Over the last week, there has been much speculation about why Barack Obama closely associated himself with Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. for two decades. Much of the speculation has been ill-informed.
So, for the purpose of better informing the American electorate, I'm going to quote below, at great length, from Chapter 14, pp. 274-295, of Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I'll leave out only the less Wright-related passages about Harold Washington's death, Obama's acceptance into Harvard Law School, and similar less germane matters.
I've tried to be more inclusive than exclusive, so that the public has a convenient opportunity to inform itself of exactly — and in context — what the Presidential candidate wrote in 1995 about his pastor.
Has Obama changed his mind since 1995? Possibly, yet in the Preface to the 2004 edition of Dreams from My Father, Obama denies, in his characteristically graceful yet obscure prose style, that he has changed much:
"I cannot honestly say, however, that the voice in this book is not mine—that I would tell the story much differently today than I did ten years ago, even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research."
Quoting about 6,000 words of Obama's 442 page memoir raises obvious copyright questions. I would contend that, in the context of the tens of thousands of words I've written about Obama and Wright, this qualifies as "fair use." I would also argue a public policy justification, since Obama's relationship with Wright is widely considered to be a question of substantial political importance in determining who will be the next President of the United States.
If the copyright holder objects, however, I will take this down.
(To my readers uninterested in this topic, I'll just advise that holding down the Page Down key will take you to my earlier posts.)
The implied timeframe of the following chapter is September 1987 to February 1988, although I wouldn't be surprised if Obama compressed a series of events straggling over several years for the purpose of the dramatic unity. I don't see that it's terribly important one way or another.
Chapter 14 comprises the last and climactic part of the mid-section of the book: "Chicago."
IT WAS AN OLD BUILDING, in one of the South Side’s older neighborhoods, still sound but badly in need of tuckpointing and perhaps a new roof. The sanctuary was dark, with several pews that had cracked and splintered; the reddish carpet gave off a musty, damp odor; and at various points the floorboards beneath bucked and dipped like welts in a meadow. Reverend Philips’s office had this same chipped, worn quality, lit only by an antique desk lamp that cast the room in a dull, amber glow. And Reverend Philips himself-he was old. With the window shades drawn, surrounded by stacks of dusty old books, he seemed now to be receding into the wall, as still as a portrait, only his snow-white hair clearly visible, his voice sonorous and disembodied, like the voice of a dream.
We had been talking for close to an hour, mostly about the church. Not his church so much as the church, the historically black church, the church as an institution, the church as an idea. He was an erudite man and began our conversation with a history of slave religion, telling me about the Africans who, newly landed on hostile shores, had sat circled around a fire mixing newfound myths with ancient rhythms, their songs becoming a vessel for those most radical of ideas-survival, and freedom, and hope. The reverend went on to recall the Southern church of his own youth, a small, whitewashed wooden place, he said, built with sweat and pennies saved from share-cropping, where on bright, hot Sunday mornings all the quiet terror and open wounds of the week drained away in tears and shouts of gratitude; the clapping, waving, fanning hands reddening the embers of those same stubborn ideas-survival, and freedom, and hope. He discussed Martin Luther King’s visit to Chicago and the jealousy he had witnessed among some of King’s fellow ministers, their fear of being usurped; and the emergence of the Muslims, whose anger Reverend Philips understood: It was his own anger, he said, an anger that he didn’t expect he would ever entirely escape but that through prayer he had learned to control-and that he had tried not to pass down to his children.
Now he was explaining the history of churches in Chicago. There were thousands of them, and it seemed as if he knew them all: the tiny storefronts and the large stone edifices; the high-yella congregations that sat stiff as cadets as they sang from their stern hymnals, and the charismatics who shook as their bodies expelled God’s unintelligible tongue. Most of the larger churches in Chicago had been a blend of these two forms, Reverend Philips explained, an example of segregation’s hidden blessings, the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the laborer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved.
