Chicago's Trinity UCC prepares to welcome new pastor for new generation
Written by Diana Keough
October - November 2007
October 1, 2007
Otis Moss III is striking in a raw way. Broad-faced, boyish and slender, the 36-year-old preacher looks more like a man who is consumed with fashion than the fate of sinners.
But when he steps into the large pulpit of Trinity UCC in Chicago and begins to preach, all eyes are drawn to him.
"Jesus is the one who puts the devil in his p-la-ce," Moss says, stretching "place" into three syllables. The choir standing behind him, more than 100 strong, seems to fade away. Moss holds a microphone in one hand and moves his free hand to the beat of his sermon. He seems incapable of uttering a dead sentence.
For the next hour, Moss rolls Scripture and hip-hop lyrics around in the same thoughts as he criticizes the mindset of young black males who'd rather play basketball than learn physics. He goes after Bush administration policies, the war in Iraq and the United States' free-market economy.
Such talk in any of the white churches across town would make the congregation squirm. Not so at Trinity UCC, where the words are met with exuberant clapping, standing ovations and loud exclamations of "Yes, pastor!"
Named one of "The Twenty to Watch" ministers under 40 by The African-American Pulpit magazine and one of the most influential African- American religious leaders by the website www.beliefnet.com, Moss was handpicked by Trinity's senior pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, to succeed him in 2008 because of Moss' growing reputation in reaching inner-city youth.
In the 2007 book, "Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation," Moss wrote that the church is a place where young people should be able to see themselves in a positive light. "Most don't," he said, speaking by phone from his church office.
That's why Trinity's stained glass windows depict biblical characters with black faces, and why he says the Bible study curriculum and every sermon should affirm black youngsters' race, heritage and that God loves them.
The predominantly black Trinity UCC boasts more than 10,000 members and is the largest church in the UCC.
Because U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is a member of Trinity, some of his critics have accused that the church's motto — "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian" — reflects a racially exclusive theology. The church's "Black Value System" asks members to affirm their commitment to God, the black community, the black family and the black work ethic.
Moss said Greek Orthodox, Irish Catholics and German Lutherans can connect their faith to their culture without being criticized. "Blacks are the only group of people denied the ability to reach back to their roots, to connect to our culture to define who we are," he said.
Moss' path to the high-profile Chicago pulpit completes a circle of sorts. He's the youngest son of Edwina and Otis Moss Jr., considered Cleveland's "First Family of Faith."
His father, pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, remains known for mixing God and politics in a way that made many white people uneasy. Like his father, Moss embraces black liberation theology, which interprets the Bible through the lens of the struggles and oppression of black people.
"The pre-eminent ethic of Jesus Christ, his inaugural sermon, is 'the Spirit of the Lord is upon you to preach the good news to the poor, to set up liberty, to set the captives free, to allow the mind to see,'" the younger Moss said. "I believe that is the mission of the church."
It's one of many things the father and son have in common.
"The church has to be the conscience, the voice for the hopeless, the marginalized, the disinherited," the elder Moss said. "Dr. King used to say that the church has to be the headlight, not the taillight."
While father and son's theological, social and political views mirror each other, their mannerisms and preaching styles do not. The elder Moss speaks methodically, his diction formal. The younger Moss is stretched tight, like the membrane of a drum, exuding a tense energy.
Listening to him preach is like hearing a recording of his father, the tape stuck on fast-forward.
After watching his son preach at age 15, the elder Moss said, he hoped that one day his son would take over Olivet's pulpit. "I knew then he had the touch, I would say, theologically, the anointing of a minister," said Otis Moss Jr., now 72.
But at the time, the younger Moss wanted to become a filmmaker like his idol, Spike Lee. He was also an accomplished athlete, but while he was running track at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he was slowed by the chicken pox and struggled to regain his strength and speed.
He said he heard God's voice telling him, "Stop running in circles."
He changed his major to religion and philosophy, knowing that he was being called to full-time ministry but hoping God didn't want him to work in a church. "It's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job, and I didn't think I would be cut out for it," he said.
Fresh out of Yale Divinity School, he took a job working with a group of former gang members and drug dealers in Connecticut. When Moss talked about "Amazing Grace" and one man asked, "Who is she?", he realized that trying to use "Christian-speak" to reach the disconnected and unchurched was a waste of time. Moss found using hip-hop lyrics was the perfect middle ground, and a ministry was born.
He moved to a church in Georgia, which grew from 125 to 2,100 members during his nine-year tenure. He planned to stay in Georgia, and thought the only thing that might pull him away was stepping into his father's pulpit in Cleveland.
In 2005, Wright invited Moss to come to Chicago to guest preach at Trinity UCC. During the visit, Wright asked him to consider taking over.
Moss thought he was kidding. After a year of prayer in Georgia, Moss and his wife packed their bags for Chicago.
"The more I began to reflect on it, the more I realized that I would be going to Cleveland to support my father because I am his son, not because God was saying, 'Go to Cleveland,'" Moss said.
Moss said the biggest problem within the black church is the chasm between the "civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation," he said. "It's a gap of language, values.
It's a gap in the best tactics on how to transform the black community. It's an intellectual gap in many ways," he said. "There has to be a dialogue between those generations [so] that you don't cast aside one generation or the other, or one generation doesn't demonize the other."
Father and son liken the differences between them — age, generation, style — to the differences between the Old Testament characters Moses and Joshua. Moses came to the threshold of the Promised Land but had to pass the baton to Joshua because Moses died before he could cross over.
"There's a point [when] the Joshua generation has to stand on its own two feet," the younger Moss said, "but never disregard what the generation before it did for them."
Diana Keough writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.