Inside Obama’s Trinity United Church

The year was 1971, race riots flared across the country, and on the South Side of Chicago a tiny church was dying. Many blacks, disillusioned by their ministers' failure to bring home the promises of the civil-rights movement, were abandoning Christianity. They converted to Islam or Judaism or fringe sects—or refused to go to church at all. This particular congregation was looking for a pastor to lead them through these troubling times, and before they launched their search, they wrote a blue-sky description of the community they wanted to be: we want to "serve as instruments of God and church," the statement said, and we want to "elimin[ate] those things in our culture that lead to the dehumanization of persons." They wanted to be Christian, in other words. And they wanted to keep fighting.

On New Year's Eve, the search committee interviewed its final candidate. Jeremiah Wright Jr. was a young pastor enrolled at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Wright belonged to a group of black intellectuals who embraced "black liberation theology," the idea that blacks shouldn't have to choose between "Malcolm and Martin," as the theologians put it. They could be Christian and black; they could be black and proud. When Barack Obama responded to the altar call at Trinity United Church of Christ in 1988, he was responding, in part, to that message.

Wright built Trinity into a huge church, with 8,500 people coming to worship on Sundays. Earlier this month, after a yearlong transition, Wright handed his pulpit over to the young and charismatic pastor Otis Moss III. In his heyday, Wright was a forceful presence, calling for divestment from South Africa as early as 1983. By keeping the problem of racism alive with provocative sermons, Wright encouraged his flock to "speak truth to power" and to always identify, like Jesus, with the marginalized of society. In the context of Trinity's South Side neighborhood, where about 20 percent of residents are on welfare and the same number are unemployed, the church and its messenger were rarely controversial.

But now, in the larger context of Obama's run for the Democratic nomination, they are. Last Thursday, snippets of a few of Wright's more incendiary sermons circulated online, including one in which the pastor calls out Hillary Clinton for being part of the white establishment—"Hillary ain't never been called a n–––––"—and another in which the pastor says, "God damn America … for killing innocent people." He also calls the 9/11 attacks "America's chickens coming home to roost." The next day Obama released a statement about Wright on the Huffington Post. "I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy," he wrote. He said further that he hadn't been in the room when the offending comments were made and that he and his family looked forward to continuing their relationship to the church through its new pastor. Later, a spokesman announced that Wright would no longer serve the campaign in any advisory capacity.

Still, the clips triggered unease among whites, reopened divisions within the black community and provoked politically loaded questions about the nature of Obama's relationship with Wright. Obama has said he found his Christianity at Trinity, and he credits the title of his book "The Audacity of Hope" to a sermon he heard Wright preach. Wright married the Obamas and baptized both their children. But the senator has tried throughout his campaign to distance himself from some of Wright's more controversial statements, notably Wright's praise of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. (Wright is like "an old uncle who sometimes will say things I don't agree with," Obama has said.) When pressed, Obama said at the last Democratic debate that he would reject and denounce Farrakhan's inflammatory rhetoric.

Always a volatile combination, race and politics is particularly vexing for Obama, who, with his message of unity, hopes to transcend it all. The Wright and Farrakhan controversies force voters to look at Obama through the lens of their racial or cultural identity, and in a tightly contested race, Obama can't afford to alienate anybody. The question for him now is whether his connection to Wright will hurt his ability to appeal to the best in people.

Wright declined to be interviewed, but on a recent Sunday morning between services, Moss spoke to NEWSWEEK. Trinity has been mischaracterized by the press, he says: the church is "very much in the traditional vein of the African-American church. Caring for seniors, loving our young people, and the focus on Christ and the cross is central to this church."

Trinity was founded in 1961, the first black church in the United Church of Christ. (UCC members are Congregationalists, mainline Protestants who trace their history to John Cotton and the Puritans of New England.) The earliest members of Trinity were "teachers, people with middle-class jobs, resistant to doing anything radical in terms of justice," says church historian Julia Speller, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and a member of Trinity. But as the 1970s dawned, values within the church began to change. According to Speller's book "Walkin' the Talk," the congregation was beginning to believe that it couldn't continue to do Christ's work and not speak out against racism and injustice. What Wright gave the congregation, Speller says, was a "sense of beauty about who they were." In 1978, Wright broke ground on a new sanctuary big enough to hold 900 people. In 1994, he built the existing one, which seats 2,500.

