It's odd how the strangest memories from childhood pop up in your mind years later. I remember a neighborhood "character" who used to stand outside of the store where we used to buy candy (with a group of other neighborhood "characters"). I guess he was in some sort of trash talking battle with the other guys but I still hear him saying "you bet-ta talk what you know" ... in response to whatever the other person had said. That memory always pops up when I hear people talking, not having a clue what they are talking about, yet the jaws keep flapping.
Sunday at 11 am is often called the most segregated hour of the week. It's when church going Americans attend services. Yet, in 2008 most blacks and whites do not worship together. My sister used to attend a black church called Second Baptist. This church is in a northern suburb of Chicago but there are a number of them across the country. Why that moniker? Because the "First Baptist" church was all white and didn't initially allow blacks. Once their doors did open in my town, blacks had to sit in the balcony. It wasn't until 1992 or 1993 that the churches actually had a "unity" service together to try to mend the historic separation. Are members of either congregation jumping ship and changing where they go every Sunday? Probably not. One service cannot change generations of deliberate segregation. Even though they are the same denomination, there is no doubt that the services are as foreign to each other as Muslim and Christian services would be. So, when I heard all of these white pundits frothing at the mouth over the kind of service that Jeremiah Wright led, I knew they had no clue what they were talking about. Donna Brazile tried to explain
, on ABC's This Week, that Rev. Wright was rather mild compared to some of the black pastors that are out there. I would agree. But, long before civil rights and as far back as slavery, the black church has served not only as a place of worship but a place to discuss any and everything that impacts the community. Historically, church was the only place blacks could gather and/or take refuge from the brazen racism that existed in the south. All of the mania over Obama's pastor just shows how far most Americans are from the "audacity" of which Obama speaks. For, if they don't understand the roots and purpose of the black church, they will never comprehend most anything about black people or about the history of America.
I understand why the Obama campaign felt they had to distance themselves from Wright's post 9-11 comments. But I am worried that Obama has missed a chance to talk about the rich and complex tapestry of black religious life. Not all black people are Christian. Not all belong to large, urban churches. Even fewer worship with such an outspoken, unapologetically political minister. But Trinity UCC does represent an important segment of black religious tradition. It is not scary, racist or un-American. Quite the opposite, Rev. Wright is integral to the broad prophetic tradition that informs many black churches.
Prophetic Christianity allowed African Americans to retain a sense of humanity in the face of our country's racism. Like many people of faith, black Americans have to grapple with how an all-loving and all-powerful God can coexist with evil.
For African Americans, evil takes the very specific and identifiable form of white supremacy, first through enslavement, then through Jim Crow and lynch mob rule, and into what many today experience as seemingly intractable racial inequality. Black Americans struggle to reconcile the sin of racism with the idea of a loving and powerful God. Different churches resolve this issue in various ways.
In churches like Trinity UCC, black folks read the Bible with an eye on what it has to say about experiences of bondage and oppression. In this way the Bible is both a moral guide and a political text. Even though slaveholders declared that God wanted slaves to obey their masters, black people believed that God wanted them to be free. They believed this because they read the story of Moses.
Though the confederate states claimed that God instituted segregation; black Americans believed differently because they read Amos. Today many black Americans worry when our country engages in self-righteous foreign policy because we have read Isaiah.
African American religious traditions are rich and complex. The hope-filled candidacy of Barack Obama is also part of our tradition. Obama's broad multi-racial coalition makes many African Americans feel like part of the Joshua generation finally laying claim to the American promised land. But we cannot enter that promised land together if white America refuses to acknowledge the prophetic truths of black religiosity.
We cannot learn from our prophets if we denounce them. Silencing Jeremiah Wright will not makes us forget hundreds of years of racial inequality. Now is the time to listen to each other carefully.
BTW, I am Catholic. I grew up in a black (due to de facto segregation that encompassed most northern cities in America) parish. I went to mass almost every Sunday as a child and my Girl Scout troop functioned out of that parish. However, many of the kids in my block/neighborhood, went to a traditional black church. Most of their parents couldn't afford the Catholic school education that my mother provided my sister and I with. So, I went to that church too. Let me tell you, the difference was night and day. I used to get "tickled" by some of the things that the preacher used to say but he was speaking to the issues of the people who lived in that community. I'm not even sure I ever heard the Gospel the way it was presented in Mass. But, they had a nursery school where many of the kids in the neighborhood started out in life and, before my family moved to the suburbs, were trying to build a nursing home for seniors. I know people went to the pastor in times of struggle and need. I know that people looked up to him and his family. It definitely was far different from the 45 minute/hour Mass I attended with a white priest at the altar. Somehow, even then, I knew that both had a place and a purpose in my life. Mass was Mass and I loved it but the other church was more about connecting with the kids who lived around me but that I didn't attend school with. I participated in most of the activities they provided throughout the year - especially during the summer. Since Mass was so early, I was still able to attend Sunday School and the 11am service at the other church every week pretty consistently.
I don't attend any church now (maybe the double duty as a child wore me out). I will attend on various occasions when asked by friends or when one of the organizations I belong to decides to go as a group. When I have ventured into a service on my own, it has been Mass - and I will say that attending Mass in a non-black parish does
feel odd. The service is the same but it just doesn't have the same feel. I cannot say (won't say, in fact) that I will ever join a traditional "black church." I like being in and out in under an hour, like the quietness and don't actually want to be subjected to what sounds like the random rambling of some ministers. As a black woman I know (who converted to Judaism) has been known to say, "black church is too loud" and it cracks me up because that's how I feel too sometimes. So don't think I don't get where confused whites are coming from. The black church is definitely something out of this world and "outsiders" (many times I am out of my element when I attend) don't have a clue what they are witnessing.
If you look at the clips of Jeremiah Wright that they've been showing, you see the classic "call and response"
back and forth between he and the congregation. You see folks standing, waving and clapping at his words. Whatever other people may think of what he is saying, he is speaking to what they experience in this place called America and I find it downright insulting for someone to try to negate the validity of someone's experience with their uninformed opinion of what they think they heard or saw. In the words of that dude on the corner they "betta talk what they know."Addendum:
Oh! How could I have forgotten to mention this. I've been to Trinity before and have seen Rev. Wright on other occasions at events in Chicago over the years. I only attended once and it was in the early 90s. I can't say what the sermon was about and I think I'd remember if he said something off the wall or something I didn't agree with. Heck, what I was sick of was black preachers talking about was women knowing their place or some other dumb mess about dealing with men. Perhaps it is because the political climate wasn't what it is now but I've never seen the person the media has plastered all over the nightly news. Even if he did say some of the things from the footage, I might have agreed with some of it or might have blocked it out (as I mentioned above, black church can be "too loud" and I don't respond to that). All of the hysterical right wingers and scared white folks who need to realize that Obama is indeed black, need to chill. Chill or don't vote for him. If sound bytes of Rev. Wright is all it takes to put a wrench in Obama's vision, I guess it proves that there is no audacity OR hope for this country just yet.