Saturday, May 10, 2008

Church 'bruised but not broken'

Church 'bruised but not broken'
Monday, May 5th 2008

CHICAGO - Worshipers by the thousands crowded into the morning service at Trinity United Church of Christ at the very moment the congregation's best-known member, Sen. Barack Obama, was on NBC's "Meet the Press" to put a little more distance between himself and his ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

"We can't be distracted or engaged in this divisive, hateful language," the senator told interviewer Tim Russert. Meanwhile, the Trinity faithful, blissfully unaware of Obama's latest nationally televised rebuke of Wright, concentrated on the business at hand: salvation.

"If you don't like folks hugging on you, you came to the wrong church!" shouted Trinity's new pastor, Otis Moss.

Church members embraced everyone in sight, press visitors included.

The church's eight-piece band and a 100-member, red-robed choir bounced and bubbled and sang praises. Several women, caught up in the spirit, danced and shouted as if in a trance.

But more than one member of Trinity told me the personal and political tug of war between Obama and Wright has left the congregation deeply unsettled. They are confused at the seeming rift between the pastor and the candidate and angry at an outside world that has painted Wright - and, by extension, the church he built - as a haven of hatred and anti-Americanism. "Our encounter with history has scarred our very souls," Moss told the congregation. "We are bruised, but not broken."

It will take a lot more than words to tear down the house that Wright built. The church brings so much Sunday traffic to 95th St. - co-named Jeremiah Wright Ave. - that a squadron of church members closes off streets with cones and police barriers and directs cars to one of the several packed parking lots.

Church-run community organizations ring the main sanctuary, including a day care center, health clinic and credit union. A charter school sponsored by Trinity is set to open later this year.

Hugh Brandon, one of the few parishioners willing to talk about the Obama-Wright flap, ticked off the minor miracles, unseen by the outside world, that tell the true story of Wright's church.

"Jeremiah Wright sent me to visit AIDS patients in the 1980s - this was back when people didn't know what the risks were," Brandon said. "Other ministers didn't want to touch them, but he brought them into the church."

He told me other stories: the woman, gang-raped but rejected by her own family, who found a home at Trinity. The prison inmates whose letters get answered personally by Wright.

Brandon and other members also said Wright makes a point of telling his church not to slavishly follow his teachings. "He says, 'You don't have to trust me, and you don't have to trust each other - just trust God,'" said Brandon.

So Obama may be telling the truth when he says he simply chose to disagree with Wright's more controversial statements and focus on the church's many good works and family focus. We will know tomorrow whether voters in Indiana and North Carolina buy it.

As Obama heads into the end game of the primary season, Moss is steering Wright's church away from politics and back to its roots as a community-building refuge. "God is not through with us yet," he told the congregation. "God is up to something."

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