He's had a nephew murdered, lost his home to bankruptcy, challenged the power structure as head of the local NAACP, nearly died from meningitis and, more recently, been soundly defeated in contests for City Council and county Democratic Party chairman.
But in some ways Michael Latham's current struggle is the most difficult of his life, because it puts him at odds with some members and fellow pastors of Fort Wayne's traditionally black churches – a flock Latham says is being endangered by its unwillingness or inability to confront wolves in the fold.
“Without the people who mentored me, people like Clyde Adams and Jesse White, it saddens me to see that some (of their successors) are more concerned about themselves and money, not the community,” said Latham, who led the NAACP between 1998 and 2008 and remains pastor of the Renaissance Baptist Church at 5515 S. Hanna St. “Some have become angry with me for breaking the ‘pastors' code,' which I've never heard of.
“I want to wake up black folks so they'll quit keeping themselves down. A pastor is not a dictator.”
No, they're not – which is why Latham's warning is equally important to predominantly white congregations and denominations, many of which have had similar and better-publicized crosses to bear.
Latham first went public with his concerns late last year, when he wrote “an open letter to area pastors” in Frost Illustrated, a weekly black-oriented newspaper, stating that “a number of our sheep . . . have come to me and perhaps some of you with various spiritual and psychological scars showing that they have been attacked by a wolf that has found his way into one of God's pulpits. I have spoken with a number of you . . . and have been given the impression that too many of us are inclined to let this go . . . (and not) protect God's flock.”
I am not naming the man – who no longer leads a church – because he has not been charged with a crime. He has, however, been the subject of at least three restraining orders, including two for alleged stalking.
But one of Latham's contemporaries, the Rev. Mike Nickleson of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, makes the obvious but worthwhile point that allegations alone prove nothing, and that pastors may have investigated those accusations, counseling and even confronting the former pastor without Latham's participation and knowledge. Pastors, of all people, must be careful not to bear false witness.
But regardless of the truth of the allegations, Latham's plea that that church members take more responsibility over their own lives and congregations is valid regardless of circumstance or race.
In spiritual matters, of course, church members should show clergy deference within proper theological guidelines. In the earthly affairs of the church, however, it is appropriate for the laity to exert authority even over the pastor. But as Latham notes, the church holds a place in the black community that few whites can understand. In earlier times it was a refuge from the worst kinds of oppression, and that tradition often carries over today in pastoral social, economic and political activism. It is not easy to question charismatic leaders of such an historically important and powerful institution.
Eleven years ago, allegations of improper pastoral conduct contributed to the demise of one of Fort Wayne's largest predominantly white churches, Calvary Temple. And what I wrote then applies here: “Congregations built around a charismatic pastor, whatever that pastor's strengths, risk putting their focus in the wrong place.”
And away from Christ, the "Good Shepherd."
My original thesis that independent churches such as Calvary Temple (and many black congregations) are more susceptible to the domination of the laity by powerful pastors has since been scuttled by the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Hierarchical oversight, clearly, can cover up problems just as it is now working to correct them.
Short of faith in heavenly justice, then, the proper response to Latham's warning is two-fold:
Laypeople must insist on being given the information and authority needed to properly oversee the church's earthly affairs, and must study Scripture in order to support their pastors and hold them accountable when necessary.
And they must remember that a not even heavenly calling can absolve someone from earthly justice.
“People look up to pastors and may think no one will believe them (if they lodge a complaint),” County Prosecutor Karen Richards said. “But if someone is the victim of a crime, they should call the police and make a report.”
That hasn't happened in this case, which is why Latham feels compelled to be the voice crying in the wilderness.