He wasn’t sure, he said, how much longer his church would continue to serve that function. Most of his better-off members had moved away to tidier neighborhoods, suburban life. They still drove back every Sunday, out of loyalty or habit. But the nature of their involvement had changed. They hesitated to volunteer for anything-a tutoring program, a home visitation-that might keep them in the city after dark. They wanted more security around the church, a fenced-in parking lot to protect their cars. Reverend Philips expected that once he passed on, many of those members would stop coming back. They would start new churches, tidy like their new streets. He feared that the link to the past would be finally broken, that the children would no longer retain the memory of that first circle, around a fire….
His voice began to trail off; I felt he was getting tired. I asked him for introductions to other pastors who might be interested in organizing, and he mentioned a few names-there was a dynamic young pastor, he said, a Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, who might be worth talking to; his message seemed to appeal to young people like me. Reverend Philips gave me his number, and as I got up to leave, I said, “If we could bring just fifty churches together, we might be able to reverse some of the trends you’ve been talking about."
Reverend Philips nodded and said, “You may be right, Mr. Obama. You have some interesting ideas. But you see, the churches around here are used to doing things their own way. Sometimes, the congregations even more than the pastors.” He opened the door for me, then paused. “By the way, what church do you belong to?”
“I…I attend different services."
“But you’re not a member anywhere?”
“Still searching, I guess."
“Well, I can understand that. It might help your mission if you had a church home, though. It doesn’t matter where, really. What you’re asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophecy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you’re getting yours from. Faith, that is."
Outside, I put on my sunglasses and walked past a group of older men who had set out their lawn chairs on the sidewalk for a game of bid whist. It was a gorgeous day, seventy-five in late September. Instead of driving straight to my next appointment, I decided to linger, letting my legs hang out the open car door, watching the old men play their game. They didn’t talk much, these men. They reminded me of the men Gramps used to play bridge with-the same thick, stiff hands; the same thin, natty socks and improbably slender shoes; the same beads of sweat along the folds of their necks, just beneath their flat caps. I tried to remember the names of those men back in Hawaii, what they had done for a living, wondering what residue of themselves they’d left in me. They had been mysteries to me then, those old black men; that mystery was part of what had brought me to Chicago. And now, now that I was leaving Chicago, I wondered if I understood them any better than before.
I hadn’t told anyone except Johnnie [Obama's right hand man in his community organizing group] about my decision. I figured there would be time for an announcement later; I wouldn’t even hear back from the law schools until January. …
And I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change. I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed. I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail, knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire.
That’s the story I had been telling myself, the same story I imagined my father telling himself twenty-eight years before, as he had boarded the plane to America, the land of dreams. He, too, had probably believed he was acting out some grand design, that he wasn’t simply fleeing from possible inconsequence. And, in fact, he had returned to Kenya, hadn’t he? But only as a divided man, his plans, his dreams, soon turned to dust…. [ellipses in the original]
Would the same thing happen to me? Maybe Johnnie was right; maybe once you stripped away the rationalizations, it always came down to a simple matter of escape. An escape from poverty or boredom or crime or the shackles of your skin. Maybe, by going to law school, I’d be repeating a pattern that had been set in motion centuries before, the moment white men, themselves spurred on by their own fears of inconsequence, had landed on Africa’s shores, bringing with them their guns and blind hunger, to drag away the conquered in chains. That first encounter had redrawn the map of black life, recentered its universe, created the very idea of escape-an idea that lived on in Frank and those other old black men who had found refuge in Hawaii; in green-eyed Joyce back at Occidental, just wanting to be an individual; in Auma, torn between Germany and Kenya; in Roy, finding out that he couldn’t start over. And here, in the South Side, among members of Reverend Philips’s church, some of whom had probably marched alongside Dr. King, believing then that they marched for a higher purpose, for rights and for principles and for all God’s children, but who at some point had realized that power was unyielding and principles unstable, and that even after laws were passed and lynchings ceased, the closest thing to freedom would still involve escape, emotional if not physical, away from ourselves, away from what we knew, flight into the outer reaches of the white man’s empire-or closer into its bosom.
