Black preachers agree to disagree

The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. considers the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. to be a tremendous pastor and a brilliant theologian. But sitting in the audience of the National Press Club in Washington this week, Hathaway found himself wincing at some of the remarks by Sen. Barack Obama's embattled former pastor.

"When Jeremiah Wright says an attack on him is 'an attack on the black church,' that's kind of stretching things," said Hathaway, pastor of Baltimore's Union Baptist Church. "I think it's potentially dangerous."


He is not the only one who thought so.

On Tuesday, Obama condemned Wright's remarks, characterizing them as disrespectful, offensive and not accurately portraying the perspective of black churches.


Wright's plunge back into the national spotlight - in which he has defended his fiery remarks, praised the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan and accused the media of distorting his words - has sparked an intense reaction in Baltimore's black faith community. Some pastors assert that Wright is not the spokesman of the black religious tradition - one as diverse as the black community itself.

Others have defended Wright's remarks as rooted in a rich history of black ministers using the pulpit to challenge injustices. They fear that the Wright backlash has overshadowed the black churches' history, value and good deeds.

"Many of us pastors are pained," said the Rev. Johnny Golden, pastor of New Unity Church Ministries in Baltimore and president-elect of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "We see a lot of what he is saying and we understand it, but his comments have wounded the opportunity of Mr. Obama to make gains and opportunity for America to embrace its ideals."

Wright, who served as Obama's spiritual mentor when Wright was pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, found himself at the center of a political firestorm last month when portions of his sermons over the years began circulating in media reports.

Video clips show Wright alleging that the federal government "lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color," and asserting that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks revealed that "America's chickens are coming home to roost." Obama then denounced the remarks, describing his relationship with Wright in the context of the nation's complex racial history.

The controversy re-emerged this week after the airing of a PBS interview with Wright, the pastor's speech to the NAACP in Detroit and a raucus appearance before supporters at the press club.

Golden said Wright's comments fail to reflect the diversity of black churches, and in doing so, the black community at large. "Having someone who speaks for the group in some monolithic way is offensive to many," he said.

But the Rev. Marshall F. Prentice, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, said he has been troubled by the criticism of Wright.


"To attack any pastor for what he says from the pulpit is an attack on all pastors," he said. "Whatever we say on a given Sunday, we truly believe is given to us by the inspiration of God."

The Rev. John L. Carter, pastor of Ark Church on East North Avenue, said that like Obama, he was saddened by Wright's most recent display.

"As much as I believe what he said is the truth, I don't believe that this nation and even the world over is ready to take a penetrating blow of reality at this point," he said.

Even so, Carter and others blamed the media storm, saying much of the coverage relies on sound bites that lack context.

"The media has to take some responsibility for portraying him as our leader," he said. "He's a friend, he's a member of the African-American family, but he's not the one leader."

Pastors such as the Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, said critics' assault on Wright smears all black preachers.


"The man is not called to be politically savvy, or politically astute or acceptable to politicians - he is called by the Lord," he said. "Certainly the black church is not monolithic, but he represents enough of us that we can agree with what he does."

Calhoun said he thinks that political operatives intent on derailing Obama's presidential campaign are behind the Wright fiasco, using the pastor to detract from the issues.

"What does Wright have to do with the war in Iraq, with health care, with unemployment and with the recession?" he said. "It is reprehensible and ungodly to bring this pastor under attack in order to destroy the campaign of Barack Obama."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church, has been a friend of Wright's for years and co-authored a book with him on the Million Man March. The pair have preached together, with Wright coming to Baltimore to deliver sermons.

Reid said he fears the backlash has overshadowed the work of Wright's church, including 70 ministries devoted to such activities as counseling prisoners, gang members and people with HIV.

"Dr. Wright represents a prophetic voice in the black community and in the community as a whole," he said. "He is a voice who has been listened to, he has received numerous honors from seminaries across the board."


Reid said those who find Wright's words offensive might not be aware of the context.

"Certainly, all black churches do not think that the American government created AIDS to kill black people, but all black people also know that the Tuskegee Experiment was real," he said.

In the Tuskegee study, researchers for the U.S. Public Health Service allowed syphilis in black men in Alabama to go untreated for more than 40 years.

Black liberation theology, which shaped Wright's ministry, is more common in black churches than many in the mainstream realize, Reid said.

The doctrine is rooted in the foundation of the black church, later popularized in the 1960s by theologian James H. Cone, said Anthony B. Pinn, professor of religious studies at Rice University.

"With the first development of independent black institutions came this strong tradition of social activism," Reid said.


Not all black churches follow this "social gospel," Pinn said. The "black church" is a broad spectrum of traditions.

Hathaway, of Union Baptist Church, said Wright's remarks Monday have placed a spotlight on black religious traditions, as well as the nation's racial divide.

"I hope we take this opportunity to have a dialogue in our local communities," he said. "We all know Sunday morning 11 a.m. is the most segregated time in America. What do we do Monday through Saturday to create more collaboration?"