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Barack Obama – On Meeting Mister Wright

From Mr. Obama’s first autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” pp 131-6:

When I asked for other pastors to talk to, several gave me the name of Reverend Wright, the same minister Reverend Philips had mentioned that day at his church. Younger ministers seemed to regard Reverend Wright as a mentor of sorts, his church a model for what they themselves hoped to accomplish. Older pastors were more cautious with their praise, impressed with the rapid growth of Trinity’s congregation but somewhat scornful of its popularity among young black professionals. (“A buppie church,” one pastor would tell me.)

Toward the end of October I finally got a chance to pay Reverend Wright a visit and see the church for myself. It sat flush on Ninety-fifth Street in a mostly residential neighborhood a few blocks down from the Louden Home projects. I had expected something imposing, but it turned out to be a low, modest structure of red brick and angular windows, landscaped with evergreens and sculpted shrubs and a small sign spiked into the grass — FREE SOUTH AFRICA in simple block letters. Inside, the church was cool and murmured with activity…

Eventually a pretty woman with a brisk, cheerful manner came up and introduced herself as Tracy, one of Reverend Wright’s assistants. She said that the reverend was running a few minutes late and asked if I wanted some coffee…

As we were talking, I noticed a man in his late forties walking toward us. He had silver hair, a silver mustache and goatee; he was dressed in a gray three-piece suit. He moved slowly, methodically, as if con-serving energy, sorting through his mail as he walked, humming a simple tune to himself.

“Barack,” he said as if we were old friends, “let’s see if Tracy here will let me have a minute of your time.”

“Don’t pay him no mind, Barack,” Tracy said, standing up and straightening out her skirt. “I should have warned you that Rev likes to act silly sometimes.”

Reverend Wright smiled and led me into a small, cluttered office. “Sorry for being late,” he said, closing the door behind him. “We’re trying to build a new sanctuary, and I had to meet with the bankers. I’m telling you, doc, they always want something else from you. Latest thing is another life insurance policy on me. In case I drop dead tomorrow. They figure the whole church’ll collapse without me.”

“Is it true?”

Reverend Wright shook his head. “I’m not the church, Barack. If I die tomorrow, I hope the congregation will give me a decent burial. I like to think a few tears will be shed. But as soon as I’m six feet under, they’ll be right back on the case, figuring out how to make this church live up to its mission.”

He had grown up in Philadelphia, the son of a Baptist minister. He had resisted his father’s vocation at first, joining the Marines out of college, dabbling with liquor, Islam, and black nationalism in the sixties. But the call of his faith had apparently remained, a steady tug on his heart, and eventually he’d entered Howard, then the University of Chicago, where he spent six years studying for a Ph.D. in the history of religion. He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians. The anger and humor of the streets, the book learning and occasional twenty-five-cent word, all this he had brought with him to Trinity almost two decades ago. And although it was only later that I would learn much of this biography, it became clear in that very first meeting that, despite the reverend’s frequent disclaimers, it was this capacious talent of his — this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience-upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.

“We got a lot of different personalities here,” he told me. “Got the Africanist over here. The traditionalist over here. Once in a while, I have to stick my hand in the pot — smooth things over before stuff gets ugly. But that’s rare. Usually, if somebody’s got an idea for a new ministry, I just tell ’em to run with it and get outta their way.”

His approach had obviously worked: the church had grown from two hundred to four thousand members during his tenure; there were organizations for every taste, from yoga classes to Caribbean clubs. He was especially pleased with the church’s progress in getting more men involved, although he admitted that they still had a way to go.

“Nothing’s harder than reaching young brothers like yourself,” he said. “They worry about looking soft. They worry about what their buddies are gonna say about ’em. They tell themselves church is a woman’s thing –that it’s a sign of weakness for a man to admit that he’s got spiritual needs.”

The reverend looked up at me then, a look that made me nervous. I decided to shift the conversation to more familiar ground, telling him about DCP and the issues we were working on, explaining the need for involvement from larger churches like his. He sat patiently and listened to my pitch, and when I was finished he gave a small nod.

“I’ll try to help you if I can,” he said. “But you should know that having us involved in your effort isn’t necessarily a feather in your cap.”

“Why’s that?”

Reverend Wright shrugged. “Some of my fellow clergy don’t appreciate what we’re about. They feel like we’re too radical. Others, we ain’t radical enough. Too emotional. Not emotional enough. Our emphasis on African history, on scholarship –”

“Some people say,” I interrupted, “that the church is too upwardly mobile.”

The reverend’s smile faded. “That’s a lot of bull,” he said sharply. “People who talk that mess reflect their own confusion. They’ve bought into the whole business of class that keeps us from working together. Half of ’em think that the former gang-banger or the former Muslim got no business in a Christian church. Other half think any black man with an education or a job, or any church that respects scholarship, is somehow suspect.

“We don’t buy into these false divisions here. It’s not about income, Barack. Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car. These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’ Now, what country is he living in?”

But wasn’t there a reality to the class divisions, I wondered? I mentioned the conversation I’d had with his assistant, the tendency of those with means to move out of the line of fire. He took off his glasses and rubbed what I now saw to be a pair of tired eyes.

