Why Obama Stands With His Church

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, March 22, 2008; A13

All they wanted to do was pray with the rest of the congregation. But that was asking too much.

To be sure, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two leaders in Philadelphia's black community, enjoyed great success in bringing African Americans into the Christian fold.

But the steady growth in black membership at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church distressed the white congregation that owned the church.

At first, black Christians were moved to seats along the wall.

That still allowed for too much mingling.

So one Sunday morning as Allen, Jones and the other black worshipers knelt to pray, white church elders tapped Jones and Allen on the shoulders and told them to take their praying upstairs to a recently built balcony.

Rather than submit to such humiliation, Jones, Allen and the rest of the black worshipers walked out.

The two men formed their own congregations. Jones gained permission from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania to establish America's first black parish, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. He eventually became the Episcopal Church's first African American priest.

Allen formed a Methodist congregation that eventually became today's multimillion-member African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

The walkout in the City of Brotherly Love occurred in 1787 -- a year that marks the beginning of America's independent black church, a theological movement born out of racism.

This history comes to mind as I listen to conservative commentators, chief among them MSNBC's Pat Buchanan, brand as "racist" the slogan adopted by Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago: "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian."

Trinity is Barack Obama's church and the place where the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. -- a gift to all who would bring down Obama -- served as pastor until his recent retirement.

Buchanan and his ilk look at Trinity's slogan with horror. They label the church's theological values "Afro-centric" and "racially exclusive." Trinity is beyond the pale of Christianity, at least their version of it.

Psst: Trinity has plenty of company, coast to coast.

Many black congregations, from storefronts to mega-churches, are in sync with the Trinity slogan.

They, too, see no need to apologize for their African roots. Nor are they ashamed of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But hey, what's with this newfound concern about African Americans worshiping among themselves in their own way?

More important, who forced that separation?

As sociologist Kenneth Clark noted in his book "Dark Ghetto," ministers and lay leaders of white Christian churches historically were unwilling to incorporate large numbers of blacks into their houses of Christ.

That's still the case today with some churches.

Truth is, folks like Buchanan don't really care that America's Christian congregations don't look like salt and pepper on Sunday mornings. The reality of blacks and whites worshiping apart doesn't disturb them.

If anything, Buchanan thinks African Americans are ingrates -- that we should be satisfied with our station in life.

"America has been the best country on earth for black folks," Buchanan wrote in his column, " PJB: A Brief for Whitey," posted on his Web site yesterday.

"It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known," he wrote.

Buchanan would have African Americans fall to their knees and thank white people for their grace.

"No people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans," he wrote.

Buchanan & Co. mock Obama's notion of a racial divide in America and a need to heal the country. In their world, there are no black grievances worth noting.

Truth is, the right-wing commentariat is content to have black churches with timid members worshipping under the banner: "I'm but a stranger here; heaven is my home."

It's those black congregations with pastors who make their churches a voice of liberating gospel, with a loud emphasis on sticking up for the persecuted and afflicting the comfortable, that right-wingers consider a threat to the republic.

Which gets me to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

I've never met him or been to his church. I've seen those TV snippets of his sermons. I've also heard what Barack Obama has said about his former pastor, their relationship and his views on Wright's rants.

His explanations won't satisfy some, especially those who never planned to support him, anyway. As for me, 'tis enough, 'twill serve.

I also know, as Clark has pointed out, that church plays a religious and cathartic role unlike that of any other institution in the black community. It's a haven, a place for emotional release and personal affirmation. The pastor is given much leeway, so long as the church is held together as a family.

Those thoughts may be beyond the understanding of people who wonder why Obama will not leave Trinity.

I know why he stays. So, I bet, would Absalom Jones and Richard Allen.