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Congregation Defends Obama's Ex-Pastor
"The Christian faith has been interpreted largely by those who enslaved black people, and by the people who segregated them," said Cone, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. "Black liberation theology is an attempt to understand religion without apologizing for being black. [Wright] is really the one who took it from my books and brought it to the church."
Wright was a particularly qualified pioneer, with a master's degree from Howard University and six years of doctoral work at the University of Chicago. His secret at Trinity, though, was an ability to "make it plain," parishioners said. He translated the Bible into lessons about apartheid in South Africa, the misguided pursuit of "middle-classness" and subprime mortgage lending. He encouraged parishioners to identify with their African heritage, and he led a trip to the continent each year.
Wright preferred to study the Bible and write his three weekly sermons alone in the church office, but he became an extrovert on Sundays. A talented musician, he built a band, a choir and a dance group at Trinity, and he sometimes moonlighted in all three. He moved like a dancer in slow motion behind the pulpit, twisting his hips and pumping a fist to emphasize each phrase. His gravelly baritone could instill tranquility or terror, depending on the sermon.
Wright attracted a congregation that colleagues herald as the most diverse of any black church in the United States. Obama, Oprah Winfrey, gangsters, bankers, destitute women in ratty sweatshirts -- all cram into Trinity's pews, and Wright demanded that they all hold hands. When other black churches moved out of Chicago in the 1990s and relocated in the suburbs, Wright insisted that Trinity build a new church right next to its old one, half a block from the train tracks.
Most Sundays, he spoke to older folks at a 7:30 a.m. service, and to the casual bluejeans crowd at 6 p.m. But Wright tended to save his most impassioned sermons for a lively three-hour midday service, when his 40-minute address was cushioned by enough music and dancing to keep the crowd on its feet. Depending on the listener, some of his most memorable sermons were either diatribes about white supremacy, or inspirational addresses that called for the empowerment of the disenfranchised.
Usually, Wright's sermons drew an overflow crowd for all three Sunday services, so parishioners learned to arrive an hour early to ensure a seat. Latecomers sat on folding chairs in two rooms in the bowels of the church, where they could watch a television broadcast of the service. Hundreds more watched Wright preach via streaming Internet broadcasts or the DVDs sold at the church gift shop that now have armed his critics.
"Things that might mean one thing in the church take on a new meaning when you don't see the full sermon, or understand the full context," said Dwight Howard, a theologian and a longtime Trinity member.
Said Cone: "There are moments for [Wright] when the anger, when the rage about what's happened to poor black people in the ghetto is so tough, so deeply painful, that he says things most whites would find off the charts and unpatriotic. But you don't preach in sound bites."
Wright's portrayal has been typical of the misunderstanding of the black church, his peers said. The fact that Wright worked to empower one people, Atlanta theologian Jacquelyn Grant said, hardly qualifies him as racist.
If he were racist, Wright's friends ask, why would he arrange bus trips for predominantly white congregations to visit Trinity each Sunday? If he were racist, why would he have steadfastly maintained Trinity's relationship with the United Church of Christ, a denomination with only a handful of black churches?
"He's been a wonderful friend to white pastors, and he's gifted the organization financially," said UCC President John H. Thomas. "That charge is false."
Earlier this month, before he stepped behind the Trinity pulpit for the first time, Moss tried to sort through the tension that now surrounds Wright. He sought advice from his father, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a former preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The father reminded his son that some civil rights leaders were initially perceived as heroes in the black church and rogues in white America. The same gulf, Moss III concluded, still divides society now.
It is an insight that could forecast more tension for Obama, who had hoped to distance himself from Wright while reaffirming his bond with the black church that still reveres him.
"There are two narratives that have been created with what's going on right now," Moss said. "There's the narrative of the African American church community that understands what has happened, that knows [Wright's] record and his legacy. And then there's the narrative of the wider community that doesn't understand.
"Part of this is indicative of the fact that our two communities still see the world very differently. There's a divide there, a gap that history will have to correct."