Eric Adams at church (photo: Erica Sherman/Brooklyn BP's Office)
“God told me, ‘Eric, you’re going to be Mayor.’ I am here because of my spirituality,” Eric Adams said last month as he announced the creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnership. Though the office will connect with all faiths, it is being led by Gilford Monrose, pastor of the predominantly Black church, Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day in Brooklyn, where Adams has lived for decades and was borough president before becoming the city’s 110th mayor.
Throughout his winning campaign and into his administration, Adams’ roots in the Black churches of New York City are evident. In fact, it was support from these congregations and others across the five boroughs that helped pave the path for the Democrat and former two-term Brooklyn Borough President to elevate to Gracie Mansion.
Mayor Adams is only the second Black mayor in the city’s history, and the first since David Dinkins, who served from 1990 through 1993. According to recent Census data, more than 24% of New York City residents are Black, and 79% of Black Americans identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. For New York political candidates, Black churchgoers are a key constituency and dependable voting bloc, especially in what are usually low turnout local elections.
While Adams’ road to the heights of political success was not always a smooth one, Black churches can take some credit for his ascension through the ranks of the NYPD, into state and city government, and win in the tough 2021 mayoral election. Adams did particularly well in the competitive 2021 primary -- where he beat Kathryn Garcia by just 7,197 votes after the final round of ranked-choice voting -- in communities of color, especially predominantly Black areas of the city such as his Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens bases, the two areas where he’s lived virtually all his life, as well as the North Shore on Staten Island and Harlem in Manhattan.
Now, despite the many obstacles of a unique election cycle amid a devastating pandemic, the Black church — including Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, and Pentecostal congregations, its leaders and worshippers — could have more meaningful influence in the New York City mayor’s office than perhaps ever before.
In a January visit to The Greater Allen Cathedral of New York in Queens, Adams said, “I cannot thank you enough, Allen, for all you have done. Never turned your back on me. Allowed me to become the Mayor of the City of New York.”
Adams has been speaking at Black churches and spiritual gathering places for decades, including regular appearances in front of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, perhaps the place in New York City best known for the intersection of politics and faith. Adams stopped by once again for its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. “Many years up here [speaking], and you did not fight this hard for me to get here and not see things change,” said Adams.
But there is one church, and one reverend in particular, that is arguably most integral to Adams’ life: Reverend Herbert Daughtry and The House of the Lord Pentecostal Church on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
Adams’ Connection with The Black Church
Ninety-one-year-old Reverend Herbert Daughtry was the National Presiding Minister of The House of the Lord Churches from 1959 to 2019. His father, Alonzo, founded the church. As Reverend Daughtry tells it, his father started out Methodist but broke away and began his own church in Georgia in 1930. The elder Daughtry moved north in 1940, settling in Brooklyn. Some of the church members followed him.
The younger Reverend Daughtry came a year later but the transition wasn’t easy. His parents split and his mother moved to Jersey City. “My background, I’m straight out of the streets,” Daughtry said in a recent phone interview. “Brooklyn and Jersey City. My credentials also include some involuntary vacation time.”
Daughtry said that his first incarceration came as a teenager of about 15-years-old. He remembers walking by a store near Ralph and St. Marks Avenues in Brooklyn with friends, but they didn’t touch a thing. The police were across the street watching. “Several blocks from the store we were pounced on like we were Al Capone. Taken to the precinct and beaten for nothing. I spent about three weeks in old Raymond Street jail.” (The jail was closed in 1963.)
Daughtry would spend time in prison again for armed robbery as well as money laundering. But in 1957, towards the end of his final incarceration at the Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, he remembers, “God spoke to me and said ‘write.’ I wrote 11 pages of what I was called to do.” That calling led him to become a revered church leader for the next six decades, work that included becoming a mentor to a future mayor of New York City.
Daughtry’s preaching was mixed with activism, a push to save the planet and its people. He was particularly vocal about combating police brutality, due to his personal experience and watching a series of tragedies where police shot and killed several Black children throughout the 1970s. He prioritized working with and inspiring young people through the decades, a list that includes current New York State Attorney General Letitia James, City Council Member Charles Barron, and Mayor Eric Adams.
To some degree, Adams’ personal history mimics that of Daughtry’s. The new, Democratic mayor was also arrested at age 15 and beaten by the cops, in this case at the 103rd precinct in Queens. The police brutality he endured, along with having grown up witnessing other police violence, also influenced Adams’ future, and how Adams’ and Daughtry’s lives intersected.
Daughtry believes “you have to have relationships in the systems you want to change.”
According to Adams, who recently recounted the story on Hillary Clinton’s podcast, Daughtry, “met with me and 12 other young men…and he came to us and said ‘listen, we’re fighting from outside. We want you guys to go inside and be advocates for justice and safety.’”
