that year. In 1998, AIDS was still a silent pandemic on the continent. Leaders there were loath to admit the scope of the problem, and leaders here were loath to hear it. So Rivers was shocked at a conference in Zimbabwe to learn that in some countries 60 percent of the population was HIV-infected, with up to 14 million children orphaned by parents who had died. (The number is projected to grow to 40 million by 2010.)
In the midst of taking the Ten Point Coalition national, Rivers was struck by these grisly statistics. When he returned to the United States, he appealed to his ordaining minister and mentor, the Bishop Charles E. Blake, the national vice president of the Church of God in Christ, whose own 22,000-member Los Angeles “megachurch” includes such Hollywood celebrities as Robert Townsend and Denzel Washington. “This was a confrontation with my destiny,” Blake says of that call.
Blake threw the full weight of his church behind the issue, forming an organization called the Pan African Children's Fund, which has so far raised $2.5 million to underwrite orphanages for AIDS orphans. (Denzel Washington alone gave $1 million.) Working with Blake seems to have affected Rivers's antiestablishmentarian viewpoint. “Some say I have had a somewhat seasoning and mediating impact on the style that might have characterized [Rivers's] past,” Blake himself says. “He figured out he had to not only cry out against injustice, but also do something about it.”
What the two of them did next shocked many black leaders. After President George W. Bush's election, they and a dozen other ministers reached out to the new president. Though 90 percent of ballots cast by blacks had gone to Al Gore, and Bush appointee Attorney General John Ashcroft was seen by many blacks as racist, the ministers signaled their willingness to work with the new regime. A month before his inauguration, they won a meeting with the president-elect to discuss his “faith-based initiative” program, whereby money would be given to churches for community service.
To be fair, Rivers has never been an ideologue. Even while Clinton was in power, he was courting Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed to his cause of saving the inner city. But his willingness to work with Bush shows how far he had come — or was willing to go. “If Nixon could go to China,” he asks, “why can't black people talk to George Bush? There's a group of activists whose psychological and emotional energies are consumed with hating the president. It's not, in my view, necessarily the smartest way to advance the interests of 14 million AIDS orphans.”
Rivers's strategy goes beyond just a relationship with the president, however. He and Blake have already started discussing a Jews for Jesus-type political organization called Black Democrats for Bush. They say blacks should keep their options open. “I've heard prominent Democrats, money people, say, Don't waste your money on 2004, it's all about 2008,” Rivers says. “So which do you choose, a powerful man with some bad people around him, or a bunch of losers?”
The choice has so far paid off. After lobbying by Blake and others, Bush announced he was earmarking $15 billion for AIDS assistance in Africa and the Caribbean, a move initially embraced by advocates of all stripes. The water has become muddied, however, as current rumblings from the administration call for creating a bureaucracy of new clinics following a right-wing platform of abstinence instead of condom use. “The Bush administration is driven by its own interests and the interests of the corporations,” carps Baba Jallow, an associate in the Africa Program of the American Friends Service Committee. “If you want to work with the Bush administration, you have to put your own principles aside to get money.”
Blake, who was one of the few activists invited on an administration tour of Africa with government and pharmaceutical industry officials, is taking a conciliatory stand. “I agree with them in terms of their abstinence policy, but not their exclusive abstinence policy,” he says. Meanwhile, his Pan African Children's Fund has given open-ended grants of between $1,000 and $5,000 to each of 120 orphanages in 16 different African countries, with a goal of supporting more than 1,000 within the next two or three years. At the same time, Blake and Rivers are pushing a new initiative called Operation Joseph, a sort of African-American Peace Corps to send black college kids to work in Africa. That's where Stith, with his many ties to African governments, comes in.
While Rivers was cultivating connections with the newly elected President Bush, Stith was back from Africa, fishing for a new job. He settled on a post at BU, where he established the African Presidential Archives and Research Center, which studies market reforms for African governments and sponsors visits to America by former African heads of state. In April, the center will host the second African Presidential Roundtable in London and Boston, to which Stith has invited Blake to network with African leaders.
In many ways, Blake is the tie that reconnected Stith and Rivers. The ambassador and the bishop attended the same seminary. When Stith was in Los Angeles before he left for Tanzania, he preached at Blake's West Angeles Church. Stith calls Blake “a serious guy. If he says he's going to commit to something, he's going to sink his teeth into it.” Stith has promised to do whatever he can to grease the wheels of the Joseph Project.
Stith has yet to sign on to Black Democrats for Bush. But while he serves as an economic adviser to Senator, and presidential hopeful, John Kerry, he wrote an editorial soon after Bush's inauguration counseling blacks to give Bush credit for his record on diversity. “The Democratic Party needs to appreciate that it can't take anyone for granted,” he says. “At the end of the day, $15 billion [the amount Bush proposed to fight AIDS in Africa] is a lot of money. It clearly punctuates the seriousness with which this administration takes this issue.” (By contrast, Clinton dedicated less than $1 billion in his whole tenure.)
As for his reconciliation with Rivers, Stith is characteristically reflective. “That there was this degree of tension and acrimony was unfortunate even in hindsight, but it would be more unfortunate if we let that be an impediment to dealing with something of the magnitude of HIV/AIDS in Africa.” Seizing on that theme, Rivers pipes in: “You are talking about 14 million orphans. You really can't look in the mirror if you'll let those kinds of things interfere with making a difference in the lives of countless numbers of people.”
This public stance gets a mixed response around town. “No comment,” says Joseph Feaster, who headed the local NAACP from 1979 to 1983. “It's a media ploy — and they both know how to effectively use the media.”
“I think their sun has risen and set in Boston,” says another black leader, who asked not to be named. “Maybe that's what they have in common. Neither one of them has much of a constituency here in Boston, truth be told. This coming together is good for both of them, but let's see how long it lasts.”
To that criticism, Rivers and Stith present a united front. “It's a difficult conversation for folks to have locally,” says Rivers. “As you begin to function on a different level, at a certain point it's difficult for people to see where you are.”
And what does Rivers see? Nothing less than a new national flowering of black power in Boston — distinct from its local base. “The genesis of a new national black politics is in Boston,” he says, “and Bishop Blake will be the singular figure with the national standing to see it through. The combined resources with what Blake's doing, what Charles is doing, and my current iteration with the administration, means you can play at as high a level as you want in this country — in Boston. So even if you think Rivers is a skunk's posterior — even if that is your committed belief — take advantage of that. Even if my motivations are purely impure, take advantage of the opportunity to do something for somebody.”
Where once Stith might have rolled his eyes and fumed at such rhetoric from his noisy colleague, now, sitting in the same room, he embraces it. “The folks who would spend time trying to judge our relationship would be much, much better served trying to figure out how to get with this agenda than with that kind of speculation and entertainment,” he says. “If they want to spend their time worrying about whether we're genuine, I'll pray for them. But I'm going to spend the bulk of my time working on these issues. Because at the end of the day, that's all that matters.”