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CAMPAIGN '08: CONTROVERSY AND CASH

Pastor could be fiery, uplifting

Rev. Jeremiah Wright has condemned racism in U.S. history, yet still found room for hope and betterment.

March 19, 2008|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Preaching in South Los Angeles eight years ago, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. lived up to his legend by providing fiery oratory that brought down the house.

Wright -- the longtime Chicago pastor to Barack Obama whose incendiary pulpit remarks have put him into the political spotlight -- provided searing social commentary during his appearance at West Angeles Church of God in Christ. He contended that history is written, and distorted, by oppressors. And he talked of the harm done to African Americans by "the fires of forced servitude, the brutality of rape."

Yet Wright also provided uplift. He affirmed the resiliency of the black family, invited married couples in the pews to stand and be cheered, and eventually focused on how to save failing relationships.

Declaring that blacks have forgotten God and fallen into promiscuity, he urged: "Don't give up on God! . . . Don't give up on the process of marriage!"

The sermon in many ways mirrored Wright himself, a man of contradictions whom acquaintances describe as both scholarly and histrionic, a leader who is attentive to individual members of his vast flock but who also can come across to fellow clergy as aloof.

Obama on Wednesday spoke of his own contradictory feelings about Wright. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," the candidate said.

According to the Trinity United Church of Christ website, Wright, 66, was born in Philadelphia. He interrupted his college studies to spend six years with the Marine Corps and the Navy.

Wright later resumed his education, earning master's degrees from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a doctorate from the Ohio-based United Theological Seminary.

The church website says that when Wright came to Trinity in 1972, it had 87 members. Today, it is a major force in Chicago's civic life and African American community, with more than 8,000 members.

Dwight N. Hopkins, a theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Trinity member for 12 years, said Wright had established Trinity's reputation among black clergy nationally "as a place to hear good preaching."

Hopkins also cited Wright's ability, despite his church's size, to keep in close touch with members going through spiritual crises. "Somehow, even when he's speaking in other parts of the world . . . he's able to e-mail or call."

He also described Wright as a biblical scholar fluent in several languages, and a trained musician and singer.

But Wright received a much less-glowing assessment from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, the emeritus rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation near Trinity. "He's been aloof to the concerns of the local [religious] community, which is a good union of different views and different churches and synagogues. He has not been a part of that," said Wolf, who described himself as a strong Obama supporter. Wright's sharp tongue was evident during another Los Angeles visit in 2006 in which he said American government "was, is and always will be racist." He also criticized high-profile black preachers who embrace the "prosperity gospel," a doctrine that material riches are promised to believers in Christ.

Yet last month, according to a Chicago Tribune account, Trinity members ignored a howling winter wind and squeezed into the church to hear Wright preach once more before his retirement.

Wright didn't mention Obama by name but nevertheless recounted the candidate's life story. The minister spoke about a biracial child using hope to overcome racism, go to an Ivy League law school and become a politician.

"How many children of biracial parents can make it in a world controlled by racist ideology?" Wright asked.

"But if you use your mind, instead of a lost statistic in a hate-filled universe, you just may end up a law student at Harvard University. In fact, if you use your mind, you might end up as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. If you use your mind, instead of [being] a statistic destined for the poor house, you just may end up a statesman destined for the . . . Yes, we can!" Wright said, without mentioning the White House, but using the Obama campaign slogan to bring the crowd to its feet.

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stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Wright's sermons

Some controversial comments by Sen. Barack Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired:

In a sermon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own frontyards."

From a 2003 sermon:

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people."

On Obama in December:

"Barack knows what it means to be a black man, to be living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a nigger."

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Source: Associated Press

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