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Church leaders defend Trinity UCC's ministry
and call for a 'Sacred Conversation' on race

See UCC Story by J. Bennett Guess
Kinnamon, Thomas, Moss on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360

Chicago, April 3, 2008 – Three nationally known church leaders today addressed a press conference at Trinity United Church of Christ to suggest the ministries of the former pastor and the congregation have been distorted by some members of the media, and to call for pastors around the nation to address the subject of race on Trinity Sunday, May 18.

Noting that their message was being expressed exactly four decades after Dr. Martin Luther King's last sermon in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, lamented that "forty years later the painful reality of America's struggle with race endures."

Thomas said the media frenzy involving Trinity's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, "has been a painful awakening. Members of our church, and many others, have been disturbed by what they have seen and heard on television. Many have felt that the real story of the United Church of Christ and of Trinity hasn't been told."

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, stood with Thomas and Trinity's current pastor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, to express strong support for the UCC and the church.

"In recent weeks I have seen the UCC occasionally portrayed as some kind of radical sect," Kinnamon told members of the press. "This, of course, is nonsense. It is a denomination valued by its ecumenical partners not only for its commitment to justice but for its life of worship and service in the name of Jesus Christ."

The UCC and Trinity Church "are not fringe groups," Kinnamon declared, "but are part of the wider Christian community."

All three clergy agreed that the criticism of Dr. Wright – intensified because Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is a member of Trinity Church – had brought the issue of race squarely into the national consciousness.

"Today on this important anniversary, and in light of the soul searching the recent events surrounding Trinity have prompted," Thomas said, "I am here ,,, to say that it is time for a nationwide 'sacred conversation' about race in the United States.:

He said he was asking the 10,000 pastors of the UCC to observe the Sunday after Pentecost  – Trinity Sunday, May 18 – "to use their pulpits to address the subject of race. We believe this is an important first step in beginning the broader conversation that needs to take place in our nation, in our communities and, especially, in our houses of worship."

Thomas said he did not expect the "sacred conversations" to be easy because "honest talk about race confronts us with a painful past and won't let us ignore the troubles of our present day. That's why sacred conversations require a readiness to see one another as sacred in spite of our differences."

Kinnamon said the issues raised around Trinity affect churches across the country. "One of those issues is race," he said. The frustration heard in the clips of Rev. Wright is one voice (and not an isolated one) in ... a 'sacred conversation' we need to have -- as churches, as a society."

The NCC has historically taken an active role in the struggle for civil rights, Kinnamon said, "but in recent years our efforts have lagged. In this setting, where the challenge to overcome racism has been so clearly expressed, I commit myself to make this a priority of my own leadership at the NCC and to invite all our churches into this sacred conversation."

Another issue, Kinnamon said, "is the sanctity of places in which people gather to worship God. If there are threats against one church, all churches are threatened. If the privacy of church members in one place is violated, all places of worship are diminished. That is what Christians mean when we say that we are a part of the one body of Christ. I hope that my presence here this afternoon represents this connectedness to one another."

Thomas described the United Church of Christ as a diverse denomination that encourages "open dialogue where thoughtful and prayerful listening to divergent points of view can offer a deeper means for spiritual growth for individuals and communities."

"We don't require agreement," he said. "Our unity is not dependent on uniformity. But it is important that we converse with one another in compassionate and respectful ways."


The full text of Dr. Kinnamon's statement follows:

I am not a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), and I have never before been at Trinity UCC.  Rather, my presence here today is representative of the wider Christian community to which the UCC, and all of its congregations, is related.

The National Council of Churches (NCC), of which I am the General Secretary, is a community of very  diverse churches (denominations)--including Orthodox churches, historic peace churches, Methodist and Baptist churches  that are predominantly African American, recent immigrant churches, and mainline Protestants.   The predecessor bodies of the UCC were founding members of the NCC; and since it was formed in 1957, the UCC has been a valued  contributor to every dimension of the Council's life: theological dialogues aimed at promoting Christian unity, Bible translation, Sunday School curriculum, advocacy on behalf of poverty relief or environmental protection.....  Not all of the other member churches of the National Council agree with all of the stands taken by the UCC (let alone all of the things said by its ministers)--but you could say the same about every one of our members.

In recent weeks, I have seen the UCC occasionally portrayed as some kind of radical sect.  This, of course, is nonsense.  It is a denomination valued by its ecumenical partners not only for its commitment to justice but for its life of worship and service in the name of Jesus Christ.

