If America is ever going to have a healthy conversation on race, it must first turn down the volume, a black Philadelphia preacher told a largely white congregation in Wayne yesterday.

The Rev. Derick B. Wilson, pastor of a poor, multiracial Kensington congregation, told several dozen congregants of United Church of Christ at Valley Forge in Wayne that empathy for the struggles of others would help to dismantle distrust.

"Martin Luther King said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," Wilson said during a 20-minute sermon. "At the root of each setback is nothing but pain. Pain is pain. If you can understand what it means to be on the margins, for whatever reason, you have enough to work with to combat racism."

Wilson was invited to deliver the Sunday sermon as part of a "sacred conversation on race" declared by national United Church of Christ leaders after the stormy reaction to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's denunciation of the U.S. government. The conversations took place at many of the denomination's 6,000 congregations yesterday.

Wright recently retired as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has attended for the last two decades. Wright had, among other things, accused the U.S. government of inflicting the AIDS epidemic on African Americans, and his remarks triggered questions about Obama's beliefs and his relationship with the pastor.

Obama denied sharing Wright's views and eventually repudiated him.

Wilson, pastor of Healing Stream United Church of Christ in Kensington, staunchly defended Wright in a May 6 Philadelphia Daily News column, and he offered a similar justification with the Wayne congregation during coffee hour yesterday.

He asserted that, like Wright, some African Americans believe the U.S. government is responsible for instigating the AIDS epidemic, even though there is no evidence to support that view. He said many blacks feel that way because of the nation's history of slavery and oppression of minorities.

"For 400 years, we were slaves in this country, we were ripped from our homeland," Wilson said. "So as black people we have lived in situations where you might well say, 'Well, that never happened.'

"Do I believe that the U.S. government put AIDS in our communities? I don't know," Wilson went on. "I wish that I could say no, but I know the government has done other things in the past."

Some members of the congregation gently pushed back.

Phil Clark, a scientist who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said that there was no evidence that the government had anything to do with starting the AIDS epidemic and that it did not have the technology at the onset of AIDS to create the virus.

Another member asked Wilson how whites and blacks could move beyond feelings of distrust if Wright's views held such wide currency.

For Wilson, the best approach is to recognize that each person suffers, and that empathy can bridge wide gaps.

"All of us in this room have been in situations where we have been counted out," he said. "If we can get in touch with that sameness" there would be more of a basis for understanding.

Wilson is known as an eloquent preacher among United Church of Christ leaders in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and it was on that basis that he was invited to give Sunday's sermon, said the Rev. Frank Pennington, pastor of United Church of Christ at Valley Forge.

"We are trying to create a safe environment for people to disagree agreeably," Pennington said. "That is the kind of discourse that is lacking in our culture."

During his sermon, Wilson quoted Matthew 25:35 and suggested that it pointed a way forward.

" 'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,' " Wilson said, quoting the biblical passage.

Bridging racial and cultural gaps takes work, Wilson said, adding that "life is not an episode of

Friends

, where all of the problems can be solved in 22 minutes."

Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.