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Rev. Wright and the Easter Bunny

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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?

This Easter Sunday, whites and blacks will flock to church to worship, listen to the words from the same Bible and then go back home to eat food and pluck Easter eggs. In today's America many more congregations are integrated than when Dr. King made his observation; in some communities black pastors will preach to whites and white pastors will preach to blacks.

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Rev. Otis Moss Sr., co-chair of Clergy for Obama, is a 72-year-old veteran Cleveland pastor whose son has taken over Wright's former post at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, said parishioners must be able to sift out the good and the bad, regardless of the religion.

"Are we going to ask a very devout Catholic to leave the Catholic Church?" Moss said. "You can't hold the listener or a member of a church to be responsible for every word uttered by his prophet or pastor, if you did, you would have to join a new church every week, you would end up being churchless and homeless in terms of spirituality."

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But as Obama pointed out, race remains a central and uncomfortable reality in American life. So how should clergy address this reality?

Are we living in a time when ministers should just lob spiritual daisy's from the pulpit? My wife, Taunya described the Obama speech as eloquent and timely: "He addressed the proverbial 900-pound pink gorilla in the room."

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"It is so obvious that race is an issue in this election. Why can't we talk about it," she asked. "In order for this nation to heal we must talk about race."

Wright and ministers of his generation preached their fire and brimstone because they were victims of a racist past filled Jim Crow laws, Colored-Only signs and a government that often worked against them.

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For decades, the only sanctuary was the church, where people came not only to do good deeds, but to seek inspiration as well.

But inspiration for African Americans may cause great pain for some whites who can't understand how Obama could be their president and still sit in the pews with Wright and the other members of Trinity.

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It is also likely that many of the young whites who now cling to Obama and fill his campaign don't understand Jeremiah Wright, or the world that produced him.

To some, both black and white, Wright feels like a relic of the past, but the issues he has championed are still very relevant today. Wright has not been seen, nor has he made any effort to explain himself, in the wake of his new-found notoriety.

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It was left to Obama, the politician, to speak for the old pastor.

But the lingering question out of this whole episode is whether Americans, black and white, can ever be liberated from a mindset in which it is always hard to believe that those who look differently from us can really be a brother or sister.

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It was easy for Obama to deliver a speech in the City of Brotherly Love; it was even easy for him to talk about race as he has been forced to do all of his life. It is easy for Wright to stay out of sight for awhile. But the American reality on this issue, in this time of Easter, is still a sad one.

Church sermons filled with angry racial metaphors will probably not help to change that. And real change is measured in action and not words.

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Who will tame the 900-pound, pink gorilla?

Hamil Harris is a writer for The Washington Post.

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