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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reverend Division

Posted by on 03.18.08 at 05:42 PM

The leaders and members of Trinity United Church of Christ, including Barack Obama have provided a far more informed and articulate defense of the church and “divisive” former pastor Jeremiah Wright than I can. But as a white boy who’s crossed paths with the minister and the church before, I wanted to add a couple of things.

I knew nothing about Rev. Wright or Trinity until I attended McCormick Theological Seminary, a graduate school in Hyde Park, from 1997 to 2000. The student body was mostly white, but I’m pretty sure Trinity had more of us enrolled than any other congregation. Trinity was presented to me and everyone else as a welcome and open place whose pastor and members were dedicated to social justice, especially for the people in their own neighborhoods; and the 20 or so people I knew who went there—including several church leaders—were universally warm, respectful, and open-minded. When I attended services at Trinity I was welcomed no less, and while I’m kind of the skeptical type when it comes to sermonizing, I was impressed with Reverend Wright. He was thoughtful, critical, funny, and deeply spiritual; he railed against white supremacy, which struck me as appropriate; and he seemed to challenge everyone there to become better citizens.

After I graduated from seminary, I returned to journalism, and a few months later I wrote a story detailing the relationships of several large black congregations in Chicago with the Daley administration. The story attempted to show how the city had provided several of them—including Trinity—with thousands of dollars in funding for social programs, and to capture a debate within the black community about whether these churches lost their prophetic voices when they formed alliances with the mayor.

A couple of pastors reportedly denounced the story and me in church on Sunday morning. And when Reverend Wright visited my alma mater, he took the opportunity to attack my story for lumping Trinity in with a group of other congregations with less integrity. It was unfair, he felt: I had proceeded as if all black congregations were the same.

Naturally, I thought he was defensive and plain wrong, but I couldn’t really dispute his right to make an argument in public, since I had done so myself. And unlike a couple of other people I’d written about, he didn’t attack me personally (or get his alderman to write nasty letters to the editor about me).

Of more concern to me, my two closest Trinity friends saw the story the way Wright did, and they were upset enough that they vowed to do something about it: they invited me to dinner. More accurately, they invited me to “break bread” with them.

We did. It wasn’t always easy, but over our food, we talked about my story, Wright, racism, journalism, and a zillion other things, and in the end I agreed that I was right to challenge their church in print and they agreed I was full of shit. Fair enough.

The truth is that I don’t know Jeremiah Wright. I’ve never met him. I do wish that he and the church more directly took on local political figures who claim to be friends of the black community but don’t seem to have delivered.

But if I’m going to measure him and the church he built by the people who have come out of it—which is the point here, right?—then I’ll just say “Amen to that.”

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