Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago
Trinity United Church of Christ is a predominantly black church located in south Chicago. With upwards of 10,000 members, it is the largest congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a predominantly white Christian denomination with roots in Congregationalism, which stemmed from American Puritanism of the 18th century.
The church's early history coincided with the American civil rights movement, subsequent death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the turmoil that entered the movement after his death. During that tumultuous period, an influx of radical black Muslim groups had begun to headquarter in Chicago, and Trinity sought to recontextualize Christianity through black liberation theology to counter their message, particularly that it was impossible to be both Black and Christian. While the church continues to be based upon this tradition, it is today well known for the breadth and diffusion of its many ongoing social programs on behalf of the disadvantaged, although there were times in its early history when such outreach did not even figure into its mission.
In early 2008, the church was brought into national attention when media outlets broadcast controversial excerpts of sermons by the church's 36-year pastor, Jeremiah Wright, to highlight Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's relationship with Wright and the church. Repeated airings brought the Obama campaign into crisis until, days later, Obama responded with a speech on race-relations, A More Perfect Union, that was widely lauded and reduced criticism. Obama later severed his ties with Wright and Trinity,
Comparatively with other mainstream American black churches of the early twenty-first century, Trinity's membership and influence is larger than most, and has been categorized in scholarly sources as within "The Dialectical Model" of black churches.
- 1 Background and history
- 1.1 1910 through 1940s: first contextual backdrop
- 1.2 1950s through 1960: second contextual backdrop
- 1.3 1961 through 1966: under Kenneth B. Smith
- 1.4 1966 to 1971: under Willie J. Jamerson
- 1.5 1971 to 1972: under Reuben A. Sheares II
- 1.6 1972 to early 2008: under Jeremiah Wright
- 2 Trinity in comparative perspective
- 3 References
Background and history
1910 through 1940s: first contextual backdrop
Beginning around 1910, The Great Migration of African Americans occurred as many thousands of blacks migrated from the south northward. A great many settled in southern Chicago. When they arrived, they brought with them the forms of Christianity they had practiced in the South. As elsewhere in the United States, Chicago blacks of the time faced serious discrimination in typically every aspect of their lives.
In the early 1930s, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad moved his embroiled religion's headquarters from Detroit to Chicago. Mixing elements of the Bible and the Qur'an, Elijah Muhammad taught that Africans were the earth's first and most important people. He prophesied that a time was coming when African Americans would be fully vindicated, released from their various oppressions, and brought into full freedom within their own geographical state. For this to happen, however, Elijah Muhammad taught that blacks had to radically separate from all whites. In addition, he proclaimed that blacks needed to live a moral life.
By the 1940s, the Nation of Islam's radical message had drawn in thousands of Chicago's blacks, many who had converted from one of the forms of Christianity their forebearers brought southward to Chicago (see Trinity in comparative perspective, below, for a discussion of the various forms). The threat that radical black Islamic ideologies posed to Christianity's influence among Chicago blacks, as well as blacks nationwide, is one of the contextual backdrops of Trinity.  
1950s through 1960: second contextual backdrop
Another of the contextual backdrops of Trinity is a pattern of migration that occurred in Chicago during the 1950s and 60s, when middle-class whites began vacating urban areas for surrounding suburbs. As whites in southern Chicago migrated in large numbers to suburbs, upwardly mobile blacks from the "Black Belt" of Chicago's South Side migrated in, while non-mobile blacks remained in the South Side.  
Meanwhile, by 1960, the Nation of Islam national spokesperson Malcolm X had founded Mr. Muhammad Speaks in Chicago to help the continued spread of the Nation of Islam message. The newspaper achieved a circulation of over 600,000, making it one of the most prominent black American newspapers of the time. By this time, Nation of Islam ideology held a quite significant sway over Chicago blacks.  
1961 through 1966: under Kenneth B. Smith
Trinity marks its beginning on 3 December 1961, when twelve middle-class black families, most who were descendants of migrants to Chicago during the Great Migration of African Americans, met for worship in a Chicago elementary school gymnasium. Prior the recent migration of whites to the suburbs, blacks had found it extremely difficult to move into middle-class surroundings in Chicago due to segregated housing patterns and homeownership discrimination. At the time of the 3 December meeting, Chicago's Halsted Street marked "the color line".  