The analogies weren’t exactly right. The relationship between black and white, the meaning of escape, would never be quite the same for me as it had been for Frank, or for the Old Man, or even for Roy. And as segregated as Chicago was, as strained as race relations were, the success of the civil rights movement had at least created some overlap between communities, more room to maneuver for people like me. I could work in the black community as an organizer or a lawyer and still live in a high rise downtown. Or the other way around: I could work in a blue-chip law firm but live in the South Side and buy a big house, drive a nice car, make my donations to the NAACP and Harold’s campaign, speak at local high schools. A role model, they’d call me, an example of black male success.
Was there anything wrong with that? Johnnie obviously didn’t think so. He had smiled, I realized now, not because he judged me but precisely because he didn’t; because he, like my leaders, didn’t see anything wrong with such success.
That was one of the lessons I’d learned these past two and a half years, wasn’t it?-that most black folks weren’t like the father of my dreams, the man in my mother’s stories, full of high-blown ideals and quick to pass judgment. They were more like my stepfather, Lolo, practical people who knew life was too hard to judge each other’s choices, too messy to live according to abstract ideals. No one expected self-sacrifice from me-not Rafiq, who of late had been pestering me about helping him raise money from white foundations for his latest scheme; not Reverend Smalls, who had decided to run for the state senator’s seat and was anxious for our support. As far as they were concerned, my color had always been a sufficient criterion for community membership, enough of a cross to bear.
Was that all that had brought me to Chicago, I wondered-the desire for such simple acceptance? That had been part of it, certainly, one meaning to community. But there had been another meaning, too, a more demanding impulse. Sure, you could be black and still not give a damn about what happened in Altgeld or Roseland. You didn’t have to care about boys like Kyle, young mothers like Bernadette or Sadie. But to be right with yourself, to do right by others, to lend meaning to a community’s suffering and take part in its healing-that required something more. It required the kind of commitment that Dr. Collier made every day out in Altgeld. It required the kind of sacrifices a man like Asante had been willing to make with his students.
It required faith. I glanced up now at the small, second-story window of the church, imagining the old pastor inside, drafting his sermon for the week. Where did your faith come from? he had asked. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have an answer. Perhaps, still, I had faith in myself. But faith in one’s self was never enough.
I stamped out my cigarette and started the car. I looked into my rearview mirror and, driving off, watched the old, silent cardplayers recede from my sight.
With Johnnie handling the organization’s day-to-day activities, I met with more black ministers in the area, hoping to convince them to join the organization. It was a slow process, for unlike their Catholic counterparts, most black pastors were fiercely independent, secure in their congregations and with little obvious need for outside assistance. Whenever I first reached them on the phone, they would often be suspicious or evasive, uncertain as to why this Muslim-or worse yet, this Irishman, O’Bama-wanted a few minutes of their time. And a handful I met with conformed to the prototypes found in Richard Wright novels or Malcolm X speeches: sanctimonious graybeards preaching pie-in-the-sky, or slick Holy Rollers with flashy cars and a constant eye on the collection plate.
For the most part, though, once I’d had a chance to meet these men face-to-face, I would come away impressed. As a group, they turned out to be thoughtful, hardworking men, with a confidence, a certainty of purpose, that made them by far the best organizers in the neighborhood. They were generous with their time, interested in the issues, surprisingly willing to open themselves to my scrutiny. One minister talked about a former gambling addiction. Another told me about his years as a successful executive and a secret drunk. They all mentioned periods of religious doubt; the corruption of the world and their own hearts; the striking bottom and shattering of pride; and then finally the resurrection of self, a self alloyed to something larger. That was the source of their confidence, they insisted: their personal fall, their subsequent redemption. It was what gave them the authority to preach the Good News.
Had I heard the Good News? some of them would ask me.
Do you know where it is that your faith is coming from?
