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.
"It is a particular tension around him and his church and his pastor that was very public," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. "That does not affect how he deals with the entire black church. . . . He met with a group of ministers last week. He has met with labor leaders. He has gone to college campuses. He has done my radio show."
But political and religious experts said Obama's departure from Trinity has become a symbol of the further marginalization of black churches.
"If a politician wants to move up in government, he can come to church and jump and shout," said the Rev. Barbara Reynolds, a lecturer at Howard University's School of Divinity. "But it is not okay to go to a church where they are speaking truth to power and talking about racism, sexism and capitalism."
Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, said: "Barack Obama is running for president in a country where 70 percent of the people are white. They demand that he align himself to their dominant view."
When Obama announced his candidacy for president, Trinity expected the world to celebrate a church founded on the model of community activism that nurtured black church icons such as the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Jackson. Church leadership referred to Obama as their "chosen son."
Trinity sold his books in its bookstore and painted a stained-glass window that read: VOTE. Members talked about the possibility of sharing their pews with the first black president. On the rare occasions that Obama attended church, he sometimes received a standing ovation.
"There was a lot of pride having him there, for all of us," said Tony Johnson, a Trinity member since the early 1980s. "You could tell anyone in Chicago that you went to Trinity, and they knew about it because of him. Like, 'Oh, that's Barack's church.' . . . I don't think any of us really saw a downside to it. We had a great member in a great church doing great things. What couldn't you like?"
As Johnson monitored news of his church during the past three months, though, he found a lot not to like. Wright, the author of more than 4,000 sermons, became a public caricature through inflammatory, 30-second sound bites. He reiterated his most divisive opinions during an appearance at the National Press Club in late April. In a last-ditch attempt at damage control on May 25, Trinity invited a white Roman Catholic clergyman to take part in a "sacred dialogue on race."
The result? During his sermon, the Rev. Michael L. Pfleger mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying she cried about Obama's candidacy because she thought: "I'm white. I'm entitled. There's a black man stealing my show."
Johnson said: "It's so frustrating to feel like all that gets talked about is these few bad things. We have so many great programs happening here, and they're ignored. It's like there are two different Trinitys: the one we know and love, and the one everybody hates and makes fun of on TV."
Said Renee Carter, another Trinity member: "Our church has received bomb threats, our members have been harassed, and our pastors have received threats on their lives."
It's a scenario Wright never imagined when he took over a dying church of 80 members in 1972 and built it into a seven-day-a-week community center with child care, couples counseling and service trips to Africa.
Trinity has drawn an economically diverse membership that includes Oprah Winfrey, rap stars and stockbrokers -- but the church never moved away from the South Side train tracks. Wright preached fiery sermons about racial inequality and the scars of slavery -- but he invited white youth groups to sit up front and listen.
Trinity's only method for recovery in Obama's absence, members said, is a renewed devotion to those same principles. But that might be complicated. Wright had planned to retire June 1 and install Moss, his hand-picked successor. However, on last weekend's service program, Wright remained listed as the senior pastor even as Moss delivered the sermon. Some church members said Wright might be interested in returning to the pulpit, and they remain unsure as to who's in charge.
During the past several months, Moss has relied on advice from his father, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a former pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and a friend of King.
"The black church will be fine," the elder Moss said. "But we are facing one of the most significant, one of the most challenging and one of the most opportune moments in our history. That also means we are facing one of the most dangerous moments."
Said the Rev. Al Sharpton: "Historically, the black church is the only place that we could have our voices heard. It's been the social, political and religious center of our community, and that can't change for anybody. . . . I think Barack did what he had to do, but we still cannot compromise."
Obama has come up with his own plan for moving forward: He doesn't plan to join another church, he said, until at least after the election.