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MCCALL THE PREACHER: DUAL ROLES, SINGLE VISION

H. Carl McCall, the New York State comptroller, was expounding on some of his favorite themes Sunday in Buffalo, themes such as economic justice, the power of the voting booth and the ailing upstate economy.

But the comptroller's venue was no smoke-filled back room or gathering of political partisans. Instead, his powerful message boomed from the pulpit of Mount Olive Baptist Church on East Delavan Avenue. And the voice belonged to both Comptroller McCall -- chief fiscal officer and powerful Democrat -- and the Rev. McCall -- ordained minister and champion of economic justice.

"We are assured that we have the responsibility to help our brothers and sisters in need," McCall told several hundred parishioners Sunday morning. "If we take on this challenge, we will not be alone. With God on our side, we will be successful. Jesus himself said this to us."

This pulpit-pounding, Bible-quoting aspect of the first African-American elected to statewide office is little known to most New Yorkers. But it makes up the very core of the 65-year-old Boston native, who has also served as a top Citibank executive, state senator, United Nations delegate and president of the New York City Board of Education. Preaching the Word of God and pursuing the goals of elected office, he says, are more often linked together than in conflict.

"I feel that I have another way of communicating with people," he said in an interview after the 8 a.m. service. "The things I say in the context of a sermon are not that different from a political speech. It's a matter of letting people know there should be some kind of a religious grounding in the things we do.

"We can find in religious teachings," he added, "values and guidance to deal with the big issues that we face every day."

McCall, who is contemplating a run for governor in 2002, explained that the church has always played a central role in his life -- since his days growing up in Boston poverty -- one of six children of a single mother. It was church leaders, he said, who saw something in him, nurtured his talents and sponsored his education.

"The people in that church helped me navigate the public school system and other things," he said. "The church was very important to me in my own upbringing. I just feel that we have to bring those convictions into our daily life."

McCall finds a way to link the Bible with black history, taking that a step further by applying those lessons to the life and times of his community. For one of the readings at Sunday's service, he chose Exodus 3:7-12, the story of Moses' struggle to comprehend God's commands to lead his people out of Egypt to the land of milk and honey. He compared Israel's captivity to the slavery of his ancestors, and linked Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their mutual decisions to accept the responsibility God placed on them.

"Just as Moses struggled with his calling, Martin Luther King wrestled with his decision," McCall said. "But he knew God would help lead his people from the oppression of segregation to the promised land of justice."

Aided by a powerful Gospel choir and the traditional intensity of the black church, McCall used his Sunday pulpit for his penchant to find common ground in the religious and the political. The civil rights movement that King helped found 40 years ago has moved into a new phase, he said, one demanding quality education for poor children as well as a call for all to share in America's boom times.

"I see the nice cars out there and the fur costs in here and see that some of us are doing pretty good; we even have one who looks like us as the comptroller of the State of New York," he said from the pulpit. "But many others can't find the trail to success. Too many in our neighborhoods are still struggling and live day to day without hope.

"It's time to stand up and be counted," he added. "Like Moses and Dr. King, we must step into the breach. We must accept the challenge and answer the call."

To McCall, that means quality education for all children and a piece of America's prosperity, goals he says represent the "new civil rights movement."

"In the Empire State -- this progressive bastion -- we're committed to spending more to incarcerate our children than to educate them," he said. "We have got to change that."

And as Mount Olive shouted "Amen" to his preaching, McCall also callled his congregation to action. He said later that "individual responsibility" often occupies the heart of his sermons, and he called upon Buffalo's black community to take matters into their own hands.

"The money goes where the votes come from, and if the votes don't come from our community, the money doesn't go to our community," he said, explaining that about half of New York's 2.3 million eligible black voters don't bother to register.

"Unless we get more of our folks to use their political power to bring about change, we're going to get shortchanged," he said.

It is likely that McCall will use all kinds of venues in the months ahead to emphasize these core values. He talks much more seriously in private about taking on Gov. George E. Pataki in 2002 than during his 1998 dalliance with the idea and has already said he will not run for comptroller again. He says Pataki has disappointed upstaters, who expected more help to revitalize their rusted industrial base.

It is just as likely he will continue to view the problems confronting New York from his religious and political perspectives.

"We're talking about helping other people; talking about not trying to separate ourselves from our own community," he said, "and the fact that we've got to be involved in the political process because it's a way of bringing about change."

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