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Preaching to the Choir, and Feeding the Fire
Before Black Ministers From Around the Country, Wright Courts Further Controversy

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Rev. Henry P. Davis III, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, came to the National Press Club yesterday to see the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his former seminary professor, and to hear him calm the controversy surrounding him by answering a handful of pre-written questions.

"It is my hope and expectation that we can move past what has been a real distraction," said Davis, 50, pastor of the 3,000-member congregation in Landover. "We have a serious election going on right now, and the focus should be on the candidates."

But it didn't quite go that way. In front of three rows of television cameras, a balcony filled with reporters and dozens of tables filled with preachers from across the country -- who gave the Chicago pastor a standing ovation when he entered the room -- Wright dismissed the tightly scripted guidelines his aides had planned for weeks and instead spoke free form for an hour.

He criticized Vice President Cheney, praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, questioned the event's moderator about her church experience and dismissed Sen. Barack Obama's criticism of some of his comments as nothing more than political pandering. Many in the crowd cheered when Wright said, "This is not an attack against Jeremiah Wright, this is an attack against the black church."

Wright's appearance was part of the annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which brought black religious leaders to Washington. Because Wright is Obama's former pastor, his comments against the U.S. government have become a focus of the senator's battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination and potentially a general-election campaign against Sen. John McCain.

In the audience yesterday, many praised Wright's off-script remarks.

"Finally, we can once and forever have a serious dialogue to address the issue of race in America," said the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of the Union Temple Baptist Church in the District.

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of the District's Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said this was more than a speech. "This is a movement that has been in the shadows for decades -- I call it the progressive evangelical movement."

The Rev. James Forbes, pastor emeritus of the Riverside Church of New York, said: "In all of this hullabaloo, the question is: What is the message that God is trying to get through? It is more serious than the presidential election."

Princeton professor Cornel West was just happy that Wright was getting to tell his side of the story. "People need to know the work and witness of Brother Jeremiah Wright, they need to know who is all his humanity. . . . All of the lies that have been told about him need to be shattered."

Davis did not share in the excitement. He questioned whether an event at the National Press Club, a little more than a week before Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina vote in their states' primaries, was the right place and time for this discussion.

"I still come back to the point that the focus should be on Obama, Clinton and McCain," Davis said. "Dr. Wright talks about an attack against the black church, but if you peel everything away, you don't have a room filled with reporters and press if we are simply talking about the black church.

"The risk for all of us in ministry is when we operate outside of our normal roles," added Davis, who studied under Wright at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. "While Reverend Wright has done so many good things down through the years, I am reminded of the song, 'May the Work That I Have Done Speak for Me.' That doesn't take any commentary at all."

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