Friday, March 14, 2008

The truth about Barack Obama's church

Rev. Jeremiah Wright is my pastor, too. At least he was. My family and I moved away from Chicago and Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) about three years ago, and Pastor Wright has since retired. (The current pastor is Rev. Otis Moss III) A lot is being said about TUCC right now, a lot that I think is distortion and untruth. So, I’d like to share my truth, as a former parishioner. Trinity is part of the United Church of Christ, a mainline protestant denomination. I was raised a Baptist and was unfamiliar with the UCC until I visited Trinity. But now, if I were to become active in a church again, I would want it to be a UCC congregation. Why?
Among our many firsts, we were the first mainline church to take a stand against slavery (1700), the first to ordain an African American person (1785), the first to ordain a woman (1853), the first in foreign missions (1810), and the first to ordain openly gay lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons (1972). We value education for all people. We founded Harvard and Yale, as well as many historically black colleges, six of which remain affiliated with the UCC to this day. SOURCE

I am proud of that. I am proud of the denomination's stance against the war. I am proud of this UCC commercial that was BANNED from several networks:

We all know how equality is dangerous. It is clear how that commercial should never be on television. (tongue firmly in cheek) In my understanding, Jesus was about helping and embracing the poor and sick and downtrodden. He was a radical, who spoke out about senseless societal and church rules that kept the unfortunate down and enslaved and the powerful in power. For me, the UCC embodies that thinking. More on the UCC...

According to the official UCC Web site, "UCC churches tend to tailor themselves to fit the people they feel called to serve in their local community. The result: A wide variety of musical traditions, expressions and values that have integrity and purpose. From conservative to liberal, we're not short on variety."

What is the community that Trinity United Church of Christ, on Chicago's South Side, serves? Well, mostly educated, middle- to upper-middle class black families. It is an 6,000+ member congregation, so there is variety. There are some members who are white. There are many, many members who are single. There are many members who are working class or poor. There are some members who are gay. In the UCC tradition, the church doesn't discriminate.

It is hardly a hot-bed of black radicals (not that there is anything wrong with that). The church sits in a black neighborhood on one of those typical Chicago blocks where walking a few blocks can make a world of difference. There is a housing project that abuts the main church parking lot, quiet working-class neighborhoods to the south and north, and if you drive west on 95th street and cross Halsted you'll run into Beverly, a mixed-race affluent neighborhood.

All of these things affect Trinity's mission. But for the most part, the congregation is overwhelmingly black, and so, the church is steeped in African American culture and dedicated to helping it's members draw on their faith to stand strong and live in a still-racist country, and to help others and right wrongs created by inequality. The church "motto" is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." Trinity seeks to teach its members to be comfortable in the skin they're in--racially and spiritually.

Here is the church's "Ten-Point Vision:"

A congregation committed to ADORATION.
A congregation preaching SALVATION.
A congregation actively seeking RECONCILIATION.
A congregation with a non-negotiable COMMITMENT TO AFRICA.
A congregation committed to BIBLICAL EDUCATION.
A congregation committed to CULTURAL EDUCATION.
A congregation committed to LIBERATION.
A congregation committed to RESTORATION.
A congregation working towards ECONOMIC PARITY. SOURCE

I know that many white people are uncomfortable about the blending of race and racial culture with Christianity. But people of color were not the first to do this. I submit that white churches care for their parishioners in much the same way as black churches. It is just that, as European-based culture is the majority, white church practices seem, well, just normal, while Trinity's dancing, shouting choir in African garb seems strange--an attempt to force ethnicity in where it doesn't belong. But consider all the blonde haired, blue-eyed, European-featured depictions of Jesus that are so common in Western Christianity. They don't jive with the Bible's descriptions of Jesus as bronze of skin and wooly-haired. The common depiction of Jesus is a merger of white culture and religion. Trinity's focus on Africa is no different than a Catholic church in an Irish or Italian neighborhood focusing on the heritage of its people.

Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, is not a fringe, wacko cult-leader, or a separatist. He is a trained minister with a doctorate of divinity (SOURCE). He is a well-known and respected community leader in Chicago and a respected theologian nationally. People from a wide variety of faiths and of all different races have visited TUCC and spoken from the pulpit. Folks come hours early to hear Father Michael Pfleger, a white Catholic priest deliver one of Christ's seven last words each year on Good Friday.

I tried to find unedited audio of Pastor Wright's comments that are drawing so much fire, but I can only find clips of the most inflammatory pieces (of course). I've only heard bits on TV and the radio, and did not hear the sermon in person, so I cannot speak to the clip point-by-point. I can say this: What Pastor Wright is, in my view, is a radical leftist, and as a liberal, that does not bother me one bit. I don't agree with many things he says (nor do I embrace every doctrine of Christianity or the UCC), but I agree with most of them.

I admit the "God damn America" bit was a rhetorical step too far. But what I believe Pastor Wright was trying to say, as I have heard him say in many sermons over the years, is that blind patriotism is an offense. It is ahistorical. And it is dangerous. America, great though it is, has plenty of blood on its hands. It has, in many cases, wielded its power unskillfully and to the detriment of powerless people all over the world. To ignore that is abhorrent, unhelpful and it weakens us. It is better to call out your country's wrongs and work to correct them as Pastor Wright does, than to preach "my country right or wrong," which is the greater danger to the republic. Pastor Wright speaks truth to power, unfiltered, from a leftist point of view.

Some folks balk at that. I embrace it. Trinity is the first church where I saw women in the pulpit and among the leadership, not relegated to the pews and the kitchen. It is the first church where I heard a male pastor correct the idea, often attributed to the Bible, that women are secondary to men. It is the first church where I heard a pastor preach that everyone doesn't need to marry or have children. It is the first church I have attended where the pastor refused to castigate gays, even if it meant the loss of membership. It is the first church I have attended that encourages its members to use their faith for strength against racism, but also to help all marginalized people.

It is interesting that we are quite comfortable with radical rightwing preachers. Pat Robertson can blame Hurricane Katrina on homosexuals and still be called for interviews by the mainstream news and embraced by presidents. Bob Jones University, a Christian college visited by George Bush, can ban "unGodly"dalliances between black and white students. John McCain can "welcome"support from Rev. John Hagee, who wants a Biblically prophesied invasion of Iran. But a radical leftist minister is just too, too much.

If you truly want to know about the beliefs of the pastor and congregation of TUCC, finding out is easy. The church broadcasts its services live on the Web and on television. I encourage anyone who is concerned about the church to research before making broad statements about "cults" and "black separatists." Click here to hear live broadcasts and access past sermons on demand.

Sidenote: Why does America demand that marginalized people have the same level of patriotism as the mainstream, even given our unique history within the country. I mean, I don't necessarily believe that the government created the HIV virus, as it is reported that Pastor Wright says in his much-publicized sermon, but is it crazy for a group of people who were the victims of the very well-documented Tuskegee Experiment to believe the country might do such a thing? Our experience is different. Get it?



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