Congregationalist worship at Trinity, 1960s
During the late 1800s, Congregationalist missionaries established numerous black colleges and universities throughout the U.S. south and north. They insisted that educated blacks eliminate displays of emotion during singing and preaching. This practice widely persisted through much of the 1960s and was carried over into black Congregationalist churches. Worship services at Trinity during the 1960s followed the standard order of service for Congregationalist churches: prayers, followed by liturgy and hymns from The Pilgrim Hymnal, followed by a well-organized homily, followed by a benediction, confined to one hour in total. There was no shouting, hand waving, or displays of emotions. One of Trinity's black ministers once stated from the pulpit, "We will have no 'niggerisms' in our services." That approach collapsed after the assassination of King in 1968, as a large segment of the black community had turned against King's Christian, nonviolent challenge to racial segregation. 
Trinity's first pastor, Kenneth B. Smith, had been appointed by the Chicago Congregational Christian Association to expand the denomination toward southern Chicago, where blacks had recently begun to migrate from the "Black Belt" of Chicago's South Side to the more southerly urban areas whites had recently abandoned for the suburbs. The expressed vision of the Association was to raise up a church comprised of middle-class blacks, who would later merge with a congregation of suburban whites and have white and black co-pastors.
Although the vision was bold for the time, and although a similar vision had been followed by other pockets of blacks both inside and outside of Chicago, it at the same time produced apprehension within Trinity's upwardly mobile blacks, since some blacks in Chicago had had their homes burned for transgressing the color line. Moreover, the vision failed to address the many blacks who were still unable to reach upward mobility—those still on the South Side, those in the public housing projects on the other side of Halsted Street, blacks who did not figure into the Association's vision because they were not considered "the right kind of black people". Considerably later, the first African American minister of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Dr. W. Sterling Cary, discussed the Association's disinterest in more detail. He explained, "Historically, the Association made special efforts to seek out 'high potential' churches within the black community," which he said were understood as groups of blacks likely willing to be culturally assimilated into the forms and functions of worship of the Chicago Congregational Christian Association. American religion historian Julia Speller summarizes, "It was this racial reality that informed the planting of Trinity on the South Side of Chicago."Cite error: Closing
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With the church's vision still maturing, Kenneth B. Smith remained as pastor and led the still growing congregation, while noting two things. Firstly, he said the church's affiliation with a white denomination provided his congregants with a sense of unity and purpose within the mainline religious tradition of America (see Origins of the United Church of Christ). Secondly, the congregation began to find a kindred spirit with the denomination's commitment to justice and equality, as congregant activism began to emerge. Smith pointed to the march from Montgomery to Selma in 1965 under Martin Luther King, Jr. as an event that fueled that activism, noting how his congregants made picket signs and joined a Chicago area march in symbolic solidarity with southern blacks. However, Speller notes that the congregation's concern for the voting rights of southern blacks "stood in stark contrast to their obvious blind spot of the Association's position on church growth among African Americans in Chicago—one that supported only middle-class churches".
This period of the church culminated when plans to merge with a white congregation fell through—"whites were not much interested in integration" at the time, as Jason Byassee notes—and the black congregation moved into its first church building in 1966. Seating two-hundred, it was located among the growing community of southern Chicago's middle-class blacks, east of the color line. Meanwhile, the Association continued its push for the church to focus ministry toward middle-class blacks.Cite error: Closing
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1966 to 1971: under Willie J. Jamerson
A view of race in 1968 Chicago
"Following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr...our family moved into a racially changing Chicago community, where the vestiges of racism literally stood in our way. Racism manifested itself in insurance redlining, predatory lending practices and religious authorities working to maintain a line of segregation. The local activist [[tholic priest declared no 'niggers' were allowed across Ashland Avenue... Out of this experience of brokenness and spiritual hope...black liberation theology emerged. The irrationality of racism and injustice provided the roots of an African-American theology focused on life in the present world.... The political, social and economic realities of African-American people get merged into the religious experience and are articulated through a message that is spiritual and social-speaking to the whole person." —Larry Pickens 
Trinity's second pastor arrived a short time later, just as the American civil rights movement reached its peak. Rev. Willie J. Jamerson brought "a desire to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable", while "perhaps being more drawn to the role of prophet than that of priest", as he said, although Jamerson winded up doing much more comforting as a priest than afflicting as a prophet. As Jamerson recounted, the church soon began a further decline in membership, due to the constriction of vision that resulted from what he described as the church's continued major purpose to affirm the middle-class Congregationalism of its members. According to Speller, this foundational focus experienced another significant crack when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, which subsequently brought many changes within black communities—another of Trinity's contextual backdrops.
