Listeners Weigh in on Obama, Wright
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, the Barbershop guys - they're here, literally here all together in Washington - and having their say on the week's news in politics, sports and whatever else is on their minds. We'll also hear from you, your comments, in Backtalk. That's a little later.
But first it's time for Faith Matters, our weekly conversation about matters of faith and spirituality. We've talked earlier in the program about the politics of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright conflict with Senator Obama, a member of his congregation. But now we want to talk about what this controversy has opened up in the faith community. Has it exposed a strain in the interfaith dialogue? What conversations are faith leaders having about this? Especially in communities that are not part of the so-called black church.
To talk about this we have the Reverend Dean Snyder, he's senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom congregation, The National Synagogue, also in Washington. He's visited with us before. Thank you both so much for being here.
Reverend DEAN SNYDER (Senior Pastor, Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington): Good to be here, Michel.
Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD (Ohev Shalom congregation, The National Synagogue, Washington): Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: Reverend Snyder, I think it's worth noting that Foundry is the church where the Clintons worshipped in Washington when Bill Clinton was in the White House. You were not senior pastor then. I happen to know that you preached on this. If you would just briefly tell me what you said that you thought - you know, your congregation I should say is - you're white...
Reverend SNYDER: Right.
MARTIN: Your congregation is diverse, but I think it's probably fair to say it's probably majority white.
Reverend SNYDER: On an average Sunday, about 20 percent of our congregation is people of color. So we are a primarily white, but integrated congregation. And the diversity of the congregation has been growing over the past several years.
MARTIN: So what do you think this Reverend Wright issue has opened up for your congregation?
Reverend SNYDER: Oh, I think it's very intense. And I think it's also very tragic. Jeremiah Wright is highly respected among many of us, especially those of us who are identified with a progressive understanding of Christianity. He's been an outstanding leader of the church, built a lot of bridges between the African-American church and the white church, between Pentecostals and progressives. And so to see him become the object of this kind of criticism and misunderstanding is really unfortunate.
MARTIN: But briefly, tell us what you preached about this. You preached about this a couple of weeks ago. Now this was before the recent round of discussions but...
Reverend SNYDER: Sure. One of my members called and asked if I could do something to help our congregation understand the role of the African-American church within our society. I actually had the privilege of being pastor of a primarily African-American church in Philadelphia, and so I talked about my experience because I think that there's a lot of misunderstanding that happens across the cultures, and so much history that is still present but beneath the surface and not talked about much.
And so I talked about my experience at having to constantly make a decision as to whether we were going to pursue community or whether we were going to let history become the divisive factor, whether we were going to let the pain drive us apart or whether we were going to work through the pain to a better understanding. And that was my experience in a primarily African-American congregation that time and time again together we made a decision to try to understand each other and work through the misunderstanding and the pain.
My wish would have been that we as a society would have done a better job of listening to Jeremiah Wright and the message that he has to tell. The message is being totally lost in the misunderstanding and conflict.
MARTIN: Rabbi, I believe that - now your congregation is orthodox, modern orthodox, is that right? And it's my understanding that you probably have supporters of all three presidential candidates as part of your congregation. Do you think that's fair?
Rabbi HERZFELD: Absolutely right. There are even Ralph Nader supporters as well.
Rabbi HERZFELD: So, four candidates.
MARTIN: Four candidates. Has this opened up conversations within the congregation for you or with you? What are people thinking about?
Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, it is a topic where there is great pain. And I see people wanting to speak, and synagogue is a safe place. And after a Bible class or a Talmud class, when the books are closed and people just start talking, people are at first hesitant to speak because one of the things Barack Obama spoke about in his speech in Philadelphia was that the race question is always a white elephant in the room that people are afraid to talk about.
And one of the saddest things to come out of this whole situation with Reverend Wright at the National Press Club is that there was an opportunity - I think a small window and maybe it was only the naive people who thought it could happen, but there was an opportunity to have a serious conversation about race in this country that brought people together. And what happened at the Press Club turned that opportunity into something divisive.
I mean, one of the things that I admire most about Dr. King was he was able to speak from a place of great pain, but he did it in a way that united people. He spoke out against the bigots and the racists without himself spewing bigotry and racism. And this is why Dr. King is admired by so many. I mean, in our synagogue, we celebrate Dr. King as though it's a Jewish holiday because he taught us so much, to all races and religions. And that didn't come across when I was watching Reverend Wright.
MARTIN: Does it make your congregants feel suspicious of the black church? Or does it make them feel as though there's something about the way African-Americans worship that is somehow hostile or racist, even?
Rabbi HERZFELD: I don't think that that's accurate. We're, you know, we're modern orthodox and the majority are white Jews from Ashkenazik descent. But there are people of color in the congregation and people work with people of color. So we're not isolated. One of the things that makes us - makes some people suspicious of, it makes them suspicious of Barack Obama. And one of the questions - you know, there are people who are fervent Obama supporters - but there are other people in the congregation who say, well, how is it possible that a person could sit and pray and be so close to this man for 20 years and not also think - I'm talking about Wright - and not also agree with him about Wright admiration for parts of Farrakhan's policy or not think that the government caused AIDS which is an idea that Wright floated out there.
I mean, people are suspicious. And then people, some people get confused and other people get scared. Are we going to have a president who really believes that the government was responsible for causing AIDS? And that's - that becomes the responsibility of the Rabbi to try to say, OK, we're not here, we're not in the political community, we're in a spiritual community. How do we move beyond this? How do we make this a source of unity and discussion where we can grow together as a faith community?
