At Obama's Former Church, Hurt Lingers

"We are a wounded people," said the Rev. Otis Moss III, the pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. (By M. Spencer Green -- Associated Press)
By Eli Saslow and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 15, 2008

CHICAGO -- They paraded through the summer-like heat last weekend in long dresses and suit coats, hundreds of families following the same paths that lead them to church every Sunday morning. They passed single-story houses and dilapidated parks before entering Trinity United Church of Christ on this city's South Side.

Across town, Sen. Barack Obama dressed in sneakers, jeans and a golf shirt. He was going biking with his wife and two daughters on a rare day off from the campaign. He strapped on a helmet, and his family pedaled north from their Hyde Park neighborhood, toward the big houses on the lake.

A vast distance separates Obama from the church he quit last month, as hurt feelings continue to fester on both sides. Obama, his patience exhausted by the most recent controversial remark from a pastor, said in late May, "Our relations with Trinity have been strained." And some of the church's 8,000 members -- as well as some other black pastors -- feel abandoned, betrayed and misunderstood after their contentious turn in the national spotlight.

This was not how it was supposed to be. Obama, the biracial presidential candidate who has pledged to unite Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, blacks and whites, was going to provide an opening for Trinity and other black churches to shatter their stereotypes and bolster their national presence. Instead, a landslide of negative video of Trinity's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and right-wing political attacks left Obama's former church and others like it even more marginalized and vilified.

As the controversy over Trinity crescendoed earlier this month, the church's new pastor, Otis Moss III, released a statement to his congregation: "We, the community of Trinity, are concerned, hurt, shocked, dismayed, frustrated, fearful and heartbroken. . . . We are a wounded people and our wounds, the bruises from our encounter with history, have scarred our very souls."

At the very core of its mission, Trinity seeks to reveal and broadcast racial inequalities. A product of black liberation theology, it teaches members to identify with their African roots and take pride in the African American experience. Sermons sometimes mingle biblical lessons with those learned from slavery or the civil rights movement.

Last month, when asked why he wanted to preach at Trinity, Moss said: "This is a place where the struggle continues, where you can talk about real issues. We can recognize social injustice and then take it on."

Obama has largely sought to avoid discussing race or racism during his presidential campaign, except when it comes to this country's ability to overcome it. His major speech on the issue in March was an attempt to quell controversy over Wright without making race part of his political platform. The Democrat casts himself as a unifier -- the son of a white American woman and a black African man, shaped by white, working-class grandparents and South Chicago's housing projects.

"We may have different stories," he said in March, "but we hold common hopes." And commonality, Obama often indicates, is what Americans should spend their energy discussing, instead of what he termed Wright's "divisive and destructive" rhetoric.

Because of that divide, Obama sent a letter to the church in late May tendering his family's resignation. Obama explained that it was with "some sadness" that he made the decision to leave the church where he discovered Christianity, married his wife and had his children baptized, but that he no longer felt comfortable being associated with the church's provocative rhetoric.

After Obama's decision, Trinity officials stopped speaking with the media and encouraged members to do the same. They refuse to criticize Obama, as does Moss, saying only that he will remain in their prayers.

Though several prominent pastors said Obama's decision to leave Trinity might create minor friction with some black voters, it is highly unlikely that he will lose their support. Even most Trinity members don't fault Obama, instead blaming the media and political attacks.

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