As I said, I have not worshiped at Trinity, but I know and respect people who do.  I have heard the  former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on at least three occasions and generally found him to be inspiring and biblically grounded.  There is a passage in the Christian scriptures (Romans 12:9) that comes to mind when I think of his sermons I have heard: "Let love be  genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good."  Genuine love, in other words, will not only say yes! to the neighbor, it will say no! to all that diminishes the neighbor.  Rev. Wright, during his ministry here, built up this community and affirmed people as children of God--and, at times, made others feel uncomfortable by saying no! to all  that would tear them down.

So one reason I am here is to affirm that this denomination and this congregation are not fringe groups but are part of the  wider Christian  community.

But there is another reason I  wanted to be present today: namely, that issues raised in recent weeks around Trinity UCC have bearing on churches across this country.  One of those issues is race.  The frustration heard in the clips of Rev. Wright is one voice (and not an isolated one) in what John Thomas calls a "sacred conversation" we need to have--as churches, as a society.  I do think that Sen. Obama is correct when he says that this country has  made important strides in confronting its racist past--but, surely, no one thinks that racism has been eradicated.  The NCC has historically been deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights, but in recent years our efforts have lagged.  In this setting, where the challenge to  overcome racism has been so clearly expressed, I commit myself to make this a priority of my own leadership at the NCC and to invite all of our churches  into this sacred conversation.

Another issue raised in connection with this congregation is the sanctity of places in which people gather to worship God.  If there are threats against one church, all churches are threatened.  If the privacy of church members in one place is violated, all places of worship are diminished.  That is what Christians mean when we say that we are part of the one body of Christ.  I hope that my presence this afternoon represents this  connectedness to one another.


The full text of Thomas' statement follows:

As General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ of which Trinity United Church of Christ and 5,700 other churches are member congregations, I thank you for joining us today.   

We are here on an historic day, the fortieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s last sermon preached the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.  In that sermon he talked about seeing the Promised Land, a vision of racial justice and of peace that continues to beckon to us today. 

Forty years later the painful reality of America’s struggle with race endures.  The events of the past few weeks, in relation to Trinity Church, have catapulted Trinity – and our nation – into a new awareness of the ongoing impact of race in our society.   

This new awareness has been a painful awakening.  Members of our church, and many others, have been disturbed by what they have seen and heard on television.  Many have felt that the real story of the United Church of Christ and of Trinity hasn’t been told.  Members of Trinity Church in particular have had to celebrate Holy Week and Easter under profoundly difficult circumstances. 

The United Church of Christ includes people who come from diverse cultural backgrounds and a variety of life experiences.  We encourage open dialogue where thoughtful and prayerful listening to divergent points of view can offer a deeper means for spiritual growth for individuals and communities.  We don’t require agreement; our unity is not dependent on uniformity.  But it is important that we converse with each other in compassionate and respectful ways.  Our earliest churches were called “meeting houses,” where the great public issues of the day were discussed and debated and where God’s will was discerned in a shared attentiveness to Scripture.  

Today on this important anniversary, and in light of the soul searching the recent events surrounding Trinity have prompted, I am here with the pastor of Trinity Church, the Rev. Otis Moss, III, and with the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, to say that it is time for a nationwide “sacred conversation” about race in the United States. 

On Sunday, May 18, 2008 – the Sunday after Pentecost, which also happens to be called Trinity Sunday in the ecumenical calendar – we are asking our 10,000 UCC pastors across the nation to use their pulpits to address the subject of race.  We believe this is an important first step in beginning the broader conversation that needs to take place in our nation, in our communities and, especially, in our houses of worship.  Over the next six weeks we will be equipping our pastors and lay leaders to help them prepare for May 18 and for the important conversations to follow.    

Sacred conversations are never easy conversations.  This is especially true when honest talk about race confronts us with a painful past and won’t let us ignore the troubles of our present day.  That’s why sacred conversations require a readiness to see one another as sacred in spite of our differences, and why the sacred places where these conversations take place need to be respected.   

The members of Trinity United Church of Christ are going through a very difficult time right now.  The intersection of politics, religion, and race has heightened our awareness of how easy it is for conversations about race to be anything but sacred.  That’s why we are calling for sacred conversations, and for the respect of sacred spaces, to begin right here and right now. 

Forty years ago Dr. King challenged us.  He said, in part, “Let us stand with a greater determination.  And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.  We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”  Today, let us commit ourselves to take up that challenge again. 

Thank you.


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org


 

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