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Congregation Defends Obama's Ex-Pastor

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Democratic Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday tried to stem damage from divisive comments delivered by his pastor, while bluntly addressing anger between blacks and whites in the most racially pointed speech yet of his presidential campaign. Video by AP

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

CHICAGO -- The Rev. Jeremiah Wright spent 36 years teaching this congregation how to recognize injustice, and his parishioners sense it all around them now. On Sunday, more than 3,000 of them filled Trinity United Church of Christ on the city's South Side to pray for their former pastor. They read a handout that described Wright's newfound infamy as a "modern-day lynching." They scrawled his name in tribute on the inside of their service programs and applauded as Wright's protege, the Rev. Otis Moss III, stepped to the pulpit.

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"No matter what they want," Moss said, "we will not shut up."

A simmering controversy over Wright's provocative rhetoric and his connection to Sen. Barack Obama ignited last week after some of his old sermons were aired, prompting the Democratic presidential candidate to condemn them and severing Wright's connection to the campaign. But inside this mega-church that Wright built up from financial ruin, his most loyal listeners offered a different interpretation: It is Wright, and black theology in its entirety, that is misunderstood.

To his supporters, the message Wright wove through more than 4,000 sermons is now disseminated in a handful of grainy, two-minute video clips that tell only part of his story. Yes, they acknowledge, he was sometimes overcome at the pulpit by a righteous rage about racism and social injustice. But he was a radical who also inspired women to preach, gays to marry and predominantly white youth groups to visit his services. Until he retired last month, Wright, 66, implored all comers at Trinity to "get happy" -- to shout, to sing, to dance in the aisles while he preached the gospel.

"The world is only seeing this tiny piece of him," Moss said. "Right now, we are all being vilified. This isn't just about Trinity, isn't just about [Wright]. This is an attack on the African American church tradition, and that's the way we see it. This is an attempt to silence our voice."

More than a year ago, Wright warned Obama and Moss that a presidential campaign made criticism of Trinity inevitable, but none of them anticipated fallout like this. Web sites and television news shows recalled Wright's praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and played a greatest-hits compilation of Wright's most incendiary comments: that Sept. 11, 2001, meant "America's chickens are coming home to roost." That former president Bill Clinton "did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky." That "racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run."

Flooded with a tide of criticism, Trinity declines to condemn Wright's remarks, instead casting them as consistent with the traditions of the black church. He practices a "black liberation theology" that encourages a preacher to speak forcefully against the institutions of oppression, and occasional hyperbole is an occupational hazard, ministers said. "There's so much passion in what we do that it can overflow," said the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, senior pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.

Wright left for Africa with his family last week and declined to comment. In his absence, Obama distanced himself from the man he once called his "spiritual mentor," who married him and his wife, baptized their two daughters and blessed their Chicago house. Obama said he had never been in attendance for Wright's most controversial statements, and he called his comments "inflammatory and appalling."

On Monday, Obama reiterated his criticism of Wright and scheduled a major speech about race. He said that on Tuesday in Philadelphia he will explore his relationship with his former pastor and the uproar it has stirred. "The statements that were the source of controversy from Reverend Wright were wrong, and I strongly condemn them," the senator from Illinois said Monday at a town hall meeting in Monaca, Pa. But he added: "I think the caricature that is being painted of him is not accurate. And so part of what I'll do tomorrow is to talk a little bit about how some of these issues are perceived from within the black church community, for example, which I think views this very differently."

Obama indicated over the weekend that he plans to remain a member at Trinity largely because Wright is no longer the pastor. It is an ironic twist, given that Obama says that he may never have embraced Christianity had he not been entranced by Wright's impassioned advocacy of social justice while working as a community organizer in the late 1980s. Obama had shied from religion until he heard Wright interweave the Bible with the black experience, and Obama's discovery of Trinity made him feel at home in South Chicago. He titled his autobiography "The Audacity of Hope" after one of Wright's sermons.

"The senator is not naive, and what he's doing is very hard," said Shaun Casey, a religious adviser to Obama's campaign. "He's trying to remain loyal to his pastor but also differentiate himself politically."

But politics and faith have melded together at Trinity since Wright moved here in 1972 to lead a dying congregation of about 80 members. The son of a preacher in Philadelphia, Wright aspired to interpret Jesus through the lens of Chicago's poorest neighborhood -- through slavery, poverty and the civil rights movement. He studied books written by James H. Cone, who created a movement called black liberation theology, and consulted Cone for advice.


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