Black pastors are pressuring Biden to call for a cease-fire in Gaza

As the Israel-Hamas war enters its fourth month, a coalition of black faith leaders is pressing the Biden administration to push for a cease-fire — a campaign fueled in part by their parishioners, who are increasingly troubled by Palestinian suffering and critical of the president’s response to it.

More than 1,000 black pastors representing hundreds of thousands of congregants across the country released the request. In sit-down meetings with White House officials, and through open letters and advertisements, the ministers made the moral case for President Biden and his administration to press Israel to end its offensive operations in Gaza, which have killed thousands of civilians. They also call for the release of hostages held by Hamas and an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

The persuasion effort also carries a political warning, detailed in interviews with a dozen black faith leaders and their allies. Many of their parishioners, these pastors said, are so appalled by the president’s stance on the war that their support for his re-election bid could be in jeopardy.

“Black faith leaders are extremely disappointed in the Biden administration on this issue,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconic Baptist Church in Atlanta, which has more than 1,500 members. He was one of the first pastors of more than 200 black clergy in Georgia, the key home state, to sign an open letter calling for a ceasefire. “We are afraid,” said Mr. McDonald’s. “And we’ve talked about it — it’s going to be very difficult to convince our people to go back to the polls and vote for Biden.”

Any cracks in the usually solid foundation of black support for Mr. Biden, and for Democrats nationally, could be hugely significant in November.

The intense feeling about the war in Gaza is one of the myriad unexpected ways the war has shaken American politics. And it comes at a time when Mr. Biden is already facing signs of waning enthusiasm among black voters, who for generations have been the Democrats’ most loyal voting base.

The coalition of black clergy pushing Mr. Biden for a cease-fire is diverse, from conservative Southern Baptists to more progressive non-denominational congregations in the Midwest and Northeast.

“This is not a marginal issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, founder of Black Church PAC and lead pastor of Way Church in Berkeley, California. “Many of us feel that this administration has lost its way on this one.”

Seeing images of the devastation in Gaza, many black voters whose churches are involved in the cease-fire movement have expressed growing disillusionment with Democrats, who they feel have done little to stop the war.

Their pastors said that the strong reactions of their believers to the war were striking.

“Black clergy saw that war, militarism, poverty and racism were connected,” said Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-founder of the National African American Clergy Network, whose members lead about 15 million black believers. She helped coordinate recent meetings between the White House and religious leaders. “But the Israel-Gaza war, unlike Iran and Afghanistan, has sparked the kind of deep-seated anger among blacks that I haven’t seen since the civil rights movement.”

When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 Israelis and taking about 240 people hostage, leagues of black pastors joined their colleagues in interfaith prayer for Israel, whose land they revere as holy.

But since then, Palestinian allies of the pastors in the United States, Gaza and the West Bank have sought their help on behalf of civilians who are being killed in the Israeli counteroffensive. And the pastors heard from their believers, especially the younger believers of the church, about the conflict and Mr. Biden’s full support for Israel.

That sentiment more broadly reflects the strong sense of solidarity between black Americans and Palestinians that has shaped opinion since the war began.

“We see them as part of us,” said the Rev. Cynthia Hale, founder and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. “They are oppressed people. We are an oppressed people.”

The efforts of black pastors have the Biden administration taking notice as the president prepares for what is expected to be an extremely close election against former President Donald J. Trump.

It began in late October, when a delegation of black faith leaders from across the country descended on Washington, where they called for an end to the fighting in meetings with the White House and members of the Congressional Negro Caucus. Hundreds of pastors signed open letters to Democratic leaders and paid for full-page ads in national newspapers, including The New York Times, to push for a humanitarian ceasefire and call for the release of all hostages being held in Gaza.

Since its founding, the Black Church has been considered the power center of black political organizing. In addition to providing spiritual leadership and challenging political leaders on moral grounds, black religious leaders encouraged their members to exercise their hard-won voting rights, often with great success.

Mr. Biden especially recognized the importance of the Black Church. One of his first campaign events in 2024 took place at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC on January 8, making him the first president to speak from the church’s pulpit. When protesters interrupted his speech with calls for a ceasefire, their chants were drowned out by cries of “Four more years!”

The Biden campaign did not comment on the record for this article.

Some leaders say Mr. Biden still has time to change the trajectory of conflicts abroad and, in turn, restore any lost love between his administration and black voters.

“As long as black people feel that the president is sincere, I think he will continue to have our support,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who presides over more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia. He also signed a letter calling for a ceasefire and the return of the hostages. “I think he’s demonstrating his authenticity with the friction that you can tell is between him and Netanyahu about what’s going on in the Middle East,” he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister.

Still, six black faith leaders who spoke to The New York Times said they or their colleagues had considered withdrawing invitations to Democratic politicians hoping to speak at their Sunday services, or to withhold public support for Mr. Biden until his administration commits to a ceasefire.

“What they’re witnessing from the administration in Gaza is a stark contradiction to what we thought about the president and the administration,” said the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes, senior pastor of Friends Western Baptist Church in Dallas and president and CEO of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, an advocacy organization. civil rights founded by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. His church has more than 12,000 members. “So when you hear the president say the phrase ‘redeem the soul of America,’ well, this is a stain, a scar on the soul of America. There is something about this that becomes hypocritical.”

Black faith leaders, however, are aware of the risks in pushing Mr. Biden to a ceasefire with Trump, who is looming as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Even the pastors most critical of Mr. Biden on the Gaza war agreed that a Trump re-election would be the worst-case scenario for their mostly black and working-class congregations.

They also suggested that Mr. Trump, who has said he would bar Gaza refugees from entering the United States, was likely to have less sympathy than Mr. Biden for the plight of Gaza’s civilians.

But the difference between reluctance and enthusiastic support could be significant. Asked whether the war in the Middle East could threaten Mr. Biden’s chances in November, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Ga., said: “I think Biden is threatening his success.”

Democrats, Mr. Bryant noted, seemed to be “almost on cruise control and feeling like, Oh, the black people are going to come. They will forgive and come with us.” But, he added, as the war drags on, “I really think the ante is really going to be raised.”

Calls for a ceasefire have strained some relations between black pastors and Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Peter S. Berg, senior rabbi of the Atlanta Temple, described in an email his “extraordinary relationship” with black pastors and recalled a service at nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. The Jews prayed together for peace and the safe return of the hostages.

He added, however, that he felt the cease-fire request from some pastors he had long considered friends did not fully take into account the feelings of Jews associated with Israel.

“While we all want peace and an end to this war, I was disappointed to see some religious leaders calling for a ceasefire without focusing on returning the hostages home and holding Hamas accountable for the crimes they committed,” Rabbi Berg said, adding : “This is the time to double down on our strong bonds and be open and honest with each other.”

The black pastors said they sought to reassure Jewish leaders who opposed their cease-fire push, stressing that their demand was not rooted in anti-Semitism and that they were also calling for the release of Israeli hostages and for Israel to be safe from attack.

“Our call for a ceasefire should not be read as a call to kill or terrorize Jewish individuals and families,” said Mr. McBride, who participated in the meetings in Washington. “We are against all these vicious expressions of dehumanization and terror, wherever they appear.”

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