Understanding Rev. Jeremiah Wright Offering an insider's take on Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor is Martin Marty, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where, 35 years ago, he taught a young Wright.
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Understanding Rev. Jeremiah Wright

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Understanding Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Understanding Rev. Jeremiah Wright

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(Soundbite of sermon)

Reverend OTIS MOSS (Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, Illinois): Trinity, I know it may seem like we are being crucified at times, but I'm here to let you know they are just lifting us up.

STEWART: That was a bit of Easter services yesterday morning at Trinity United Church of Christ. Story of resurrection and the story of the house of worship in the media glare portrayed side by side. Speaking yesterday was Reverend Otis Moss, not the more well-known former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Reverent Wright has now retired from the church, which described on this website, quote, "We are a congregation which is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian. Our roots in the black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting, and permanent."

Now, there's also a list of Trinity's commitments, the church's commitments, preaching salvation, actively seeking reconciliation, a non-negotiable commitment to Africa, a commitment to Biblical education, also a commitment to liberation, restoration, and working toward economic parity. One of the eight to 10,000 members of that congregation is, of course, Senator Barack Obama, who may be the Democratic nominee for president, as referenced by one parishioner yesterday.

Unidentified Parishioner (Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, Illinois): We know that without a test, there is no testimony, Father, and we claim the victory right now and that in November, Father, you will have the last word, and we thank you.

STEWART: So it is a potent concoction of politics, religion, and race. Two out of the three, the old adage says, aren't talked about in polite company, and the third has become a big discussion point in the past week on TV and on talk shows. But at this particular church, all three are part of what makes the church a really powerful force in the community.

Joining us on the line is Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where 35 years ago he taught then graduate student Jeremiah Wright. He now calls Wright a friend, and he's attended many services at Trinity over the years. Sir, thank you so much for joining us at NPR.

Dr. MARTIN MARTY (Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago Divinity School): Good morning.

STEWART: Now, you say that to understand Reverend Wright and this church, you have to really understand the context of how he saw his role as a pastor or a shepherd. How did he come to define his role?

Dr. MARTY: He came to define his role because he chose to be a pastor, instead of the professor that we were training him to be, instead of the world traveler, which he is on the side. He just plain - he loves people and that congregation has gathered is - I don't know anyone in the nation that carries on more ministries to the people of their area than this church does, and that's what is his business.

STEWART: What kind of ministries are you talking about?

Dr. MARTY: Oh, like yesterday's bulletin. Amani(ph) care program, Can-Cer-Vive helpline, career development ministry, college placement office, community economic empowerment, counseling, credit union, diabetes support groups, HIV/Aids support groups, domestic violence ministry, drug and alcohol - it goes on and on, two pages.

STEWART: So the idea is you just don't show up for Sunday for an hour, pray, and then go home?

Dr. MARTY: No. One time, my wife and I were there at an evening service a week before their annual health fair, and he asked would everybody in this room stand up if you think you're alive because of our health fairs - prostate exams, memory exams, everything like that. And 60, 80, 100 people stood up. Every such gathering you could see the healing go on. What's interesting to me, at a church of 8,000, you have 2 to 300 on the prayer list, shut in, etcetera.

It's all organized by Wright and a wonderful staff and not only - I was in church yesterday, even on Easter I go, and we have the names of about 40 people at the parish who are, quote, "shut in" or "ill," and that's it. This church lists every member, their phone number, their address - if they want, you don't have to be there, but if you want to be. Fax numbers, emails, it lists all the people who will call on you this week, et cetera. So that's the pastoral side, and I think that's the strong base that gives all the other energy going.

STEWART: We may - I described that list from the church's website about what their missions are, their commitments are, and they're very clear. When you go to the church's website, there's a Kente cloth banner at the top, that it's a very afro-centric church. Now, you are not an African-American, yet you visited with this church with other white guests over the years. How did you relate, if at all, to the afro-centrism of the church and its message to the parishioners?

