revjoaquinwillisweb.gifSen. Barack Obama has come under fire for comments made by his former longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The national controversy regarding what many are calling racist sermons also has local implications in Miami.

The Rev. Joaquin Willis of the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City has consulted with United Church of Christ (UCC) General Minister and President John H. Thomas regarding the sermons and the ensuing media frenzy.

Wright was the former pastor of the Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago, where the presidential candidate and his family have been members for almost 20 years. His supporters, echoing Obama, caution against using a few statements to characterize a man who has served as a pastor of the UCC’s largest
church for over 30 years, a position from which he retired last month.

The Church of the Open Door is a member of the United Church of Christ and a “sister church to Jeremiah Wright’s church in Chicago,” Willis explained.

Willis, one of several black ministers across the country tapped to convene local ministers prior to
Obama’s declaration of his candidacy, said the group met with Obama and encouraged him to run. 

Snippets from several of Wright’s sermons have been repeatedly broadcast on TV networks and are accessible online via You Tube.

In one emotionally charged sermon where he read from prepared notes, Wright challenged Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ability to understand the obstacles faced by a black man.

As an enthusiastic audience cheered him on, Wright bellowed, “Hillary doesn’t know what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a n*****.”

Willis defends Wright’s comments about Clinton, asserting that they came during a time when “people were questioning whether Barack was black enough.”

In the same video, Wright also addresses former president Clinton’s relationship with the black community. After criticizing several federal initiatives passed during Clinton’s administration, Wright stated, “Bill did us just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty.” As he makes that statement, the video appears to show Wright mimicking a sexual gesture.

In its official response, The United Church of Christ said in a written statement:

“Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe.”

In a widely broadcast speech that was delivered on Tuesday, March 18 and can also be seen on his web site, Obama repeated his repudiation of the pastor’s more offensive comments, explaining,
“…Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong, but divisive… at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.” 

His denouncement of Wright’s inflammatory remarks notwithstanding, Obama said it would be a mistake to ignore the source of Wright’s anger.

“Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation … came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.”

He added, “To simply wish [the anger] away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

Willis takes issue with America’s seeming contradictory views regarding Obama’s religious influences.

“Oddly enough, America is trying to separate him from that spiritual advice which has served him so well to get him to the point where he is,” Willis said, pointing out that Rev. Wright influenced Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention as well as the title of his best selling book, The Audacity of Hope.

 Obama’s speech depicted the complexity of race relations in America, likening his relationship with Wright to his relationship with his white grandmother, “a woman,” he said, “who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

While some Democrats largely deem Wright’s inflammatory comments as having been taken out of context, a local black Republican deems the pastor’s comments offensive, but insists that Obama should not be held responsible for something another man said.

South Florida Times columnist and PR maven Barbara Howard said Obama’s speech “moved me to tears.” The former Democrat said she hopes America will have to choose either Sen. John McCain (the Republican nominee) or Obama to be the next president. 

In her defense of Obama, Howard said, “Wright is not Barack Obama.”

Brad Brown, local activist, vice chair of the Miami Dade branch of the NAACP and Obama campaign worker, is a deacon at the Church of the Open Door.

In support of Wright, Brown said “just because someone is unapologetically black doesn’t mean that they are anti-white.” 

Willis theorized that the Obama campaign is divinely inspired.

“God had used this candidacy, and him as a candidate to raise the dialogue of the impact of theology and the role theology plays on the shaping of a candidate,” Willis said.

Obama’s speech implied that his candidacy may have an even higher calling – affording America the opportunity to finally begin the challenging dialogue on race.

“The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning,” Obama said.