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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Black ministers fret over Wright

Several in L.A. dispute his characterization of the church, and say they fear he'll hurt Obama's chances.

April 30, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

African American ministers in Los Angeles expressed angst and concern Tuesday that a fresh round of comments by Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor was hurting the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign and skewing public understanding of the black church.

In a series of nationally televised appearances over the last few days, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has defended his controversial remarks as "prophetic theology," and said criticism of him amounted to an attack on the black church.

But most black church leaders and members reached Tuesday disagreed.

"This didn't have anything to do with the black church -- it was basically an attack on the individual message he proclaimed, which hurt some individuals," said the Rev. K.W. Tulloss of Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church in Boyle Heights. "My own members were offended by Rev. Wright's words. His views have cast a wedge between people, and that's the exact opposite of the unity Jesus represented."

Several ministers said the outspoken style of sermonizing known as prophetic preaching was a hallmark not only of the black church but also of the ancient prophets.

The preaching is meant to unsettle the complacent and stir people to action, and that means moving beyond comfortable messages and platitudes, said the Rev. William Epps of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

"Prophets try to hold the larger society accountable to recognizing the abuses caused to the marginalized in society," said Epps, who added that he would not pass judgment on how individual preachers chose to convey their messages.

But Bishop John Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who has known Wright for 30 years, said he would have used less provocative language.

"How one speaks is as important as the right to do so," Bryant said. "If it is done in an inflammatory way, the substance of the message gets lost in the rhetorical style."

Kerman Maddox, a member of First AME church in Los Angeles, said that he had listened to hundreds of sermons in black churches nationwide as part of his political and community work, and that Wright's messages did "not represent mainstream black thought on Sunday morning."

He said he had never heard pastors curse America or proclaim, as Wright had, that the U.S. government caused AIDS among blacks. He said the common pulpit themes had long been unity, personal responsibility, loving your neighbor and improving your neighborhoods.

But the biggest concern Tuesday among local black religious leaders -- and across a wide swath of black Los Angeles -- was not about Wright's words per se but about their impact on Obama's historic campaign.

In barber shops and beauty salons, at church gatherings and on Internet blogs, African Americans said that Wright's remarks might be badly damaging the senator from Illinois.

And they were flummoxed as to why Wright continued to speak out, particularly before two crucial primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

"I am hurt and disgusted that one of the most historic political campaigns in the nation's history could be derailed by this pastor who has been needlessly callous, careless and insensitive in his remarks," said the Rev. John J. Hunter of First AME.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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