As Speller explains, "The failure of the civil rights movement to usher in an era of genuine integration and harmony between the races turned into a search for an alternative experience of Purpose and belonging for many African Americans." Corresponding with this search, a small rift began to form among Trinity's congregants, one that was also occurring in other predominantly black churches in the U.S. at the time. As the influence of the civil rights movement began to diminish in wake of King's assassination, the Black Power movement rushed in to fill the void, and some blacks, including a few at Trinity, became attracted to the validation the movement gave to their life and religious experiences. Other blacks, however, including most at Trinity, felt that a strategy of gradualism would eventuate in an America that honored achievements regardless of race. According to Speller, the majority of Trinity's congregants sided with gradualist notions, and "held tenaciously to their Congregational tradition, finding Unity in their connection to American Protestantism and Purpose in the lifestyle of black 'middle-classness'."
By 1971, however, Trinity's membership had dwindled from its peak of 250 down to 100, and no one could pinpoint the cause. Willie J. Jamerson soon resigned to take a position as a schoolteacher, and Trinity was faced with possibly closing its doors. 
1971 to 1972: under Reuben A. Sheares II
The church instead opted to bring on Reuben A. Sheares II as interim pastor. According to Speller, Sheares's brief tenure with Trinity marked an important shift in the congregation's sense of purpose. Together with Trinity's remaining leaders, Sheares sought to discover the reasons behind Trinity's dramatic decline in membership and then work a remedy. As recounted by a key Trinity lay leader at the time, Vallmer E. Jordan, the small core of leaders concluded that "for years we had prided ourselves on being a middle-class congregation within a mainline denomination, but suddenly the values within the black community had shifted. Aspirations for integration and assimilation were being replaced by those of black pride and separation." Byassee fills in details by pointing out that Chicago had long since become an organizing center for militant black religious groups like The Nation of Islam and The Black Hebrew Israelites, who strenuously argued that "black" and "Christian" were contradictory terms. Many blacks had been leaving Christianity as a result.
Trinity's leaders had thus discovered the reasons for its decline in membership. To counter it, to missiologically reconceptualize Christianity for the pressing circumstances of its context, Trinity would need to inaugurate a "shift" in how it viewed both itself and its mission—they needed to let blacks know, both those inside and outside its walls, that Christianity was not at all just a religion for whites. To begin this change, Sheares coined the motto "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian".  Contextualizing the moto, Speller, herself black, informs that shame has been "part and parcel of the black experience in America", and that blacks have historically hid their shame about being black behind a variety of coping strategies and behaviors that are self-deprecating. Martin E. Marty, an emeritus professor of religious history, further explains, "For Trinity, being 'unashamedly black' does not mean being 'anti-white.' [...] Think of the concept of 'unashamedly': tucked into it is the word 'shame'." Underlying the idea, according to Marty, is a diagnosis "of 'shame', 'being shamed', and 'being ashamed' as debilitating legacies of slavery and segregation in society and church." Marty also explains that the Africentrism contained in the statement "should not be more offensive than that synagogues should be 'Judeo-centric' or that Chicago's Irish parishes be 'Celtic-centric'." Speller informs that the motto "has remained as a reminder of not only who [Trinitarians] are but Whose they are, continuing to emphasize both meaning and belonging". 
In addition to Sheares's new motto, Jordan crafted a new mission statement that encapsulated the church's new vision to be
a source of spiritual sustenance, security, and inspiration; that those participating in our spiritual-social process [may] be strengthened in their commitment...to serve as instruments of God and church in our communities and the world, confronting, transforming and eliminating those thing in our culture that lead to the dehumanization of persons and tend to perpetuate their psychological enslavement.
As Trinity sought a new pastor to lead growth, they gave the mission statement to each applicant.