“I’ve given Tracy my opinion about moving out of the city,” he said quietly. “That boy of hers is gonna get out there and won’t have a clue about where, or who, he is.”

“It’s tough to take chances with your child’s safety.”

“Life’s not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be.”

A secretary buzzed, reminding Reverend Wright of his next appointment. We shook hands, and he agreed to have Tracy prepare a list of members for me to meet. Afterward, in the parking lot, I sat in my car and thumbed through a silver brochure that I’d picked up in the reception area. It contained a set of guiding principles-a “Black Value System”-that the congregation had adopted in 1979. At the top of the list was a commitment to God, “who will give us the strength to give up prayerful passivism and become Black Christian activists, soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind.” Then a commitment to the black community and black family, education, the work ethic, discipline, and self-respect.

A sensible, heartfelt list-not so different, I suspected, from the values old Reverend Philips might have learned in his whitewashed country church two generations before. There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though, a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration. “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,” the heading read. “While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,” the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the “psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!”

My thoughts would often return to that declaration in the weeks that followed as I met with various members of Trinity. I decided that Reverend Wright was at least partly justified in dismissing the church’s critics, for the bulk of its membership was solidly working class, the same teachers and secretaries and government workers one found in other big black churches throughout the city. Residents from the nearby housing project had been actively recruited, and programs designed to meet the needs of the poor-legal aid, tutorials, drug programs-took up a substantial amount of the church’s resources.

Still, there was no denying that the church had a disproportionate number of black professionals in its ranks: engineers, doctors, accountants, and corporate managers. Some of them had been raised in Trinity; others had transferred in from other denominations. Many confessed to a long absence from any religious practice — a conscious choice for some, part of a political or intellectual awakening, but more often because church had seemed irrelevant to them as they’d pursued their careers in largely white institutions.

At some point, though, they all told me of having reached a spiritual dead end; a feeling, at once inchoate and oppressive, that they’d been cut off from themselves. Intermittently, then more regularly, they had returned to the church, finding in Trinity some of the same things every religion hopes to offer its converts: a spiritual harbor and the chance to see one’s gifts appreciated and acknowledged in a way that a paycheck never can; an assurance, as bones stiffened and hair began to gray, that they belonged to something that would outlast their own lives –and that, when their time finally came, a community would be there to remember.

But not all of what these people sought was strictly religious, I thought; it wasn’t just Jesus they were coming home to. It occurred to me that Trinity, with its African themes, its emphasis on black history, continued the role that Reverend Philips had described earlier as a redistributor of values and circulator of ideas. Only now the redistribution didn’t run in just a single direction from the schoolteacher or the physician who saw it as a Christian duty to help the sharecropper or the young man fresh from the South adapt to big-city life. The flow of culture now ran in reverse as well; the former gang-banger, the teenage mother, had their own forms of validation — claims of greater deprivation, and hence authenticity, their presence in the church providing the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets. By widening its doors to allow all who would enter, a church like Trinity assured its members that their fates remained inseparably bound, that an intelligible “us” still remained.

It was a powerful program, this cultural community, one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would be enough to keep more people from leaving the city or young men out of jail. Would the Christian fellowship between a black school administrator, say, and a black school parent change the way the schools were run? Would the interest in maintaining such unity allow Reverend Wright to take a forceful stand on the latest proposals to reform public housing? And if men like Reverend Wright failed to take a stand, if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be of holding the larger community intact?

Sometimes I would put such questions to the people I met with. They would respond with the same bemused look Reverend Philips and Reverend Wright had given me. For them, the principles in Trinity’s brochure were articles of faith no less than belief in the Resurrection. You have some good ideas, they would tell me. Maybe if you joined the church you could help us start a community program. Why don’t you come by on Sunday?

And I would shrug and play the question off, unable to confess that I could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance; that while I believed in the sincerity I heard in their voices, I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won.

So it turns out that Mr. Obama knew about Mr. Wright and Trinty’s racist “Black Value System” from day one.

Perhaps it is picking nits to note that Mr. Obama also was slightly in error about the Reverend Doctor’s academic credentials:

[H]e’d entered Howard, then the University of Chicago, where he spent six years studying for a Ph.D. in the history of religion. He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians.

Compared to Mr Wright’s entry in Wikipedia:

In 1959, Wright entered Virginia Union University, a historically black university, but became disenchanted and left in 1961. Wright joined the United States Marine Corps and later transferred to the United States Navy where he worked as a cardiopulmonary technician. Wright then enrolled at Howard University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a Master’s degree in English in 1969. In 1975, Wright earned an additional Master’s degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in 1990 where he studied under Samuel DeWitt Proctor. Wright also has eight honorary doctorate degrees and has taught courses at many seminaries and universities in the nation.

Indeed, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mr. Wright’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University were in English with a focus on African spirituals.

The Tribune also reports that his master degree (rather than doctorate) from the University of Chicago Divinity School was in the history of religions — with a focus on Islam.

Still, Mr. Obama’s description is close enough for government work.

This article was posted by Steve Gilbert on Monday, March 17th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

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