It's just a church. It's a two-story yellow-brick building in a crummy but not terrible Chicago neighborhood. There's red wall-to-wall carpet throughout, and high behind the altar are two modest stained-glass windows. There are three services on Sunday and Bible study on Wednesday nights. The pews are filled with "church ladies" in sweater sets and heels. On a typical Sunday, there's praise and tears, and lots of hugging. There's communion, an offering and an altar call. This is Trinity United Church of Christ, the church where Barack Obama found Jesus, the controversial house that Jeremiah Wright built.
Churches are like families, and Trinity was already in the throes of a difficult generational transition—the 66-year-old Wright had just had his retirement bash—when the video clips of his offensive sermonizing found their way into the news. In response, the Trinity family closed ranks and decided to manage the crisis from within. Joan Harrell, the recently hired "minister of communications," was brought aboard early. Dwight Hopkins, an erudite and unflappable professor at the University of Chicago, was asked to help the white press understand the black church. DVDs of Wright's sermons were taken off the bookstore shelves and the weekly church bulletin disappeared from the Internet. From the outside, this siege mentality seemed odd—"if you're not hiding, why the lockdown?"—but church members insisted it was for their own protection. All was well, or at least stable, until Wright's public murder-suicide attempt, in which he used rhetoric to assassinate the character of his most famous congregant and reveal the ugliest side of his own.
In the pews, the reaction was anguish and anger; divisiveness occurred even within families, even, as one member said, "within one person's heart." "There are factions of people who feel that Reverend Wright should just shut up," explained Jeff Johnson, a Washington journalist who is close to some Trinity members. "There's a faction who believes in what Wright has been preaching for years. I know that there's a faction who wish it would all go away." The leadership endeavored to smooth things over, encouraging congregants to fast and pray, and on a recent Sunday leading a "unity" march during which members walked around their church seven times, singing "We Are Trinity!" to the tune of "We Are Family!"
Obama's primary win last Tuesday went a long way to mending hearts, but Hopkins believes the real healing began the Sunday before, when Wright's successor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, offered a prayer for the church's two most famous men. He could no more choose between them than he could between his two favorite authors, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, he said, and he exhorted his congregation to look within themselves for the Christian love that would help them overcome their bitterness. Worship at Trinity is more straitlaced than in many black churches, but on that Sunday the Holy Spirit was very much in evidence. After Moss's prayer, the massive choir sang the gospel anthem "I Need a Miracle," and throughout the church, like isolated thunderstorms, women became possessed by the Spirit, keening and rocking as their sisters encircled them, crooning and cooling them with paper fans.
For now, Wright is lying low—"resting" at home, Hopkins says, but controversy continues to swirl around him. Northwestern University has announced it will not give him an honorary degree as planned. Right-wing blogs are busy painting Moss as a kind of junior Wright, which will doubtless cause future trouble for Obama. In the meantime, the only image most people have of Trinity is its incomprehensible senior pastor. Those who imagine that the Democratic nominee was converted to Christ by a left-wing hatemonger need to paint in their minds a fuller picture: a young man, intellectual and searching, in prayer at Trinity and awash in the music.