The new pastor of Barack Obama's Chicago church said during Easter Sunday services that recent national scrutiny of the church is a test that will only make the congregation stronger.
"Any time you go through a crucifixion experience ... eventually they have to lift you up," said the Rev. Otis Moss III, who did not shy away from the controversy surrounding his predecessor at Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
Wright retired from Trinity's pulpit last month but retains the title of senior pastor. Video from some of his more inflammatory sermons has surfaced online and on television in recent weeks.
Moss said Sunday that Wright's critics and the news media "are just lifting us up to give us the opportunity to speak love to this situation."
Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, has responded to the flap by condemning Wright's statements but expressing admiration and support for the pastor who officiated at his wedding, baptized his two daughters and inspired the title of his best-selling book, "The Audacity of Hope."
Obama not in attendance
In a speech last week that took the country's racial divide head-on, Obama — the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan father — said black anger persists over injustice in America, and whites shouldn't be surprised about the way it's expressed in sermons.
"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.
Obama did not attend the Easter Sunday service.
Trinity describes itself as "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian," a declaration some consider separatist and even racist. In recent days, a CBS News poll indicated most voters have heard at least something about Wright's comments.
But at the church itself, the "unashamedly black" identity can be seen in the African and African-American art on the walls and windows, as well as in the traditional African clothing of the choir. It can be heard in references to rapper Tupac Shakur in Moss' Easter Sunday sermon, which was titled "Gangster's Paradise."
Moss told the more than 3,000 worshippers at one of four Easter services that the controversy has opened an unprecedented dialogue about race.
"We are talking in ways we have never talked as a country," he said.
Trinity is fighting back, including by launching its own YouTube channel and blog.
‘An opportunity for teaching’
The spotlight has placed the 8,000 mostly black members of the church in the unusual position of being asked to explain something deeply personal — their faith and the way that they worship.
Linda Thomas, a professor of theology and anthropology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, has been a member of Trinity since 1997. She said she views the scrutiny of the church "as an opportunity for teaching."
"What's happened has opened up an opportunity to learn more about the prophetic ministry of Trinity United Church and of our awesome pastor Dr. Jeremiah Wright," she said. "And it brings in our new pastor in a big way."
She said she hopes people will realize Wright's comments have been taken out of context.
"A sound bite cannot capture ... a whole sermon," Thomas said.