Flake, Floyd H. 1945–

views updated

Floyd H. Flake 1945

Pastor, Congressman

At a Glance

Disillusioned with Civil-Rights Progress

Won Seat in Congress

Criticisms Vindicated by Results

Your Parents Have Sacrificed

A Return to Politics?


For over a decade, Floyd H. Flake commuted between Washington, D.C., where he served in the U. S. House of Representatives, and the New York City borough of Queens, where since 1976 he has pastored a dynamic, successful African Methodist Episcopal church. Media pundits find Flake and his achievements interesting because of their seemingly contradictory nature: he made the cover of a 1998 Village Voice issue, photographed in his ecclesiastical garments with the words The Battle for Floyd Flakes Soul under his image. The first black Methodist minister in the lower chamber of Congress since the Reconstruction era, Flake has railed against reliance upon government handouts; at times he has had harsh words for what he sees as dependency upon regulatory laws and affirmative action initiatives.

Meanwhile, Flakes Allen A.M.E. Church has become a success story in itself for the dynamic revitalization of its Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood. Under Flakes leadership, New York Citys second-largest black church has initiated and administered several successful community-based projects, including a health-care clinic and affordable new housing. Some view Allen A.M.E.s actions as a return to another era, when churches were the economic focal point for their surrounding community. With his passionate belief in the virtues of hard work and self-reliance and his scorn for the politics of protest, Flake is a kind of modernized version of Booker T. Washington, wrote James Traub in the New York Times Magazine The man who entered the ministry almost reluctantly has also earned comparisons to Colin Powell and Louis Farrakhan.

Flake was born in Los Angeles, one of thirteen children to a mother and father who possessed no more than elementary-school educations. He credits his parents for instilling in him the virtues of self-reliance and personal achievements, stressing how little they had but how hard they pushed their children. From California, Flake and his family relocated to Houston, Texas. There he was, he said, a sloppy student until taken under the wing of a nononsense teacher. She forced him into doing his homework, and also brought him into a youth program at her A.M.E. church. He did well enough to gain entry into Ohios Wilberforce University, a historic black college, but he was not a scholarship student. Before earning his

At a Glance

Born January 30, 1945, in Los Angeles, CA; son of a janitor and a homemakcr; married Elaine (Margarett) McCollins (an ordained minister); children: Aliya, Nailah, Rasheed, Hasan. Education: Wilberforce University, B.A., 1967; received doctorate in minister from United Theological Seminary, 1995; postgraduate work at Northeastern University. Politics: Democrat. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.

Career: Social worker, Dayton, OH, 1968-69; Reynolds Tobacco Co., sales representative, 1969; Xerox Corp., marketing analyst, 1969-70; Lincoln University, PA, associate dean of students, director of student activities, 1970-73; Boston University, Boston, MA, dean of students, university chaplain, and director of Martin Luther King Jr. Afro-American Center, 1973-76; elected six times to the United States House of Representatives, Washington, DC, as a member of Congress as a Democrat from New Yorks Sixth Congressional district, 1986-97; resigned mid-term; served in the banking and finance services committees, and small business committee;Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, Jamaica, Queens, NY, pastor since 1976, and past chair of its affiliate corporations, the Allen Senior Citizen Complex, Allen Christian School and Multi-Purpose Center, Allen HomeCare Agency, Allen Housing Corp., and Jamaica Multi-Service Center; New York Post, oped columnist, 1997; Manhattan Institute, senior fellow, 1997.

Awards: Alfred Sloan fellow, Northeastern University; Danforth fellow, Payne Theological Seminary; Gilbert H. Jones scholar, Wilberforce University.

Member: Southeast Queens Clergy for Community Empowerment

Addresses: Residence Rosedale, Queens, NY. Office- Allen A.M.E Church, 11104 Merrick Blvd., Queens, NY 11433.

B.A. in psychology in 1967, he was sometimes short of money and worked at a group home for the mentally ill to make ends meet.