Daughtry was asking them to become police officers. “We needed models of good, solid, respectful, competent policemen who would protect the community,” said Daughtry. Many in the Black community resented law enforcement and opposed this plan. According to Daughtry, even Adams’ initial response was, “You’ve got to be crazy.”
Yet, Adams would follow that guidance and graduate from the police academy in 1984 and eventually rise to become a captain. In 1995, he also helped found the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. Daughtry says that that in itself was a way for Adams to both criticize the police department from the inside while trying to usher in change.
Once Adams was an officer, Daughtry says, “It wasn’t wise for us to be arm in arm.” However, Adams continued to join Daughtry in his activism, demonstrating against police brutality, teaching anti-bias workshops, and working to counter violence in communities. Though Adams wasn’t a regular at the church, Daughtry said he was still there often enough, never missing a special event, and providing extra security when needed.
This decades-long mentorship proved invaluable to Adams in his race for mayor. While public safety and Adams’ decades in the NYPD were key to his electoral success, his law enforcement background complicated things for some voters. According to Daughtry, the Black church community and strong police supporters made up a lot of Adams’ base.
“Where he [Adams] had difficulty was that people remembered he was a police officer. With police baggage, he needed to have someone to say he was a good cop,” said the Reverend. “It’s hard to support a former police officer when your innocent loved one has been killed by the police.” But after spending decades fighting police brutality against Black New Yorkers, if they didn’t recall Adams’ activism while in the department, they couldn’t question Daughtry’s bona fides. He had the credibility to say, “Adams is solidly in the community. He fought the battles we fought.”
During the 2021 campaign, Adams frequently spoke about Daughtry’s influence on him, including encouraging him to join the NYPD.
As mayor, Adams has quickly been faced with the challenges he knew he was stepping into: improving policing, keeping the city safe, and ensuring, as he says it, that safety and justice go hand-in-hand. In his first months as mayor, Adams has had to deal with continued increases in gun violence, including the murder of two police officers in Harlem, outlining and implementing his policing policies, along with his chosen NYPD commissioner, Keechant Sewell. They must ensure that Adams’ promise of robust policing without overreach is enacted while garnering community support and improving NYPD morale. That community includes leaders and members of the Black church.
Adams acknowledged the importance of the Black church in a brief December interview with Gotham Gazette, saying, “I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for the Black church, as a police officer and now as the future mayor of the city.”
When asked if the church will have a larger seat at the table because of this connection, he said, “Without a doubt. I think that’s the missing piece. Because they are the weathermen and women. They see inclement weather long before we do. The Black church knew we had a gang problem because they were dealing with the family members. They knew we were having a problem around drug use, opioid abuse. They were watching it. If we have a better connection with the Black church and they’re sitting down and feeding the information we need, we will be more preventive and not reactionary. We have ignored their warning signs and I’m not going to do that.”
This is exactly what many Black church leaders are hoping for. They are cautiously optimistic that the issues they have been advocating for more action on — including affordable housing, more jobs and reducing income inequality, improving educational outcomes, better public safety and health care — will be addressed more meaningfully by an Adams administration.
“Eric Adams has positioned himself as someone I can support, but at the same time I also have to hold him accountable. It’s up to him to demonstrate that he can walk the walk,” said Rev. Julian Walls Jr. of Greater Hood Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem.
Rev. Charles Curtis of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem said he has told fellow supporters of Adams, “Don’t expect New York City to turn overnight. Be patient with him.”
An Unprecedented Year
In last year’s unusual election cycle, not only were there disruptions caused by the pandemic, for the first time there were multiple top Black candidates, and there was worry that voters would be turned off by ranked-choice voting, which was introduced into the mayoral primary for the first time.
There was also concern among some clergy that the long-term political power of the institution of the church could also be impacted with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and the growing political divide between younger Black voters and older, more religious Black voters. Church leaders spent a lot of time this past election cycle trying to navigate these issues to remain a relevant resource to both candidates and parishioners.
In a typical election year, candidates for New York City mayor spend many Sunday mornings visiting and speaking in-person at the city’s myriad predominantly Black churches, especially in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. They know that’s where many voters are.
But not last year. With the coronavirus pandemic upending traditional religious services, many of which were held online throughout much of 2020 and 2021, opportunities to speak directly to large numbers of African-American voters declined, and they too, didn’t get the same exposure to candidates.
“If it were not for covid, we would probably welcome the politicians to the church, acknowledge their presence, and thank them for worshiping with us,” said the Rev. Elaine Flake, a co-pastor at The Greater Allen AME Cathedral, where her husband, Rev. Floyd Flake, is senior pastor and a former congressman who served in the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1997. Their church is among the top destinations for politicians.
