REV. JEREMIAH A. WRIGHT, JR.: Pastor inspires Obama's 'audacity'
When he took over Trinity United Church of Christ in 1972, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. was a maverick pastor with a wardrobe of dashikis and a militant message.
Six years later, he planted a "Free South Africa" sign on the lawn of his church and asked other local religious leaders to follow his lead.
None took him up on the invitation.
The sign stayed until the end of apartheid, --long enough to catch the eye of a young Barack Obama, who visited the church in 1985 as a community activist. Obama, was not a churchgoer at the time, but he found himself returning to the sanctuary of Trinity United. In Wright he had found both a spiritual mentor and a role model.
Wright, 65, is a straight-talking pragmatist who arrived in Chicago as an outsider and became an institution. He has built a congregation of 8,500, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey and hip-hop artist Common, by offering an alternative to socially conservative black churches that are, Wright believes, too closely tied to Chicago's political dynasties.
Obama, too, also came to the city as a young unknown. Emerging from relative obscurity with his win in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary race for a U.S. Senate seat, he found a growing audience by preaching the politics of social justice and common ground. He has encouraged Democrats to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of Americans. Now, he is positioning himself as a presidential candidate who can unify the American people.
Obama says that rather than advising him on strategy, Wright helps keep his priorities straight and his moral compass calibrated.
"What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice," Obama said. "He's much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I'm not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that's involved in national politics."
The rebellious son of a Baptist minister, Wright was hired by Trinity United when he could find no Baptist church to take him. The congregation on 95th Street, then numbering just 87, had recently adopted the motto "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." They did not mind his fiery red Afro and black power agenda.
Wright has continued on an independent path ever since, often questioning the common sense of Scripture, objecting to mandatory prayer in schools and clashing with clergy who preach prosperity theology, a popular notion among black pastors that God will bestow wealth and success on believers.
In the process, he built a spiritual empire. The modest brown brick building that housed the church in the 1970s was converted into a day-care center when Trinity opened its new sanctuary in 1995 at 400 W. 95th St. Members run more than 80 ministries, including an outreach to gay and lesbian singles, --also unusual for a black church.
And though Wright now wears three-piece suits on occasion, but he still dons a dashiki most times he preaches. Obama has said he is particularly inspired by Wright's ability to draw followers from all walks of life--celebrities and welfare recipients, PhDs and GEDs. It is a gift the senator aspires to emulate.
Wright again bucked convention by announcing plans to retire in May 2008 and tapping Rev. Otis Moss III as his successor. Many black pastors do not surrender their pulpit even when they become too feeble to serve, said Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School who met Wright in the 1980s.
Wright's willingness to "surrender leadership" demonstrates a humility that sets him apart, Hopkins said.
"The black church is probably the only space in America where black men can have unquestioned authority," he said. "It's hard to give that up for a lot of black male pastors."
Wright said the decision was not hard difficult. "The church is built around the personality of Jesus, not Jeremiah Wright," he said.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wright followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and enrolled at by attending Virginia Union University, with the intention of doing graduate work at the historically black seminary. But disenchanted by what he felt was an inadequate Christian response to the civil rights movement, he abruptly ended his pastoral pursuits and joined the U.S. Navy.
An encounter with a pastor as he loitered on some church steps reminded Wright of his calling. He eventually returned to Howard University to finish bachelor's and master's degrees in English with a focus on African spirituals. At the University of Chicago Divinity School, he earned another master's in the history of religions with a focus on Islam. He planned to earn a doctoral degree his Ph.D. and teach at a seminary.
But his calling to teach was interrupted by a call to action. Many black Christians were leaving the church for other religious traditions, including the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Nation of Islam, who taught that Christianity was a white man's religion imposed on them by slaveholders.
"They didn't know African-American history," Wright said. "They were leaving the churches by the boatloads ¡K The church seemed so disconnected from their struggle for dignity and humanity."
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