When I asked for other pastors to talk to, several gave me the name of Reverend Wright, the same minister Reverend Philips had mentioned that day at his church. Younger ministers seemed to regard Reverend Wright as a mentor of sorts, his church a model for what they themselves hoped to accomplish. Older pastors were more cautious with their praise, impressed with the rapid growth of Trinity’s congregation but somewhat scornful of its popularity among young black professionals. (“A buppie church,” one pastor would tell me.)
Toward the end of October I finally got a chance to pay Reverend Wright a visit and see the church for myself. It sat flush on Ninety-fifth Street in a mostly residential neighborhood a few blocks down from the Louden Home projects. I had expected something imposing, but it turned out to be a low, modest structure of red brick and angular windows, landscaped with evergreens and sculpted shrubs and a small sign spiked into the grass-FREE SOUTH AFRICA in simple block letters. Inside, the church was cool and murmured with activity. A group of small children waited to be picked up from day care. A crew of teenage girls passed by, dressed for what looked like an African dance class. Four elderly women emerged from the sanctuary, and one of them shouted “God is good!” causing the others to respond giddily “All the time!”
Eventually a pretty woman with a brisk, cheerful manner came up and introduced herself as Tracy, one of Reverend Wright’s assistants. She said that the reverend was running a few minutes late and asked if I wanted some coffee. As I followed her back into a kitchen toward the rear of the church, we began to chat, about the church mostly, but also a little about her. It had been a difficult year, she said: Her husband had recently died, and in just a few weeks she’d be moving out to the suburbs. She had wrestled long and hard with the decision, for she had lived most of her life in the city. But she had decided the move would be best for her teenage son. She began to explain how there were a lot more black families in the suburbs these days; how her son would be free to walk down the street without getting harassed; how the school he’d be attending had music courses, a full band, free instruments and uniforms.
“He’s always wanted to be in a band,” she said softly.
As we were talking, I noticed a man in his late forties walking toward us. He had silver hair, a silver mustache and goatee; he was dressed in a gray three-piece suit. He moved slowly, methodically, as if conserving energy, sorting through his mail as he walked, humming a simple tune to himself.
“Barack,” he said as if we were old friends, “let’s see if Tracy here will let me have a minute of your time."
“Don’t pay him no mind, Barack,” Tracy said, standing up and straightening out her skirt. “I should have warned you that Rev likes to act silly sometimes."
Reverend Wright smiled and led me into a small, cluttered office. “Sorry for being late,” he said, closing the door behind him. “We’re trying to build a new sanctuary, and I had to meet with the bankers. I’m telling you, doc, they always want something else from you. Latest thing is another life insurance policy on me. In case I drop dead tomorrow. They figure the whole church’ll collapse without me."
“Is it true?”
Reverend Wright shook his head. “I’m not the church, Barack. If I die tomorrow, I hope the congregation will give me a decent burial. I like to think a few tears will be shed. But as soon as I’m six feet under, they’ll be right back on the case, figuring out how to make this church live up to its mission."
He had grown up in Philadelphia, the son of a Baptist minister. He had resisted his father’s vocation at first, joining the Marines out of college, dabbling with liquor, Islam, and black nationalism in the sixties. But the call of his faith had apparently remained, a steady tug on his heart, and eventually he’d entered Howard, then the University of Chicago, where he spent six years studying for a Ph.D. in the history of religion. He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians. The anger and humor of the streets, the book learning and occasional twenty-five-cent word, all this he had brought with him to Trinity almost two decades ago. And although it was only later that I would learn much of this biography, it became clear in that very first meeting that, despite the reverend’s frequent disclaimers, it was this capacious talent of his-this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience-upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.
“We got a lot of different personalities here,” he told me. “Got the Africanist over here. The traditionalist over here. Once in a while, I have to stick my hand in the pot-smooth things over before stuff gets ugly. But that’s rare. Usually, if somebody’s got an idea for a new ministry, I just tell ’em to run with it and get outta their way."