One place where the changing nature of the relationship between the church and candidates could be found was a meeting room in the sprawling basement of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church at 120th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.
There, the mostly Black pastors from the New York Interfaith Commission for Housing Equality, met individually last spring with Democratic mayoral candidates Eric Adams, Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer, and Ray McGuire (all but Stringer are Black).
The Interfaith Commission is led by the Rev. Curtis, a kind, gregarious man who has led Mt. Olivet for over 40 years. He and the other pastors are aware that as leaders they have a voice in New York politics but are dismayed by the inaction of many politicians. Prior to one meeting of the Commission, Curtis explained the need for the church beyond being a place of worship saying, “When politicians don’t do their job, the church steps in.”
Their hope was that the next mayor would in fact do the job well and be a partner to help address issues of social justice and inequality, including affordable housing, one of the major concerns that almost every clergy member interviewed for this article cited as pressing.
Virginia Montague is like a political “church whisperer.” A former political staffer and avid church-goer who is currently a member at Reverend Walls Jr.’s Greater Hood Memorial A.M.E Zion church in Harlem, Montague understands both worlds well. She typically advises candidates on how to make a good impression on the congregation. That includes understanding church protocols and making a donation, she said, adding that both show that a candidate wants a relationship with the church and its congregants.
In previous election cycles, Montague had set candidates up with church appearances at various churches around the city. She said that the reason parishioners are inclined to listen to their pastor’s personal political recommendations comes down to trust. “If I’m relying on him for my religious experience, I trust him with that, I may very well ask him” about politics too, she said of how many parishioners think.
With many in-person introductions off the table, during the primary there was an increased reliance on Zoom, which was deemed not as effective at reaching congregants by many of the pastors interviewed. Some churches were so focused on just getting people to show up to virtual services that politics took a back seat. Therefore, a pastor’s personal stance on the election may have been one of the only ways that some voters learned more about the candidates, aside from commercials or mailings.
“African-American seniors are very tactile,” said Montague. “Most of them are not online. They get campaign literature. The pastors are going to present [candidates] very carefully.”
In this election cycle, Black church leaders faced a complex calculation when deciding who to support. Although churches, as non-political tax-exempt organizations, cannot officially make endorsements, oftentimes pastors are asked for their personal opinions about candidates. While Curtis, Daughtry, and many other Black church leaders came out in support of Adams, other candidates also either had ties to or good reputations in various Black communities.
For example, Maya Wiley’s father was a lauded civil rights activist and she followed in his footsteps with her own career. Businessman Ray McGuire had given back to the community through philanthropy. Shaun Donovan, who is white, was praised for his work on affordable housing when he was commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development under former Mayor Bloomberg and then as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. Scott Stringer, the recent city Comptroller and previous Manhattan Borough President, who is white and Jewish, had cultivated strong relationships with Black leaders over his years in public service.
Several Major African-American Candidates in the Primary
Though the Black vote in New York City is by no means a monolith, Walls Jr. acknowledged that African-Americans will often vote for Black candidates. “It’s not that we’re against white people, but we want to make sure that there’s representation, particularly when you’re a minority group,” he said. “You have to vote as a bloc, or you won’t have any influence.”
This year presented a possible wrinkle in that strategy. In the final months leading up to the June primary, three of the eight leading candidates were African-American – Adams, Wiley, and McGuire -- and another, Dianne Morales, identifies as Afro-Latina. Walls Jr. wasn’t sure how people were going to choose.
“When you have this dynamic of three,” he said in reference to Adams, McGuire, and Wiley, “it makes it a little more difficult. What happens when you split the vote?”
Prior to the primary, that concern was shared by Assemblymember Inez Dickens, whose district includes Harlem and who endorsed Adams. “The Blacks in this country cannot afford for us to run against one another,” she said. “We’ve got to learn to stick together and fully vote. We need to have one candidate.”
Dickens and others worried that, even with ranked-choice voting lessening the impact of a split vote, the voice and interests of the larger Black community could be diluted. She also added that if no Black candidate won, then whoever became mayor would have done so without the full support of the Black community, and therefore could be less motivated to address their concerns.
With Adams’ victory, her fears did not come to pass. However, Dickens shined a light on the calculations that some Black leaders and voters, and those of most demographic groups, feel they need to make to ensure their voices are heard and their issues are addressed through their votes and government representation.
Impact of a New Generation of Voters
“If the church is behind something, it will succeed,” said Curtis, when asked if the church’s influence is waning.
