Obama's Church Moves On After Exit

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(l. to r.): William Thomas Cain /Getty; Chicago Tribune / MCT / Landov

Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright

All Fred Pope wanted to do was get to Trinity United Church of Christ's 11 a.m. Sunday service. Instead, he was bombarded by reporters seeking his reaction to Sen. Barack Obama's decision to leave the South Side church after nearly two decades. "It's a deeply personal decision," Pope said simply, clutching a Bible in his left hand, walking along 95th Street toward the massive brown sanctuary. Then, Pope stopped, looked to the clear sky, and added, "I'd be disappointed if he stopped believing in God."

Pope's statement about Obama's announcement was more than many other Trinity members were willing to divulge. For much of the year, since Obama emerged as a leading presidential candidate, and since clips of longtime Trinity pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s sermons appeared on YouTube, the church has weathered unprecedented scrutiny. There have been bomb threats. Reporters have brazenly called ailing Trinity members at hospices. So it's understandable that many members shooed away reporters — often by raising a hand, as if to say, "Don't even go there." In one incident Sunday, an 18-year-old in baggy black jeans, a white tee-shirt and a black bag strapped across his chest told a group of reporters gathered outside the church, on 95th Street, "It's a family there, and all this publicity has been tearing the family apart." When a reporter asked the man's name and how long he'd been a Trinity member, he clarified, "I'm just visiting." Just then, a 50-something man — later identified as a Trinity deacon — dressed in a sharply cut black suit walked by, and shouted, in front of cameras, "Man, what the hell are you doing? You're not even a member, and you don't know what we're going through."

Inside the church, Wright's successor, Rev. Otis Moss III, didn't directly mention the Obama episode during his morning sermons. In fact his only oblique reference to Obama came during the call to prayer at the altar: "Every Christian is part of our family. Whether they're physically with us or not — they're part of our family."

In the end, Obama claimed that allowing Trinity to get back to tending to its family was a key part of why he was resigning his membership — as much as what his association with the church was doing to his presidential aspirations. After all, Obama's stunning rise to the brink of being the Democratic presidential nominee has cast an unusually harsh light on his place of worship. Trinity's roughly 8,500 members makes it among the largest congregations in Chicago — and the largest in the United Church of Christ, a predominately white protestant denomination. When Wright assumed leadership of Trinity in 1972, it barely had 90 members. He steered it toward Black Liberation Theology, which had emerged in the late-1960s largely in response to the Black Power Movement and the Nation of Islam — both of which questioned whether one could be black and Christian.

"Blacks coming out of the '60s were no longer ashamed of being black people, nor did they have to apologize for being Christian. Because many persons in the African-American community were teasing us, Christians, of being a white man's religion," Wright told PBS' Bill Moyers earlier this year.

With his charismatic leadership, and unapologetic (sometimes angry) rhetoric, Wright struck a chord with many of this city's growing black middle class. One of them, a young, relatively unknown community organizer named Barack Obama, joined Trinity in the mid-1980s, finding both a spiritual home and a useful entree into Chicago's black political elite. Obama soon came to view Wright as something of a father figure. Wright ended up consecrating Obama's wedding to Michelle Robinson, baptizing the couple's children, and even provided the title to his best-selling memoir, The Audacity of Hope.

But in the heat of the campaign, Wright became too much of a liability for the man hoping to become the country's first African-American President. Wright's remarks declaring "God damn America!" and calling 9/11 a case of "America's chickens ... coming home to roost" were roundly denounced. The YouTube-ed clips are partly what prompted Obama to deliver his much-praised March speech on race in America. Following that Philadelphia speech, Obama never again attended Trinity, and many of its members hoped the scrutiny would die.

To some degree, it did. Obama won kudos from many within the black community, and certainly beyond it, for not immediately and entirely distancing himself from Trinity. Then came Wright's April speech and defiant question-and-answer session at the National Press Club, in Washington, during which he defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and claimed the U.S. government introduced AIDS into the black community. Obama had to distance himself again from Wright. But the scrutiny of Trinity only deepened. After the May 25 speech by Father Michael Pfleger at Trinity, in which the controversial white Chicago priest derided Sen. Hillary Clinton as a white elitist who felt entitled the Democratic nomination for the presidency, it seemed only a matter of time before Obama had to make a clean break.

On Friday, Obama and his wife, Michelle, wrote a letter to Trinity's new pastor, Moss, announcing their resignation from the church. On Saturday, in a question-and-answer session with reporters in Aberdeen, SD, Sen. Obama explained that in the wake of Wright's NPC appearance, he and his wife had prayed for guidance on how to handle their relationship with Trinity. Obama told reporters he suspected that "it was going to be very difficult to continue our membership there as long as I was running for President. The recent episode with Father Pfleger," he continued, "just reinforced the view that we don't want to have to answer for everything that's stated in a church. On the other hand, we also don't want a church subjected to the scrutiny that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes."

Obama also said his family would not join another church until after the November general elections. He even seemed to suggest that it's a bit disingenuous for a political candidate to feel compelled to choose a congregation based on a political, rather than purely spiritual, calculus. Should he choose to join a predominately black church, it's highly possible that what's delivered from the pulpit could, again, shock people unfamiliar with the nuances, cadences — and occasionally harsh rhetoric — of the black American church experience. "I do think there is a cultural and a stylistic gap that has come into play on this issue," Obama said Saturday. "I haven't figured out exactly how this is managed ... But I am confident that we are going to be able to find a church we feel comfortable with and that will reflect our concerns and values."

The whole episode has stunned many Trinity members, but its ultimate conclusion was not that much of a surprise to some. Dwight N. Hopkins, an authority on Black Liberation Theology at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, as well as a longtime Trinity member, recalls watching a clip of Pfleger's comments. "I thought, given that this is a presidential season, and that Sen. Obama is a member of the church, there was going to be some type of fallout. I didn't know the exact nature of it," Hopkins says. In the wake of the Obamas' departure, he adds, "People are saddened and confused — some people might be a little angry."

Wright's retirement, which became official today, had been planned for years. It's highly possible the Obamas may have found a more kindred spirit in Moss. He is 37, educated at Morehouse and Yale. His delivery is silky smooth, not nearly as bluntly political as the 66-year-old Wright's. But it is no less of a performance: He often pops the microphone between his hands during a sermon, so as to free the other hand to chop the air to emphasize words.

Moss' sermon on early Sunday seemed to suggest the church was trying hard to focus hard on its business and away from the controversy of the past several months. Several members seemed to agree. "The congregation isn't caught up in that larger debate — it's a distraction," says Hopkins, the University of Chicago professor. "We've still got to teach Bible class. None of this is going to impact the work of our ministries, or the scholarships we give to black colleges."