His approach had obviously worked: the church had grown from two hundred to four thousand members during his tenure; there were organizations for every taste, from yoga classes to Caribbean clubs. He was especially pleased with the church’s progress in getting more men involved, although he admitted that they still had a way to go.
“Nothing’s harder than reaching young brothers like yourself,” he said. “They worry about looking soft. They worry about what their buddies are gonna say about ’em. They tell themselves church is a woman’s thing-that it’s a sign of weakness for a man to admit that he’s got spiritual needs."
The reverend looked up at me then, a look that made me nervous. I decided to shift the conversation to more familiar ground, telling him about DCP and the issues we were working on, explaining the need for involvement from larger churches like his. He sat patiently and listened to my pitch, and when I was finished he gave a small nod.
“I’ll try to help you if I can,” he said. “But you should know that having us involved in your effort isn’t necessarily a feather in your cap."
“Why’s that?” Reverend Wright shrugged. “Some of my fellow clergy don’t appreciate what we’re about. They feel like we’re too radical. Others, we ain’t radical enough. Too emotional. Not emotional enough. Our emphasis on African history, on scholarship-”
“Some people say,” I interrupted, “that the church is too upwardly mobile."
The reverend’s smile faded. “That’s a lot of bull,” he said sharply. “People who talk that mess reflect their own confusion. They’ve bought into the whole business of class that keeps us from working together. Half of ’em think that the former gang-banger or the former Muslim got no business in a Christian church. Other half think any black man with an education or a job, or any church that respects scholarship, is somehow suspect.
“We don’t buy into these false divisions here. It’s not about income, Barack. Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car. These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’ Now, what country is he living in?”
But wasn’t there a reality to the class divisions, I wondered? I mentioned the conversation I’d had with his assistant, the tendency of those with means to move out of the line of fire. He took off his glasses and rubbed what I now saw to be a pair of tired eyes.
“I’ve given Tracy my opinion about moving out of the city,” he said quietly. “That boy of hers is gonna get out there and won’t have a clue about where, or who, he is."
“It’s tough to take chances with your child’s safety."
“Life’s not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be."
A secretary buzzed, reminding Reverend Wright of his next appointment. We shook hands, and he agreed to have Tracy prepare a list of members for me to meet. Afterward, in the parking lot, I sat in my car and thumbed through a silver brochure that I’d picked up in the reception area. It contained a set of guiding principles-a “Black Value System”-that the congregation had adopted in 1979. At the top of the list was a commitment to God, “who will give us the strength to give up prayerful passivism and become Black Christian activists, soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind.” Then a commitment to the black community and black family, education, the work ethic, discipline, and self-respect.
A sensible, heartfelt list-not so different, I suspected, from the values old Reverend Philips might have learned in his whitewashed country church two generations before. There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though, a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration. “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,” the heading read. “While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,” the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the “psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!”
[It's informative to quote that "value" in full from Trinity's website:
8. Disavowal of the Pursuit of “Middleclassness.” Classic methodology on control of captives teaches that captors must be able to identify the “talented tenth” of those subjugated, especially those who show promise of providing the kind of leadership that might threaten the captor’s control.
Those so identified are separated from the rest of the people by:
My thoughts would often return to that declaration in the weeks that followed as I met with various members of Trinity. I decided that Reverend Wright was at least partly justified in dismissing the church’s critics, for the bulk of its membership was solidly working class, the same teachers and secretaries and government workers one found in other big black churches throughout the city. Residents from the nearby housing project had been actively recruited, and programs designed to meet the needs of the poor-legal aid, tutorials, drug programs-took up a substantial amount of the church’s resources.
Still, there was no denying that the church had a disproportionate number of black professionals in its ranks: engineers, doctors, accountants, and corporate managers. Some of them had been raised in Trinity; others had transferred in from other denominations. Many confessed to a long absence from any religious practice-a conscious choice for some, part of a political or intellectual awakening, but more often because church had seemed irrelevant to them as they’d pursued their careers in largely white institutions.