1972 to early 2008: under Jeremiah Wright
Jeremiah Wright interviewed for the Trinity pastorate on 31 December 1971. Jordan recalls that Wright exuded excitement and vision for the church's new mission statement, and that Wright's response to the question "How do you see the role of the Black Church in the black struggle?" indicated he was the only possible candidate for Trinity. With the church also impressed with Wright's educational credentials—Wright held graduate degrees in English studies and Divinity and was studying for a doctorate in religious history—he was shortly confirmed as the new pastor.
Context and challenges
Speller points out that Wright's arrival at Trinity coincided with the height of the U.S. Black Consciousness Revolution (also see South African Black Consciousness Movement). Speller additionally notes that Wright was keenly aware of the challenges that this deeply racialized context presented to Trinity.  As Byassee notes, Wright during graduate school argued strenuously against radical black Islamic groups who had been drawing blacks away from Christianity by asserting that the religion was inherently racist and only for whites. Speller adds that Wright was also sharply cognizant that forms of Christianity that advocated for blacks to simply assimilate had been proving inefficacious in light of then-current contextual realties in Chicago, the nation, and in other countries—a tale clearly told in Trinity's steadily declining membership over the years before Wright. To recontextualize the Christian message for the new context and time in which Trinity found itself (also see Situational theology), Wright anticipated that he would need to co-opt the positive elements of the Black Power message, while rejecting its philosophies of separation and black superiority—an idea around which a larger Christian theological movement had been forming, as evidenced by a full-page New York Times ad entitled "Black Power" run in November 1967 by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, and Black Theology and Black Power published in 1969 by James H. Cone.   Yet Trinity's makeup at the time constituted a challenge for Wright's new agenda, since its eighty-seven remaining congregants had largely sheltered themselves from the dramatic changes that had been occurring within black communities over the years, and still held that the solution to racial injustices was to culturally assimilate. Accordingly, Trinity's congregants under Wright confronted themselves with an unsettling question: "whether they wanted to be a white Congregationalist church in black face or a black church in the black community."
Although Trinity had been inching toward this new moment during its preceding years, Wright's challenge was a pivotal event for the church. As Speller informs, Trinity was being
confronted with the reality of its own "double consciousness". The staunch adherence to the Eurocentric religious tradition of Congregationalism that this community of faith emulated began to lose its comfortable fit in the [surrounding] environment of black consciousness and revolution. Even their earlier support of the civil rights movement was challenged, as the African Americans of the nation lost faith in American systems and sought empowerment through self-help and revolution. It was at this point in its journey as a small and struggling congregation—small in its numbers as well as its vision and struggling for survival as well as its identity—that Trinity decided to begin the painful process of shedding the shame associated with blackness and claiming a new Purpose that called them to a Christianity of liberation and empowerment.
Speller describes how the psychological and spiritual shift at Trinity quickly resulted in changes at Trinity.
The first change occurred in late 1972 when Trinity's youth lobbied for a greater role in the church. Under a dynamic new choir director the youth brought in, they led musical worship using gospel music (also see Urban contemporary gospel) for the first time, while incorporating dramatic visual props. As Speller describes it, the youth choir "ushered in a new day at Trinity Church, and through their music they ignited the flame that would burn off the dross of black shame to reveal the refined gem of self-love." However, with call and response increasing and the The Pilgrim Hymnal no longer in favor, some of Trinity's congregants left because of what Wright described as "fear of change—change in the style of worship but, more importantly, change in the kind of members that would desire to join our church." 
As Wright philosophized of this period some thirty years later, 'Having a witness among the poor and having a ministry to the poor is one thing, but making the poor folks members of your congregation is something else altogether." Wright further explained, "Failure to have the black poor at the table with you as equals means you are doing missionary work," while having "poor black folks" who "sit down at the table as equals" means you are "serious about talking or doing [...] black theology." As Speller explains, Trinity's congregants "began to slowly move away from the concept of church as a place to enhance and validate their their social position to one that appreciated the church as a place for spiritual formation." In sum, Trinity began to more fully move away from its earlier purpose surrounding "middle-classness" to one where devotion to God and the poor took much greater prominence.
