April - May 2008
Trinity UCC in Chicago and several prominent national UCC leaders are strongly defending the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons have sparked controversy.
On March 16, preaching before a packed house on Palm Sunday, the church's incoming pastor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, said Wright's 36 years of ministry have been reduced to a "15- or 30-second sound bite" by the media.
"Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemoration of the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.," said Moss, Wright's "character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe."
Moss said Wright's sermons must be understood within the "crucible of slavery and the legacy of prophetic African-American preachers since slavery."
A longtime fixture on Chicago's South Side, Wright built Trinity UCC from a congregation of 87 to 8,000, the UCC's largest. Trinity's health care, prison and educational ministries have helped thousands, the church says.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, said "it has saddened me to see news stories reporting such a caricature of a congregation that has been such a blessing."
The Rev. Bennie Whiten, retired Massachusetts Conference Minister who prior served for 15 years as associate director of Chicago's Community Renewal Society, says, "Trinity was one church that we could always rely on to respond almost immediately. They have been very, very involved in the community in so many meaningful ways."
The Rev. Steve Gray, the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference Minister, said he was inspired by Wright's graciousness and cooperation in helping to start as many as 20 new congregations in recent years.
"It's everything a Christian community is supposed to be," says Gray, who has been working with Trinity UCC for the past three years to develop a new UCC congregation in Gary, Ind. "Trinity has given well over $100,000 in support of its partnership with us, and in 15 months of regular meetings with Jeremiah Wright, we always found him to be a man of gracious hospitality, humor, generosity, who paid attention to detail but also a man who does not call attention to himself."
The Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of the UCC's second largest congregation, Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., says it was Trinity UCC that inspired him to want to affiliate with the UCC.
"My church was originally National Baptist and Southern Baptist, but it was the critical-thinking that [Trinity] brought to this work, the justice work, that helped me to want to become a part of the denomination," Samuel said. "I have no regrets about that."
Samuel says that, during Wright's ministry, Wright has not been afraid to tackle difficult topics, while staying equally committed to preaching "Jesus and justice."
"There have been two major sins in the Black church that many Black churches will not address — homophobia is one and sexism is another," Samuel says, "and Jeremiah Wright has been one of the articulate, courageous voices that has not been afraid to address these critical issues. If he can do that and still maintain his close connectivity to the Black community, and stay grounded in the Black ethos, that's what has inspired me."