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Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the "Real" Black Church in America

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I remember it was the first time I'd ever heard real "keening" (the falsetto, high pitched wail sometimes used to describe the mythical sound of Irish banshees on the prowl). I was a member of a stunned and numbed congregation in a Catholic Church, in the South some 35 years ago. We were packed tightly into the too-small building on a warm, early summer day, attending the funeral of husband/wife parishioners, friends: parents of 12 children, ages between, perhaps, eight and 25. They were the victims of a double homicide. Several years earlier I had attended the funeral of John F. Kennedy. The expressions of grief in those November days in 1963, couldn't begin to compare with the depth of sorrow given voice and tears and swooning that was expressed here in this place as those assembled tried to give comfort to each other, all devastated by this dreadful event.

This congregation was nearly filled with African-American families and friends who had gathered to try to give each other some consolation in such an inconsolable circumstance.

People were wailing, falling feint, calling out, and spontaneously lifting up their voices in songs and desperate prayers. Women dressed in nursing attire moved about the congregation ministering to those who were struck down by all that grief.

I have never, before or since, felt that sad, so moved and so connected to a congregation ... while, at the same time, so out of place.

Since that day I have been privileged to be present for many, many gatherings with African-American (as well as with black Africans in Africa), both friends and associates, for social events, meetings, and worship. On several of those occasions I have had at least some flashback of that long ago feeling of being both connected and "alien" to the gathering.

Because of my position as president of Faith & Values Media and what I have done for most of my adult life, I have had, much more than most white males, many experiences of what Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been calling "the black church." It is probably true that most black Americans have had far more experience with the white church (and the white world for that matter) than the reverse. So, Rev. Wright speaks somewhat correctly when he observes that white people are generally quite ignorant of what the "black church experience" actually is.

But, at least implied in Rev. Wright's most recent pronouncements is that criticism of his most caustic statements damning the American government (and by extension the majority of Americans who either elect or tolerate that government) are an assault on the "black church in America."

The fact seems more likely to be that most white Americans (and certainly the media in general) have an appalling lack of understanding about life in black America in general, and, in particular, about life in the black church which sustains, comforts, and, for many, helps to define the character of many African-Americans.

I was once an executive producer of a Sunday show called "America At Worship, "where Rev. Wright's Trinity UCC church in Chicago was one of the featured sources for preaching in that show. His sermons were carried by us on a monthly basis for many years. I know Rev. Wright's approach, both in form and in content, quite well. He did, on regular occasions, give us some very nervous moments (our standards and practices strictly forbade maligning or ridiculing others on our "air"). His social/political critique was biting, not infrequently with ample reason; his delivery style was engaging -- he danced and occasionally sang and even crooned; he was as good with one-liners and zingers as David Letterman and he could be described by some as vulgar. He was outrageous enough on occasion to force us to edit out some material. In short, he is a talented and, perhaps, inspired preacher. He is in the tradition of the classic preacher-prophet who cannot pass up an opportunity to yank on the king's beard as often as possible.

If all that white America knows about the American black church is what they have gleaned from listening to clips of Rev. Wright recently, they only know a little corner of that American black church. Rev. Wright's present public argument tries, by a strange circuitous logic, to convince white America that what we know of him, from those sound bites and continuously looped video clips, expresses what actually goes on all over the nation in black churches, all the time. His principal error, in my thinking, is this equating by him of his style and content with that of the American black church in general. His preaching impact, while often touching on scholarly, is achieved using a kind of hyper-critique, delivered with ample doses of ridicule, bombast, and comic side glances. It is not synonymous with "the black church in America" experience.

First and foremost, the church in black America does not conform to the Rev. Wright's model of worship and preaching. His paternalistic comportment and demeanor, while not unheard of elsewhere, is not the sole model of black pastoral leadership. (The man who is replacing him at Trinity, Rev. Otis Moss, is proof of that). There are many kinds of Black Christian churches in the U.S. Some are more Baptist in tone. theology and tradition. Some are predominantly Caribbean. Some are more culturally African. Some are, believe it or not, Roman Catholic.( Rev.Wright referenced the pastor of one of these at the National Press Club gathering). There are other giants in the pulpit as well,. Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. (mentioned above) may be one of them. Another is Rev. James Forbes recently retired from Riverside Church (New York). Certainly Rev. Calvin Butts at Abyssinian Baptist (New York), as well as Rev. Creflo Dollar and Bishop T.D. Jakes ,who draw huge audiences on cable, are others.

But the "real" black church in America is even more often found struggling, day to day, in a storefront or in a building the members have to sacrifice to support. It's those communities who don't only preach about injustice and violence, they don't only render service and political education; rather they stand by each other when pain and misery visit in often hideous measure and hold each other up, pray and sing with each other into a time when "grief shall be no more." In my experience, even when I have felt alien to much of what was going on, the primary model for the Black church is not the political podium and not even the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter -- the primordial model of the black Church in America, and the source of its strength and endurance, is the family -- laughing, loving, mourning, faithfully encouraging, helping, listening, cajoling and even correcting. By claiming that his style, his approach, his church is the "black Church in America", Jeremiah Wright has masked the truth and done not only a disservice to the Senator from Illinois but to all of us -- both black and white -- as well.

Edward J. Murray is President and CEO of Faith & Values Media, the nation's largest coalition Christian, Jewish and Islamic faith groups dedicated to media production, distribution and promotion.