When the Brite Divinity School honors the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at a banquet this weekend, it will do so for Wright's work during more than 30 years of ministry, not 30 seconds of misconstrued comments, supporters of the controversial pastor said.
The media frenzy surrounding Wright hit the university last week when Brite stood by its decision to recognize the pastor despite provocative remarks, and university officials voted to move the event off campus citing security concerns.
Brite's Black Church Summit luncheon panel discussion that was set to be held at TCU will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, according to the college president's office. Cathy Neece, vice president of development and capital campaign director at Brite, said a formal announcement will be made today with details about the rest of the summit events.
Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said media reports and critics have been unfair to Wright by reducing him to snippets of sermons without examining their context.
"It seems so irrational and illogical to see 30 seconds of a sermon out of 36 years of preaching," he said.
Hopkins, a black theology scholar and a member of Wright's congregation, said Wright's sermons must be understood in light of the black church, which centers on social issues. He said black preaching is energetic and politically charged but ends with a call to reconciliation, a part of Wright's message media reports leave out.
"I think people reacted because they saw 30 seconds of someone preaching with such righteous anger," he said.
Parishioners at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Wright's congregation for 36 years, are supportive of the pastor, Hopkins said.
With 10,000 members, Trinity United Church of Christ is the largest congregation in its denomination, according to the United Church of Christ Web site. Wright, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, joined the church in 1972 and retired in February.
Obama denounced Wright's "incendiary language" in a speech March 18 but said the pastor's remarks have placed the spotlight on racial issues the nation needs to address.
The Rev. Myron Cloyd, a friend of Wright and a Brite student, said Wright encourages blacks to demand fair treatment while making a life for themselves, and he created social welfare programs to help that happen in his community, including health care programs, prison ministries, HIV/AIDS services and scholarships. A member of a generation that grew up before the civil rights movement, Wright developed a sensitivity to the nation's racial divide that has influenced his message, Cloyd said.
"He doesn't preach separatism; he preaches empowerment," he said.
Cloyd, pastor of the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in Houston, said Wright adapts his tone to his audience, and the purpose of Wright's fiery rhetoric in the pulpit is to galvanize the black community into getting an education, finding employment and voting. The widely publicized "God damn America" line of a 2003 sermon criticized the U.S. government, not the people or the ideals the nation stands for, he said.
"He's not saying, 'God damn white people,'" Cloyd said. "In the 25 years that I've known him I've never heard him use a racial epithet against anyone of a different ethnic group."
Cloyd said critics accusing Wright of being unpatriotic ignore Wright's military service in the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy, from which he was honorably discharged. As a Navy corpsman, Wright served in a medical team that administered treatment to former President Lyndon B. Johnson, for which he was commended, he said.
Cloyd said he encouragesother Brite students and alumni to get more information on Wright and listen to his entire message instead of relying on media reports to form their opinion.
"Before we can pass judgment on anybody, we have to know them," he said.
The Rev. Brad Braxton, an ordained Baptist minister who will deliver the keynote address at the Brite banquet, said he dismisses criticism that labels Wright a "demagogue." He said the public can disagree with Wright but should have a deeper understanding of the pastor and the black church before being critical.
"To refer to Dr. Wright as a demagogue only intensifies hostilities at a time when we desperately need to build bridges of racial and cultural understanding," Braxton said. "He is a gracious, loving pastor who has worked diligently to empower marginalized persons across colors and creeds for many decades."
Braxton, a professor of homiletics and New Testament at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, said Wright, who called the United States the "No. 1 killer in the world" in a 2006 sermon, echoed Martin Luther King Jr.'s harsh criticism of the U.S. government, which he called "the greatest purveyor of violence today" in a speech at the New York City Riverside Church in 1967.
The Rev. David Barber, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Fort Worth, a United Church of Christ congregation, said though he does not share all of Wright's views or use his rhetoric, he supports Brite's decision to salute him.
"There is no question in my mind that the work that he has done over many, many years in a really outstanding congregation makes him deserving of the award," Barber said.
Following Brite's Black Church Summit, Wright will speak Sunday at the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, according to an Associated Press article.
© 2008 Daily Skiff via U-WIRE