Disillusioned with Civil-Rights Progress

After graduation, Flake spent a year as a social worker in Dayton, Ohio and in some private-sector jobs before taking a post at another primarily African-American institution, Pennsylvanias Lincoln University, as its associate dean of students. During this period in the early 1970s, as the laws passed during the civil-rights era were showing visible results and black nationalism was a thriving political reality, Flake grew increasingly aware that newly desegregated, integrated public schools were failing to educate their African American students adequately. Many came to Lincoln and then failed. We had a generation of students who were on the verge of the greatest opportunities ever available to African Americans, Rake told New York writer Samuel G. Freedman. And they had been crippledeven though theyd gone to integrated schools. [T]he students had been permitted to pontificate on what it means to be black rather than to pursue excellence.

Between 1973 and 1976 Flake served as acting dean of students, university chaplain, and director of Martin Luther King Jr. Afro-American Center at Boston University. The trend he had noticed at Lincoln University continued in Boston, and it troubled him. Flake had been ordained a minister in the A.M.E. faith in the late 1960s, and in 1976 his superior asked him to give up his Boston University job to take over a church in Queens whose history stretched back to the 1840s. Though he hesitated, Flake saw this as an opportunity to implement some of his ideas about education, community, and selfreliance. When he stepped in as the pastor of Allen A.M.E. Church, it had a quarter-million dollar annual budget and just over a thousand members. Though its Queens address was one of the roughest urban areas in the United States, Allen A.M.E. itself was located in a neighborhood that demographic statistics show boasts one of the highest African American per-household incomes in the country.

In just over a decade, Flake had accomplished much at Allen A.M.E.: membership swelled to 5,000 parishioners, and the church had launched a number of successful programs. Its unofficial gentrification plan was one: Allen A.M.E. set up its own corporations that obtained government urban-blight funding to renovate housing and shops. He launched a kindergarten-though-grade 8 school that offered parents an alternative to the notoriously incompetent public schools in the area, and built a 300-unit senior housing complex. Moreover, Flake soon became known as a dynamic, old-style minister, at times even vaulting over the railing in the heat of the moment during a sermon.

Won Seat in Congress

In 1986, after a local political corruption scandal and two untimely deaths, Flake decided to run for a seat in Washington at the urging of a group of other Queens-area ministers. He had an even more powerful ally on his side-then-mayor Ed Koch. Flake had supported Kochs mayoral candidacies before, and Koch returned the favor by campaigning in some of Queens heavily Italian and Jewish enclaves on Flakes behalf. Flake arrived in Washington as a representative from New Yorks Sixth Congressional District, and would be re-elected another five times.

The more controversial events of Flakes career on Capitol Hill include his support of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrichs 1994 Contract with America, a reform package of legislation that was vehemently opposed by most Democrats. It was Flake who informed the conservative Republican leader that the Contract had failed to include urban America in its vision of the future. Gingrich became interested in Flakes programs at Allen A.M.E., which in turn sparked the interest of other Republicans. The following year, Rake became involved in another Republican-sponsored reform bill, the Community Renewal Act. This offered tax breaks, school vouchers and other legislative incentives to assist a hundred blighted U.S. neighborhoods. It was designed around definite free-market economic principals, however, and was derided by some liberals as an avenue by which some might profit from the poor, with the governments blessing.

Criticisms Vindicated by Results

Over the course of his political career, Flake has collected more than a few enemies. In 1991, he and his wife Elaine, an integral part of Allen A.M.E. and its projects, were accused of income-tax evasion and embezzlement stemming from the churchs 1981 construction of a senior-citizen housing complex that received federal loans. A year later, all charges were dropped when a judge ruled that the prosecutors evidence was insufficient for a case. The following Sunday, two of the jurors on the case came to hear Flakes sermon at Allen A.M.E.because of what they had heard about the pastor and his church during the court proceedings, according to the New York Times. In an interview with the same paper, Flake called the two-plus year ordeal a blessing in disguise because of the exposure it gave to what this congregation is doing to build up this community, he told reporter Lee A. Daniels.

Rake has also faced criticism for allying with conservative politicians such as New York Senator Alfonse DAmato. Detractors in Queens say Rakes community-renewal packages and ability to procure federal tax dollars were too concentrated on the neighborhood in the vicinity of Allen A.M.E., at the expense of other parts of the Sixth Congressional District. But Flake is a firm believer in the trickle-down theory of economics, the name given to the concept of that which benefits the middle class will eventually provide jobs and economic opportunity for the poorer segments of the population. Allen A.M.E. runs a successful private school, a bus company that turns a profit, a 300-unit senior housing complex, has renovated entire dilapidated blocks of storefronts, and is also building two-family homes with state and city funds. All in all, the business side of Allen A.M.Ewhich employs 800 peoplehas helped inject $25 million in investment into the neighborhood. It also runs a Head Start program and a community health clinic.

