jeremiah_wright_web.jpg(Florida International University) – Preaching at the Church of the Open Door, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. railed against those whom he called “church folk,” who, he said, stay silent when they should speak up yet “grumble” about the trivial.

“A TV evangelist ‘church folk’ said maybe New Orleans was flooded because it was a sin-filled city. A right-wing Christian ‘church folk’ said Haiti was hit by the earthquake because Africans made a pact with the Devil,” Wright, 69, said during a sermon Sunday that was at times provocative, emotional and humorous, but always passionate. “I wonder what ‘church folk’ will say about the earthquake in Japan?”

Interrupted frequently by applause, shouts of agreement and laughter, the pastor spoke for nearly an hour about an America he deems oppressive, saying that “church folk” don’t take action when they should.

“They shout for trash and they are quiet for truth,” Wright told a packed gathering of more than 200, criticizing, among others, those who reprimand churchgoers for their attire and disregard their beliefs. “Instead of shouting, they grumble about their own problems when they should shout for others’ successes,” he said.

He also pointed out what he called the hypocrisy of some “church folks.”

“Church folks say they are against hate, except the kind by Israelis against Palestinians in Gaza,” he said. “They aren’t against the government sending black Haitians and Cubans back to their islands, which this country keeps in poverty. They want to reclaim America, ignoring that they stole it from the Native Americans in the first place.”

Wright served for 36 years as pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama worshiped before his election as President.

Wright has long been a political firebrand, speaking out on behalf of gays and lesbians and Palestinians and castigating America for failing to live up to its ideals.

Obama’s affiliation with the church became a political lightning rod after videos of Wright’s provocative sermons came to light during the Presidential campaign in 2008.

Wright was condemned for saying “God-damn America” in a sermon contending the 9/11 attacks resulted from mistaken U.S. foreign policy; for referring to Italians as “Garlic noses” in a sermon about Roman persecution of Jesus; and for charging that Jews blocked his access to the President — a statement he later said referred not to all Jews but to ardent supporters of Israel.

Obama distanced himself from the pastor, calling his comments “divisive and destructive” and later dropped his membership in Wright's church.

But, in his introduction of Wright, Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis, pastor of the Church of the Open Door, quoted another prominent pastor, Gardner C. Taylor, as crediting Wright with preparing Obama for the presidency.

“Mr. Obama had hardly any grasp of the meaning of being a black person in the United States,” Willis quoted Gardner as saying, and that Wright “cured that deficiency, sending to Washington a President qualified to give America a chance to actually become a democracy.

As Wright spoke, across the street from the church a small group protested his presence.

“We want to expose the hate that Wright has spewed in the past,” said Joe Kaufman, chairman of Americans Against Hate, a Broward-based organization that describes itself as a civil-rights group and terrorist watchdog. “His racist, bigoted, anti-Semite, anti-American rhetoric is way over the top of anything that is okay in our society.”

People in the church didn’t agree.

“He delivered his sermon the way he felt God wanted him to. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, which is probably why people think he is racist,” said Lamar Oliver, a member of the Church of the Open Door.

“The reason he is so great is because he makes the gospel relevant for all generations,” said James Bush III, former state representative for House District 109.

Wright spoke as part of the Church of the Open Door’s annual Amistad Sunday worship service honoring a group of African captives who, in 1839, broke their shackles and rebelled while being transported near Cuba aboard the schooner La Amistad. They attempted, without maps or navigation skills, to sail back to Africa but were taken into custody by a U.S. vessel off the coast of Long Island and charged with mutiny.

The United Church of Christ, with which the Church of the Open Door is affiliated, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won and paid to repatriate the surviving Africans.

Also honored at the service were several local graduates of historically black colleges, part of a network of schools the UCC established, who succeeded in their careers and made their mark on the community.

The honorees included Doretha Capers, Talladega College; Larry Handfield, Howard University; JoLinda Herring, Fisk University; Fredricka Johnson-Walker, Dillard University; Gregory Major, Huston-Tillotson University; Terri Page, Atlanta University; and Elodia Preston, Hampton University.

Alec Scott may be contacted at ascot002@fiu.edu