Internet Congregation Responds in Many Voices

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In the church of the Internet, call him the preacher heard all around our YouTubing world, where believers not only watch the videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial and racially charged sermons but also edit them, comment on them, pass them around. And make them their own.

Wright's homilies -- including the one where he says "God damn America" -- have taken on a new life, opening up a conversation so kaleidoscopic only the vastness of the Internet has room for it. It's about race, Sen. Barack Obama, the presidential campaign, us.

Standing in his kitchen, speaking in front of his webcam, a middle-aged white man asks of Wright: "Where is this guy from, the dark ages?"

A young black man, his made-up bed in plain view in the video, says, "I believe America is afraid of Barack Obama. . . . His pastor speaks the truth on certain things."

Meanwhile, an Asian woman, holding a small microphone and fixing her ponytail, wonders: "Why is he" -- Wright -- "being harassed for talking about race? The word 'racist' is just thrown around and I don't think it means anything if you're just going to call everyone a racist because they said something about race or something you might be offended by."

One of Wright's sermons was the most viewed video online in recent days, according to Viral Video Chart, a daily catalogue of popular videos on Google Video, MySpace and YouTube. On Sunday, days after Wright's remarks had been replayed on cable shows and dissected in print and online, type "Wright" and "Obama" on YouTube and some 300 videos popped up. Another 500 videos were uploaded the next day. By early Tuesday, hours before Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech in Philadelphia on race, the tally had risen above 900.

Most were uploaded by users who edited clips of Wright's sermon. While some videos were elaborately produced, even with background music, most are simply videos of people expressing their views. There also are mash-ups of other sermons by Wright.

Steve Grove, YouTube's news and politics editor, points to a three-minute video posted last Wednesday titled "Jeremiah Wright -- Hillary Clinton ain't never been called a [expletive]." It's been been viewed nearly 450,000 times. Inevitably some are offensive, which, of course, depends on who's taking offense. Some of the titles include "Obama, Wright and Hitler: The Three Stooges!" and "GOD DAMN AMERICA: Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Farrakhan & Obama."

But many, however, are thoughtful videos uploaded by angry, pensive, frustrated, annoyed, confused, provoked YouTubers responding to Wright's controversial remarks.

"This is proof of the Internet surfacing the fractures in our culture," says David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. "YouTube is a context-free environment. You see a few minutes of videos out of context. But because many are watching each other's videos and responding to each other, it's also a place that provides a way to re-contextualize what's been taken out of context. It's a place to have a dialogue."

Adds Dan Manatt, a veteran of online video production who runs PoliticsTV: "A lot of white Americans have never been to a black church. They don't know what's said. They don't know what it's like. So seeing Wright on cable, on YouTube, comes as a shock."

Ironically, churches such as Trinity United Church of Christ, where Wright served as pastor until he retired last month, have used the Web since the late 1990s to reach their congregants, Manatt says. Members of Trinity, for example, can watch a live webcast of Sunday's services at 7:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. CST.

"But who watches those services? Members of the church," Manatt explains. "Up until now, Wright was just preaching to the choir, quite literally."

Eric Rech, the middle-aged white man standing in the kitchen in his online video, is a Christian. But the 45-year-old comedian from Minneapolis has never been to a black church. A lifelong Republican, he caucused for Obama on Feb. 5. "I like the guy," Rech says of Obama. "I like what he has to say."

Yet after watching one of Wright's sermons on YouTube, he posted what he called "a very angry, very negative" video on Friday morning. In it, he turned Wright's comment -- "God damn America" -- to "God damn Rev. Wright."

For a father whose son, Dale, is on his second tour in Iraq, Wright's words "were just too much," Rech says. Still, he immediately deleted the video, saying, "I don't feel anyone should ask for the damnation of anyone." Instead, minutes later, he posted a video titled "Pray for Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama," now viewed more than 9,000 times.

And shortly after Obama's speech in Philadelphia Tuesday morning, Rech posted another video, this one titled "Barack Obama God Bless You."

"I am so glad to hear that this man, Barack Obama, is saying things that people want to hear and that they don't want to hear," he says.

"I don't think I've ever seen a politician come out and say that, when it comes to racism, whites feel one way, blacks feel this way, and understandably so," Rech adds in a phone interview. "Now, what we have to do is really deal with it. Say what you think, let's talk about it."

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