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A man of the cloth ... and controversy

THE SPARKS THAT eventually ignited a firestorm of controversy around the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama and his longtime pastor Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. were first touched off right here on the streets of Philadelphia nearly 50 years ago.

THE SPARKS THAT eventually ignited a firestorm of controversy around the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama and his longtime pastor Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. were first touched off right here on the streets of Philadelphia nearly 50 years ago.

It was here that Wright - the son of a prominent Germantown Baptist minister and a groundbreaking Philadelphia school teacher - began to simmer about the passivity of Northern blacks toward discrimination in the early 1960s.

Wright spoke on a PBS religion television program in 2005 about the experience of coming home to Philadelphia from the college he was attending, Virginia Union University, during the era of sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in the South.

"I come home for the summer, and the black students . . . from the schools in the South, we setting up the picket lines in Woolworth's in Philadelphia, and my father's members are walking across the line, telling me, 'That's not our problem. That's a Southern problem,' " Wright recalled.

"This is Christianity? Is this the church? I don't want to be a part of this . . . This is hypocrisy."

Wright dropped out of school and joined the Navy, but he returned with a newfound fervor for combining activism with religion.

As pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, Wright began to attract attention for his stand against apartheid in South Africa and then, in 1985, attracted the young Obama as a convert. And now he's drawn a hornet's nest of national media attention for some of his more outspoken views, and the issue of whether the Democratic presidential candidate needs to sever all ties with Wright.

Among Wright's more inflammatory statements are that America brought the 9/11 attacks upon itself for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its policy toward Palestine, that the United States caused AIDS and that "America is still the No. 1 killer in the world."

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," Wright said in a 2003 sermon that was reported late last week by ABC News.

In a race for the White House that seems increasingly dominated by racial, religious and gender squabbling involving so-called campaign "surrogates" like Wright, who Obama has called a spiritual mentor, there were immediate calls for the Illinois senator to repudiate Wright.

On Friday night, Obama wrote an entry on the popular blog, the Huffington Post, in an effort to quell the controversy for good.

The candidate said he was not in the pews at Trinity when any of the controversial statements were made, had not been aware of them, and added:

"Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue."

This weekend, the Obama campaign announced that Wright is no longer serving on its African American Religious Leadership Committee, and reportedly removed an endorsement from Wright from its Web site.

Meanwhile, Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ issued a statement blaming the entire controversy on the news media, insisting the minister's "character is being assassinated."

Here in Philadelphia, those who've come to know Wright say that the way the pastor is being characterized in the media is not really fair.

The Rev. Ellis Washington, the new head of the United Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity, which endorsed Obama last week, said he believes "African-Americans understand his comments more in context than the way it's being portrayed in soundbites."

Wright's earliest views on American life were shaped in Philadelphia, where he graduated from Central High School before leaving for college in 1959. His father, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, who died in 2001, was minister of Grace Baptist Church in Germantown for 42 years.

The senior Wright had grown up in segregated Virginia before moving to Philadelphia to take over when the church was a struggling congregation in 1938. In building Grace Baptist into a powerful community force in Germantown, he also acquired a reputation for tolerance on race, gender and sexuality issues.

His wife, the mother of the younger Wright, was busy making history in the Philadelphia school system. Mary Elizabeth Henderson Wright was the teacher who broke the color barrier at Germantown High School during the 1950s, and, according to her obituary in the Daily News in 2005, was the first African-American to teach at Girls High in the '60s, as well as the first black to serve as a vice principal there in 1968.

The younger Wright's lone sibling is a sister, LaVerne Miner, who today lives in a senior community in South Jersey.

Although Wright moved to Chicago for good in 1972, he returns to Philadelphia frequently - preaching every year as a guest at Grace Baptist in Germantown - and is well known in the local community.

The Rev. G Daniel Jones, senior pastor at Grace Baptist, who has preached with Wright a number of times, said he believes that the Chicago minister's views were strongly influenced by his upbringing in Philadelphia and by his parents' experiences growing up in Jim Crow-era Virginia. As for the current brouhaha over Wright, he places the blame squarely on the media.

"It's a lot of hype," Jones said, adding that Obama's views are not synonymous with Wright's.

"Barack Obama is his own man."

Still, Obama comes with close ties to Wright, who performed his marriage to wife Michelle and baptized their two daughters, and who inspired the title of Obama's recent best-selling book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Although the candidate has acknowledged Wright as a spiritual adviser, he also reportedly asked Wright not to attend the formal kickoff of his campaign last year because of his penchant for drawing controversy.

Wright was reportedly out of the country this weekend and not available for comment. Those who know him and have heard him speak say he has a knack for saying outrageous things, even when the topic is non-political.

Sometimes that cuts both ways. Wright had been outspoken during the 1990s about compassion for AIDS victims, saying in 1997 in Philadelphia that "Jesus responded to the lepers with tangible love."

Last June, Wright was invited to Philadelphia to speak at a forum on the topic of proposed reparations for slavery in the United States, and the Chicago preacher was true to form. He said:

"America will not repent because to admit their guilt means they will have to repay. We stole this country from the Delawares, the Mohawks and the Chippewa. America does not want to apologize to us. When they wrote the Constitution, Africans were not even considered to have the same rights as whites in this country. Yes, as a people, we have to take responsibility for our communities and our families but that doesn't let the white man off the hook."

That's typical, said Washington. "He could be dealing strictly with a Biblical topic and still be controversial," he said. "He'll shine a light on it that's different than what you expect." *