Black pastors defend their fiery preaching



HACKENSACK, N.J. – The Rev. Calvin McKinney is the first to admit his preaching can cause discomfort.

“It may sometimes be against the grain of your expectation,” he said during a recent weeknight prayer meeting at Calvary Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation in Garfield, N.J. “It may not be to your liking. It may not be pleasing to the ear.”

But McKinney, his smooth voice rising to a hoarse shout, declared: “It’s good for redemption, it’s good for correction, it’s good for a right relationship with God.”

McKinney was trying to explain why African-American pastors like himself closed ranks behind the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago minister whose fiery sermons fueled weeks of headlines and a rebuke from Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama.

Wright, Obama’s former pastor, became a political liability after snippets of his sermons – including one in which he angrily declared, “God damn America” – circulated widely and left him vulnerable to charges he was preaching a rage-filled anti-American message.

Wright has since receded from view, and Obama is on the verge of becoming the Democratic nominee.

Nevertheless, McKinney and others said the controversy highlights a little-discussed racial divide in America. Simply put, he said, white America doesn’t understand the black church, where themes of personal salvation and racial justice are often fused in a cathartic and boisterous call for redemption.

“It’s a culture clash,” said McKinney, a Passaic native and an influential New Jersey pastor. “Our brothers and sisters of European persuasion are suddenly paying attention to how we preach, and they don’t understand it.

“They think it’s harsh. They think it’s bombastic. They think (Wright) is a hate preacher. But if they, in their misunderstanding, visited most of our churches, they would think that that was true for us.”

Approval from audience

Indeed, at last week’s prayer meeting in Garfield, McKinney declared, to shouts of approval from the audience, that America has strayed from God’s ways. He also lamented how inner-city neighborhoods have been cut off and isolated by a power structure that is largely white.

“It used to be the railroad,” he said. “Now it’s the highway. If push comes to shove, they’ll dam up the lake to separate us.”

McKinney said his preaching style emulates that of Jesus, who sided with the most marginalized members of society. It also follows the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who loved the Israelites but railed against their transgressions.

“It’s almost like, when my parents would discipline us, they would say, I’m doing this because I love you,”‘ McKinney said. “We don’t hate the objects of our sermons, it’s that we love them and want to bring them in line with the will of God.”

Several prominent black pastors in New Jersey, each trained in what they called the prophetic school of preaching, agreed.

“Jeremiah Wright didn’t just start preaching that way – it’s part of the tradition of the black church,” said the Rev. M. Frances Manning of New Hope Baptist Church in Hackensack, N.J. “And it started with those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to power when they thought justice was not being done.”

The Rev. Greg Jackson of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack said news reports focused only on Wright’s most incendiary statements, but missed the context of his sermons.

When Wright said “God damn America,” for example, he was concluding a sermon in which he noted that America had made progress in addressing racism. But he also said America will fail and fade if it doesn’t mend its ways or confront past mistakes.

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