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Obama Speech a Major Topic at Easter Services

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Obama Speech a Major Topic at Easter Services


Obama Speech a Major Topic at Easter Services

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And we begin this week with a look back at Easter Sunday. The new pastor at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ delivered a sermon yesterday, titled How to Handle a Public Lynching. The controversy stemming from the sermons of Trinity's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the speech on race by one of the church's most important members, Barack Obama, was a major topic at many other churches on Easter.

NPR's Audie Cornish has this report from Nashville.

(Soundbite of singing)

AUDIE CORNISH, reporting:

It's Easter, and as one preacher told me, even Barack Obama isn't bigger than Jesus. So at the Greater Bethel AME Church in Nashville, talk of Obama or his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, would not come from the pulpit. But from the sanctuary aisles to the choir room, the subject was never far from the surface.

Rhonda Blackman, Walter Surfey(ph) and Christina Dickerson all praised Obama for walking the line between his critics and his black churchgoing supporters.

Ms. RHONDA BLACKMAN (Parishioner): There's nitpicking and trying to find things to discredit him and I think it's unfair.

Mr. WALTER SURFEY (Parishioner): He repudiated the message without slaying the messenger, and I certainly appreciated that.

Ms. CHRISTINA DICKERSON (Parishioner): What I was frustrated with is that people didn't seem to be satisfied with Obama saying, okay, I disagree with what he says but he's still, you know, someone who I care about who I've known for 20 years. And it's like they still wanted him to say more after that. Like, that's not enough, that's not enough. What more do they want Mr. Obama to say?

CORNISH: At least some Obama critics say he should have cut his connection to the Chicago pastor all together, but parishioners here said that would have been a betrayal. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright sermonizes in the fiery style borne out of black liberation theology and the black power movement.

Bethel AME parishioners, like Thomas Pierson, say Wright's critics may never set foot in a black church or try to understand its culture and traditions.

Mr. THOMAS PIERSON (Parishioner): Now we have a chance to enjoin in a conversation. And if Barack Obama does not even win the nomination at least this is opened and there's going to be dialogue.

CORNISH: But Vera Taylor says the incident and Obama's response have made her reconsider the language and approach she's often taken for granted as part of the black church.

Ms. VERA TAYLOR (Parishioner): We're not in the past. We have come a long way so we don't need people really making statements that almost as if we're still persecuted, if we're still down. We're not still down. I know we've come a long way. I grew up in the South. Of course it's not over but it's better than it was.

CORNISH: Versions of this conversation are going on among black preachers as well, especially when they get out of the pulpit and gather with one another, as in this recent meeting of the Interfaith Ministers Fellowship in Nashville.

Mr. EDWARD THOMPSON (Reverend, Lead Chapel Church): Now, Jeremiah was years ago, centuries ago, but for some reason America has attacked another Jeremiah.

CORNISH: That's the Reverend Edward Thompson of the Lead Chapel Church presiding. He's one of several politically active black pastors who have roots in Nashville's civil rights movement, which groomed some of the lunch counter protestors and freedom riders of the early 1960s.

The Reverend John Corey, chaplain at Meharry Medical College, says he liked Obama's speech just fine, but pastors like Jeremiah Wright should stand their ground regarding their theology.

Mr. JOHN COREY (Chaplain, Meharry Medical College): As a politician, I think he has to do what's politically expedient as all politicians do. So, yes, he had to distance himself. But I don't think that changes our perspective, our mandate as pastors. Because Jesus himself spoke out against injustices. That was a part of his message.

CORNISH: Obama's speech was also on point for the Reverend James Thomas. The pastor, who once hosted Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan against the wishes of his own flock at the Jefferson Street Baptist Church. Reverend Thomas:

Mr. JAMES THOMAS (Reverend, Jefferson Street Baptist Church): Oh, child. I looked at him and I said that's what I've been trying to say and couldn't say. I didn't know how to say it. What he said was what the dream is all about.

CORNISH: Thomas says he doesn't expect anyone of any race to change their thinking after hearing one speech. But he says he appreciates that Obama may have risked his presidential prospects to tackle the issue head-on.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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