The Liberation of Reverend Wright
"Trinity's preaching is very much in keeping with African-American and United Church of Christ traditions, which is to be publicly engaging--challenging government, challenging systems, challenging structures. At the same time, it is a safe space for the predominantly African-American community to speak with one's parishioners," says the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, communications director of the United Church of Christ [UCC]. "You don't have to back up. You don't have to justify. You don't have to prove it. It is shared experience." As a result, Wright's sermons don't always sit well with the uninitiated, says Guess. "Sometimes they are difficult to hear, especially if you are not accustomed to that style of worship."
Wright and Moss both draw on a prophetic style of preaching common to the black church, but Trinity's practice of Black Liberation Theology is not as widespread in the black church at large, although its principles of social justice are. The product of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Black Liberation Theology confronted the public identity of Christianity as white and reaffirmed a Gospel that stood firmly with the oppressed. Politically, it attempted to reconcile the Christian, nonviolent identity of those who marched with King with the black, more militant identity espoused by Malcolm X.
"With the emergence of the Black Power movement, we also wanted to be black Christians who were concerned about cultural liberation--to be freely black and politically liberated to achieve the kind of freedom the civil rights movement was advocating," says Cone. "What we wanted to do was bring Malcolm and Martin together."
Another goal of Black Liberation Theology, according to Cone, was "an internal liberation" that shook off the shame of being black, which had been ground into African-Americans by the ideology of black inferiority (and white supremacy) that justified slavery. "That's why you have that cultural emphasis," Cone says.
At Trinity, the red, black and green flag (the so-called Black Liberation flag) that stands near the pulpit is an affirmation of a black identity in a country where the notion of black beauty is still called into question by the pejorative use of terms such as "nappy-headed." As one of 250 black congregations in a denomination of 5,700 churches, Trinity also reflects the UCC's traditions of social justice.
Created in 1957, the UCC traces its roots back to the "people of the Mayflower" and the early New England Congregational Church, which ordained the first African-American pastor in 1785 and the first woman pastor in 1853. The UCC ordained the first openly gay pastor in 1972. The Congregational Church's most famous role in American history was its successful legal defense of the slaves of the Amistad, who commandeered the slave ship in 1839, finally landing on Long Island, where they were arrested.
God calls members of the church to be "agents of change" and "agents of reconciliation," says Guess, explaining UCC's interpretation of the Gospel. It is this calling that is being tested in Chicago.
Each Sunday a senior member of UCC, which is based in Cleveland, attends services at Trinity to offer encouragement to members. The denomination has bought full-page ads in the New York Times and USA Today to clarify its teachings and support Trinity. The UCC and the National Council of Churches have called for a "sacred conversation" on race in churches across the nation on May 18 in the hope of developing a substantive dialogue about the issue.
Members of Trinity have been largely silent in the mainstream media, instead choosing to tell their story by posting Wright's sermons online and through testimonials that present a more complete image of the senior pastor, like a recent commentary in the Chicago Tribune by William Von Hoene Jr., a white member. He explained how Wright convinced his wife, who is African-American, that marrying him was the right thing to do, despite the challenges they might face as a couple. Breaking down racial barriers, Wright told the man, was how one made progress on issues of race.
In the sanctuary these days, there are many new white faces--a professor and his sociology students from a local university, teenagers from a church in a small rural town between Chicago and Wisconsin. These visitors are friends and supporters for whom the media controversy has inspired a journey of understanding. On a recent Sunday, Moss warned them that Trinity is a "hugging" church, and when the congregation paused from the service to greet one another, the visitors were swept into Trinity's collective embrace. Their presence is treated like the rainbow sign God sent Noah after the Flood.
But the most powerful response to the media storm surrounding Trinity is in the Sunday morning worship services. The choir sings as if attempting to pierce heaven. A wave of emotion washes over the singers, whose shouts of "Thank you, Lord!" are matched by those of the congregation, which sways side to side. The pastor's voice is as sturdy as God's trombone when he compares King to Joseph in the Old Testament, two men who suffered in this life because they dreamed of a better world. And in a display of the call-and-response tradition of the black church at its best, when Reverend Moss says, "What man meant for evil," the congregation, without a pause, replies, "God meant for good."