CHICAGO- The choir won't stand still at Trinity United Church of Christ, which Barack Obama has attended for 20 years. In dashikis and outfits of variegated patterns and colors-black stripes, radiant yellows and purples, networks of green and pink-150 singers are clapping, swaying in unison, and singing, "The Lord is blessing me, right now, oh, right now."
Congregants in the packed double-decker auditorium are themselves clapping, swaying, and singing, barely noticing the woman in a black suit who has volunteered to step-dance backwards down the aisle. "He woke me up this morning, He started me on my way . . ."
At over 6,000 members, Trinity is the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ (UCC). The church, in a low-income neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, advertises itself as "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian." Longtime pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Trinity's shepherd since 1972, when the church had only 87 members, is retiring this year, so John Thomas, the conspicuously white president of the UCC, came to the Feb. 24 service to honor Wright: He sat on stage and appeared to enjoy himself throughout three hours that featured 10 choruses and hymns, prayers and calls to worship, and later, a troupe of 18 teenage dancers.
Trinity's black-centeredness has garnered some criticism, but when Thomas took the microphone to congratulate Wright he said, "When I go to Green County, Wis., to our Swiss German congregations, and they come down the aisles ringing cowbells and blowing their alpine horns, no one says it's a problem."
A bigger problem for Obama is Wright's equation of Zionism with racism and his praise for Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader known for anti-Semitic statements. Trinity's Trumpet Newsmagazine featured Farrakhan on the cover of its November/December 2007 issue and announced him as the recipient of the magazine's "Empowerment Award." Obama has since denounced both the award and Farrakhan's anti-Semitism.
Wright has described America as "the #1 killer in the world" and Americans as people who "believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God." He also has said, "We started the AIDS virus," and, "We are only able to maintain our level of living by making sure that Third World people live in grinding poverty."
Obama has listened to Wright's sermons for 20 years, but last month he said Wright "is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with." Neither Wright nor Obama has responded to WORLD's repeated interview requests, but UCC president John Thomas told WORLD, "Jeremiah is one of our most articulate and gifted preachers. It's not surprising that from time to time he provokes controversy because he's willing to take on the tough and challenging issues of the day."
Obama may be keeping space between himself and his church, but the sermon at Trinity on Feb. 24, delivered by Yvonne Delk, who in 1974 was the first African-American woman to be ordained in the UCC, didn't put much space between preaching and political endorsement.
"You know we need to be rushing to vote in November for the one that God called for a time such as this," she said, rousing the crowd to a standing ovation. Drawing from Exodus 14, Delk likened Egypt's oppression of the Israelites to U.S. policy: "The Bush legacy has produced a nation moving toward destruction, a nation obsessed with its own power. The chariots are thundering."
Beside being involved in political action and, according to the church's vision statement, "working towards economic parity," Trinity members commendably work in dozens of community ministries, offering legal and family counseling, an addiction recovery program, math and computer classes, a prison ministry, and programs helping the sick and underprivileged.
Trinity also publishes a "Black Value System," a list of 12 values church members are expected to teach and practice. They include "Dedication to the pursuit of education" and "Disavowal of the pursuit of 'middleclassness,'" which calls "black middleclassness" a method by which "captors" cut off leaders from a community.
In talking points listed on Trinity's website, Wright states, "The vision statement of Trinity United Church of Christ is based upon the systematized liberation theology that started in 1969 with the publication of Dr. James Cone's book Black Power and Black Theology." Cone argued in his 1970 work, A Black Theology of Liberation, that "the goal of black theology is the destruction of everything white, so that blacks can be liberated from alien gods." Cone rejected the "God of white seminaries" as a racist construction and argued that "God's identity is revealed in the black struggle for freedom." Obama may need to disavow his church's view of race just as he disavowed Farrakhan's viewpoint.
The United Church of Christ last month did begin a struggle with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which informed the UCC that the denomination's tax exempt status is under review, and that the agency is examining a speech Obama gave before the UCC's General Synod in June 2007.
UCC president John Thomas told WORLD he had personally invited Obama to speak about the relationship between personal faith and public life long before the senator was a presidential candidate: "We took great care to make sure we stayed within the legal boundaries, and I believe we did." Thomas said that although there was one point in Obama's speech that "I would have wished he'd edited out"-a brief reference to the Obama presidential campaign-"otherwise he spoke about the topic we'd asked him to speak about. Any campaign activity took place outside on public property where we have no control."
A top Washington, D.C., law firm with a team led by former U.S. Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman will represent the UCC during the IRS's unusual investigation of the denomination. "To the extent that this scares other religious bodies away from appropriate conversation and dialogue with political leaders who are members of their communities, I think that's unfortunate," said Thomas. "It has a kind of chilling effect."