Chicago church still putting its faith in Obama

Mon, Nov 5, 2012, 00:00

US president Barack Obama wasn’t mentioned by name at Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago yesterday. But two days before Obama’s fate would be decided in the polls, he seemed omnipresent in the church where he married Michelle and where Sasha and Malia were baptised.

As recounted in his autobiography, Obama took the title of Rev Jeremiah Wright’s sermon on his first visit to Trinity, “The Audacity of Hope”, for his own memoirs. Back in the late 1980s, Trinity’s mix of faith, fellowship and gospel music moved the young community organiser to tears.

The congregation is still joyous, and it still rocks. Old ladies cry out “Hallelujah” and shake tambourines. Rev Otis Moss III, the tall, charismatic pastor in pinstriped robes who replaced Wright four years ago, half-sang and danced as he reiterated “No turning back, no turning back” at the end of his sermon. They are words often used by Obama.

“I want to make sure,” Moss said at the outset, “does every- body know what happens on Tuesday? Stand up all the folks who voted already. Praise God! We want you to go and vote!”

The church held a hip-hop “get out the vote” concert on Friday night. It will hold a prayer vigil for the election tonight, and will ferry parishioners to the polls tomorrow.

“We are praying God that no votes are suppressed or any funny business will take place across the country,” Moss said.

The preacher evoked the children of Israel fleeing slavery for the land of milk and honey, the enslavement of 60 million Africans, and the battle for civil rights.

Tacit support

Moss’s sermons are broadcast nationwide each Sunday. “Somebody might be on stream thinking we are trying to promote a particular candidate,” he said, laughing. “I know who I’ve voted for.”

The worshippers laughed too. “Ain’t gonna mention any names. Can’t do that from the pulpit. But we appreciate him so very much on this day.”

Trinity is a middle-class black church with 8,000 members, founded in 1961, the year of Obama’s birth. Ironically, in view of the myth that Obama is a closet Muslim, one of its purposes was to counter the rise of black Islam. It had intended to merge with a white church from the same denomination, but like many US plans for racial integration, that fell by the wayside.

The church’s slogan, “Unashamedly Black. Unapologetically Christian”, was echoed in Moss’s sermon: “This is the black church. It sings in synch with God, dances to the rhythm of redemption, praises in unison with the angels.”

Like its most famous former member, Trinity has swayed between militantism and gradualism, but prefers conciliation to confrontation.

On November 16th, Trinity will convene a scholars’ group in honour of Wright. Conservatives still use Obama’s past association with Wright to malign him. A few cherry-picked quotes are held against the retired cleric, such as when he said the US brought the September 11th, 2001, attacks on itself with its own “terrorism” or when, condemning the treatment of young black men in the US, he said in 2003: “They want us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no. God damn America, that’s in the Bible for treating our citizens as less than human.”

The uproar over Wright’s quotes traumatised Trinity. As I waited for Rev Joan Harrell, director of public communications, I studied oil paintings of black Christs and stained-glass windows where all the biblical characters are black. Harrell demanded that I sign an agreement not to take recordings, photographs or notes or talk to parishioners. She accompanied me at all times, then gave me a DVD of the two- hour service when it ended.

Media scrutiny

Moss, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, alluded to the events of four years ago. He had naively expected a normal pastorship at Trinity. “God had other plans,” he intoned.

“Human folly and evil cast her eye upon our congregation. Maybe too much good had already transpired here. And the devil decided ‘I need to bring you down a few notches’ . . . Over 40 [media] outlets showed up every Sunday at our door, trying to expand their racialised commentary, masquerading as journalists. Bloggers who had no journalistic ethics had people send hate mail, death threats and bomb scares. We searched every pew after every service.”

To a visiting white journalist, Trinity offers an unsettling blend of warmth and hostility. I was asked to stand and be introduced to the entire congregation of several thousand. Then dozens of African Americans crowded round to hug me.

Moss asked if anyone had relatives affected by Hurricane Sandy. Again, he alluded to Obama.

“We are thankful that we have a responsive government. Because in Hurricane Katrina, people were left to languish. We don’t ever want to forget the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina,” he said, condemning neglect of poor black people by George W Bush’s administration.

The crowd applauded.