When Darryl Kistler first met Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Kistler was a graduate student in seminary school assigned to chauffer Wright, a keynote speaker, for the week. He remembers Wright as a charismatic and talkative man, eagerly engaging Kistler in conversation ranging from church theology to professional basketball.
“You’d ask him one question, and he’d talk for hours,” said Kistler, who started six months ago as reverend of Kalispell’s branch of the United Church of Christ – the same church as Wright’s.
Recently Wright’s outspoken rhetoric has drawn national criticism and caused a firestorm around presidential candidate Barack Obama, a member of the retired pastor’s former church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Last week, Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth – Kistler’s alma matter and where he first met Wright – announced that Wright would not attend an awards banquet there because of safety concerns.
Here in the Flathead, the national controversy hasn’t made it into any of Kistler’s sermons at Kalispell’s UCC – “We’ve had Palm Sunday and Easter, and there’s more important messages for those days than Rev. Wright” – but the topic has come up in individual conversation and book and movie nights at the church. Kistler hopes the national attention will help the country address racial issues and bring those who resonate with the church’s message through its doors.
“To ignore the fact that there are still racial tensions and issues,” Kistler added, “especially for a black church like Trinity, would be ignoring the history of this country.”
A few curious Flathead citizens, drawn to the local branch by the controversy, likely found few similarities between the two congregations.
Wright’s church, with about 8,000 members, boasts the largest congregation of any UCC church in the country. The majority of its members are black. The church building is new; its services boisterous; and its choir lively.
In Kalispell, Flathead Valley UCC appears in sharp contrast. Its 30 to 40 weekly churchgoers are mostly white and sing from traditional hymnals. Nestled in a residential community west of Kalispell’s downtown, the sanctuary is welcoming and modest. Kistler, 33, isn’t as fiery as his Chicagoan counterpart.
“We try to think of the whole world as ‘we’ instead of ‘us and them’ and that’s certainly not what’s being discussed in national media or ascribed to that pastor,” Anne Clark, a member of the Flathead UCC congregation, said. “If we’re anti anything, it’s hate.”
UCC churches aren’t governed by regional elders or bishops, giving individual congregations a great deal of freedom in their areas of worship, congregational life and doctrine. But as part of the same denomination, the two churches, though thousands of miles apart, adhere to many of the same principles. While Kistler – admittedly an avid Obama supporter – said he found many of Wright’s comments “inappropriate” and “disappointing,” he said coverage of the controversy gives only a superficial understanding of the UCC, Wright and black theology.
“When I first heard some of his comments, I was like ‘Oh no man, not cool.’ In part because I thought they were offensive and in part because I don’t think (Wright) even truly believes that,” Kistler said. “But I also don’t think you judge him from two-minute sound bites on TV. Reverend Wright has done a lot of wonderful things, and I’m not saying he’s perfect or totally right here, but I think he’s been swift-boated.”
The controversy over Wright erupted last month when racially charged excerpts of his sermons were broadcast on television and distributed over the Internet. Wright’s critics have called him a black separatist, pointing to comments such as “God damn America” and “U.S. of KKKA” and Trinity’s church slogan, “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.”
In an effort to defuse the controversy, Obama delivered what was billed as a major address on race relations on March 18. The Illinois senator condemned Wright’s remarks, though he said he wouldn’t “disown” his pastor – the man who baptized his children and married him and his wife.
Trinity parishioners have said the true character of their church and pastor is distorted by the coverage of Wright and his words. Trinity posted full-length versions of Wright’s sermons on the video-sharing Web site YouTube.com, which they say allows people to put the comments in context. Obama called the comments “divisive,” but suggested the snippets were not representative of the clergyman he has known for more than two decades.
Kistler agrees, pointing to Wright’s accomplishments during his career. Under Wright, Trinity established 70 ministries, many with international reach, spoke out against the destruction of public housing and put pressure on non-profit hospitals to provide charitable care. It was one of the first churches in Chicago to advocate tolerance of homosexuals and set up a program to fight AIDS. When Kistler, as an associate professor and chaplain at Heidelberg College in Ohio, took 15 students to Trinity the congregation welcomed them warmly with applause and tours.
Trinity’s work is reflective of the missions of UCC as a whole, Kistler said. He jokingly calls UCC the “most liberal Christian church before you get to Canada,” and more seriously describes it as “progressive” and an “alternative voice against evangelical, religious fundamentalist” Christian churches. A mainstream Protestant Christian denomination, UCC stresses peace and holds the Bible “sacred,” but not literal. It was the first Christian church, Kistler said, to induct blacks, women and homosexuals to church leadership positions.
Dr. Paul Dietrich, a University of Montana liberal studies professor and director of UM’s religious studies department, said people with knowledge of the black church and its history weren’t shocked by Wright’s comments. “I think if people were a little more familiar with the styles of the black church and its prophetic elements they wouldn’t be surprised by these YouTube videos of Jeremiah Wright,” he said.
A graduate of the University of Chicago, Dietrich said Wright was well respected by faculty and students there and a strong example of the distinctive elements of the black church. Dating from times of slavery, Dietrich said, black churches have served as a foundation for the black community and identified strongly with Old Testament teachings of bondage, slavery and exodus. The preaching style is generally more prophetic, an emotional call-and-response dialogue between the pastor and his congregation.
“If you read Jeremiah or Amos you realize that there is a great deal of emphasis in the Old Testament on taking the children of Israel to task for failing to live up to their calling,” Dietrich said. “There’s a tradition of challenging the cultural norm that I think Wright was following.”
In part, Kistler said, the UCC’s long history of raising racial questions gives some context to Wright’s words because while some of his comments were indefensible, many represented the church’s commitment to pushing the envelope. “He may have pushed too far, but it’s ridiculous to call him a black separatist. Trinity is not a church that hates white people; it’s a church that’s an advocate for the black community.”
A reverend gives his sermons to an audience that he expects was there the week before and will be there the next week, Kistler said. Rather than snippets, the congregation gets the full context of a certain sermon, as well as the broader view of what the reverend and church has taught before. “I’ve heard the ‘God damn America’ sermon; the part you don’t hear on TV is the ‘God bless America’ for the things it does right,” Kistler said.
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