The notes posted on the glass doors of Trinity United Church of Christ reflect the state of siege at Barack Obama’s home church: “Media must sign in at the front desk.” “No cameras or recording devices allowed inside.” The press has been relentless in its pursuit of church members ever since snippets of sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, appeared on the Internet more than a month ago. Like Louis Farrakhan before him, Wright has become a litmus test for Obama with white voters. His sermons–in which he says that America is run by “rich white people” and talks about “America’s chickens coming home to roost” on September 11–have been described as “racist” and “unpatriotic.” As scrutiny intensified on the 8,000-member congregation, its motto, “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” was characterized as black separatist. For many at Trinity, which I often attend, the final insult came when some journalists called the homes of sick and elderly members, whose names are published in a weekly list of “shut-ins.”
Trinity’s members are certainly not naïve enough to think they could escape media scrutiny. But underlying the coverage of this story, which is punctuated with words like “inflammatory” and “controversial,” is a sense that something is fundamentally wrong, perhaps even pathological, about Wright and the teachings at Trinity. These accounts, however, misrepresent the black church, whose rhetorical traditions meld biblical allegory with contemporary political and racial concerns, and whose sanctuaries provide a rare space where a collective black racial consciousness can be expressed uncensored by others.
“I think that a lot of the media, particularly the mainstream media, have no experience of the everyday life of the black church…and especially what the church service on Sunday means for the black community in general,” says Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a member of Trinity. Hopkins describes the black church as a “sacred and cultural phenomenon,” a “way station” that functions as an antidote to the six days of the week where race matters. In the black church, race isn’t a source of contention; it’s a source of community.
Part of the cultural phenomenon Hopkins speaks of is a prophetic style of preaching. As Peter Gomes of Harvard University’s Divinity School recently said in a Washington Post blog, “It may surprise many in white America, for whom Martin Luther King Jr. is the only black preacher of whom they have ever heard, to learn that there are a lot of Jeremiah Wrights out there who week after week give expression to that classic definition of prophetic preaching that is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.'”