Dr. MARTY: Well, how does a white person do that?

STEWART: How did you do that, yes?

Dr. MARTY: Well, no problem at all. You walk in and people greet you at the door, and you're likely to meet somebody that you know from the Chicago Public School System or running a hospital or whatever, all the vocations are there. A lot of physicians, some prominent judges, but at the door you're going to be met not by a formal committee, but just by members dashing around - it's a very, very busy place. And you're brought in, and they put you in a nice seat, and you're ready to go. And they expect that you're going to be just regular worshippers. So it's hard to describe how they can be Affric-centric, they use the word Affric instead of afro...

STEWART: Affric-centric.

Dr. MARTY: And not anti, anti. The blasts, none of which I would defend by Pastor Wright, right after 9/11, I can understand, but I don't defend him. When he talks about white America, he talks about power America. That's standard in all of the quote, "liberation" theologies. The standard motto for every one of them - feminists, Latino, Latina, black, or whatever, is the notion, quote, "God has a preferential option for the poor," and on those terms, poor whites are as much in the scope as anybody else. So, no, I have never thought anybody who's white there who didn't walk away feeling really a part of the place.

STEWART: Well, I want to play a clip of the current pastor at yesterday's Easter service when he used the pulpit to address the scrutiny that this church has been under recently.

(Soundbite of sermon)

Rev. MOSS: You've already been through this, Lord. This is no comparison to what you had to deal with on Cavalry. We are so glad you know all about our troubles.

STEWART: I'm curious about this church. Is it a liturgical kind of church? Or are pastors free to create their own structures and provide their own messages?

Dr. MARTY: Oh, the pastor is certainly free to provide their own messages. I think that's really true of every church in the country. Cardinal George met protestors yesterday in Chicago, and he had his message and he stuck to it beautifully. No, you're never inhibited there. As far as the order of worship is concerned, I think anybody who's watched television worship of African-Americans, not necessarily Pentecostal, but Methodist and Baptists and so on - Church of God in Christ - the vast majority would know roughly what it's going to be like.

There's a lot of music. One night we were there, and they apologized they had only the women's choir. There were over 200 women in hand-sewn, beautiful, African, green and gold costumes and stuff. Music is just an enormous thing. Their children choirs include hundreds of people, but it finally comes down to a sermon, and here I have to describe what doesn't come through, I think, in the ripped out of context things we hear.

My wife and I sometimes kid about it, that the closest we ever come to a fundamentalist church is there, not because they're fundamentalist, but because they take every word of the text. It's interesting, if you ever check their website, we sit in our church and listen to a text - their texts are printed out and every members reads along the whole text, and then the pastor takes it apart line-by-line. We say molecule of ink by molecule of ink.

So it's very biblically directive preaching, but always applied to the lives of the people, and yes, there will be some anger about injustice. You can't be on the south side of Chicago and not be a victim of a lot of that, but I guess I should say this never comes through, the pastors and the new one, Otis Moss, is really first rate. He's really trying to make a national mark in a hurry. The pastors are not easy on the African-American community. They'll sometimes sound like Bill Cosby or somebody like that. They're working hard for family structure and the male responsibility, et cetera.

STEWART: You know, for years, black churches were the power sources of communities. Reverends and pastors had roles as community leaders, sometimes as politically powerful as any local councilman. Is that true of Trinity as well?

Dr. MARTY: It's true of Trinity, but it's true of 40 other African-American churches in Chicago. You just have to realize we always like to say when the lights go out and only the police station light is on, the church light is still on. And my wife's in the music world. We can never get over the numbers of teenagers whose lives are held together by being in these high morale choirs, et cetera. So I think that's a huge part of the 'round-the-week thing going on.

STEWART: Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Thank you for your time, sir.

Dr. MARTY: I enjoyed talking with you.

STEWART: Hey, don't go anywhere. Next on the show, a look at the upcoming baseball season, and the critical question, what to do with all those leftover Easter peeps? Stay with us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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