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.'”
The Rev. Otis Moss III, Trinity’s current pastor, echoed that theme in an April sermon linked to the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of King. Like the prophets of the Bible, and Jesus himself, who called out the moral failings of the powerful, King took America to task for racism and poverty, Moss said. Grasping the connection with their own embattled senior pastor, the congregation exploded in shouts of “Tell it!” and “Make it plain!”
For many black churchgoers, the attack on Wright is an assault on how they choose to worship. Though the black church is not without its flaws and shortcomings–on more than one occasion, Wright has called out the behavior of other black ministers, and the rise of prosperity teachings has
cut into the tradition of afflicting the comfortable–it has endured as a powerful cultural and social institution because it is needed. As long as racism exists, the church provides a sanctuary for many black folks.
Rooted in the secret gatherings of slaves in the South who were introduced to Christianity by “plantation missionaries,” the church has fed the spirit, while at the same time organizing and tending to the most basic physical needs of its members, explains James Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary. “The black church was the only thing we owned,” says Cone, an architect of Black Liberation Theology whose teaching has influenced Trinity. “It was both a spiritual and political institution.”
Wright may be Obama’s litmus test, but the treatment of African-Americans, brought to this country chained in the belly of slave ships, has been the litmus test for America’s moral character. Historically, black preachers have taken the nation to task for its sin of racism. The independently owned and controlled black church allowed them the financial freedom to invoke the name of the Lord in the crusade for justice–from the days of Reconstruction to the civil rights movement, which Cone calls “the perfect expression” of the black church tradition.
Steeped in biblical symbolism and a belief in a higher moral authority, the church has been a fitting vehicle for social justice movements. The best prophetic preachers can turn the Old Testament narrative of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt into a parable about contemporary African-American tribulations, from the poll tax to police brutality to the 2000 election fraud in Florida. On Sunday, in the powerful allegory of the black church, the oppressive Pharaoh and President Bush could be one and the same.
“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.”