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Plenty of soul-searching at Obama's former church

At services the day after he split from the parish, the faithful are weary of the media and upset by the loss.

June 02, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — This was supposed to be a day of celebration and new beginnings.

A day for the faithful at Trinity United Church of Christ to end a 10-week fast for spiritual power and unity. A celebration of the retirement of their fiery longtime leader, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. A fresh start for the South Side parish, which has been embroiled for months in controversy over incendiary comments from the pulpit and has become a distraction to the presidential campaign of one of its own -- Barack Obama.

But Sunday's services at one of the country's largest and most influential African American churches were overshadowed by another poignant first: In the church where Obama married and where his children were baptized, this was the first Sunday in 20 years that the presidential hopeful did not call the sanctuary home.

In a letter to the church's leaders, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, had sadly decided to resign their membership, saying their relations with Trinity "had been strained by the divisive statements" of the retiring pastor, "which sharply conflict with our own views."

The news came as a shock to many parishioners.

It was less than two months ago when Obama told the nation that, despite video snippets of Wright's sermons criticizing the U.S. government -- and exclaiming "God damn America" -- he could not "disown" either the man or the church that helped shape his faith.

As thousands of churchgoers gathered on a warm spring morning Sunday, some directed their anger toward those they blamed for the loss of a favored son: the media.

"Why won't they leave?" Melissa Dwight-Washington asked.

Block after block, along West 95th Street and the side streets leading up to Trinity, reporters peppered her and other anxious churchgoers with questions about Obama's departure. Glaring at the satellite trucks and clusters of news camera crews, she shook her head in disgust.

"Leave us alone," she mumbled. "They've already driven one of our best away."

For months, church members -- a mix of the working class and well-to-do -- have insisted that the media's portrayal of Trinity and Wright, a former Marine, is unrecognizable.

They've prayed for guidance and exchanged knowing nods inside the spiritual home that Wright spent more than three decades building into an empire -- in an area that is about 95% African American.

Yet the controversy was reignited last weekend when Father Michael Pfleger, a Chicago-based Catholic priest, gave a sermon at Trinity that ridiculed Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, as a white elitist who felt entitled to the presidential nomination.

At a Saturday news conference in South Dakota, where he campaigned for Tuesday's primary, Obama told reporters that he and Michelle had weeks earlier talked to the new Trinity pastor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, about leaving the church, "and we prayed on it."

The Obamas thought it would be difficult to continue as members as long as he was running for president, and the recent episode with Pfleger reinforced that view, Obama said. He said he and his wife hoped that, once they left the church, it would "be in a position to get back to doing what they do, which is worshiping God."

(On Sunday, Pfleger apologized to his parishioners at St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in Chicago for his comments, saying "for whatever damage that was caused to any human being or any offense felt especially by any of the candidates and their families, I am deeply sorry.")

Trinity, however, is a church with an undeniable interest in politics. Its entrance includes stained-glass panels that read "Vote" and "Elect the Best." The bookstore stocks Obama's books, placing them next to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. T-shirts and books about Coretta Scott King.

But Moss -- who has been transitioning into the role of lead pastor for at least 18 months -- said nothing about politics Sunday. Nothing about Wright. Not one mention of Obama or Clinton to a crowd that crammed hip to hip in the red-cushioned pews, clustered in the aisles and searched for empty spots against the walls.

Instead, Moss talked solemnly about the need to forgive, to achieve greatness in life and to trust a higher power to lead through life's trying times.

The only public acknowledgment that Trinity had lost a longtime member was a brochure handed out after each service.

In it, Moss wrote, "[W]e pray for our member, who is a public servant; we pray for all public servants. We, the community of Trinity, are concerned, hurt, shocked, dismayed, frustrated, fearful and heartbroken. Our hearts break at this moment and my limited vocabulary is inadequate to describe the range of emotions flooding our spirits at this time."

Although scores of church members refused to discuss Obama's decision to leave Trinity, one couple made their feelings clear. Tony Brunson walked past the camera crews, greeted a street vendor -- and bought a pair of "Obama in '08" baseball caps.

"The whole thing has been blown way out of proportion," said Sandy Brunson, his wife, who used to teach at Trinity's preschool. "Barack Obama is strong in his faith. And he still has my vote."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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