Allen Temple, 4 members still in Zimbabwe, hears sermon from controversial Jeremiah Wright
on September 20, 2010
Although Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland is no stranger to large crowds and public attention, the promise of a guest sermon Sunday morning by the popular and controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright ensured that there wouldn’t be an empty seat in the house.
Wright, the former senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church and a friend of Allen Temple’s pastor emeritus J. Alfred Smith, Sr., has preached to the Allen Temple congregation several times since the 1980s. But this Sunday’s sermon was his first at Allen Temple since the 2008 presidential campaign, during which a frenzy of negative media attention surrounded Barack Obama’s former pastor, assailing him for what critics regarded as inflammatory rhetoric on race and US policy.
Though the service started at 8 am, the worship hall and outside overfill area were already jam-packed by 7:30, filled with over 1000 parishioners, local residents, and followers of Wright, who fanned themselves furiously with the provided paper fans and eagerly awaiting Wright’s sermon. “I’m not a member of Allen Temple, and I’m not even from Oakland, but when I heard Reverend Wright was going to be here this morning, right away I knew where I was going to be too,” said Anita White, who said she had driven from her home in central Richmond just to hear Wright.
Along with the promise of a rousing speech, the anticipation of Wright’s sermon offered some parishioners a distraction from the weeklong anxiety they have endured as they await the return of fellow congregants Gloria Cox-Crowell, Gregory Miller, David Greenburg, and Anthony Jones, all Allen Temple AIDS ministry members who were arrested in Zimbabwe last week under charges of distributing medication without proper licenses. Their arrest is the first since the Temple’s AIDS ministry began visiting the impoverished African nation in 2000, delivering antiretroviral medicine, food and clothing.
The accused have been released on bail in Zimbabwe, and are awaiting their court date set for this week. Officials at Allen Temple have been reluctant to publicly divulge information, for fear of any drawing attention to the case that might endanger the fate of their fellow congregants. Church leaders have called the situation a misunderstanding and say they hope for an imminent release.
Before Wright took the podium, the Rev. Theophous Reagans, the church’s Minister of Global Missions, reassured the sea of bowed heads that their brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe were in good spirits. “They had church this morning,” Reagans said, as the congregants cried out in relief and raised their hands to the sky in thanks. “They are praising God, and thanking God, and thanking us.”
The worshipers regained their composure as pastor emeritus Smith announced that the usual concurrent children’s church service wouldn’t be held that morning. “I ask that all the children remain in their seats,” Smith said, “so that when they grow up, they can say that they heard the great Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright.”
A hush came over the audience as Wright stepped up to the pulpit and led the crowd in prayer before launching his 45-minute sermon. He preached about justice for slighted nations, communities and individuals whose rights and struggles he said have been overlooked. “God demands justice!” Wright shouted. “God desires justice and God requires justice!” He reminded church members that their civic duties sometimes required more than just prayer. He urged them to push their congressional representatives for fairer policies. “Otherwise, God says our worship ain’t worth nothing, in the words of Shakespeare, but ‘sound and fury,’” Wright preached.
Those who came to the sermon hoping to hear fiery language, of the sort that contributed to Wright’s controversial reputation, did not leave disappointed. Despite the criticism Wright faced as a result of outspoken remarks–such as his suggestion that the U.S. helped bring upon itself the September 11 attacks, and that African Americans have suffered oppression and constant mistreatment throughout American history — Wright’s rousing sermon unapologetically, if somewhat more coolly, addressed both topics. Wright demanded justice for everyone from “the victims of the criminal injustice system that locks up poor black and brown boys while letting rich white men go scot free,” to the victims of the 1945 US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — whose suffering, Wright declared, left little mark on the nation that perpetrated the attacks.
“My mother was a math teacher, but I didn’t do well in math,” Wright preached. “I couldn’t understand why we got so terribly upset when 3000 civilians, non-combatants, were killed on September 11th 2001 — and we don’t even bat an eye, don’t even know what there is to look at when we, as America, killed 144,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t do well in math. 3000 vs. 144000?”
To thunderous applause, Wright asked, “Somebody tell me, why was Lil’ Kim sent to prison and spent a whole year in prison?” He was referring to the 2005 sentencing of the African American rapper, who was imprisoned for lying to a grand jury regarding her friend’s involvement in a 2001 shooting. “What did she do?” Wright continued. “She told a lie. How come Bush ain’t in jail?” The crowd laughed and cheered. “Republicans say, ‘Well Clinton lied,’ Wright said. “I say, ‘Yeah, Clinton lied. But no one died.’”
The criticism that followed Wright after 2008 seemed to have been stilled for the day, as congregants gathered after the sermon to consider its significance. “I don’t buy into all of that Fox News nonsense about him,” said one church member who declined to be named. “They are just trying to cut down a man of God who speaks the truth about what we’ve gone through as black people.”
Other attendees were less accepting of Wright’s stances. “I lost a friend in the Twin Towers.” said Thomas Gillroy, who, like White, made the trip to Allen Temple to hear Wright’s sermon. “To hear him play down such a huge event in our country’s history makes me wonder whose side he is really on.”
But for Allen Temple Deacon Gerald Jones, the guest pastor lived up to tough expectations. “I wanted to find out whether he has changed any of his stances since becoming so controversial.” Jones said. “Sometimes when you get into the limelight, like he has been, you have a tendency to back off from what you really believe in. And that is not the case with Dr. Jeremiah Wright.”
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