MARTIN: Dean, what do you have to say about that?
Reverend SNYDER: Well, I think that there are a couple of extreme statements that Dr. Wright made that have been getting a lot of attention. But that his theology is sound and that he's been a faithful witness in Chicago for many, many years and a national ecumenical figure. So I'm sorry that there's been one or two items that have received this attention and we've not been able to listen to his broader message, which is one of reconciliation.
MARTIN: Well, some people are saying, if that is his broader message, why didn't he bring that message? It makes, I think - I mean, I've heard you say earlier - I actually heard you speak about this - but you said, the issue isn't so much that people don't understand black preaching, it's that they don't understand preaching.
Reverend SNYDER: Right. Jeremiah Wright, actually, is an interesting combination of the African-American church style combined with a liberal progressive theology. His church has always been welcoming to gay and lesbian people, he understands contemporary history in light of the biblical story or what it means to live in a situation where there is an empire. And he reads contemporary history from that perspective. And that's the role of all preaching, to understand what it means to be who we are, in this time and place, in light of the biblical story.
MARTIN: But what about people who heard a message of, you know, hostility?
Reverend SNYDER: Oh, yeah. You know, I've had...
MARTIN: What should they do with that?
Reverend SNYDER: I've had conversations with people this week who have told me that they saw Jeremiah Wright as an agent of hate. I know that Jeremiah Wright isn't an agent of hate, and I can repeat Jeremiah Wright's words to them. And no matter what I say, that's not what they hear. So I don't know how to get past the perceptions of this situation. I think some of it is style of presentation. I think some of it has to do with the difference between being on TV and speaking in person to 12,000 people on a Sunday morning. You come across differently in those kind of contexts. So I think it's a shame that Jeremiah Wright is not getting a hearing and that the focus is in the wrong area and it's being - it's become a battle between some of the press and a Jeremiah Wright who does represent a part of the church tradition that a lot of people don't understand.
MARTIN: Rabbi, what do you think? Because your congregation is one that has reached out and has participated in sort of interfaith, interracial dialogue as part of a community. Does a - is there any teaching opportunity available as a part of a controversy like this or - what do you do going forward?
Rabbi HERZFELD: I think that's the major question. What do we do going forward? First of all, if Reverend Moss who took over for Reverend Wright, if he'd like to have a dialogue with me, I'll sit down with him anytime, anywhere, away from the press, to have a dialogue going forward. I think we make a mistake going forward if we allow Reverend Wright to be excused for his comments, saying he's coming from a tradition of pain. Well, it doesn't matter where you're coming from, if you're message is - it contains within it, even if it's just a small portion, if it contains within it messages of hate and bigotry, we're not going to move forward.
And Reverend Wright makes a mistake when he brings that language in, and to the extent that he has a message of good, that's what makes his - the small messages of hate even more dangerous. Because first of all, it knocks out all the message of good that he does. And second of all, the message of good can also give credence to the message of hate, so we can't tolerate messages of hate at all, no matter how small they're contained in preaching. And I know how to preach also, but if I say a message of hate, it's unacceptable.
MARTIN: Well, I think I - all, I just do have to say that I think he and his supporters would disagree does he have a message of hate. I think, I think, not that I'm speaking for him, I think he would say that he is speaking the authentic truth of people that believe that they are oppressed, and that he is leading them to hope. He is trying to sort of channel their pain and grief into hope. I just, I'm saying I think he would disagree with that.
Rabbi HERZFELD: I would say Michel, that there is no question that he's - part of what he says, is valuable and positive, but there is part of it which, when I hear, it makes me very upset and gets me very concerned. And that small part of it, is so dangerous and it cannot be tolerated, even if the rest of what he says is acceptable.
MARTIN: Reverend Dean, what do you think should happen going forward?
Reverend SNYDER: Oh I think that there needs to be increased dialogue between, especially within Christianity, within the cultural division within the Christian church, which are persistent not only between the African-American Church and the primarily white church, but the various ethnic churches that are growing the same kind of misunderstanding. It's happening now between Korean-Americans Christians and other Christians, and the growing Hispanic Christian church within the United States. And unfortunately, when we get together, the white culture tends to predominate because it's a dominant culture, when we get together and talk with each other and worship together, we do things in the way of the European-American church, and we have too little exposure to one another's worship styles and conversation styles and teaching, and preaching styles.
MARTIN: As a clergyman - we only have about a minute left to share between the two of you, I just wandered if, as a man of the cloth, if you could speak to Reverend Wright now, is there something you would say to him?
Reverend SNYDER: Well, the only thing I would say to him is that I think he needs to be more patient with the press. That the press, by and large, does not understand the church and furthermore, does not understand the cultural traditions within the church. So, begin as though you are doing a primer, instead of assuming that you can speak at the level of sophistication that you usually speak within your own circles.
MARTIN: OK. And Rabbi, what about you?
Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, the Rabbi in me would say to him, look, you've got so much talent, and I saw a lot of pain up there in your voice. I'd like to work together and try to get it, get the pain from out of you. And there's so much positive that's there's still left to do in this world - renounce those small messages which overwhelm the rest of your message, and let's work together.
MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Shalom, The National Synagogue. Reverend Dean Snyder is the senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church. They're both here in Washington, and they were both kind enough to join me in our Washington studio. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Reverend SNYDER: Thank you Michel.
Rabbi HERZFELD: Thank you.
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