As a leader, Wright defied convention at every turn. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year, he recalled a time during the 1970s when the UCC decided to ordain gay and lesbian clergy. At its annual meeting, sensitive to the historic discomfort some blacks have with homosexuality, gay leaders reached out to black pastors. At that session, Wright heard the testimony of a gay Christian and, he said, he had a conversion experience on gay rights. He started one of the first AIDS ministries on the South Side and a singles group for Trinity gays and lesbians—a subject that still rankles some of the more conservative Trinity members, says Dwight Hopkins, a theology professor at the University of Chicago and a church member.

Barack Obama walked into Trinity when he was 27. He was a secular person, raised by a mother who would now be called "spiritual, not religious." According to "The Audacity of Hope," he realized that his secular upbringing was hurting his work as a community organizer. It was keeping him at a distance from the religious people he was trying to help. In "Dreams From My Father," Obama describes the feeling he had when he heard Wright preach: "I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story."

In the African-American church tradition, pastors rely frequently on the stories of the Old Testament—stories of liberation and struggle—to reach their people. "The Audacity to Hope," the Wright sermon that so inspired Obama, is a discussion of the Biblical character Hannah, who, though she was barren, prayed for a child. Wright uses Hannah as a metaphor for the black people who pray for deliverance even though it seems unattainable.

Friends of the church like to speculate about what, exactly, drew Obama in. Hopkins thinks it's the erudition of the preachers. "Historically, African-American churches have had a strong anti-intellectual bent. There's a saying, 'Too much learning blocks the burning.' Trinity has the learning and the burning." But Melissa Harris-Lacewell thinks it's something else, a connection to the black experience that Obama lacked as a child. "I really see Trinity for Barack as being part of his continuing adult choice to be a black man," says Harris-Lacewell, who attended Trinity for a time and is now a professor at Princeton.

In the lobby before the 11 o'clock service on a recent Sunday, people mingle, chatter, hug and kiss. In the sanctuary, the 300-member gospel choir is overpowering; the soloists outclass anything on "American Idol." When Moss, who is 37, starts preaching, the congregation rises to its feet. On this particular Sunday, Moss exhorts the congregation to pause when it can and, like Moses' sister, Miriam, praise God for its blessings. "Excuse me," he shouts, "I just have to praise the Lord." A generation younger than Wright, Moss does not have the same rough edges. A former track star, he peppers his sermons with references to athletes and hip-hop artists; his mission, he says, is to reach out to the young people on the South Side who are unchurched.

Neither Moss nor anyone connected with the church will distance themselves publicly from Wright—nor will they rebuke their pastor for praising Farrakhan. (Last week, while commentators were calling Wright a "racialist," the black church community stood by him. "Some of us wish we had the nerve that Jeremiah had," says James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church in Manhattan.) Last fall, in an article in a magazine linked to Trinity, Wright lauded Farrakhan as a giant of the African-American religious experience. On the South Side, where all religious leaders are committed to keeping black men off drugs and out of prison, they have to work together, explains Moss. "We approach all people with unconditional love," Moss tells NEWSWEEK. "[Farrakhan] is a neighbor in our community."

Trinity members point out that Obama is not the first presidential candidate to have an alliance with a controversial minister, nor is he the first to have a connection, however tenuous, to Farrakhan. In 1996, while running for re-election, Bill Clinton sent out a mass mailing to friends and prospective donors—including one to the Nation of Islam. In it, he invited Claudette Muhammad, who at the time was chief of protocol, to be on his steering committee. "It is my way of saying thank you for your past friendship and it is my way of asking you to join me in this new campaign," he wrote. Muhammad reprinted the letter in a memoir; a spokesman for Clinton declined to comment.

A member of Trinity since she was a teenager, Speller, of the Chicago Theological Seminary, is anguished over the scrutiny her church is facing. When asked whether there's a double standard at her church about hate talk—is hate talk OK when directed at some groups, but not at others?—she pauses. The context here is Farrakhan, but in light of Wright's video clips, her answer fits: "Is there an assumption that because of the hate talk, nothing good can come from him? And if there is that assumption, is it a fair assumption?" Fair or not, it's one Barack Obama is going to have to contend with.

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