At some point, though, they all told me of having reached a spiritual dead end; a feeling, at once inchoate and oppressive, that they’d been cut off from themselves. Intermittently, then more regularly, they had returned to the church, finding in Trinity some of the same things every religion hopes to offer its converts: a spiritual harbor and the chance to see one’s gifts appreciated and acknowledged in a way that a paycheck never can; an assurance, as bones stiffened and hair began to gray, that they belonged to something that would outlast their own lives-and that, when their time finally came, a community would be there to remember.
But not all of what these people sought was strictly religious, I thought; it wasn’t just Jesus they were coming home to. It occurred to me that Trinity, with its African themes, its emphasis on black history, continued the role that Reverend Philips had described earlier as a redistributor of values and circulator of ideas. Only now the redistribution didn’t run in just a single direction from the schoolteacher or the physician who saw it as a Christian duty to help the sharecropper or the young man fresh from the South adapt to big-city life. The flow of culture now ran in reverse as well; the former gang-banger, the teenage mother, had their own forms of validation-claims of greater deprivation, and hence authenticity, their presence in the church providing the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets. By widening its doors to allow all who would enter, a church like Trinity assured its members that their fates remained inseparably bound, that an intelligible “us” still remained.
It was a powerful program, this cultural community, one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would be enough to keep more people from leaving the city or young men out of jail. Would the Christian fellowship between a black school administrator, say, and a black school parent change the way the schools were run? Would the interest in maintaining such unity allow Reverend Wright to take a forceful stand on the latest proposals to reform public housing? And if men like Reverend Wright failed to take a stand, if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be of holding the larger community intact?
Sometimes I would put such questions to the people I met with. They would respond with the same bemused look Reverend Philips and Reverend Wright had given me. For them, the principles in Trinity’s brochure were articles of faith no less than belief in the Resurrection. You have some good ideas, they would tell me. Maybe if you joined the church you could help us start a community program. Why don’t you come by on Sunday?
And I would shrug and play the question off, unable to confess that I could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance; that while I believed in the sincerity I heard in their voices, I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won.
The day before Thanksgiving, [Chicago mayor] Harold Washington died.
In February, I received my acceptance from Harvard. …
I had scheduled a luncheon that week at our office for the twenty or so ministers whose churches had agreed to join the organization. …
I woke up at six A.M. that Sunday. It was still dark outside. I shaved, brushed the lint from my only suit, and arrived at the church by seven-thirty. Most of the pews were already filled. A white-gloved usher led me past elderly matrons in wide plumaged hats, tall unsmiling men in suits and ties and mud-cloth kufis, children in their Sunday best. A parent from Dr. Collier’s school waved at me; an official from the CHA with whom I’d had several run-ins nodded curtly. I shunted through to the center of a row and stuffed myself between a plump older woman who failed to scoot over and a young family of four, the father already sweating in his coarse woolen jacket, the mother telling the two young boys beside her to stop kicking each other.
“Where’s God?” I overheard the toddler ask his brother.
“Shut up,” the older boy replied.
“Both of you settle down right now,” the mother said.
Trinity’s associate pastor, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, read the bulletin and led sleepy voices through a few traditional hymns. Then the choir filed down the aisle dressed in white robes and kentecloth shawls, clapping and singing as they fanned out behind the altar, an organ following the quickening drums:
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
Singing Glory, Ha-le-lu-yah!
Jesus lifted me!
As the congregation joined in, the deacons, then Reverend Wright, appeared beneath the large cross that hung from the rafters. The reverend remained silent while devotions were read, scanning the faces in front of him, watching the collection basket pass from hand to hand. When the collection was over, he stepped up to the pulpit and read the names of those who had passed away that week, those who were ailing, each name causing a flutter somewhere in the crowd, the murmur of recognition.
