Pan-African Orthodox Church (The Shrine of the Black Madonna)

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Pan-African Orthodox Church (the Shrine of the Black Madonna)

The Pan-African Orthodox Church, which is more commonly known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, was established in Detroit, Michigan, on March 26, 1967, by the Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. While this is the recognized date for its inception, the church actually began with a remnant of several earlier congregations. It has now grown from one congregation into a denomination.

A longtime resident of Detroit, Cleage returned home in 1951 after a rocky but productive pastorate in Spring-field, Massachusetts, to assume ministerial duties at St. Mark's Presbyterian Mission. St. Mark's was a middle-class black congregation, and although the Cleage family had long been a part of the city's black elite, Cleage was greatly disturbed by the privilege and complacency of his parishioners. Finally, in March 1953 Cleage led "a group of dissidents" out of St. Mark's, charging that the overly pious Sunday morning Christianity at the church had become intolerable.

A week later Cleage and his followers established the Central Congregational Church. For most of the next decade he and his church enjoyed a respectful honeymoon. However, problems at Central began to surface in 1964, when Cleage was informed that several members of his parish were pleased with neither his preaching nor his politics. Over the years following the exodus from St. Mark's, Cleage became increasingly involved with radical political organizations, and shortly after his appearance in November 1963 at the National Negro Grassroots Leadership Conference, tension between black nationalist and moderate members of Central came to a head.

Although the conference was held at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, many of Central's parishioners did not agree with the choice of Malcolm X (a man they saw as advocating violence as a means of change) as a keynote speaker. Moreover, they felt the integral role Cleage played in organizing the meeting would somehow taint the reputation of Central. And following a May 1964 Illustrated News reprint of Cleage's black nationalist platform, unhappy members of Central appealed to the Detroit Metropolitan Association of the United Church of Christ for intervention.

In a special hearing of the association's church and ministry committee, a request on behalf of the dissidents (who remained anonymous, supposedly for their protection) was made that association funds for Central Church be withdrawn until Cleage's ministry was brought in line with the mission of the United Church of Christ. Indirectly, the committee was interested in finding out two things: first, whether Cleage was indeed a black nationalist; and second, if so, whether his black nationalism was Christian. Cleage refused to cooperate on the grounds that no one in his congregation had ever approached him with a complaint, and because the names of the petitioners were withheld, suggesting that the association itself might be behind the inquiry. In any event, he believed the association had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of an autonomous congregation.

In the end Cleage and those parishioners loyal to him won both the battle and the war when those opposed to the church's black nationalist leanings withdrew their membership from Central. Three years later, on March 26, 1967, Easter Sunday, a large painting of a black Virgin Mary was unveiled at the church. Subsequently, the name of the congregation was changed to the Shrine of the Black Madonna, and in 1971 the Black Christian Nationalist Movement was officially inaugurated.

Initially, Cleage envisioned the movement as an ecumenical endeavor, with each participating congregation maintaining membership in its respective denomination. To some extent, this is the case. The "Mother Shrine" in Detroit has maintained its affiliation with the United Church of Christ. The Pan-African Orthodox Church, whose name is intentionally related to the African Orthodox Church of Bishop George Alexander McGuire, has four congregations, a farm, and a publishing house.

See also African Orthodox Church


Cleage, Albert B., Jr. Black Messiah. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.

Cleage, Albert B., Jr. Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church. New York: Morrow, 1972.

quinton h. dixie (1996)