Written by Jeff Diamant, Religious News Service
October - November 2008
Revival attendees embrace outspoken pastor
Given their public falling out last spring, it was far from certain the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, pastor emeritus of Chicago's 6,300 member Trinity United Church of Christ, would speak favorably of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama when he preached at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in East Orange, N.J., on Sunday, Sept. 7.
But in his afternoon sermon on Jesus' turning water into wine — "the ordinary into the extraordinary" as Wright put it — he neared the end of his 40-minute sermon with a riff on Obama that thrilled a church crowd of 300.
"Let me tell you how I know what I'm talking about," Wright said at the weeklong Elmwood revival he attends each September.
"Twenty years ago, a scrawny little kid — pointed nose, big ears, momma from Kansas, daddy from Kenya — the Lord told him, an ordinary black boy, he told him, 'You could be a state senator...'
"Not only did he become a state senator," Wright continued, as cheers rang up in the sanctuary, "this black boy with an African daddy from Kenya and a white American momma from Kansas, he had the audacity to hope, so he ran for the United States Senate, and the Lord turned the ordinary into the [extraordinary]. And now! And now! Oh my God, and now! Whooo!" Wright has led annual revivals at the African-American church since 1989, owing to his friendship with its pastor, the Rev. Robert Burkins.
The two met at a conference in the 1980s.
This was Wright's first visit to Elmwood since snippets of his sermons were broadcast nationally and online last spring, causing Obama, Wright's former longtime parishioner, to sever ties to the fiery preacher and resign the Obama family's membership at Trinity.
In some of those sermons, Wright, who often preaches on the mistreatment of African-Americans, likened actions of the U.S. government to al-Qaida's actions and said the Sept. 11 attacks were "America's chickens coming home to roost."
For a churchman both revered and reviled nationally for his oratory, Wright made a decidedly subdued entrance into the East Orange sanctuary on Sept. 7.
At 9 a.m. on the dot, wearing a dark blue suit and yellow tie, he walked in and sat quietly in the front row. He looked toward the band and mouthed lyrics to the warm-up hymn, "If it had not been for the Lord on my side, tell me, where would I be?"
Toward the sermon's end, though, he commanded the attention of those in the sanctuary and an overflow room, and drew grins as he referred to the controversy briefly, mentioning two conservative cable TV commentators.
"I'm a testimony," Wright said from the pulpit, guided by lyrics to an African-American spiritual song. "I didn't make it on my own, and I'm not standing here alone. It was Jesus ... who gave me this opportunity. Not [Sean] Hannity. Not Bill O'Reilly. It was Jesus."
Then, he said, to cheers, "I ain't preaching for no journalists, I'm preaching for Jesus ... I ain't preaching for no president, I'm preaching for the prince of peace! ... Look at me! I'm a testimony!
"Stand on your feet!"
Widely condemned last spring for his statements, but defended in black churches and by UCC leadership, Wright has said his words were misunderstood by people unfamiliar with the history and rhetoric of the black church.
At Elmwood, which takes pride in its relationship with Wright, Burkins introduced him as a "prophet of peace" for "speaking truth to power and challenging the status quo."
Most of Wright's words were apolitical.
In one sermon on Jesus' turning water into wine at a wedding, he said the congregation should learn from the example of Mary, Jesus' mother, informing her son the wedding hosts were running low on wine rather than gossiping about their misfortune.
"His mother took it to the Lord," Wright said. "She took somebody else's problem to the Lord ... When we hear something about someone in a situation, we will text-message on the spot, instead of talking to our master in the privacy of our prayer rooms ... Don't text-message. Talk to the master."
Many parishioners declined to discuss Wright's relationship with Obama, who also is popular in the church, or whether they thought Wright had hurt Obama's presidential chances.
U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne, a Democrat from N.J., said he did not fault Wright, and he thought Obama's severing of ties made his relationship with Wright less likely to re-emerge as a campaign issue.
"It's kind of hard to tell a person like him (Wright) to change his ways," said Payne, whose son was married at Elmwood. "Basically he's been preaching his style and his message for decades. Maybe it's good that it's been aired and it's not a story anymore. Now they can deal with issues that confront Americans."