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Big Turnout For Obama's Former Pastor

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

A year after then-candidate Barack Obama distanced himself from his controversial longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright thrilled thousands of churchgoers yesterday morning in Washington, giving a sermon holding up Obama as a spiritual symbol of possibility.

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People waited two hours to hear Wright preach the Sunday service at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, a high-profile platform for clergy, and black clergy in particular. Wright has preached the service, run by clergy at the school's Rankin Chapel, on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the past five years and was booked months before the election, school officials said.

Howard students, alumni and notables such as opera singer Jessye Norman and Morehouse College President Robert Michael Franklin Jr. attended the service, which overflowed into two other buildings. About 2,500 people came to see a man whose relationship with Obama became explosive, both among those who considered his words racist and anti-American and those livid with Obama for distancing himself from someone they saw as simply speaking truths about racism and war.

Wright was nothing but positive and conciliatory yesterday, rousing churchgoers again and again to their feet with a sermon about what he called the Bible's message of self-reliance and encouragement.

Wright went back and forth from Obama to a passage from the Gospel of John about people who overcome sickness and challenges. "No more seeing ourselves through the eyes of people who don't look like us!" he said. "How does God see us?"

In the impassioned oratory for which he is known, Wright said Obama was able, "as the Lord stepped into his story," to envision himself doing anything -- heading the Harvard Law Review, taking a U.S. Senate seat, even winning the presidency.

People who envision themselves as victims, he said, are like the sick and paralyzed in the Gospel of John.

"Stand up, downsized -- start your own business! Stand up, dropout -- go back to school! Stop wallowing in quicksand and stand up, black man -- and take care of your own family!"

But Wright's message wasn't all self-help. He told churchgoers that racism, capitalism and militarism remain strong negative forces and that people who don't recognize these forces at work in such things as the government's response to Sudan and Hurricane Katrina as well as the civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip are "blind." They, too, are like the crippled in John's Gospel, he said.

Outside the auditorium, communists handed out newspapers challenging the idea that Obama is a serious change agent. Vendors sold Obama souvenirs, including a T-shirt that depicts Obama outfitted like a member of hip-hop band Run-D.M.C. -- chunky glasses and gold chain -- with the words "Run DC." American flags were displayed everywhere, and people in coffee shops around Howard said to one another, "God bless America."

Wright saved his most provocative comments for another day. Kwandrick Sumler and Eddie Holiday, communications students at Howard, said they were drawn to the service out of curiosity about the controversial Wright and found him "neutral."

"He gave everyone what they wanted to hear," Holiday said. "The biggest thing African Americans need is solidarity, and he did that. He said, 'Do what you need to do.' "

Sumler agreed. "He was Obama's pastor, and Reverend Wright played on that: Only in America is Barack Obama's story possible."

Three alumnae from Spelman College, in town for the inauguration, went to Howard partly to be in church on Sunday and partly to hear Wright for themselves.

"He's still the minister he always was. I think he has a great ministry, but his time in the media wasn't very positive," said Michelle Bradley, 24, who came from Chicago. "And I feel today my constitutional rights have been lived out -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- by being here for the inauguration and Reverend Wright's sermon."


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