Last June, on assignment covering religion for the Washington Post, I found myself at the National Press Club, where a group of religious leaders were meeting to craft a social justice agenda for the 2008 elections.
Among those at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Legislative Conference was a minister named Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man with a legendary reputation as a homilectical genius, known for ministering to the poor, stirring crowds into a spiritual frenzy, and tossing a few curse words into his homilies every now and then.
Sporting a tropical open-collared shirt, Wright looked like a grandfather on vacation as he and a who’s who of black ministers took part in a press conference titled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in the Major News Media.” The chief complaint of the conference was that the major news outlets were ignoring progressive theologians in favor of those from the Religious Right. Perhaps underscoring the ministers’ beef was the fact that I was the only reporter from mainstream media there. Wright was so appreciative that he later wrote me a gracious letter of thanks for coming.
Now, thanks to YouTube, the minister has more media attention that he ever dreamed of, the vacation is over and his sermons are stirring up a different kind of a frenzy—one that surely would not exist had John Edwards or Hillary Clinton been the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But fate and timing are ironic bedfellows with destiny.
Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on Rev. Wright—his former pastor—was designed to mend fences and dispel doubts, and its success remains an open question.
But the entire media saga raises a more important question about the theological relevance of ministers like Wright in Obama’s multicultural age.
It is a question I have asked myself repeatedly, as I have pushed hard for more coverage of what goes on in black churches. Until the flap over Wright, I have never seen so much attention paid to what goes on in black communities at 11 a.m. on Sundays, the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called “the most segregated hour of Christian America.”
After the media storm fades, I wonder, what will have changed: Will the needs and aspirations of the black church, and those who cling to it as a haven, change or fade away, too?