Rev. Jeremiah Wright: Obama's spiritual adviser.

Keeping the Faith

BY Emily Udell

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Even after a two-day snowstorm pummeled Chicago in late January, the parking lot of the Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) was full. Congregants of the African American church on the city’s South Side braved the icy weather to hear a fiery Sunday morning sermon delivered by the church’s senior pastor, Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Since 1972, the 63-year-old Wright has been at the helm of TUCC, a church with 8,500 active members and a strong commitment to faith and social justice.

When U.S. Senator Barack Obama delivered his victory speech on November 2, he gave thanks to Wright and to his fellow Trinitarians. Obama—who has said that his politics are informed by “an ongoing conversation with God”—publicly affirmed his faith about 16 years ago when he heeded Wright’s altar call at TUCC. Wright and Obama developed a close relationship in the intervening years, and Obama counts the Reverend among his spiritual advisers. When a reporter asked Wright what advice he would give Obama upon election to the Senate, Wright said, “My advice to him: Please stay the same as you’ve been ever since I’ve known you.”

Wright’s ministry is firmly rooted in the history of Africa, the lessons of the civil rights movement and a commitment to strengthening black communities. The congregation officially adopted the motto “unashamedly black, and unapologetically Christian” shortly after Wright became pastor. TUCC’s mission statement invokes pride in the heritage of its members and a commitment to the liberation of the oppressed and “all of God’s family.”

“I don’t know how you can do ministry without having social justice as a piece of what you are doing,” says Wright, who was influenced in his early years by his parents’ commitment to social action. Wright earned a B.A. and M.A. from Howard University, an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in divinity from the United Theological Seminary, where he studied with Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a mentor to Martin Luther King.

Wright quotes Matthew when describing TUCC’s vision: “Jesus says, ‘As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.’ ”

“[Each of] the ministries of our church address some of that Jesus agenda,” Wright says. Under his leadership, TUCC members can get involved with more than 50 ministries, including those dedicated to supporting people affected by HIV/AIDS, victims of domestic violence and the un- and underemployed. TUCC also houses a community computer center and offers numerous educational opportunities for youth and adults in the congregation. Reverend Wright’s “brainchild” ministry is called “Million for the Master.” Based in name and spirit on the Million Man March, it “exists to implement programs and services that promote the spiritual, economic, social and political viability of the African American community.”

On that snowy Sunday, Wright’s sermon—accented by music and dance—was joyful, contemplative, educational and political. He wove world affairs, including the war in Iraq and the crisis in Sudan, into his address, and preached about the enduring racism in America, and the continuing income gap between African Americans and whites.

“Don’t confuse your ‘bling-bling’ with your blessings,” Wright counseled. “Don’t try to impress your oppressors.” One of the precepts of TUCC’s 12-Point Black Value System, established by the congregation in 1981, is the “disavowal of the pursuit of ‘middleclassness.’”

“The concept of ‘middle class’ is divisive for African Americans,” Wright says. “You’re buying into a hierarchic notion of who God’s people are. There’s a very big difference between being ‘middle class’ and being middle income.”

From the pulpit of TUCC’s 2,700-seat sanctuary, Wright, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq, wonders why the government doesn’t spend as much money fighting disease as it does on the war on terrorism. In conversation, he questions the “moral values” of the current administration: “When you lie about weapons of mass destruction, that’s a moral value,” he says. “People weren’t voting on moral values. They were voting on fear, and they were voting on ignorance.”

But neither Republicans nor Democrats, Wright believes, benefit from the current political polarization. And while he doesn’t think that the people of a democracy can ever stand behind a unified set of “moral values,” he thinks there is common ground to be found between the sides and that it can be sought respectfully.

“In a democracy we need to learn how to disagree without breaking up our house and getting a divorce,” he says. “We need to learn how to be unified in terms of nobody should go to bed hungry, nobody should die unnecessarily.”

Visit In These Times’ radio show, “Fire on the Prairie” for audio from an interview with Rev. Wright.

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Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show “Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.

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