But there’s a new generation of voters, and movements that have risen and are changing the way people participate in politics. “I still think people go to church, but it does usually skew a little older,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in an interview. “Elected officials are going to have to do a good job of engaging people where they are. Whether it’s online or the Black church.”
Hawk Newsome is an outspoken activist and a church-goer who attends Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. In December, he and then-Mayor-elect Adams exchanged charged language with regard to Adams’ plans for policing in the city and Newsome’s warning of potential rioting if Adams brought back the NYPD’s anti-gun unit. (In mid-March, Adams introduced Neighborhood Safety Teams, a revamped version of those anti-gun units. Newsome, a co-founder of a local chapter of Black Lives Matter, is not officially connected to the national organization nor an official spokesperson for the Black Lives Matter movement.)
Newsome says that to some activists, the church is too concerned with “respectability politics” or courting political influence by being, in some cases, too deferential to or patient with politicians. While Newsome doesn’t believe that Black Lives Matter is taking the place of the church, he does think the church “hasn’t stayed with the times.” “The church has failed to be active in this movement, in this fight for social justice in a way young people approve of,” he said, though he did not outline what he thought church leaders should be doing.
Newsome believes the Black church plays a role in every election and acknowledged the groundswell of support Eric Adams received from Black clergy as part of the reason he won. Newsome had endorsed Wiley, who ran on a progressive platform, in the primary.
The church will remain a force into the future, according to Newsome, because “Black Lives Matter could never give the feeling that the church gives. We give people a sense of fight, urgency. The church gives people hope.”
Associate Pastor at Mt. Olivet, Rev. Dr. Wendy Kelly-Carter, knows that young people are spiritual and recognizes that for the church to have influence with parishioners long-term, it will have to acknowledge the beliefs of and include young people in leadership roles. She said of the younger generation, “they have a lot to offer. And they have different ways of doing things. Certainly, they are more educated. They’re upwardly mobile, not as traditional, a little bit more liberal on issues, like LGBTQ issues and abortion, that normally the Black church is not in agreement with.
Kelly-Carter believes that for the church to appeal to and influence younger people, it’ll have to adjust and change its outreach. Regarding Black Lives Matter, she said, “Watching them you can see how young people think. They want things now, they’re not waiting. Whereas we took years to get things done.” And instead of just passing out tracts (tri-fold papers with messages of God) on the street, Kelly-Carter said the church will have to meet the younger generation where they are: on social media.
Christopher Barrett, a 38-year old member of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, explained the dynamic at play when it comes to reaching different generations. “The older folks get a lot of their news from the church, from the pastor,” he said. “The younger generation gets a lot of their news from social media, from their friends, through other platforms, and being activists.”
Jerry Skurnik, a longtime political consultant, said that the primary election in particular revealed a gap between younger and older Black voters. He noted that Wiley “did a lot better with younger Black voters based on the polls before the primary. While Adams did better with older Black voters, and there are more of them.” Based on the final results, he said, it is clear that the larger voting bloc of older Black voters helped drive Adams’ win.
One of the challenges Black churches, and in fact most churches, face is how to maintain or grow their congregations when so many of the participants are older. “They need to appeal to younger Black people to join the church,” said Skurnik, echoing Kelly-Carter. “If they want politicians to pay attention to them, they need to maintain or grow the parishioners they have. They need to replace the people who will age out.”
Demanding Democrats Deliver More
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, it’s not surprising that Adams won the general election against Republican nominee Curtis Sliwa and others on the ballot. But it begs the question of whether a Republican can win a citywide election anymore.
Ted Ghorra, Chair of the Brooklyn Republican Party, is quick to point out that, “These things don’t trend overnight. But if you look at a number of communities, whether it’s the Asian community, the African-American community, the Latino community, the Jewish community…if you look at many parts of the city, we are doing much better in being competitive and winning where just a few years ago, many races were seen as a unwinnable. Because many of those communities relate to the messaging of truly endorsing small businesses and lower costs of living. With the right messaging and a continued effort, we’ll continue to work hard, grow and do better.”
Several pastors acknowledged that the Democratic Party has not always delivered for Black voters as much as it should. Pastor Dedrick Blue of the North Bronx Seventh Day Adventist Church, and a member of the New York Interfaith Commission for Housing Equality, said “Democrats have done better than Republicans, but not enough.”
Blue wants Black voters’ support to be earned. He also understands the importance of those voters showing up to the polls. “We did know in the general election [Adams] would probably win,” Blue said. “But the pastors that I know were saying to their congregations, ‘Let’s not take the election for granted. Because if he is going to be elected, it’s better that he go in with a mandate, and a clear and decisive victory.’ Moving forward, even in New York, the Black pastors are getting fired up more and more about registration and turnout.”