With the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's provocative views on race still ringing in the nation's ears, the United Church of Christ will hold a "sacred conversation on race" in most of its churches Sunday.

About 45 preachers of the denomination's Pennsylvania Southeast Conference gathered at regional headquarters in Collegeville yesterday to consider the state of race relations in America as well as in their own hearts and congregations, and how best to speak about it Sunday.

"Every group has struggled," the Rev. Kermit L. Newkirk Jr., senior pastor of the Harold O. Davis UCC Church in Philadelphia, told the group. "So if I don't understand your struggle, I don't understand



Newkirk, who recalled the segregated beaches, restaurants, buses and water fountains of his grandparents' home in Virginia, described himself as "black liberationist" like his friend Wright, who grew up in Germantown.

Wright, who was Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's pastor for 20 years, has been the object of national scrutiny of late because of his harsh denunciations of the United States government.

Wright recently retired as senior pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago. With 8,500 members, it is the largest congregation in the 1.2-million member congregation, and so the UCC is urging its pastors and congregants to make this Sunday's conversation a "proactive response" to the controversy surrounding Wright.

Susan Wargo of Valley Forge said that when she delivers practice sermons in her preaching class at Palmer Theological Seminary, she sees "blank faces" on many of the black students.

"Some of my friends didn't know what I was talking about," she said. "But the same thing happened to me when I was listening to them. . . . The problem is we come from very different struggles."

The Rev. Derick B. Wilson, pastor of Healing Stream UCC in Philadelphia, said he found Wright's controversial views "interesting" and shared his wariness of government.

Wilson said he sometimes hears from people - mostly whites, but some blacks - that it's time for African Americans to "get over" America's racist past.

"But there are a lot of people with a healthy distrust of those who oppressed them," Wilson warned. "It's hard to move on if you feel those things."

Much of the discussion centered on generational differences in racial attitudes. Lisa Martin, of Trinity Reform UCC in Pottstown, said her 7-year-old son doesn't understand why African Americans are called black when most are brown, or why he's called white.

"He said, 'Mom, I'm kind of brown, too.' "

Several of the black preachers, including Wilson and Newkirk, predicted that much of the racial differences in America would be largely erased in two generations.

The Rev. Stephen G. Ray, a UCC minister who teaches African American studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, warned his listeners that mere "dialogue" and expressions of goodwill - what he calls "Kumbaya moments" - would not suffice for Sunday's "sacred dialogue" on race.

Noting that he and his wife will soon be relocating to another state, Ray said it would not be enough for them to tell a real estate agent they simply wanted "a home."

"The point is, you need to figure out what the new home should look like," said Ray, who called on his fellow preachers to engage their congregations in "what the future should look like."

The Rev. F. Russell Mitman, conference minister for the 175-congregation Pennsylvania Southeast Conference, said he structured yesterday's two-hour gathering - which began with a prayer service, homily and Eucharist, followed by conversation - as a model for churches to use Sunday.

"I think people walked away with a sense that they really engaged in listening to one another," Mitman said.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.