Change at Obama's (old) church

800px-barack_obama_houstonOh the constant joy it must bring to be a religious person associated with President-elect Barack Obama. With Baptist minister Rick Warren being sued by atheists over the use of the Lord's name in an inauguration prayer, Obama's old home church appears to be breathing a sigh of relief now that the election is over and Obama has officially moved to Washington, D.C. On Sunday, The Chicago Tribune published a fairly intimate portrait of a recovering church body that used to be Obama's spiritual home. After reading the article, one can understand the reason why past presidents such as Ronald Reagan may have avoided attending church while in the presidency.

Trinity United Church of Christ has not been in the news lately, but it was good to see that not all reporters were simply leaving the congregation in seeming shambles in the wake of the scandal that hardly portrayed the institution in a positive light. The Tribune reporters do a solid job explaining that while all the shouting, accusing and assuming was going on during the election, Trinity attempted to continue being a church like any other:

On Sundays, media swarmed the church, pressing members for comment. Protesters parked themselves across the street from the entrance, bludgeoning the faithful with vitriol and insults as they made their way inside.

Security costs for the church skyrocketed to $40,000 weekly, diverting money from missions in Mississippi, New Orleans and nearby Chicago neighborhoods. Church attendance dropped, as more members stayed home to watch worship on the Web. Some expressed doubt about Moss' leadership. Others, like Obama, struggled with whether they should find a new church.

Now, Moss and the more than 6,500 members of his congregation have emerged from the storm, recounting painful lessons and preparing for the future. They attend church knowing a former Trinity member became the nation's first African-American president. They now believe the spotlight can be a positive force and are hopeful their faith values might be used to minister to the world. They look to the new year as a chance to redefine Trinity.

Overall I liked the article. However, I wish the reporters had attempted to delve into the theologically-based shifts and struggles that are running through both the United Church of Christ denomination, and in predominantly African-American churches around the country.

Here the article touches on some of those struggles, but there could have been more:

Looking back, Moss knew taking over Trinity from Wright would be tough. Elders questioned where Moss, the 38-year-old "hip-hop pastor," would lead them. Those doubts grew after snippets of Wright's sermons surfaced on the Internet in March, sullying Wright's legacy and disrupting Moss' already difficult transition. Outside the church, conservative pundits bashed the church's Black Value System as anti-white and hateful.

"No one has ever been asked to transition through trauma and to lead a church that literally has the focus of the world upon them," Moss said. "There was nobody to call and say: 'How did you deal with this?' We were writing the playbook as we went along."

When Obama decided to leave Trinity, Moss said he wasn't surprised. The candidate first expressed his concerns to Moss at an Easter dinner in 2007, shortly after announcing his bid for the presidency and rescinding an invitation for Wright to say a public prayer at the event. Obama did not want to cause trouble for the church and suggested then that a time might come when he would have to leave, Moss said.

More of course could have been said about Moss's identity as a "hip-hop pastor." Perhaps the details have been covered in previous articles (I wish newspapers did better jobs of linking to old articles!). Also interesting is that Obama seemed to have predicted some of the troubles that arose during the campaign. One has to wonder though whether Obama knew how significant the issue would be before he launched his campaign.

Image of Barack Obama speaking in Houston, Texas on the eve of the state's primaries, used under a public domain license.

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