Yet it has been Flakes involvement in education and school-reform legislation that have made perhaps the greatest impact on the Jamaica neighborhoodas well as earned him some harsh criticism. In early 1997, Rake came out in favor of the school-voucher program, a contentious, Republican-sponsored idea. The idea of school voucherstax credits given to parents as a partial reimbursement for private-school tuitionhad long been viewed as an attempt to give tax breaks to conservative whites who sent their children to private academies founded to skirt desegregation statutes. The school voucher program was vehemently opposed by most Democrats and liberals, who saw it as an abandonment of the ideals of the public-school system. More specific foes included most of the Congressional Black Caucus and the powerful political coalition of New York City teachers and administrators.

Your Parents Have Sacrificed

Rakes middle-class constituencyand the Allen A.M.E. congregationincluded many teachers and administrators who felt threatened by the school-voucher program. He was roundly criticized for his support of vouchers. Yet the minister, who had put his ideas into practice via the Allen Christian School, pointed out that public schools spend considerably more of the average tax dollar per pupil than his or other private schools do, and have far less to show for that money; a good percentage of the tax funds never reached students but were mired at the administrative level. Flake believed a voucher plan would force the public school system to clean up its act. Public schools would start to understand that they are expected, whether they desire it or not, to instill some values in young people and to provide the discipline that young people expect and respond to, he said in a speech to other African-American ministers that was reported in New York magazine. Graduates of Rakes Allen Christian School are recruited by some of New Yorks elite private high schools. Uniforms and a no-nonsense attitude toward discipline permeate its classrooms. When students dont perform, parents are telephoned at home that same day. Tuition is $3,500 annually, and students are reminded often, Your parents have sacrificed. Now you must help them, according to New York journalist Freedman.

To the surprise of many, Flake resigned mid-term from Congress in the summer of 1997. He did so in order to devote more time to his Allen A.M.E. duties. This also coincided with the opening of brand-new quarters for the Allen A.M.E. congregation, a $23 million cathedral built with member donations. The New York Times Magazines Traubfor a cover story devoted to the citys rich cultural life and again featuring Rake on its cover, among some other notableswrote that the new church held an almost allegorical power for the hundreds of parishioners lining up for its first Sunday of services: It spoke of prosperity and permanence and shared sacrifice, Traub explained. In 1996, the journalist noted, Allen A.M.E received nearly $5.3 million from its churchgoersor close to $1,000 per adult. Allen takes in more in a week than many black churches do in a year, wrote Traub.

A Return to Politics?

In addition to keeping Allen A.M.E. on a firm and growth-oriented financial path, Rake is also using the time he once spent traveling to and from Washington for other political goals. He started to write op-ed pieces for the New York Post in 1997, signed as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank, and embarked on a tour promoting school voucher programs. In the November 1997 New York mayoral race, Rake endorsed Republican incumbent Rudolph Giuliani, which caused a stir among the citys African-American political and religious community. Others speak of Rakes potential as a viable mayoral candidate himself in 2001.

In Flakes office at Allen A.M.E. is a lone work of art: a painting of a black man who has just scaled a wall, and has turned to extend help to another. This concept permeates much of what Rake has tried to do in the last few decades, both at Allen A.M.E. and in Congress. His sermons, wrote Traub in the New York Times Magazine, hearken back to the pre-civil-rights black churchthe language of self-reliance. In Rakes first sermon at the dramatic new cathedral in the summer of 1997, he admonished those who complained about the rescinding of affirmative-action statutes and welfare programs. I say to you, there was a time when we lived without it, and if they take it away, we can live without it again! Flake told his worshippers, according to Traub. And he ended by pointing all around the marvelous cathedral, saying:This is now This is where we are. This is a new thing.



Jet, August 18, 1997, p. 4.

New York, September 1, 1997, pp. 30-37.

New York Times, March 30, 1987, sec. B, pp. 1, 5;

April 8, 1991, sec. B, p. 2; November 23, 1995.

New York Times Magazine, October 19, 1997, p. 60.

Village Voice, February 17, 1998, pp. 31-34.

Carol Brennan