Otis Moss III, the current pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, used his pulpit to defend his congregation and its past minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., from a wave of controversy stemming from inflammatory statements made by Wright.
"We have listened and watched as the wonderful work of our church has been vilified this week," he told about 3,000 congregants on Palm Sunday morning. "This week should be special for us because I guess we know a little something about crucifixion."
The church also released a statement that began: “Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’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.”
Trinity, an 8,000-member church on the South Side of Chicago, came under intense scrutiny over the past week for statements made by Wright that harshly criticized American society as racist and blamed U.S. leaders for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moss delivered a fiery sermon Sunday, defending the African-American church’s right to speak out about social issues. He stressed Trinity's work in its still-impoverished community, mentioning the church's scholarship programs, drug counseling, SAT prep classes, and missions to Africa.
"Our very sanity is connected to the church. If it hadn't been for the church we would have lost our minds in the insanity of racism," he said, in a sermon titled, "Why the Black Church Won't Shut Up."
Although Moss never mentioned Obama explicitly, he alluded to his most famous parishioner in a prayer asking God to "do something amazing in this country" and "break down walls that are centuries old."
Neither Wright or Obama were present Sunday.
Moss’s sermon also echoed the inclusiveness theme that runs though Obama's stump speeches, highlighting how the church welcomes worshipers of every color, creed, and sexual orientation.
In the statement released to reporters, Moss said called criticism of Wright and the church an “attack on the legacy of the African American Church which led and continues to lead the fight for human rights in America and around the world.”
Obama's relationship with his church has been a long-running hot button issue for his campaign. But new tapes that circulated of Wright last week reignited a firestorm of criticism.
"God bless America? No. God (expletive) America!" preaches Wright in one particularly fiery sermon circulated in news reports last week.
In a Friday column posted on The Huffington Post, Obama both rejected and condemned Wright's statements.
"The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation," wrote Obama.
On Friday, Wright also stepped down from Obama's African-American Religious Leadership Committee. The 66-year-old pastor is currently in the process of retiring from his position as head pastor of the church.
Obama first distanced himself from Wright early last year, when he withdrew an invitation for the pastor to deliver a public prayer at his announcement for the Democratic nomination.
But in his commentary, Obama made clear his strong ties to his congregation.
Wright built the church from a small flock of less than 100, to a strong pillar of African-American Chicago. The church preaches an Afro-centric theology, describing itself as "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian."
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Their black heritage is seen throughout the sanctuary. Painted glass windows depict famous scenes from black history, like the founding of the NAACP, and church officials wear bright African print tunics and robes.
The church is a social force in the South side of Chicago, running everything from computer centers to addiction counseling programs.
Trinity also takes on various political causes as part of its mission, encouraging members to write the Cook County Board of Commissioners to stop cuts in the health care system and boycott Wal-mart.
It was at Trinity that Obama had his own spiritual awakening, while working as a community organizer in the community. A 1988 sermon by Wright, called "The Audacity to Hope," became the title of Obama’s second book, published in 2006.
In Wright's farewell sermon, early last month, he did not mention Obama by name but alluded to his biography and stump speech slogan.
"But, if you use your mind, instead of a lost statistic in a hate-filled universe, you just may end up a law student at Harvard University. In fact, if you use your mind, you might end up as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. If you use your mind, instead of [being] a statistic destined for the poor house, you just may end up a statesman destined for the ... Yes, we can!" he told cheering congregants.
On Sunday, business went on mostly as usual at Trinity. The 150-person choir rocked, 10 babies were blessed, and congregants prayed.
But Moss was well aware that he was hosting some guests. At least a dozen reporters sat in the pews, taking notes on the services. Moss asked them to be respectful and his congregants not to grant any interviews.
"Some people, looking for their 20 minutes of fame," Moss teased his flock, "No interviews."
Here is the full text of the statement, with the headline, “AN ATTACK ON OUR SENIOR PASTOR AND THE HISTORY OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CHURCH”:
Chicago, Ill. (March 15, 2008) — Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’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.
“Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite,” said the Reverend Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.
During the 36-year pastorate of Dr. Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ has grown from 87 to 8,000 members. It is the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination.
“It saddens me to see news stories reporting such a caricature of a congregation that has been such a blessing to the UCC’s Wider Church mission,” said the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, in a released statement. “ … It’s time for us to say ‘No’ to these attacks and declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends.”
Trinity United Church of Christ’s ministry is inclusive and global. The following ministries have been developed under Dr. Wright’s ministerial tutelage for social justice: assisted living facilities for senior citizens, day care for children, pastoral care and counselng, health care, ministries for persons living with HIV/AIDS, hospice training, prison ministry, scholarships for thousands of students to attend historically black colleges, youth ministries, tutorial and computer programs, a church library, domestic violence programs and scholarships and fellowships for women and men attending seminary.
Moss added, “The African American Church was born out of the crucible of slavery and the legacy of prophetic African American preachers since slavery has been and continues to heal broken marginalized victims of social and economic injustices. This is an attack on the legacy of the African American Church which led and continues to lead the fight for human rights in America and around the world.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached the Christian tenet, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Before Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, he preached, “The 11 o’clock hour is the most segregated hour in America.” Forty years later, the African American Church community continues to face bomb threats, death threats, and their ministers’ characters are assassinated because they teach and preach prophetic social concerns for social justice. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.