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PBS Report On Obama’s ‘Africentric’ Church

From the Religion & Ethics News Weekly, brought to you by taxpayer funded PBS:

Africentric Church

May 20, 2005   Episode no. 838

LUCKY SEVERSON, guest anchor: In the eyes of some African Americans, the role of Christianity has not always been a positive one, especially in the context of slavery and the civil rights movement. And yet, before Africans became slaves in this country, many of them embraced the Christian tradition in their old country. Now, we see a trend that combines Christianity with the African-American identity. Kelly Hudson reports from Chicago.

KELLY HUDSON: Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s black South Side. More than 30 years ago, in response to the Black Power movement, Trinity decided to embrace its African heritage along with its Christianity. It called as its pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a young black activist from Philadelphia.

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT Jr. (Senior Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): They said, “Are we going to be a black church in a black community? Or are we going to continue to be a white church in blackface?” I said, “The greatest need is for kids who have not been taught their story. To go back to Deuteronomy 6, you must teach your children their story. Who’s doing it?” Nobody was.

HUDSON: So Wright started to teach what became known as “Africentric Christianity.” Under his leadership, Trinity has grown to 5,000 members, the largest congregation in the predominantly white United Church of Christ.

Africentric Christianity is partly about identifying an African presence in the Bible, but it goes much deeper than that. Africentric Christians are seeking to affirm their African heritage in the context of Christianity.

According to University of Chicago theologian Dwight Hopkins, Christianity was historically used as a tool to oppress blacks.

Dr. DWIGHT HOPKINS (Professor of Theology, University of Chicago): In order for an African or an African American who is enslaved to become a Christian, they have to say this, “Who is your heavenly master? Master Jesus in heaven. Who is your earthly master? Master Smith on the plantation. What color is Jesus? Jesus is a white man just like Master Smith.” Literally.

HUDSON: In the 1960s, Pastor Wright, a Baptist minister’s son, objected to the Christian church’s response to racial turbulence. He had experienced racism first hand from white Christians and indifference to racial injustice from members of his father’s Pennsylvania congregation.

Rev. WRIGHT: I come home for the summer, and the black students from the schools in the South, we setting up the picket lines in Woolworth’s in Philadelphia, and my father’s members are walking across the line, telling me, “That’s not our problem. That’s a Southern problem.” [I thought,] This is Christianity? Is this the church? I don’t want to be a part of this. I do not want to be a part of this. I do not want to be a part of this. This is hypocrisy.

HUDSON: Several years later, Wright accepted the call to Trinity in Chicago and began his African-centered ministry. Pastor Wright says there were many early African Christians.

Rev. WRIGHT: A lot of Africans and European Americans don’t know that you were Christians before slavery; is very important to find out, yes, Africans were Christians. We honor who we are as African Americans, and the strides and victories and successes we have had in this country, but our story does not begin in this country.

SHIRLEY BIMS ELLIS (Center for African Biblical Studies): We are definitely the people of God and we are the first people.

HUDSON: Shirley Bims Ellis heads the Center for African Biblical Studies at Trinity.

Ms. BIMS ELLIS: We’re trying to now read the same Scripture that we’ve been reading for years and hearing for years with changed lenses from Eurocentric to Africentric. This of course is not intended to mean that black is better; it is intended to show blacks who we really are.

HUDSON: Along with a different way to read Scripture, there are also African-based rituals. Boys participate in a rite of passage program called “Isuthu” — Swahili for “coming into manhood” — that culminates in a formal ceremony at age 18. Girls participate in “Intonjane” — a rite of passage to womanhood.

JILL NEISH (Director, Intonjane Ministry): We teach them how to be a strong African-American woman, how to cope in today’s society with a biblical and scriptural background as well.

HUDSON: Trinity is full of African symbolism, from the dress of the children’s choir to the display of the pan-African flag.

Twice a year, church-sponsored trips to Africa provide opportunities for even deeper cultural connections.

Rev. WRIGHT: We have been taught negative things about Africa. It was the dark continent. So the trips to Africa take our members to the places where they can begin to see and to learn their story and connect them as Christians to show them how old some of this is within their Christian tradition that they’ve never been taught.

Unidentified Woman (Church Member): It’s like going home. When I got there I felt completely at home, and that’s why I continue to go back. Not only did I feel at home, I felt the people were my brothers and sisters. They looked like people in my family. They acted like people in my family.

Unidentified Man (Church Member): I feel that I had been lifted up spiritually. When I got off the plane and I actually set foot on the African continent, that was a whole new experience that I had never felt before.

HUDSON: Wright himself was installed as a chief in Ghana in August 2003, after years of building relationships with that country. Trinity donated a computer lab and generators for a local hospital in the town of Saltpond.

At home, Trinity is a leader in its neighborhood. It runs day-care and Head Start programs, among many others. And when it came time to build a new church, Trinity remained on the South Side.

Rev. WRIGHT: Our understanding of who we are as a community is that we have a stake in the community. That we are a part of the community. No, we’re not going to run to the suburbs. What are you running to? What are you running from? And who helps the persons who have not been as blessed as you are in terms of education, in terms of job opportunities?

Dr. HOPKINS: One of the incentives for Africentricity is to pass on the positive, holistic black values, African values to a younger generation. A lot of people who were part of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early ’60s and part of the Black Power and black consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s are now all middle-age and older adults, and we have children.

HUDSON: Wright’s protégés have opened churches in several other cities, and he lectures widely about Africentricity.

Rev. WRIGHT: I see linkages being formed across the Indian Ocean, across the Atlantic Ocean, across people of faith, of African descent; I see that growing and — not within my lifetime, or 50, 60 years from now — an amazing new church where, where differences are affirmed and, and diversity is affirmed and embraced and not hierarchically arranged again as this is superior, this is inferior, this is high church, this is low church. No, no, I see, I see Christianity becoming exciting as people embrace it while not giving up their culture.

HUDSON: For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Kelly Hudson in Chicago.

And yet somehow we are supposed to believe that Mr. Obama did not realize that this was a race obsessed church.

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, March 19th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

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