“Let us join hands,” the reverend said, “as we kneel and pray at the foot of an old rugged cross-”
“Lord, we come first to thank you for what you’ve already done for us…. We come to thank you most of all for Jesus. Lord, we come from different walks of life. Some considered high, and some low…but all on equal ground at the foot of this cross. Lord, thank you! For Jesus, Lord…our burden bearer and heavy load sharer, we thank you…."
The title of Reverend Wright’s sermon that morning was “The Audacity of Hope.” He began with a passage from the Book of Samuel-the story of Hannah, who, barren and taunted by her rivals, had wept and shaken in prayer before her God. The story reminded him, he said, of a sermon a fellow pastor had preached at a conference some years before, in which the pastor described going to a museum and being confronted by a painting titled Hope.
“The painting depicts a harpist,” Reverend Wright explained, “a woman who at first glance appears to be sitting atop a great mountain. Until you take a closer look and see that the woman is bruised and bloodied, dressed in tattered rags, the harp reduced to a single frayed string. Your eye is then drawn down to the scene below, down to the valley below, where everywhere are the ravages of famine, the drumbeat of war, a world groaning under strife and deprivation.
“It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere…That’s the world! On which hope sits!”
And so it went, a meditation on a fallen world. While the boys next to me doodled on their church bulletin, Reverend Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House. As the sermon unfolded, though, the stories of strife became more prosaic, the pain more immediate. The reverend spoke of the hardship that the congregation would face tomorrow, the pain of those far from the mountain-top, worrying about paying the light bill. But also the pain of those closer to the metaphorical summit: the middle-class woman who seems to have all her worldly needs taken care of but whose husband is treating her like “the maid, the household service, the jitney service, and the escort service all rolled into one”; the child whose wealthy parents worry more about “the texture of hair on the outside of the head than the quality of education inside the head."
“Isn’t that…the world that each of us stands on?”
“Like Hannah, we have known bitter times! Daily, we face rejection and despair!”
“And yet consider once again the painting before us. Hope! Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens. She dares to hope…. She has the audacity…to make music…and praise God…on the one string…she has left!”
People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me. The courage and fear of Ruby and Will. The race pride and anger of men like Rafiq. The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.
And in that single note-hope!-I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories-of survival, and freedom, and hope-became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish-and with which we could start to rebuild. And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.
“The audacity of hope! I still remember my grandmother, singing in the house, ‘There’s a bright side somewhere…don’t rest till you find it….’”
“The audacity of hope! Times when we couldn’t pay the bills. Times when it looked like I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything…at the age of fifteen, busted for grand larceny auto theft…and yet and still my momma and daddy would break into a song… Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you, Je-sus, Thank you, Lo-ord.
You brought me fro-om
A mighty long way, mighty long way.
“And it made no sense to me, this singing! Why were they thanking Him for all of their troubles? I’d ask myself. But see, I was only looking at the horizontal dimension of their lives!”
“Tell it now!”
“I didn’t understand that they were talking about the vertical dimension! About their relationship to God! I didn’t understand that they were thanking Him in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you! Oh yes, Jesus, I thank you…."
As the choir lifted back up into song, as the congregation began to applaud those who were walking to the altar to accept Reverend Wright’s call, I felt a light touch on the top of my hand. I looked down to see the older of the two boys sitting beside me, his face slightly apprehensive as he handed me a pocket tissue. Beside him, his mother glanced at me with a faint smile before turning back toward the altar. It was only as I thanked the boy that I felt the tears running down my cheeks.
“Oh, Jesus,” I heard the older woman beside me whisper softly. “Thank you for carrying us this far."
The third section of the book, "Kenya," covers pp. 297-430. It describes Obama's visit to his father's country later in 1988. This is followed by an Epilogue, briefly covering the period up through Obama's 1992 wedding. Rev. Wright is only mentioned once more in the book, on pp. 440, as presiding at the wedding.
As far as I can tell, Jesus doesn't come up at all after pp. 295.