“Black people! Grow up! Stop helping white people!”
So thundered the preacher from the pulpit of Obama’s Trinity Church.
After the first time I wrote about Obama’s home church, one of the members of that church posted a comment here defending Trinity and inviting me to visit. I decided I wouldn’t write anything more until I had seen it for myself.
A few weeks ago I made the pilgrimage to Trinity. Clicking on a map ad for directions to the church, I ended up at the wrong address–their old building few blocks west. Walking around the building I saw a parking lot with a sign declaring “members only”. Would that be the topic sentence for my visit?
Just as I was deciding that this wasn’t the same building as in the website, a guy in a van–a shuttle from the remote parking lot–offered me a ride to the church. As the driver picked up more people from the street, I inquired about Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Would he be speaking today? Rev. Wright was retiring, I was told. Rev. Moss was in the process of taking his place.
We were dropped off and entered the building, sunlight filtering through two stories of stained glass inside, and were immediately stopped by a gesture from a pair of white gloves. A between-services prayer had just begun in the sanctuary, and the ushers, women in white gloves, were stopping everybody in their tracks. It reminded me of a movie set I saw once at Daley Plaza with all the extras playing pedestrians frozen in place prior to rolling the cameras.
The prayer over, I walked around the narthex a bit to see if I could glean their story. Walking upstairs to the balcony entrance, I looked at the stained glass window a little more closely. Black faces and a tribute to the NAACP, the first time I’ve ever seen that as a stained glass theme in a church. Then I saw white faces immortalized in the stained glass. Who were they? A male judge and man in a police uniform. Between them stood a man with a black face and a dejected posture. The story was obvious. The only white people pictured here were Oppressors.
Enough time for a pit stop before the service started. On my way to the rest room I noticed how many people were wearing African costume. In the ladies room the mirror area was crowded. More women in African gear were making last minute makeup repairs before the service. I was definitely underdressed. Hopefully I would be undernoticed as well.
It was time to find a seat for the service, so I decided on the main floor, but far enough back to be unobtrusive. I like to listen for God in the silences as well as the words and music, but Trinity isn’t that kind of church. Audience participation is the order of the day. Trinity parishioners are in the habit of calling out “amen” or variations thereof whenever they like something.
For those who find music indispensable to religious practice, Trinity certainly has a world-class choir. Their rendition of the Lord’s Prayer gave me goose bumps. At least I think I had goose bumps. Everyone holds the hand of the person next to them during prayer, so I couldn’t really see my arms, but I know I had goose bumps. I kept waiting for the hush after each musical phrase where the spirituality of the moment comes through, and you can feel the building itself inhale, but everyone seemed compelled to fill up the silences with amens.
Some of the women were even more vocal. While only male voices were heard from the authority of the pulpit, at various times throughout the service women called out from the congregation. One young woman in the front shrieked repeatedly. She looked like she might have Tourette’s Syndrome, but no one paid any attention to her. Later in the back a well-dressed woman stood up and shouted, “Something! Something!” Again, everyone acted as if that were par for the course.
No hymnals in this church, there isn’t even a place for a hymnal in the pews. The words to the one hymn were printed in the bulletin, but no one was reading it–or singing it.
The gospel reading, I Corinthians 13, was also printed in the bulletin, done as a unison reading:
…When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face…
Then the sermon. The lesson to be taken from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was about slavery.
- The mirrors of Paul’s time were not of a good enough quality to see a clear reflection because they were made by slaves.
- Walmart practices a form of slavery. (I gave the speaker a silent “amen” for speaking out about Walmart’s labor practices.) Then …
- “Black people! Grow up! Stop helping white people!”
Oopsie! Is this really the Christian message? Help people in your neighborhood, of course. Patronize local businesses instead of overseas sweatshops, yes. But “stop helping white people”?
I once heard a speech by Louis Farrakhan, and this is how he spoke. First he started out with things everyone could agree with. Helping your neighbors. Economic development. After about twenty minutes, when everyone was nodding in agreement, Farrakhan would start in with the hate speech.
Even though slavery ended 140 years ago and no member of Trinity has ever been a slave, the Trinity Church narrative is about slavery. Our story is about being persecuted, it says, our story is about being victimized. And where other churches might talk about the devil or about evil, Trinity demonizes white people. Never mind that there were whites who marched for civil rights. Never mind that there were whites who lost their lives trying to register blacks to vote in the South. Never mind that every day there are whites–clergy and ordinary people too–who quietly defend justice and insist that the value of a person is more than skin deep. That doesn’t fit the Trinity Gospel of Victimology.
As I left Trinity I looked for some symbol that anyone there had recognized value in any white person. There it was, at the bottom of the stained glass window. A figure on a horse, bent over with fatigue. This could only be one of the circuit riders, the early preachers who traveled on horseback, and rarely lived past the age of thirty. As far I know, circuit riders were all white, but unlike the full-color treatment of the rest of the stained glass, this figure was done in sepia tones and you couldn’t tell its skin tone. No, a white person with a calling from God wouldn’t fit their narrative.
Today I was back at my home church. The faces in the pulpit were black, white, Asian, male and female. As we greeted each other during the passing of the peace, the faces in the pews were just as diverse. As the communion was shared we sang:
One bread, one body, one Lord of all,
One cup of blessings which we bless.
And we, though many throughout the earth,
We are one body in this one Lord.
Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more…
One bread , one body, one Lord of all, ….
And at the end of the communion where the printed ritual in the hymnal says
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…
the entire congregation spoke in one voice without hesitation
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…
unwilling to participate in perceived gender discrimination, no matter what the authority behind the printing of those words.
How did I feel as a result of my visit to Trinity? Closer to God? Yes. For sure. But I was also reminded of the gentile woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus refused, based on the woman’s cultural identity. So did she just leave? No. The woman rebuked Jesus. Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table she told Jesus. A bitter snark, that, considering the Middle Eastern attitude towards dogs. In the Biblical story, Jesus accepted the gentile woman’s rebuke and healed the child.
No one will be rude to the white person who visits Trinity, but they don’t exactly consider white people to be members of the same family of God either. If you are white, you will have to be content with the scraps that fall from the table.
Trinity needs to heed the criticism of the negative publicity it has been receiving. There is some healing to be done.