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Monday, April 28, 2008

Rochelle Riley on Wright

ROCHELLE RILEY: This sermon shows pastor's not so scary

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the boogeyman.

Strip away all but the controversial words "God damn America" from the sermon that America could not escape in recent weeks, and you'd miss the rest of what Wright does best: use his pulpit -- and the fire and brimstone rhetoric that is a staple of the black church -- to comment on the nation's social and political agenda.

Strip away the media attention, the roaring crowd and the presidential campaign that hung, for a night, on his words, and all the Detroit Branch NAACP got Sunday night from the Rev. Wright was a typical, but powerful, sermon on how different does not mean deficient.

You could feel the disappointment from those expecting controversy as Wright taught a lesson to 12,000 people about difference. Wright, without contention, without volume, but with enough charisma to lead many in the audience to cheer, offered no apology to America.

Instead, he offered a lesson and vowed that America will change only when Americans work to see each other as, essentially, the same.

A lesson in history
"We are committed to changing the way we treat each other," he said. "Everybody in here who's not an Indian do be an immigrant. Some of ya'll came over on the decks of the ship, and some of ya'll came in the bowels and holds of the ship, but we're all immigrants."

He couldn't help himself as he smacked Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson around a little, asking folks to explain his remarks so Patterson would not take them out of context. And it was interesting that Patterson was among his critics. Wright also chastised a local critic who said his visit to Detroit would be divisive.

"Just to help him out, I'm not one of the most divisive. Tell him the word is 'descriptive,' " Wright said. "I describe conditions in this country. Conditions divide, not my description."

Dealing less with the controversy and more with explaining why people are so quick to judge him, Wright gave a history lesson on the NAACP and how hundreds of its chapters were founded in black churches across America, and how whites and blacks see things differently.

Using linguistics and music, he asked why the media never questions the poor English of politicians, from John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson to Ted Kennedy, yet labels black children as deficient when their words sound different.

Freedom of speech?
But what he did more than anything was show that he can be a man of even temperament, a man who has been a minister to thousands without offense in an America that increasingly takes offense too quickly. What happened to America?

We have created a nation that no longer affords its citizens the rights that form its foundation. When did we stop defending the rights of people to say what they feel? America has always been stronger than any darts thrown at it, stronger than criticisms that actually can help America grow.

If we are not allowed to criticize America, then America is no longer America, no longer the nation that grows, expands, becomes greater with each new generation.

And speaking of those generations, I can't help but wonder what children make of the fights they see adults having about America, adults who wallow in the political and spiritual sandboxes, throwing dirt while children, who are more globally aware and connected, watch amused or disgusted.

Carrie Tuskey, the 50-year-old director of risk management at Henry Ford Health System, didn't come to the dinner to hear the boogeyman. Tuskey, who is white and has not chosen a presidential candidate yet, just wanted to see for herself.

"I thought I'd missed more in the news because so many people had the notion that ... this was going to be the worst thing to happen to the NAACP and to Barack Obama's campaign," she said. "I enjoyed his speech."

Imagine that.

Contact ROCHELLE RILEY at 313-223-4473.

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