- To be developed
God has smiled on us and freed us up to be God's people—unshackled by stereotypes and the barriers of assimilation, unshackled by the fear of joining in the struggle for liberation, and unshackled by the stigmas, defeats, or victories of the past. [God has freed us to be the Church in the world—[God's] Children! Black, Christian and proud of being created in [God's] image and being called by [God's] name.
Speller comments that the statement indicates that Trinity had journeyed "from assimilation and fear to liberation and courage", and notes how the freedom expressed concerns a freedom to be black as a matter of cultural identity (also see Ethnic identity), and to be Christian as a matter of purpose and belonging to God.
Trinity in comparative perspective
Byassee argues that "African Americans have generated distinctly black forms of Christianity since they arrived on these [American] shores" and assures that "the significance of these forms has been appreciated in mainline seminaries and churches for at least two generations." Speller has discussed the major interpretive frameworks into which black churches have been historically categorized by scholars, as well as several later ones. She does this to place Trinity within a broader understanding of the black church, and all Christian churches, and to trace Trinity's history of movement within several of the frameworks, while also discussing numerous of Trinity's ongoing struggles. Byassee asserts that Trinity is well within the mainstream of the black church, and is remarkable in the mainline world only for its size and influence."
Speller points out how three interpretive models of black churches have predominated in scholarly literature from especially prior the 1960s: "The Assimilation Model", "The Isolation Model", and "The Compensatory Model".
The Assimilation Model
Black churches that have been explained as within the The Assimilation Model are those primarily comprised of middle-class blacks motivated by a racially integrated society and who are willing to disassociate themselves from their racial identity to achieve this, as well as to avoid the stereotyped labels sometimes assigned to blacks by whites. This model has been described as the "demise of the black church for the public good of blacks."
The Isolation Model
The Isolation Model category has been assigned to those black churches comprised of primarily lower-class blacks who lack the optimism of middle-class blacks about societal integration between the races. Churches described as within this model hold to theologies that emphasize "other worldliness" and deemphasize social action within "this world."
The Compensatory Model
The Compensatory Model has been a designation of black churches where congregants find acceptance, appreciation, and applause often denied them within dominant society. Motivation stems from a promise of achieving personal empowerment and recognition.
The Ethnic Community-prophetic Model
Speller, following the research of Nelson and Nelson in the 1970s, notes how each of the above three models placed black churches within a reactive rather than a proactive mode. Finding that problematic, and unsatisfied that previous interpretive models accurately depicted black churches that emerged in the 1960s, Nelson and Nelson developed a fourth model, The Ethnic Community-prophetic Model. Black churches that have been categorized as such are those that have been marked by blacks who spoke out and undertook activism against economic and political injustices from a heightened awareness of black pride and power.
The Dialectical Model
In her discussion about Trinity, Speller points to an additional model of the black church, The Dialectical Model, developed by the late Duke University sociologist C. Eric Lincoln to explain certain black churches. Corrective to the earlier models by which black churches were susceptible to being rigidly stereotyped, and that barred them from being seen as societal change agents, Lincoln and Mamiya describe the model as holding in "dialectical tension" "the priestly and the prophetic; other-worldly versus this-worldly; universalism and particularism; communalism and privatism; the charismatic versus the bureaucratic and resistance versus accommodation." Speller additionally argues that The Dialectical Model is mirrored in W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of "double consciousness". Du Bois explained this dichotomy:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
The evolution of Trinity
Speller asserts that Trinity in its history has evolved from the Assimilation Model under its pastors Kenneth B. Smith and Willie J. Jamerson, to the Compensatory Model under Reuben A. Sheares II and during the early years of Jeremiah Wright's tenure, and into the Ethnic Community-prophetic Model under Wright to embrace the Dialectical Model also under Wright. She states, however, that the church continues to struggle in varying degrees to balance the dialectic polarities described by Lincoln and Mamiya (see The Dialectical Model, just above), and that the church's greatest challenge has been "mediating the tension between being black and Christian." American political conservatives writing for partisan publications, such as Stanley Kurtz in the National Review, have chided Trinity for ever evolving from the Assimilation Model.
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- This article is based on the article "Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, the Real Story—Without all the Bias and Political Hype" by Stephen Ewen, available at http://knol.google.com/k/stephen-ewen/trinity-united-church-of-christ-chicago/, and is licensed under the Creative Common Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported and GNU Free Documentation License.