Rev. Jeremiah Wright discusses Obama controversy, history of his church

President Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. compares the president to a son who is being treated unfairly and says it has been hard weathering the media storm after controversy erupted over Wright's fiery sermons.
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; 7:02 PM

President Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. on Wednesday compared the president to a son who was being treated unfairly and said it had been hard weathering the media storm after Obama became a serious contender for the White House and controversy erupted over Wright's fiery sermons.

In a rare post-election interview, Wright spoke to The Washington Post about his life and his church's history after preaching an evening sermon at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast Washington, the first of three nights he was to appear before the congregation.

Wright's very public falling out with Obama during the 2008 campaign seemed like water under the bridge Wednesday, as Wright expressed concern over how the president has been treated by the media since being elected.

"It is unrealistic to think that one person can change the mess that this country has gotten into, but to pick on him is like picking on one of my kids," Wright said. "I have been knowing him for 20 years.

"I have not stopped loving him because of what the press did, and to see him beat up on because of things he is not responsible for is painful."

Wright said he didn't expect to speak directly with Obama again until "he is out of the White House."

Wright became politically radioactive after YouTube videos of his sermons at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, in which he called on blacks to sing "God damn America" and said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were "America's chickens . . . coming home to roost," went viral online in early 2008. On Wednesday night, though, he left the dashiki and fiery rhetoric of those videos behind for a business suit and preaching from the 23rd Psalm in a measured tone.

The YouTube videos focused damaging attention on his family, Wright said, and especially on his youngest daughter, Jamila Wright, and a granddaughter.

"The day I took Jamila to campus, Fox News was on the sidewalk taking my picture. My granddaughter got into a fistfight at FAMU [Florida A&M University] because people only know the press narrative about Jeremiah Wright," he said. "The press didn't care what they did to my family. They ruined their senior year in high school. They were at the senior prom, the graduation, waiting on something to try to destroy Obama."

Wright was in town to preach and sign copies of his book, "A Sankofa Moment: The History of Trinity United Church of Christ," offering his perspective of the origins and growth of a church that grew from 87 to more than 8,000 members during his tenure. Wright was pastor from April 1972 until May 2008, when he officially retired.

Even though he spoke measuredly, Wright's assessment of the origins of the church could raise the eyebrows of some United Church of Christ elders.

"The church was started by a mainline white denomination in 1961, the United Church of Christ, using the same methodology as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopalian church. They were starting churches for a certain kind of person, not for all kinds of people," Wright said. "They didn't want people from the ghetto. They didn't want people from Anacostia. They didn't want people from the projects. They wanted upper-middle-class Negroes because 1961 looked like integration was going to happen."

Wright said that while the United Church of Christ was successful in starting a multi-racial congregation that attracted the middle class, the style of worship took changed radically because of one event in the 1960s. "Dr. [Martin Luther] King got killed in 1968 and Negroes turned black."

"Gospel music hit college campuses, gospel music hit mainline denominations, but our church refused to let gospel music in because we were Congregationalist," said Wright, adding that the church shrank from 400 members to 87 members. "That was when our congregation decided whether we were going to be a black church in the black community with programs related to this community or whether we would continue to be a white church with a black face. They made a decision to change."

In 1968, Wright said, he was a student at Howard University who was part of the university's gospel choir, which was organized by award-winning local gospel artist Richard Smallwood. He said when he was interviewed for the church job in December 1971, the church's board said they wanted a different type of UCC congregation.

"They asked, 'Can you lead us in this direction?' I said it is like throwing a rabbit in the briar patch," Wright said. "They made a decision to change before they called me. People who don't know that about the church get caught up in sound bites eight years before Barack announced his candidacy. They don't hear the whole sermon, and they think that is the story of the church. They need to know the story of the church. It is a profound story."

Since retiring, Wright said he has preached 49 out of the past 52 Sundays and is lecturing at Virginia Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, N.J. He said when it comes to the legacy of Trinity, it was part of a critical era in history.

"There were many churches like Trinity around the country," Wright said. "Their decision to be a church in the vanguard of social justice is a decision they made and one that I tried my best to help them fulfill."

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